IDEAS Radio 15 May 2020

State Governors, COVID-19 and IDEAS

Aghogho Oboh: Alright … er, Shaku maku!  It’s a hot and humid afternoon in the city of Lagos, and welcome to the Public Square where we talk about all the big political and development stories.  And we’ll begin with IDEAS and …  We’ll begin with IDEAs and IDEAS … will be looking with Ayo Obe at the role of the Governors’ Forum in the fight against Coronavirus.  Recently there’s been praise from some supporters of these Governors who’ve lifted Lockdowns, as well as scorn thrown in their direction too … based on the different approaches they’re trying to combat the Coronavirus … [beep] … Right, Ok, just trying to get technology under way there.  Okay, so, now!  So, Ayo Obe is going to be telling us exactly what she … what we make of all those stories that have been happening in the last couple of days, with the Governors’ Forum: whether it’s been the Executive or it’s been the National Assembly on how to go forward in dealing with the Corona virus.  And from there we do a beeline to the centre of the Public Square, where Rotimi Sankore will be joined by Daniel Ottih who is a Persons Living With Disability advocate and we are going to be understanding what is going on with people living with disability during the Coronavirus and the restrictions.  The numbers are huge, nearly 30 million Nigerians are living with disability, and it will be interesting to know exactly how they are coping during this period.  Remember, you can join the conversation on social media any time  @PublicSquareNG, @IDEASRadioNG, @RotimiSankore, @AghoghoOboh; any of these handles on Twitter, we have a conversation going on there, you can join us.  At some point I’ll throw open the phone lines as well as let you join the conversation on WhatsApp.  But let’s speak with Ayo Obe straight away.  Hello Ayo.

Ayo Obe: Hi Aghogho, how are you?  

AgO: I’m very well, how are you?

AO: Oh, we’re still fine.  I hope everybody at the station is doing well?

AgO:  Oh yes we are, we are. We miss you greatly!

AO: I miss you too!

AgO: Ok.  We’ve been entertained in recent days and weeks with what is going on with the Governors in the way they’ve decided to deal with the Lockdown in their states.  Like I said earlier on, they’ve won support in some quarters they’ve also faced scorn as well as derision also too, in terms of how they’ve gone about it.  But I’ve been thinking, I know you have the answers in terms of what the IDEAS element is with how the Governors are responding in the 36 states of the country.  What would you say, whether there are IDEAS issues with this, with the Governors and their response to the Corona virus?

AO: Oh, thank you Aghogho.  As I always say, IDEAS is about Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability.  And what we’ve seen from our State Governments and the Governors who head the executive there, has been the range.  I mean there’s the range from those who started off and said: “We have to take it seriously”.  Obviously you have Lagos State – where we are – the response of  the State Government, the Governor, the Commissioner for Health, they have all been commended, in response to the clinical aspects of the disease.  And yet, Lagos remains the epicentre of the disease; we have the highest number of cases, and the number of cases that we have each day is not falling.  There are questions about the enforcement of the eased Lockdown … regulations; people not wearing masks, not observing social distancing and quite frankly, not bothering with any form of curfew, and of course, there are always complaints about the palliatives, those have been unending.  In Kaduna State we know that the Government there said: We don’t have the capacity to cope with a major outbreak, so our only recourse is to close our borders and only allow people in after they have undergone quarantine.  So they have closed their borders and they quarantine and test all new arrivals.  But how feasible is that in the long term?  Rivers State also falls on the “We have to take this issue seriously”, on that side of the equation.  But there have been questions about the arbitrary nature of the enforcement.  You’ll remember that a couple of weeks ago the Rivers State Government had arrested the pilots of Caverton helicopters, who had been authorised by the Ministry of Aviation – the Federal Government in other words – to continue operating because of the importance of the oil industry in Nigeria, and he had said: No, I’m in charge here!  And he closed down the Caverton office, got the pilots locked up and so on.  That was sorted out, but on Tuesday – I think it was on Tuesday this week – the State Government was also … again in the news for demolishing hotels where it was alleged that the … people had been gathering in defiance of Social Distancing regulations that had been, and Executive Orders that had been signed by the State Governor: and the issue there is: Was there a fair hearing?  Was … there any due process before the … before the demolition?  And so on.  So, but as I said,  Rivers State at least is taking the disease seriously.

