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NOW THAT WE ARE HOME – PART 2: Together we will win

Akin Rotimi

These are desperate times the world over. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has taken a number of steps in the right direction in our battle to contain the pandemic. Some of our state governors are also proving their mettle by their actions, while some others are trivialising this crisis and putting their people at risk with pedestrian rhetoric and stupid actions. Just like was recorded in bible times during Job’s crisis, we can also see that “Great men are not always wise.” We have come to discover in stark relief the number of misfits we have leading us. It is also in this time of war that generals are earning their stripes, and by God’s grace the day would soon come when we would celebrate the heroes of this battle and document their roles in serving our common good.

As things stand today though, there is still no cure for the virus, and our best efforts to win this war remains to continue to enforce Physical Distancing, aggressive contacts tracing, and mass enlightenment on the need for everyone to practice personal hygiene and build their immunity. I must add to that the need to improve the morale of our heroic health workers on the frontlines, and incentivise them to continue to put in their best. These are the ones staying the hands of the pandemic within our borders – the ones who are bravely defying the scary projections about the pandemic overrunning our health system.

The greatest challenge however is ensuring wilful compliance by the citizenry to Physical Distancing measures put in place by government, and at the same time maintaining social cohesion and law and order. This is because of the toll the lockdown is taking on the majority of Nigerians, which President Buhari in showing empathy acknowledged in his recent statement “We realise that today, there will be sons and daughters unable to visit their par­ents, and elders that are isolated from young ones. And there will be those who live day-to-day, eating as they earn, who face real and present suffering.” It is heart-breaking and worrisome to read of spikes in crime in our urban centres, and the desperation of many Nigerians to do anything at this time for bread. A video that went viral recently shows a septuagenarian woman, confidently saying she would be happy to sleep with anyone for N500 to survive.

The encouraging news is that characteristic of Nigerians being our brothers’ keepers, in addition to efforts of government across all levels, we are seeing humanitarian responses at the level of individuals, families, and clusters of friends crowdsourcing money and food to share with less privileged people. People are cooking meals and distributing to fellow Nigerians on the streets, and distributing stipends to vulnerable families. Citizens’ responses have been commendable and has proven that every single person counts in efforts at nation building. We must not stop. As I had encouraged in part 1 of this article, when this pestilence passes, we must keep up in this same spirit and hold our leaders accountable to addressing some urgent problems that has compounded the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic in Nigeria. Some of these are as follows.

Inequality: Wealthy Nigerians and corporations are falling over themselves to announce huge donations to confront the pandemic in Nigeria. The problem is you don’t prepare for war in times of war, and many Nigerians are beginning to wonder what exactly would be done with all these monies, and how exactly it would tangibly impact their lives. These donations in many cases come from donors who are as complicit as our leaders in the house of cards we have built. Jobless economic growth over the years has enriched a few while others wallow in indigence. This is why we have a severe housing deficit yet empty and overpriced real estate abound in our major cities. We have a broken education system yet Nigerians as international students fund the education systems in other countries. Poverty is one thing in Nigeria, Inequality is another. Wherever inequality exists, it is joined by a league of ills. We must not forget the saying attributed to French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Quand les pauvres n’auront plus rien à manger, ils mangeront les riches!” meaning “When the poor have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich!”.

Data Management: For long we have failed to heed the warning of experts that our inefficiencies in managing data would hurt us someday. This is the day. The dearth of veritable data and the lack of integration of the ones we have amongst key government entities is blunting efforts in this war as far as contact tracing and delivery of humanitarian relief is concerned. Assuming we have the infinite resources, we simply lack the data to reach our most vulnerable citizens with relief in an equitable, efficient, and dignified way. We must however acknowledge that some governments have done well in this regard, a good example being the Government of Ekiti state who have been able to leverage existing databases in the state’s Vulnerable People’s Support Programme to reach vulnerable households with relief in a dignified way. This issue of data goes beyond government. Very few of our social and religious organisations that have for long been sustained by contributions of Nigerians can boast of comprehensive databases with which they can attend to the material, mental health, and spiritual needs of members during this crisis. We can do better.

