On Friday, July 7, 2023, the Speaker of Parliament directed that the Ministers of Education, Agriculture and Finance appear in Parliament.
The purpose for the summons was for the aforementioned ministers to brief the august House on matters which occasioned the picketing, including sleeping on the premises of the National Food Buffer Stock Company (NAFCO), by members of the Ghana Association of Food Suppliers, a group of food supply contractors.
The Speaker’s directive was after members of the NDC group in Parliament made compelling submissions to the Speaker to intervene in the matter.
It is important to set the records straight; and to share a few issues with Ghanaians, whom we represent as Members of Parliament.
Visit to NAFCO
To begin with, it was a needless drama which ensued from the intrusion by the Minister of Agriculture, Dr Bryan Acheampong, when the leadership and members of the NDC group in parliament visited the picketers to empathise with them and to obtain a first-hand account of the vexatious reasons precipitating their action.
The visit was to help the NDC side understand the issues and to prepare adequately for the appearance of the summoned ministers.
The NDC Members of Parliament deserve commendation for standing their ground.
They had every right to visit and interact with the picketers.
It is, however, worth adding that the food suppliers who had been picketing amid wailing, sleeping and cooking on the premises of the NAFCO for four days, on purpose to draw public attention to their plight and to put pressure on the government to pay them some outstanding GH¢270m, have suspended their action.
According to the food suppliers, the decision to suspend their action is based on assurances given them by the Minister of Food and Agriculture, under whom the NAFCO is housed.
According to them, the minister assured them that they [the food supply contractors] would be paid, starting from July 17, 2023.
According to the food suppliers who picketed on the premises of NAFCO, they belong to a group called the Ghana Food Suppliers Association.
They added that their group had supplied food to senior high schools since the implementation of the FSHS policy in 2017.
They indicated that the trigger for the action they embarked upon was because government had not paid them for the cost of supplying food to the schools for two years — 2021 and 2022.
Cumulatively, they claim to be owed some GH¢270m by government.
In their reasons for picketing, the group asserted that all efforts to get paid by the NAFCO, including petitions to the Presidency and meetings with the Minister of Education, yielded no fruit.
The suppliers further claim that the Minister of Education told them at a meeting, that his outfit had released 90 per cent of the amount owed them to the NAFCO to pay them [food supply contractors].
Yet, the said releases never materialised in payments to the suppliers.
This is what caused them to issue a public notice of the now suspended action.
They informed the public that government’s indebtedness to them made it impossible to pay their creditors, who pestered them for monies owed.
Consequently, under such circumstances, they no longer had the capacity to supply food to SHSs.
Despite prior served warnings to the powers-that-be, to the effect that they would take drastic action if government failed to pay them, nothing was done to address their issue.
New groups of suppliers
What seems to have greatly irritated the members of the association, as they claim, is that, while they are owed for supplying food to schools for two years, two new groups of food suppliers were formed, given contracts and paid.
According to them, these new supplier groups — one formed by the Ministry of Education and the other by the NAFCO — are paid timeously and even pre-financed, in some cases, to supply food to schools.
Why new groups were formed and are paid, while the group that refers to itself as original are owed, deserves further interrogation.
Funding free SHS
As it stands, parliamentary records reveal that Parliament, since 2017, has always approved every amount the government has requested to fund the FSHS policy, including the years for which the members of the association are owed.
For example, FSHS was allocated GH¢1.9b in 2021, GH¢2.3b in 2022, and GH¢3.0b in 2023.
The records further confirm, that from 2017 to 2023, Parliament has approved a total sum of GH¢11.9b to fund the FSHS programme.
For the period 2017-2021, Parliament approved a total sum of GH¢7.62b to fund the programme.
According to the Minister of Finance, out of the GH¢7.62b, only GH¢5.3b was used.
This means a surplus of GH¢2.5b was unused for the allocated purposes.
Interestingly, according to the Minister of Education, for the same five-year period, from 2017 to 2021, only GH¢5.1b out of the GH¢7.62b was used. Consequently, GH¢2.3b remained unused.
Notwithstanding the obvious inconsistencies in the total amount invested from 2017 to 2021, it is further clear, that the total funding for the period was not used.
And while we wait for actual figures on how much of the GH¢2.3b allocated to fund the programme for 2022 and how much of the GH¢3.0b allocated to FSHS for 2023 has been utilised so far, it is certain that inadequate funding cannot be the reason for government’s inability to meet its obligations to all suppliers of food to senior high schools.
While at it, be informed that some suppliers of school uniforms and sports apparels have indicated privately that government owes them too.
Equally intriguing is that since the implementation of the FSHS, some absorbed fees have never been released to schools, thereby creating some serious financial management constraints for heads of SHSs, in those respects.
Particular mention must be made of fees in respect of maintenance, library, ICT and ID cards.
I have long called for an audit of the FSHS.
I believe the issues enumerated justify the need for an audit.
Ghanaians have the right to know why the FSHS faces so many implementation challenges despite the quantum of resources allocated to fund the programme year in and year out.
What is clear is that there are many issues associated with the implementation of the FSHS policy which need further illumination.
The writer is the MP for Builsa South and Deputy Ranking Member on Education Committee of Parliament