Then we have those whose response … I’ll just call it ‘Politics, Prayer and Flat Denial’.    On the … the prayer side we had the Abia State Governor saying that the state would not record any Coronavirus case …

AgO: Very true.

AO: … because it was mentioned in the Bible.  Now, and this is a State Governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, he’s a biochemist, and yet, this was his initial response.  Then you have other states that are opening mosques and churches, Borno, Gombe, Adamawa and Gombe.  The Federal Government has said: oh, that we should … it’s frowning at them.  I think a Federal Government frown is not really going to answer … it’s not going do … to have very much effect.  

AgO: Absolutely, absolutely.

AO: And then we have  the states that I put into the ‘in denial’ category of the … part of the equation.  We started of course with Kano State, and its initial position was: “Yes, there are a lot of people dying and being buried, but it’s a mystery disease.  We don’t know what it is.”  Eventually of course, they’ve accepted that it was COVID-19, and after the Governor did a lot of crying out and wailing, suddenly he was getting the same kind of palliatives and financial support that the states at the epicentre of the disease were getting.  In Akwa Ibom, you had the State Government rejecting the Nat … Nigeria Centre for Disease Control results, because NCDC had said: We have two positive tests.  The Akwa Ibom State Government rejected them.  And in Cross River State, the Government said that … if worker … if NDC … if NCDC workers are to come in they have to be quarantined for fourteen days.

AgO: Very true.

AO: And … I think this raises a question, because can the country really afford to keep vital pandemic response workers idle at a time like this?  But this sort of – to my mind, somewhat selfish response – was actually echoed in Kogi State, where the Government also said: If you’re coming …  if NCDC workers are coming in, they have to … they have to go into quarantine.  However, the Kogi State Government did say that it had conducted its own tests for COVID-19 on … according … and they had  followed the NCDC guidelines in doing so, and they actually said that they had tested 111 residents, that all the tests had been negative, and that they have 5,000 testing kits.  Now they said they followed NCDC guidelines, but the residents who were tested were randomly selected, so it’s a question.  But the Kogi State Government is saying that they are not going to the streets to pick people, that they’re going to hospitals where people with similar symptoms are found.  So you have this wide range of … responses from the State governments, and I think that … there seems to have been more of politics at play in their response, than actual … actually being … 

AgO: Absolutely, this was just in my thoughts exactly.

AO: … guided by the science in this in some of the cases.

AgO: Absolutely about the part whether politics has been involved in this or not.  One other big issue that has come up, is this – not exactly roforofo – fight right now, between the National Assembly and the Governors’ Forum on the Infectious Diseases Bill which is before the National Assembly, where you had a high ranking officer in the National Assembly saying: Please don’t listen to the Governor of Sokoto State Aminu Tambuwal, who in a video conference, completely destroyed that Bill before  his fellow Governors.  And there, the Senate, the National Assembly saying: We don’t have any statement yet from the Governor’s Forum saying, this Bill shouldn’t go on yet.  What are your thoughts on this issue?

AO: Well I think that although we have seen – as I said – a variety of responses from the State Governors in regard to … in their response to COVID-19, since then, they now all seem to be on the same page, because on Tues … on Thursday, the Nigeria Governors’ Forum took a position on the Infectious Diseases Bill that was  presented at the National Assembly, and  according to the communiqué that was signed by the Chairman of the NGF, and he’s also the Ekiti State Governor, Kayode Fayemi, he said:

 “The governors raised concern with the lack of consultation with state governments, who are at the forefront of the epidemic, and the forum resolved that the bill should be stepped down until an appropriate consultative process is held, including a public hearing to gather public opinion and concerns.”