Social Protection: Closely related to the subject of data management is Social Protection. We absolutely need to rethink our strategies on how we cater for the most vulnerable segments of our society. The main purpose of social protection is to reduce poverty, economic shocks and vulnerability, which in turn, helps to determine the country-specific social protection design requirements (ADB, 2003). The Federal Government’s National Social Investments Programme (N-SIP) is doing very well in the circumstances, but we need to ask what became of social protection initiatives of previous administrations? What are the assurances that the N-SIP would survive beyond the lifetime of this administration? Sadly, social protection programmes in Nigeria have been dogged by lack of continuity and susceptibility to nepotism and partisan manipulations. Instead of strengthening existing programmes, successive administrations choose to truncate them and initiate new ones thereby losing traction. We must build resilient and enduring social protection programmes on the solid foundations of accurate data, transparency, and accountability, and over time deepen its coverage and impact.

Functional Federalism: With such a large country in terms of land mass and population, this crisis has brought back to the fore conversations about the nature of the federalism we practice. In the days leading up to President Buhari’s March 29, 2020 national broadcast, there was a hue and cry about the need for him to address the nation, as though his speech was to be a silver bullet to solve all the problems. What we didn’t pay attention to was all the work that was already going on in different states of the federation – with diverse strategies that best suit their peculiarities. That is the way it should be. As a matter of fact, the president’s actions and policy pronouncements only served, in many instances, to reinforce actions already taken by some state governors. In other jurisdictions we see the beauty of Cooperative Federalism in fighting this ugly situation. We see all levels of governments – federal, state, and municipal – working collaboratively to address the challenges, with each empowered to act in the best interest of their citizens. We must in the principle of Subsidiarity urgently seek ways to devolve more power and resources from an unwieldy federal government to the lower levels of government, and encourage them to generate more income within the states. The lower levels of government who are closer to the people and better positioned to respond faster and more appropriately in times like this, should have greater resources and less encumbrances.

Special Status for Lagos State: One of the commendable actions by President Buhari recently is providing a grant of N10billion to the government of Lagos State to help them in the fight against COVID 19. This action was not contested by any other state. It is by itself presidential recognition that Lagos is disproportionately affected by this crisis, and carries the weight of the expectations of the entire country to provide the leadership to nip the scourge in the bud, as it did in the past with Ebola. With an estimated population of 20 million, and ranked as the fifth largest economy in Africa, Lagos is undeniably our economic nerve centre, and host to our busiest airport and seaport. When this crisis is over, we must revisit the need to grant special status to Lagos state; a move that has been repeatedly turned down by the Nigerian Senate. The last time the matter was debated on the floor of the senate in 2016 was one of the rowdiest sessions in her history. Senator Olusola Adeyeye making a comparison between Abuja and Lagos in his contribution had declared that “the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) is a rotten and over-pampered child.” The National Assembly is respectfully put on notice, you can see for yourselves, there is no need for long debates after this crisis, Lagos is not the mate of any other state.

State of Origin / State of Residence: Talking of states, we need to review the nonsense we have kept up with for such a long time – State of Origin! There is hardly any form you fill in Nigeria today that doesn’t have that inanity in spite of the divisions it fosters, and the fact that it negates the spirit and letters of our constitution. Any Nigerian should be able to live and work freely in any state of the federation and be recognised as a resident. Now that we are all in this crisis together, we can clearly see that the actions or inactions of those that reside in a state affects one and all, regardless of their origin. As far as our well-being and economic prospects are concerned, the people we live and work with are more relevant than those we share ancestry with that are far away. I hope Nwagbo that has lived in Lagos State for most of his life would now be able to fill in Lagos state as his state of residence, just the same way that Ibinabo that lives in Kano state can fill in Kano as her state of residence because she lives there. We must learn from this crisis and especially need to cross the river to deliver this message to a certain governor, and all those who discriminate against non-indigenes in their states.

