By Sunday Oyinloye
These are really not the best of times for the world as most economies are crumbling due to the negative impact of COVID-19 pandemic which literally shut the world for months, and even now that the lockdown that greeted the pandemic is being eased in many countries including Nigeria, the future looks uncertain as to what shape these economies will take in the years ahead.
Like most countries across the globe, the attention of Nigerian government has shifted to fighting COVID-19 pandemic at the expense of other diseases and conditions that take the lives of Nigerians in thousands every month. This perhaps was responsible for the incredible removal of the N800million allocated to Nutrition from the 2020 budget despite its importance to the wellbeing of Nigerian children and the future development of the country.
Sadly but the truth, Nigeria has one of the highest burden of malnutrition in the world with all its natural and human resources. It was therefore a big shock to Nigerians when the government removed the initial N800 million budgeted for nutrition from the 2020 budget, thereby exposing more Nigerian children to malnutrition. Even the N800 million that was removed from the budget is just a fraction of what is needed to put Nigeria on the right path of Nutrition for millions of children in the country.
For some time, the Moji Makanjuola -led International Society of Media in Public Health (ISMPH) has been in the forefront of advocating for the rights of Nigerian children on the issue on Nutrition, same with Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Network for Health Equity and Development (NHED), and Nigeria Health Watch, therefore, it was not surprising that the four organizations collaborated with Aisha Buhari Foundation( a not-for –profit organization of the wife of the President, Aisha Buhari) to organize a Virtual Conference on Nutrition on Tuesday which attracted the Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo , who is the Chairman, National Council on Nutrition, top government functionaries, and many stakeholders on Nutrition.
The Virtual Conference which lasted for more than five hours and themed” Harnessing innovative financing options for nutrition-unraveling the bottlenecks” saw all the speakers agreeing that Nigeria has an emergency at hand on the issue of Nutrition as it affects the children and economic growth of the country.
From the wife of the President, Aisha Buhari represented by the wife of the Vice President, Oludolapo Osinbajo to Executive Secretary, Civil Society Scaling Up Nutrition in Nigeria, Beatrice Eluaka, a renowned Nutritionist, Mercy Sosanya and Senior Health Specialist with the World Bank, Dr. Olumide Okunola, all who spoke at the conference agreed on the need for the government and corporate organisations to scale up the funding of nutrition in the overall interest of the country.
Udak Igbeka of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, Dr. Sufia Askari of Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, Nigeria’s Minister of Health, Osagie Ehanire ,Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Zainab Ahmed, Executive Secretary of National Primary Health Care Development Agency, Dr.Faisal Shuaib, Managing Partner of Sahel Consulting Agriculture and Nutrition, Ndidi Nwuneli and other speakers at the Virtual Conference also stressed the importance of giving more attention to Nutrition.
That the N800 million initially budgeted for Nutrition in the 2020 budget was removed even becomes a bizarre taking into consideration that the nation’s number two man is the Chairman of the National Council of Nutrition which President Muhammadu Buhari inaugurated in 2017, and charged with the responsibility of providing direction on Nutrition, as well as coordinating innovative financing and accountability for Nutrition interventions
The Vice President has this to say on the issue” Some have alluded to the N800million removed from the 2020 budget ,that we should have this returned, I agree. But we must realize that the federal government proposes a budget but the National Assembly may have a different view and I think your advocacy before the National Assembly is crucial to drawing attention to what you consider priority. There are always several competing needs for money.
“Sometimes your strong voices especially directed at the debates that are going on; public hearings can make a real difference in what ends up in the federal and state budgets. But budget funds from both the federal and the state governments cannot meet all of the needs. We need to aggregate a pool of funds outside the budget funding which is why our proposal for mandatory health insurance, not just for healthcare but also for nutrition interventions.
“Clearly, we need to increase domestic financing and the only way to do so is to look more at what we can do at both the Federal and State level, but more importantly to direct funding to communities with the greatest needs”
It even becomes more interesting when the Chairman Senate Committee on Health, Ibrahim Yahaya Oloriegbe said the N800million was removed by the Executive.
Listen to him: “It is unfortunate what is happening with the Ready- to- use Food (RTUF) fund because when we were pursuing the 2020 budget, deliberately, we tried to protect the N800 million allocation. If you look at the 2019 budget, it was only N200 million that was allocated, however, we were able to raise it to N800 million in 2020 budget, it is unfortunate because of covid-19, and the review of the budget, that amount was removed in the proposal sent to us by the Executive to be able to take care of covid-19 interventions.”
While assuring that all hopes are not lost on the fund, Senator Oloriegbe said the stakeholders will still lobby the Executive to get the fund back probably in the supplementary budget.
The Vice President also reiterated the commitment of the federal government to the revitalization of Primary Health Care Centers in the country with the provision of Nutrition services as a primary focus by promoting exclusive breastfeeding .Osinbajo further disclosed that the federal government is focused on a new multi-sectorial plan of action to tackle challenges in Nutrition.
With these assurances from the Vice President and the commitment to promote good Nutritional practices by the wife of the President as reflected in the speech read on her behalf by the wife of the Vice President, Nigerians will surely be watching whether the government will remedy the situation or continue to put the lives of the children in danger through zero allocation for Nutrition.