And …that’s the briefing that you referred to by Sokoto State Governor – former Speaker of the House of Representatives – by the way, so I think that it’s important for us to understand that, even though you  described it as a roforofo fight, the fact is that Governor Tambuwal is not coming to this issue in ignorance of the processes and the powers of the National Assembly.  So, the Governors –  just like the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control – had not been consulted before the National Assembly went ahead with presenting the Bill.  And as I say, I think that that is the more important issue, that there has to be con…  because a public hearing is a little bit like a kind of medicine after death.  You first of all workshop your Bill with the people who are directly on the front line: that includes the NCDC, the State Governors and so on and so forth.  And then you draw up your Bill and bring it to the public.  But when you just present your Bill and say: “Talk about this”, you’ve tried to already constrain the nature of the discussion and the debate.  So I think that that is a problem.  I would also say that despite – as I said, their all-over-the-place response – the Nigeria Governors’ Forum has now raised  concern about the number of cases across the country, and it called for …  they said that:

“… the worrying trend urgently calls for additional measures by states to ramp up capacity for testing, increase the availability of isolation beds to at least 300 per state, accelerate the procurement of additional equipment PPE and to train health workers…”  

Now this is an improvement, and it suggests that they are accepting that they have more Accountability, compared to their initial response.  You remember the case of the … the sad case of the lady who returned from overseas, and was kept in isolation – I think in Enugu State, but … and while she was being tested.  Now the test took a long time, eventually she tested negative, but the symptoms that she had, which she ought to have received treatment for, she didn’t receive any treatment and as a result she died.  So we’ve seen that since then, State Governments have woken up … quite frankly I’m not sure whether it was Enugu or Anambra …

AgO: It was Enugu State

AO: … but the point is that state governments have now started to wake up and accepted the idea that they have to train their staff as well as just provide them with equipment and so on, because if you don’t provide them with the necessary training, then people will be dying of illnesses that they ought ordinarily to be able to receive treatment for, and to recover from, quite apart from the COVID-19 aspect.

AgO: Very true, very true.  And this other one too, is of great concern.  So on the one hand, while you have the State Governors talking about Accountability on the part of different agencies, whether it’s with the NCDC versus the Governor of Kogi State, Yahaya Bello, in saying that: If you’re coming into my state, do X, Y and Z.   People have also pointed fingers at the Governors at this time, whether or they have been Accountable with the resources, with information going out on how they are dealing with the Coronavirus and the restrictions.  Do you think the people are asking enough questions in terms of Accountability with the Governors, Ayo?

AO: No well I don’t think they are Aghogho, and in fact it’s interesting, because the Governors have expressed their concern about the impact that COVID-19 is going to have on the finances of their states, and that they say that they are going to approach the Federal Government for assistance, even though – as we know – the amount that was shared in this first quarter of 2019 was actually higher than what they had received before.

AgO: Very true.

