For many close watchers of Nigeria’s unfolding response to the novel Corona Virus (COVID 19) pandemic, the level of lack of preparedness points to the fact that the country is actually dealing with viruses on two levels. Several opinion leaders who commented on the ongoing national response by the political leadership at federal, state, and local government levels, described their performance as below par. Apart from Lagos, which got some praise for its agile response to the outbreak, several citizens who expressed their views concluded that what Nigeria is dealing with, is not just COVID-19. Their assessment is that the country is confronting a much more lethal virus of failed political leadership, which has created the perfect conditions for COVID 19 to berth and fester in Nigeria.
According to them, apart from exhibiting lethargy at a critical time to making befuddling claims about readiness to contain the virus, Nigeria’s leaders at federal, state, and local government level have shown no capacity to govern, especially at a time of crisis. Other critical voices have pointed out the immoral and profligate action of legislators who have heartlessly gone ahead to share exotic and exorbitant cars acquired with public funds. Many citizens are scandalized by the insensitivity of the lawmakers at a time many hospitals, including isolations centre lack the basic necessities to treat and contain COVID-19 infections.
In tracing the origins of the recent pandemic, several advocates of good governance recalled that when the outbreak started and began to claim lives in countries like China, South Korea, Italy and Spain, Nigeria was not immediately affected. The point was made that unlike many of the early countries affected by the outbreak of the pandemic, Nigeria had sufficient time to prepare for preventive measures, and to take robust containment initiatives. Unfortunately, despite endless cries from citizens calling on the government to take action, leaders at all levels either ignored or dismissed such calls. President Muhammadu Buhari and his entire cabinet is said to have procrastinated for too long, and exhibited lethargy at a time the country needed to act swiftly. Knowing how important it should have been for Nigeria to prevent an outbreak, given the parlous state of its healthcare system, critics of the administration have rightly slammed Nigeria’s federal authorities for dithering, and remaining flat footed until the first confirmed case was recorded on February 27.
Ironically, the first recorded case did not seem to send the needed wake up call to the sleepy officials in Abuja that it was time to wake up and become decisive. Calls for President Buhari to address the country as a way of mobilizing citizens to be aware of the deadly virus and understand steps to protect themselves, were dismissed. One particularly dyspeptic presidential spokesman was more interested in wasting quality man hours writing press commentaries, which further muddied the waters of the discourse. His angry response was that those calling on the President to address the nation, including members of the National Assembly were engaging in petty politics. Another senior operative in the President’s communications team described his principal’s aloofness at a time of national emergency as a matter of style. By stonewalling at a time the administration required clear headed crisis communication, the brash presidential spokespersons conveyed the impression, as they always do that the Presidency is all knowing and did not need any kind of feedback from citizens.
Consequently, by the time President Buhari and his handlers decided to break their duck, the essence of the President’s broadcast to the nation was tending towards irrelevance. As such, several analysts bemoaned the lack of specific initiatives to stem the tide of the rampaging virus. Notwithstanding the contrived endorsements of the President’s broadcast for instance, its key decision, the lockdown of Lagos and Abuja for two weeks had already been effected by sub-national authorities. Lagos for instance already had a curfew in place, just as the FCT Administration was already enforcing the lock down of the capital. To put it another way, close observers who reading of the situation were tracked by The Explainer hold the view that the President intervened very late in such a way that made the broadcast of March 29 underwhelming. The broadcast in their summation had no real impact to the efforts to contain the virus. Frontline academic and civil society leader, Jibrin Ibrahim for instance praised the President’s broadcast, but posed questions on why key questions relating to COVID 19 containment efforts were left unanswered by the President. Writing on his facebook wall, Jibrin said of the broadcast: “Good speech President, but in terms of care for infected people what’s the current availability of and arrangements for procurement of respirators, personal protective equipment, face masks, isolation and treatment centres. Please we need another speech by tomorrow.”
Also, former Editor of The Guardian, and Chair of The Explainer Board, Abraham Ogbodo lamented the lack of competent and effective leadership to get Nigerians behind efforts to contain the virus. According to Ogbodo, what may eventually kill most citizens is the incompetence of leadership in Nigeria. He said: “Every state governor is decreeing like some emperor without a corresponding consideration for the people. Land and sea borders closed! Air space shut! Markets, schools, churches closed! Restaurants, eateries, hotels closed! Social distancing (without clear definition of the distance) must be observed! In all of these, where is government responsibility outside creating committees to ambush the COVID 19 budgets?” The ace journalist concluded thus: “What will kill more in Nigeria in the final analysis is incompetent leadership and not COVID 19. In any case, the virus called incompetent leader which is far more virulent than any ever discovered, has been killing us in Africa!”
Subsequently, as journalists, activists and critical citizens demand answers in the face of a fumbling political elite, there are many, especially rabid supporters of the President who have been pushing the narrative that there is no need for questions or criticisms in this moment of national crisis. Those who belong to this tendency are calling on citizens to let sleeping dogs lie, just as they have tried to silence the government’s critics with the line that this is not the time for too many probing questions. However, civil society groups, which are increasingly demanding transparency and accountability in the use of the billions of tax payers monies earmarked to fight the dreaded virus, are having none of that. At the last count, groups like the Resource Centre for Human Rights&Civic Education (CHRICED), Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) the Civil Society Legislative Action Centre (CISLAC), and the Social Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) have remained relentless in calling for accountability in use of COVID 19 funds, and for palliative measures to cushion effects of the lock downs on citizens.
In a recent statement signed by its Executive Director Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, CISLAC warned that the diversion or misappropriation of COVID-19 funds would amount to total betrayal of Nigerians. The frontline CSO also cautioned that attempts by public officials to divert funds meant to combat the pandemic should be deemed unpatriotic, and that such infractions punished under relevant laws.
He said: “While we monitor with keen interest response of various authorities to commitment of the Federal Government towards alleviating impacts of the newly pronounced lockdown in some states, we demand sincere effort to ensure relief materials and other financial and material assistance are deployed accordingly to citizens irrespective of their socio-economic status with holistic and transparent strategy to adequately appropriate relief package to citizens at the grassroots level.”
Similarly, CHRICED Executive Director Dr. Ibrahim M. Zikirullahi in a statement called on citizens and anti-graft agencies to be on red alert to monitor funds earmarked to contain the pandemic. He said: “Citizens cannot assume the political elite will not abuse their control of these public funds meant to fight COVID-19 especially given their antecedents. CHRICED therefore calls for vigilance, and close monitoring to ensure citizens are not short changed.” On the issue of palliatives, the group noted that while it is good for citizens to remain at home to enable the government contain the pandemic, it stressed that governments must urgently consider palliative measures to ensure the stay at home orders realistic.
“This point is critical because many Nigerians earn their living from economic activities in the informal sector. There are many more fellow citizens who are unemployed or destitute. These groups of citizens earn their daily bread literally by going out daily. For the slew of stay at home orders to be effective and realistic therefore, the governments issuing them must follow up with the needed palliatives in terms of provision of food, water and other essentials.” The group admonished.