Nigeria and Covid-19: Inconsiderate Political Responses

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Salihu Moh. Lukman
Progressive Governors Forum
Asokoro, Abuja

This is dedicated in prayers for the speedy recovery of Mallam Abba Kyari, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, Sen. Bala Mohammed and all those infected by Covid-19 in the country. May God Almighty endow humankind with the knowledge and wisdom to produce a cure for the virus!

President Muhammadu Buhari, while addressing Nigerians on the Covid-19 pandemic on Sunday, March 29, 2020, declared: “As individuals, we remain the greatest weapon to fight this pandemic.” Interestingly, immediately following the address, on the same day, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), through its National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Kola Ologbondiya described the President’s speech as “empty and failed to address the salient demands of the impact of the scourge (of Covid-19) on the nation.”

The statement of the PDP was complimented, perhaps inadvertently, by another statement from a private lawyer, Mr. Ebun-olu Adegboruwa SAN who condemned some of the measures announced by the President, which include restriction of movements in Abuja, Lagos and Ogun as illegal, arguing that the President “has not invoked his powers under the Constitution to declare any state of emergency, which must be approved by the National Assembly.”

Clearly, these responses completely ignore the gravity of the challenges and imagine that the problems can be reduced to politics and legal arguments. They all miss the point, very conveniently, that the world, including Nigeria, is fighting a war that is a threat to human life in a manner that the world has never experienced before. It is an unconventional challenge such that the enemy, Covid-19, doesn’t respect politics, legality or recurse to any form of interest. It was in fact in recognition of this that the President declared that we all as individuals, are the ‘greatest weapon to fight’ the war.

After all the hue and cry, prior to the President’s broadcast, lamenting the slow responses from government in taking measures to protect citizens against the spread of the virus in the country, one would have expected some attempt to direct attention in the country to strengthen the capacity of the government to succeed in containing the spread of the virus. Or could PDP be arguing that there are other more effective measures to contain the spread of the virus, which the President has failed to take? Or could Mr. Adegboruwa be implying that there are legal provisions that could be invoked that would ensure containment of the spread of the virus while at the same time respecting the rights of citizens to move freely?

Why should we, as Nigerians, be so unfair to ourselves and our leaders to the extent that it would appear we have lost sight of the fact that to be rational and logical, is first and foremost to ensure the protection of life. Once human life is at risk, we must take every step required to safeguard human life. Coincidentally, this was the point amplified by Lee Hsien Loong, the Sigaporean Prime Minister, on the same day of President Buhari’s broadcast, while featuring on CNN Global Public Square hosted by Fareed Zakaria.

With Singapore today recognised as one of the successful countries to have controlled Covid-19, Mr. Loong stressed the point: “The key thing is that people must understand what we are facing and must support what we are doing and cooperate with us and have confidence in the government and we put lots of efforts in explaining to them what is happening, speaking to them and I have done it a few times directly on television. So people know that we are level and we tell it straight, we are transparent. If there is bad news, we tell you, if there are things which need to be done, we also tell you. I think that we have to maintain that trust because if people don’t trust you, even if they have the right measures, it’s going to be hard to get it implemented.”

The position of Mr. Loong underlines our problem in Nigeria, which is that we don’t trust our government and our leaders. With almost daily Ministerial briefing by the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire and his team, the Sunday, March 29 speech by the President should have given Nigerians the needed confidence to strengthen their belief about the commitment of government to fight and contain Covid-19. Instead, what we have is distrust and commitment to undermine initiatives of government. This would appear to be setting us up for failure in a way that will cost the lives of many citizens, which may include some of us that may unfortunately become infected by Covid-19.

We deceive ourselves to imagine that some of us are free from the virus, on account of which we could be tempted to politicise the problem or indulge in legal arguments. Besides, one will be tempted to ask what legal process did we invoke either as pro-democracy activists or as unionists when we declared ‘sit-at-home’ under Campaign for Democracy (CD) and Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) in 1993, 2000 and in all the cases of our protest campaigns against the military and increases in petroleum prices? If the law gives us the right to protest, did we really follow the processes provided under the law to prosecute all our sit-at-home campaigns? Mr. Adegboruwa, being an active participant and leader in some of those campaigns may want to humbly reflect on some of those realities and candidly reassess his position about the so-called legal requirement for restriction of movement in Abuja, Lagos and Abeokuta.

As for PDP, we can argue with some confidence that the position of Mr. Ologbondiya is not shared by the PDP leadership especially Alh. Atiku Abubakar and PDP Governors. This is because Alh. Abubakar has already demonstrated his commitment to support the Federal Government to win the fight against Covid-19 for which he has already contributed N50 million. In the same vein, PDP Governors are working in partnership with Federal Government and all Governors in the country, irrespective of party affiliations to role out uniform initiatives in all our states under the coordination of Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF). Without any hesitation, it could be argued that PDP Governors are not playing politics with the challenge of fighting Covid-19 in the country. We are all very encouraged for the inspiring leadership of Alh. Atiku Abubakar and PDP Governors for rising to the national challenge of teaming up with all Nigerians irrespective of party lines.

Just as we try to emphasise the need to support our governments in the fight against Covid-19, we need to remind ourselves that at the moment the recognised best practice across the world is testing, contact tracing and isolation. There are realities that all governments across the world are facing, which include small number of testing equipment. This has accounted for why as at Sunday, March 29, 2020, less than 500 (in fact less than 300) tests have been carried out in the country, which is partly being used by some critics to suggest that the number of confirmed cases is only 111 because of the low number of those who have been tested. Some even argue that we have only one death because of that.