AO: But you see, I think that it’s important for us to understand the difference between Accountability and Delivery.  Because … here in Lagos, we’re always being told: Oh, the State Government  has done this, it’s done that, it’s done this road, it has provided this and that.  But that by itself does not mean that they are Accounting for the funds that they get from us.  And …  if I can use this situation that had recently occurred  in Ondo State, where they found N3.4 billion in what they said was a “secret undiscovered account”.  Now …  the Ondo State Government said that it’s going put that into its State budget, and it’s going to be … part of Budget, so you’ll be able to trace the way that the money is spent.  But the fact is that that N3.4 billion was taken out of the State budget at some point in the last ten years, and it wasn’t noticed.  So even if the State had been delivering, there was part of its money that went missing.  You also have to … I mean the State Governors, the Nigeria Governors’ Forum, they raised concern about the ownership and distribution of proceeds from recovered looted funds and so on, and they said that they were going to engage with the Federal Government to ensure that … they get their money.  But the fact is, that there seems to be a huge amount of such looted funds.  I mean, without any prejudgment as to whether or not there is any guilt or not, but the fact is that if you look at the situation in Abia State, there are a lot of looted funds that were … or a lot of funds that were recovered in accounts that were  held by the former State Governor and his son.  Now, in Ondo State they were talking about N3.4 billion.  In Abia State, they were talking about N551 billion.  And I think that – if we just allow that sum to sink in.  That was money that was just sitting in different banks.  And as the EFCC said, that over 80% of those accounts were still very active and that the accounts had – which were corporate and individual accounts – received so much deposit in cash, quote and unquote  “without evidence of job or services rendered.”  So you can just imagine: that kind of money went out of the State Government, out of the State Government’s pocket, and yet people did not seem to be raising questions about: Is the State Government delivering, or not delivering?  I mean, in Imo State, you see the State Governor, he gave 20 Prado Jeeps, or SUVs, to members of the Imo State judiciary, and that includes the Acting Chief Judge and the Acting President of the State’s Customary Court of Appeal.  And … you have to ask yourself, because the State …  the Acting President, quote … I’m going to quote him, he commended the Governor for “wiping away their tears and removing the shame they have faced in the past before their counterparts from other States.”  I mean, what is shame about whether you’re driving in a Prado Jeep or not?  And my point is that, it’s one thing for the state, for members of the state judiciary to meet with the executive to raise issues that they have, but when it’s presented as a ‘courtesy call’, after which they are quote and unquote given “donations” or “presents”, then it acquires an very different tone.  Because it’s a question of: Should the judiciary not have its own money and decide how it wants to spend it?  Are cars the priority needs of judges?  Why are they?  And if they are, why?  Why should they?  Why is that?  Why can’t they afford their own cars?  So for me, I think that when we have this sort of approach by State Governors  … presenting themselves as largesse, doling out, donating and so on, then it takes out the element of Accountability, because: I’m giving you a present!  You can’t question me!  And as they say: You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.   So you can not be saying: Well, you know, actually Governor, we would have preferred that you fund the judiciary properly, that you  build courts and so on.  And this is the question that I think that … I mean there may be things that are delivered  but that doesn’t mean to say that there is Accountability: what brings accountability is transparency.  So I think that State Governments – not merely in response to the COVID-19 crisis – but as we go forward, they need to be open about their …  and you’ll remember that BudgIT had done a … an analysis about which states had given the full details of their budgets, and those states – which include the state in which we are – which had not!

AgO: Very true, very true.

AO: So I think that there’s still a bit of an Accountability gap, and where there’s an Accountability gap, then there has to be an Integrity and Ethics gap, because really, we don’t know whether they are being honest with our money or not.  And if that is supposed to be Accountability in a Democracy, then I think that there is still quite a long way for some State Governments to go.

AgO: We don’t have so much more time any more, but we’ll take this last one, Ayo, and this, with respect to what is going on with … civil society and the people, especially with Governors who have acted in ways that has left more to be desired … in how they’ve handled the Coronavirus and the restrictions.  They set up their own rules and standards, lifted up the restrictions, even when they didn’t go past the bar.  What’s your response to that?

AO: Well I don’t know if you know, you remember Aghogho, but this programme is actually funded through a grant administered by the Centre for Information Technology and Development, and it is based in Kano State.  And quite frankly, when the Kano State Government was coming up with this: “We don’t know, mystery disease” and so on, the civil society in Kano State had to rise up and challenge the Governor that: This is not good enough.  That you cannot be pretending not to know what is happening.  So I think that civil society has definitely …  definitely has its role to play, and they’ve been helping with the distribution of palliatives and also, with the monitoring of how the palliatives are being distributed.  But it’s not … we should never say that because civil is playing its role, that State Governors, or State Governments are absolved of their own obligations to account to the people.

AgO: Alright, thank you very much Ayo Obe.

AO: So thank you Aghogho.

AgO: Alright.  IDEAS comes up this time every Friday and Ayo will be with us next week again, and we can look at many of those issues.  Don’t forget, if you’ve got questions for Ayo, we’d take them up on WhatsApp as well as on Ayo’s Twitter handle @ideasradiong as well as @naijama.  Alright Ayo, thank you.

AO: Ok, bye bye, Thank you.