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Special Report: Stealing from the poor

The Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development has distributed palliatives to residents in Kwali Area Council, Abuja (15 July 2020)

By Achike Chude

President Buhari’s broadcast to the nation on 13 May 2020 enumerated wide-ranging efforts to contain the pandemic and offer Nigerians more respite as they strove to cope with everyday challenges brought about by the pandemic, then in its third month. They included:

  1. An expansion of the number of house-holds that would benefit from the direct distribution of food/ cash by FGN from 2.6 million households to 3.6 million households;
  • His directive to key ministries of the government –  Ministries of Industry, Trade and Investment, Communication and Digital Economy, Science and Technology, Transportation, Aviation, Interior, Health, Works and Housing, Labour and Employment and Education – to jointly develop a comprehensive policy for a “Nigerian economy functioning with COVID-19” (the “policy”). The joint effort of the ministries will be supported by the Presidential Economic Advisory Council and Economic Sustainability Committee; and 
  • His directive to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, the National Security Adviser, the Vice Chairman, National Food Security Council and the Chairman, Presidential Fertilizer Initiative to work with the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 to ensure the impact of the pandemic on 2020 farming season is minimized.

But soon, aspects of these objectives were mired in controversy as accusations of diversion of the Covid-19 relief materials and funding began to make the rounds. Across the nation,  some of the people who went to get their own share of palliatives (food items) ended up taking pictures and videos of large crowds of people pushing and fighting to get at the ‘very miserable’ palliative being offered by their governments.

The large crowds of desperate citizens were clear violation of the Covid-19 safety protocol. Many suspected that much of the palliatives had met with ‘various accidents’ on the road. The same scenario played out at the federal level as there was general skepticism about the nature, scope, and spread of the distribution of food materials and funds to beneficiaries.

But there were new, dangerous socio-economic realities that were emerging following the clamp down on movements and economic activities following the lock down order in some parts of the country, most especially Lagos and Ogun states. This phenomenon, also an existential issue, threatened to relegate Covid-19 to the background.

Security had become a matter of serious concern as notorious armed groups such as the ‘Awawa Boy’s  and the ‘One Million Boys’, perhaps driven by a much greater hunger for food and money began to attack the suburbs of Ogun and Lagos states. They became so brazen in their attacks that they sometimes wrote advance warnings to frightened victims before they struck in the dark hours of the night.

The police authorities mobilized and swore that they would curb the criminality and smash their activities. There was palpable fear that stretched beyond the places of attacks and armed robbery to other parts of Lagos. But before the police action got underway, something beautiful and unexpected happened. Residents and house owners decided that they would not be woken up in their beds by criminals and armed robbers. They mobilized themselves across streets and communities.

Citizen security network

It first started in the suburbs and very quickly spread to the metropolis. Every night they were up and about, working shifts. This was a duty for the young men, and they did not disappoint as nightly bonfires lit up the streets, nearly turning them into day.

The only major downside to this was that everybody in these communities, including children and the aged, sacrificed their peace and sleep to keep the terrors of the night at bay as the nightly bonfires were accompanied by a cacophony of noises deliberately generated by the youths as a warning to the would- be- invaders that they were ready, willing, and able to engage and overcome them.

As the young men did their thing, the women, young and old refused to be outdone. They kept up the spirit of resistance by providing the night watchmen with continuous supply of food and drinks. By the time the police joined the fray, a few clashes in a few locations between bandits and the ad-hoc community watchmen had sent a strong message to the marauders that the collective will of the people must be respected.

The bandits had taken a beaten and were on the retreat. Covid-19 had brought about an unpleasant social situation but the people had responded beautifully.

Government vs. the people

As for the government functionary who died in service of his motherland, the uniqueness of his passing lay in the almost unparalleled and contradictory responses to his death. It was strange and tragic that while a segment of the society mourned his loss, quite a number of Nigerians rejoiced. Social media was the major culprit in this regard.

In Africa, rejoicing over the untimely death of anybody is unsavory and unwholesome – an anathema. We do not speak ill of the dead. But things had changed over the years in Africa. A new generation of hopeful young people and a disappointed old generation were tired of the continent’s inability to get it right in the midst of abundant material, natural, and human resources.

Nigeria’s Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Hajiya Sadiya Farouq

The anger with the demised government functionary was not directed at him but at his social and political class that could not rise above mediocrity and parochialism to build their nation. They were also angry that for years the healthcare infrastructure in the country remained essentially moribund while government officials went abroad on health pilgrimages at government expense to take care of ailments as mild as headaches and cough. It is precisely because of this, the people reasoned, that Covid-19 found the country completely unprepared for a catastrophe as bad as the coronavirus.

So, why has the virus not decimated Africa as was greatly feared ab-initio because of the continent’s self-inflicted shortcomings in its healthcare infrastructure, especially given that in recent times people especially in Nigeria have become less cautious and more skeptical about the virus?

Nobody seems to know the reason, not even those experts in Europe who made dire warnings about Africa’s deficits. Some have talked perhaps out of ignorance about the continent’s weather as a possible causative factor. Others have talked about a possible natural immunity of the average African, built or gotten over many years of toil and difficulties. Nobody knows, but what we do know is that we are glad that the unfortunate ravages done to Europe and America by this invasive and destructive force of nature seemed to have lost its bite in Africa.

Going forward, while acknowledging Africa’s luck thus far, we must remember an old African adage that says that ‘we must look for the black goat in the day time before it gets dark’. The coronavirus is not the first pandemic and will not be the last. A stitch in time saves nine: it’s time to rebuild our healthcare infrastructure.

Achike Chude is a writer, novelist and civil society activist

This report is made possible with the support of Google’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund (JERF)

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