The problem of testing is not peculiar to Nigeria. The first case of Covid-19 was detected in the US on January 20, 2020. By February 20, 2020 there were only 15 cases detected in US, partly due to limited capacity for testing. As at today, about two months after the first case was discovered, the US has143,722 confirmed cases with 2,592 death. Estimated 8,200 are being tested in US on daily basis, which is far less than the standard of 20,000 per day set by South Korea considered the world best record of Covid-19 testing.

Luckily for us in Nigeria, part of the contributions of Jack Ma to Nigerian government include 20,000 testing equipment, which have been distributed to all states in the country. It is also expected that part of the financial contributions of corporate Nigeria and wealthy citizens will be used to procure testing equipment, which are limited in supply all over the world. No doubt, the problem of testing has created challenges that weaken the capacity of nations to contain the spread of Covid-19 all over the world. Part of what non-governmental actors should bring to the table should be issues of strategy to ensure effective applications of best practices from other parts of the world.

The reality is that across the world, the problem of testing imposes a challenge whereby only those who have shown symptoms get tested on account of which sometimes, it becomes too late to manage confirmed cases which may have increased the mortality rate from Covid-19. Partly, in order to respond to these problems, the US, with all its capacity is being reported to accept support from the Chinese government against all its political pride. Again, with all their capacity, the US is being cautioned that at the going rate, it risks losing at least 50,000 citizens to Covid-19 in the coming months if it is not able to step up its capacity. Some analysts have argued that if it has taken the steps for instance Singapore has taken, the current records of more than 2,000 deaths may have been reduced to less than 200.

The cases of Italy and Spain today are alarming. With respectively 97,840 cases, 10,789 death; and 80,110 cases, 6,803 deaths, it shows the dangers awaiting all nations. We may want to lament over the state of our healthcare facilities in Nigeria, but the reality is that experiences from these countries with some of the best facilities, personnel and capacities should alert us to the enormity of the challenges. If with all their capacities, they are today at the mercy of Covid-19, it should be clear that if for any reason our government failed to contain the virus, it may have genocidal consequences. Imagine the situation that led to the loss of 919 or 834 deaths within 24 hours respectively for Italy and Spain playing out in Nigeria. With our population and state of healthcare facilities, the deaths recorded in Italy and Spain will be child’s play.

So far, the world has produced good practice experiences, which should be used to contain the spread of the virus. Combinations of the Chinese, South Korean and Singaporean experiences are there and in all cases the issue of citizens’ support to government initiatives are very crucial. In fact, part of the problems coming from US and Europe, resulting in exponential increases in both confirmed cases and death is the refusal to apply best practice recommendations. While in the case of some of these countries, issues that could be described as noncompliant conducts by governments are responsible, in our case in Nigeria it would appear that factors of political considerations and insensitivity by citizens, based on which our national capacities for responses towards containing the spread of the virus is being furtively undermined.

It is important that as citizens, we recognise that at this stage, what is required is not politics but the capacity to take initiative. If we are not satisfied with the initiatives of the government, rather than seek to undermine governmental initiatives, can we come up with our initiatives to stop the spread of the virus? Or are we arguing that governmental initiatives are weakening our capacity to come up with our initiatives? In some ways, the issue of initiatives from citizens and non-governmental organisations is hardly the focus. Otherwise, how can we justify many of the responses from Nigerians who seem to indulge themselves with the inconsiderate political belief that Covid-19 is President Buhari’s problem? Whichever initiative the President proposes will be dismissed.

This only highlights the fact that many Nigerians, for whatever reasons, have lost their humanity. As a result, we don’t see the challenge of Covid-19 as a threat to humanity. While corporate Nigeria and wealthy citizens, in their own way, are mobilising financial resources to support government, some politicians and non-governmental professionals are reducing the issues to politics and legality. Even when people like Jack Ma, from far away China are making donations to Nigerian government to strengthen capacity to contain Covid-19, critical sectors such as trade unions, civil society and their leaders with all their advantaged experiences in mobilising Nigerians to obey sit-at-home campaigns are simply indifferent, as if the virus will spare them. Some have argued that part of the problem is that the government is not engaging them. I am not sure the action of the corporate Nigeria and wealthy citizens is stimulated by any engagement by the Nigerian government. Could it have been because the virus threatens them more than other Nigerians? Certainly not.

Many of us have the belief that our civil society and trade union leaders are perhaps more patriotic than our business community on account of their selflessness. Unfortunately, this appears to no longer be the case, with organisations such as ASUU on strike over what is purely a ‘bread and butter’ issue (or better described as stomach infrastructure) at a time when the services of some of their members in faculties of medicine and university teaching hospitals are dearly needed to contain the spread of Covid-19 in the country. How can Nigeria be faced with a human threat of the magnitude of Covid-19 and we are yet to have a major intervention initiative from organised labour or civil society?

What is really happening? Without a doubt, we must recognise the agency and resourcefulness of our civil society and organised labour movement. Their support to government in the current fight against Covid-19 is very crucial. Somehow, the absence of initiative from them may be encouraging some of the inconsiderate and insensitive politicisation of government initiatives. We need to appeal to all leaders of non-governmental organisations in the country to demonstrate commitment towards responding to the challenge posed by Covid-19, which is a threat against humanity by coming up with initiatives that should help contain the virus. Undermining initiatives of government based on excessive politics and legal arguments will only further endanger us.

This does not represent the view of any APC Governor or the Progressive Governors Forum

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