IDEAS Radio 24 April 2020

IDEAS issues in Nigeria’s COVID-19 Response

Chukwudi Ezugwu: Seven minutes past 4 pm and you’re tuned in to 99.3 FM, Nigeria Info.  As it is usual at this time on Fridays, it is IDEAS with Ayo Obe.  And this is how we kick start proceedings on the Public Square.  

Now, as Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory approach the end of the Federal Government-imposed COVID-19 lockdown, there are growing calls for the lockdown to be lifted.  But at the same time, different States in Nigeria are approaching the COVID-19 crisis in different – and not always coherently coordinated – ways.  On Tuesday, 70 civil society organisations and individuals wrote to President Muhammadu Buhari expressing their concerns, and making recommendations about what Nigeria’s COVID-19 strategy should be, going forward.  Now, using this as the background, in the IDEAS section I’m going to discuss with Ayo Obe what the Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability issues are that need to be considered as the next steps are considered.  Good afternoon Ayo Obe.  Welcome to IDEAS with Ayo Obe.  … Hello?  Hello?  Something about our technical issue, and I’m very certain that we’re going to sort it, so that we can reach out to Ayo Obe  and have an interesting conversation.  But you have an idea from the background I just highlighted, what the conversation will be.

Now, this is the second lockdown, Federal Government lockdown, imposed in Lagos, Ogun because of its proximity to Lagos, and the Federal Capital Territory.  Now a lot of people are looking at the situation and they are saying: If for the first half, we said well we have learned from our mistakes  and we are going to do it better  in the second half, and this is the 24th day in the month of April  and we are nearing the 27th day  when the second half of the Federal Government imposed lockdown will expire, and people are saying, well it appears like we have no idea what the situation is.  It’s important that we look at all of the issues and try to see  how we can make the best of the situation.  And there are several states in Nigeria that are trying how … trying best to see how they can deal with the situation using the peculiar nature of their  states, but people are saying it’s important that we have a coordination of some sorts so that we can have  all the states following a particular plan  and the Federal Government leading from the front  There are several issues that have been raised, civil societies, individuals  writing to President Muhammadu Buhari, … reaching out to the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19  and saying: If we adopt a different approach, it’s most likely that we are going to get … a better result looking at the situation that we are faced with.  I’m  hoping that we will connect with Ayo Obe and when we do, we are going to have that interesting conversation  where we’ll look at …  the views expressed by civil societies, we’re going to look at questions still relating to the Conditional Cash Transfer, concerns about the safety and security of our health workers, and Accountability when we talk about security.   So I would like that you will stay tuned, I’m hoping that we’re going to deal with this situation, and I’m certain that when we return we are going to have that interesting conversation,  and you will have the opportunity to join in and make your contribution  so please do not go anywhere, you are still tuned in to 99.3 FM, Nigeria Info.

[Interlude]

CE: Welcome back to 99.3 FM  Nigeria Info.  I am hoping I have Ayo Obe on the line.  Welcome Ayo Obe?

Ayo Obe: Hello Chukwudi, how are you?

CE: I am doing great, so great to hear from you, thank you very much.

AO: I want to really commend Nigeria Info for its messages on COVID-19; they are really … very important.

CE: Thank you so much.  Now, I have given the background to the conversation.  I am hoping to do that again so that we can just go straight into the conversation now.   Lagos, Ogun and FCT approaching the end of the Federal Government ordered COVID-19 lockdown, and there are growing calls for the lockdown to be lifted.  A lot of people have complained about how families have to go through a lot, this trying time and the security implications of … people who complain about hunger, unemployment and the fact that they cannot earn the wage that they usually earn daily.  Now, different States in Nigeria are also approaching the COVID-19 crisis in different – and not too always coherently coordinated – ways.  On Tuesday, 70 civil society organisations and individuals wrote to President Buhari expressing their concerns, and they also made recommendations about what our COVID-19 strategy should be, going forward.  Now I would like us to start, using this as our starting point, so that we can focus on Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability issues that need to be considered as we take the next steps.  Now, civil society expressed the view that there cannot be prolonged lockdown without a safety net.  Is it even ethical for those who have all the benefits of modern life and technology to prescribe #StayHome in a context where the majority lack those benefits?