National Orientation: This crisis has exposed the non-existence of a coherent national orientation strategy. Presidential spokesman Femi Adesina has told us it is not the style of our president to speak frequently – granted. But communications and national orientation is much more than that.It is about leading the reformation of the hearts and minds of Nigerians and aligning our collective psyche to national goals and aspirations. It is about inspiring Nigerians, and in times like this, it is about providing accurate information that trickles down to the grassroots. If there is a vacuum in the flow of communications from the leadership of our country, and presidential aides are needlessly combative, we look to the National Orientation Agency of Nigeria to rise to its mandate of effectively “communicating government policy, staying abreast of public opinion, and promoting patriotism, national unity, and development of Nigerian society.” The agency has been quiet so far, and needs to keep up with the times and jettison antiquated strategies. This is 2020 and it is laughable that our national orientation strategy revolves around the War Against Indiscipline (WAI Brigade) of the Buhari / Idiagbon era. How is that serving us now?

The Culture of the Big Man: Our culture of bigmanism is a social malaise that is demonstrated by the high and mighty in our society who live ostentatious lifestyles and promote the wilful disobedience of laws. Nigerian big men are never seen alone, but rather with retinues of aides and security operatives who fall over themselves to answer to their every whim, only to become gentle when they are abroad. In spite of the Nigerian Police being stretched thin, we still have policemen drafted as personal bodyguards to protect big men, leaving common Nigerians vulnerable. They disobey traffic laws, shunt queues, and intimidate fellow citizens at every opportunity. Their favourite expression which evidences our confused identity is “do you know who I am?” Most Nigerians are either big men or aspiring to be, and our children are being socialised to perpetuate these attitudes. The culture of bigmanism is what breeds the perception that our leaders, who should know better, are above the law, and has been implicated in the potential spread of the virus. Such recklessness was demonstrated by the leading opposition party whose leadership convened a Southwest Reunification Rally mid-march, pulling such a massive crowd during a pandemic. Similar indiscretions were demonstrated by leaders from the ruling party, and even our celebrities are not left out. What moral rectitude do they now have to enforce physical distancing measures? Obviously we all need to concentrate more on reuniting our brains with common-sense, and rebuilding a society where no one is above the law, and the virtues of humility and simplicity once again become the norm rather than the exception.

Foreign Relations: These are very tough times, and the global balance of power would never be the same again. Many countries are currently concentrating on defeating the pandemic but have hinted of significant changes to their foreign policy in the days ahead. The pandemic will change the world forever, and diplomatic relations between countries are bound to be renegotiated. The question is where does Nigeria seat in the light of these emerging realities? The viral videos of the horrible treatment being meted out to Nigerians in China is symptomatic of how low we have come. Now more than ever before, Nigeria needs to take our foreign policy seriously. We cannot afford to take a reactionary and incoherent foreign relations strategy, and our inefficient and poorly funded diplomatic missions into the future. Nigeria must prioritise our national interests and rekindle the fire of Pan-Africanism. We must rise from being pawns in the high stakes contest for global relevance, and find our voice and place in the emerging global order.

Leadership: COVID 19 is showing us the direct impact that incompetent leadership has on lives, and the destruction that can befall nations when leaders joke with such priorities as the health sector. Every aspect of life in Nigeria needs to be overhauled, while leveraging the gains we have achieved in some areas. We need our education system functioning again so that our research institutions can develop new technologies and make advances in medical science that would help humanity. Instead of hustling for give-aways on twitter, we must rid our society of systemic corruption and equip our government institutions with the human and material resources to build functional systems and structures that serve the interest of all Nigerians. It is often argued that followers in Nigeria are as bad as our leaders, but the truth is nothing can change without transformational leaders leading an enlightened and active citizenry.

By God’s grace and the resilience of Nigerians, together we will win this war against COVID 19, and Nigeria would be great again.

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