Featured Health

Lessons from Covid-19 in Nigeria (2)

******Without any intent at hyperbole, Nigeria is currently at its lowest

I think after COVID-19, Nigeria will not be the same again because there are some basic infrastructure that we have neglected for a very very long time and I believe that, this will help us in putting those infrastructures in place….So that in case we have another disaster, we will be able to work as a team and as a nation to ensure that in whatever we need to do, there are processes, there are allocations and there are enumerations that have been conducted about the kind of people that should benefit from certain categories of palliatives…. In America, people are entitled to certain palliatives because they have an infrastructure, they have a system that helps them in determining what you can benefit from—Boss Mustapha at the Pandemic Task Force

The observations in italics overleaf is one of the most futuristic statements by top state actors since the pandemic. I have no intention to excuse a secretary of government for not knowing how poor the country’s health infrastructure was before the onset of coronavirus pandemic. Today’s piece is concerned with a flickering of the human spirit manifested in the resolution of the SGF to show the courage to call for some measure of change in a political culture that worships the president, whether he asked for it or not. The current stance of the SGF shares some concerns with the theme of today’s column that there is no better time for reform than when an individual, family, or nation is at its lowest.

Without any intent at hyperbole, Nigeria is currently at its lowest. And this is not, as this column observed last week, not just because the price of petroleum has plummeted in the international market but also, as several professional economists and international organizations have observed since the pandemic, because of many mistakes of the past by successions of governments in the country. It will not be surprising if the SGF’s new awareness about the low productivity of the government he coordinates in many ways startles some citizens while making others curious about recognition in unusual quarters of the imperative of change in the way Nigeria is governed.

But thinking by government officials about the situation  of Nigeria today ought to go beyond recognition of deficits in governance but to the roots of such problems and search for solutions, as well as warning those governing the country that the methods of pre-pandemic years may no longer be tenable or acceptable to citizens and development partners after the end of the pandemic. Warning against continuation of Nigeria’s political leaders’ business-as-usual attitude to life will form the core of today’s piece. Our elected officials need to take a cue from the SGF’s moment of epiphany. And they need to be reminded about the need on their part to check what looks like inability by those in charge of different sectors of government to depart from methods of the past that need to be changed, even while dealing with the pandemic.

Since the arrival of the pandemic, there have been many actions and pronouncements of leaders that are out of sync with the demands of the moment. One such example is President Buhari’s appreciation of efforts of planners of Abba Kyari’s burial to comply with funeral protocols during the pandemic. The president’s  congratulation of those in charge of burial of Abba Kyari is in stark contrast to the views of the his secretary to government and chairman of his Task Force on covid-19: “PTF recognizes, regrettably, the unintentional violation of the principles and protocols that form the core of our messaging to Nigerians at the funeral of the late Chief of Staff….These principles for emphasis include the guidance provided on mass gatherings; social distancing; personal hygiene and restriction of movements….Lessons have been learnt and appropriate measures have been taken to close all gaps. We assure all Nigerians of their safety and the determination of PTF to combat the pandemic.”  Such dissonance needs to be avoided to stop further corrosion of trust between citizens and their government.

Another business-as-usual response is failure of legislators to sit to deal with issues spawned by the pandemic. The chambers are capacious enough to make social distancing effective, especially during national emergencies. Inability of lawmakers to meet on urgent matters could have scuttled the negotiation lawmakers started with electricity companies on need for delaying payment of electricity bills by customers without pre-paid meters across the country. Is there any surprise that violence has erupted in communities where citizens made effort to prevent attempts to cut their power lines? In a political system that is unable to give special financial support to citizens during emergency, lawmakers ought to have been firm about provision of special subsidy for electricity during lockdown of many communities.

Pushing the executive to save citizens from darkness during lockdown because they are unable to pay may have its risks for overpaid legislators, but leadership expects more altruism from them at this time. Lawmakers’ donation of three months of their salaries is not as socially meaningful as making laws to save millions of citizens from embarrassment. Citizens know that Nigeria’s legislators receive more generous salaries and allowances than their counterparts anywhere else on the globe and they know that releasing three months of lawmakers’ salaries and allowances is an as effective as providing leadership for legislation that can provide special assistance to them at a time like this. It is logical that leaders in a government that has been forced to look for loan and aid would appreciate the problem of citizens without any means of paying electricity bills during lockdown.

One other lack of enthusiasm to take needed action is the failure of the federal government to provide full data of receivers of special cash payments to 2.5 million people during the first phase of the lockdown. The president in his last address to the nation called for additional 1 million names, but citizens are yet to know how to determine eligibility for this new round of assistance to the poor and disadvantaged. Assuming that citizens will always agree to whatever data governments submit without announcing parameters for means testing for eligibility to receive social assistance during lockdown is akin to taking citizens for granted.

Relatedly, the traditional fear of data by governments in the country is a habit that should not be allowed to survive the pandemic. There is little social assistance that can be done with fairness without accurate data. Citizens should not be expected to relate to their political leaders uncritically. Governments ought to be prepared to confront citizens with data that back government policies and programmes.

One more example of transfer of pre-pandemic governance style is violation of human rights through brutal police response to lockdown directives. The report that more persons have been killed by enforcers of the lockdown than those killed by coronavirus so far is worrisome. For example, the recent news that a 10-year old schoolboy in Ringim, Jigawa has been killed by police bullets is reminiscent of proclivity of the Nigeria Police to resort to extra-judicial killing and to deny responsibility for such acts and get off the hook almost invariably.

For example, mobile courts have been able to sentence hundreds of lockdown violators, but no law enforcement officer has been punished identified and punished for violation of human rights. This is a period of tension for everybody, but when a father loses a ten-year old son at the hands of police officers trying to enforce lockdown rules, the cure is worse than the disease. Security operatives need all the sensitization workshops that the government can provide at this critical time. There is no reason for things to get to this level in Jigawa, not after many countries had started fighting the pandemic ahead of Nigeria.

There are more examples of lapses that are too numerous for the space available. But the few illustrations of reliance on old habits of governance that made the pandemic in Nigeria more painful for the poor and impoverished are cited to bring to keep in focus the pledge of the SGF that “after COVID-19, Nigeria will not be the same again because there are some basic infrastructure that we have neglected for a very very long time.” The final piece next week will discuss the need to embark on changing not only the content of governance in Nigeria but also of its form.



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