AO: Yeah, I think it’s a real question Chukwudi, simply because of the fact that as we are asking people to stay home, we are also depriving them of their income.  And we know that even in the developed countries where people have safety nets and … social security, the situation has been very difficult for a lot of people.  But I think that it requires first of all … when you are asking people to make sacrifices, you need to show that you are ready to abide by the rules and to do the things that you are … the minimum things that you are asking people to do.

But I think that in the context of Nigeria’s shut down, particularly when you consider that Lagos is the economic hub of the nation, that it becomes even more important for that level of imagination to have come into play about how people will earn their living.  Now, what Civil Society pointed out is that: Yes, the Federal Government has its Conditional Cash Transfer and  … they are happy to see it, but the fact is, that it’s – as they call it – it’s “a drop in the bucket”.  And apart from that, even Professor Sagay in his, in his interview that he gave to Sahara Reporters on Thursday, he pointed out that there have been reports of corruption in the distribution of palliatives, so that you have the Conditional Cash which is an existing programme,  that has issues which need to be addressed and have to continue to be fine-tuned,   but you also have the palliatives … palliative measures, that includes everything from the distribution of rice that the federal Government has, or has seized, or has in its silos, and also, the way in which people are being determined.  We have more than one report of people being … of lists that are being drawn up on the basis of: Are you on the relevant list.  And again, when we have complaints that palliative measures were delivered to a street, we ourselves as Nigerians, we also need to understand that it’s not everybody on the street that is supposed to … distri … to have a part of that palliative, rather, the community is supposed to identify those who need it most and direct that assistance toward them.  I mean, there … obviously there are some areas that are not going to get something, but there are areas where you have a range of classes on the street.  So I think that when Civil Society says that: As we go forward even if we … because even though civil society does not specifically say: Continue the lockdown or don’t continue the lockdown, because I think that that is a question that  is going to … that requires so many factors to be taken into account; but I think that when they say that: if we’re going to …  whatever we are going to do going forward  we have to observe social distancing and so on; we have to recognise that that social distancing, that ban on large gatherings and so on, all of those things mean that there are still going to be a lot of people who cannot earn a living, and therefore, we cannot say that if we open the economy then we can forget about social pallia … or palliative measures, or social safety  net.  On the contrary, that’s before we even consider the impact of the fall in oil prices on the Nigerian  economy in general.  We have to recognise that the need for that social safety net is paramount, not because Nigerians are necessarily going to riot in the sense of “Let’s pull down the government”, but the growing social unrest and security issues also come up for play.

CE: Alright, now let’s talk about … Nigerians and even civil societies that have expressed concern looking at … the operation of the Conditional Cash Transfer.  Now people are saying: If we say the ‘poorest poor’ and we look at the social register and say there are 2.6 million Nigerians, President Muhammadu Buhari ordered for an expansion to capture an additional one million Nigerians, people are looking at impact, and they are wondering how much impact this can really have, when we talk about the Conditional Cash Transfer.  What would you say with respect to the points that have been raised by civil societies?

AO: Yeah, I mean, as civil society rightly points out, it’s a “drop in the bucket”.  Obviously the people who are on the list are … they’re … in fact  the Minister of Finance has made it clear that only one conditional cash transfer is going to be made  per person, but the fact about the Conditional Cash Transfer is that it captives … it captures the people who are already poor, so that what they do is that they draw up the list on the basis of the criteria  that they have established, meeting communities, drawing up the list.  But then, that list may have ten people on it, and what they’ve been doing so far, up until the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis was to pay the bottom 60% or so, because some of the people at the top may have more, and then of course, they haven’t got the full amount of money that they need.  So I suppose that even if the President expands that, it will be to capture the people who are further up on the list, maybe 80% of the people or so.  But we are still faced with the fact that many people are being prevented from earning their living.  And as I said, even if we open the economy  we still face the fact that people are not going to want to be going about anyhow, using taxis, they’re not going to be going to parties, they’re not …  and so all those people who earn their living on … from those economic activities are still going to remain among the newly COVID  poor, and so they are supposed to be reached by the palliative measures.  And the way in which those palliative measures are being distributed, as Professor Sagay said, there are questions  about Integrity with the way that those people are being reached.  Professor Sagay himself said: “I have heard that some local government officials are asking for party cards”, and he said that: “…that is clearly illegal and definitely condemnable because hunger and party is not limited to one party or the other, it is supposed to be for everybody.”

So the government has to be very much more alert to the danger of this sort of abuse being exercised, because it’s not the first time that we’ve seen people in need being extorted by those who are supposed to be coming to their rescue; the situation in the Internally Displaced camps, IDP camps, comes to mind.  So we need to really have not just words about Integrity and Ethics, but we also need to have an enforcement of Accountability about the way that these measures are distributed.

CE: Alright.  Now, concern has also been expressed about both security for the lives and property of Nigerians as they #StayHome, and also about the behaviour of the security agencies.  How do you think that the authorities should react  to these points raised by civil societies?

AO: Well I think there’s a need for a lot more transparency about the way this is done.  I don’t know if you remember Chukwudi that at first, when the social distancing measures came in, and then the lockdown, that there were reports of gangs of youths and attacks by robbers, burglars and so on and so forth, and the Police kept on coming out and saying: Oh, we’re on top of it, we have dealt with this situation here, we have dealt with that situation there.  And yet those reports kept on coming.  And I think that the Police should rather be a little bit more … open about the challenges that they are facing.  We know that … just as the ordinary law abiding citizen is going about their business and earning their living, if they are able to do that, even then, they face these …  this sort of extortion from every … variety of area boys, area girls and so on, people who batten off the effort or … and labour of others.  Now that the lockdown has prevented those people from being able to batten on their fellow working people, they have resorted to more forceful methods.  So I think that the Police need to be much more responsive when issues are raised, and at the same time, they should …  this is a time when we expect these groups like the Àmọtẹkùn  and the Lagos State … outfit … these are the times when they need to be up and doing, so that people – not in areas in the centre of town, Lagos, Victoria Island and Ikoyi … Surulere and Yaba, but that people who are outside, particularly in those areas that the Lagos State Government had identified as hotspots, that those people are also protected.  I think that … we have the … the police have been told by the Inspector-General that they need to enforce the lockdown with full respect and regard for the human rights of Nigerians.  Now we haven’t seen that, the National Human Rights Commission report last week made that clear.  But the police need to go beyond words, and showing one or two who are caught on camera, because not everybody can be taking films when abuses are taking place.  There needs to be a lot more information and education of the Police themselves, the ones who are on the front line, so that they know how to deal with issues.  It’s ridiculous, as has been said – I think by Rotimi last week –  that if your objective to say people should go home and #StayHome, and the person is going home, then what is the need for violence and all these other abuses that we’ve seen, of people being forced to  swim in gutters?  These things are not acceptable even in any situation, but they are particularly unacceptable when everybody is under pressure.  So I think that the Civil Society recommendations in their letter to the President need to be … they need to be taken seriously and to really, call on the government to do more than lip service in that regard.

CE: Alright  thank you very much Ayo Obe.  I’m very certain that a lot of Nigerians are expectant.  They would like to know what the framework would be going forward  how we are going to contain COVID-19.  Thank you so much for the insight you have shared.  God bless you!

AO: Thank you.  I would just end by saying just as Nigeria Info has its great outreach and public information, the civil society said that the Federal Government and the State Governments need to … the way that they go during elections: they need to go out, using town criers, radio and television, going into communities, and … because they say,  This is a campaign for every Nigerian’s survival.  And I think that the Nigerians that you see … if you happen to step outside you will see that many people are really not taking the issue of face masks,  social distancing and so on and so forth, seriously.  There needs to be a lot more information about this, as Civil Society said.  So Chukwudi, I want to thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to look at the IDEAS  issues in these matters, and to say that: Yes, Accountability is for government primarily, but it’s also ,when it comes down to it, our own individual Accountability.

CE: Alright, thank you so much and have a great evening.

AO: I wish you the same.