Covid-19: Nigeria Must Avert Systemic Collapse

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In one week Africa garnered a 43% jump in its Covid-19 cases. These numbers are relative to Nigeria despite her recorded numerical being low. Nigeria’s low infection and fatalities are loss leaders. They correlate her a rather huge testing gap; limited contact tracing, and voluntary acknowledgement of infections. Policymakers must bear these worrying facts in mind. Our national response must henceforth be robust as Nigeria’s pandemic exponential surge has commenced. To mitigate the scope of fatalities, Nigeria’s leadership must recalibrate, seek bi-partisan measures and act boldly to avert a possible systemic collapse. Policy, partisan and ideological pussyfooting will not serve the collective national interest. 

For Nigeria, the unfolding narrative and concrete realities are not comforting. Because this is a global pandemic that affects almost every nation big or small, there is no rescue mission coming to Nigeria. This is a hard and grim fact. Thus Nigeria’s solution to this crisis, now twinned with the collapse of the global oil market, must be homegrown. Regrettably, as a nation, we remain ill-prepared and ill-equipped to grapple with the twin disaster, characterized by some as ‘the perfect storm.’  

Prospective high fatalities aside, the Covid-19 pandemic has unfathomable national security implications for Nigeria. It will push Nigeria’s so-called “poorest of the poor” well beyond the desperate poverty threshold. If that happens, the ripple effect might include the triggering uncontrollable civil disobedience and food riots. The latter could predicate and also precipitate inconceivable get-even reprisals from long disenfranchised masses against the national elite. One possible tripwire besides hunger-driven-anger will be further extra-judicial killings by security operatives while enforcing lockdowns.

Efforts by Federal and State governments to combat the pandemic have been as salutary as they have been disjointed and compartmentalized. Oddly, the Organized Private Sector’s CACOVID framework has beaten its narrow path. For efficacy, CACOVID should have adopted modalities used by the Dangote/Agbakoba 2012 Flood Disaster Committee. The overarching reality is that Nigeria’s laggardly response proves her lack of a national resilience strategy, despite her 2014-2015 Ebola experience. A holistic approach was needed from the onset. It did not happen. Some federal politicos and bureaucrats felt it was business as usual. Hence related policies were transaction-driven and disbursements under the SIP framework skewed by partisan considerations. There were other hindering factors.

First, the FGN made a huge mistake in failing to carry along the 36 states. Second, while some states were proactive, others waited to be ‘bottle-fed’ or ‘spoon-fed’ by federal authorities. Third, was the FGN’s failure to disburse mitigation fund early to the 36 federating units and its sectionalizing of the disbursement of N2trn palliatives. Fourth, the FGN lost sight of commonsensical measures; that ‘prevention is better than cure’ and ‘a stitch in time saves nine.’ So as much as the FGN focused on the core affected states, it failed to shield unaffected states by ignoring the fact that the coronavirus being invisible and nimble with trans-boundary capacity, with eventually spread. That being said, each state with an Executive Governor ought to be fiscally independent and viable.  

As variously suggested the FGN still needs to “walk back her Covid-19 response strategy.” If we don’t change our national palliatives (cash & food) distribution strategy, we will upend extant Covid-19 mitigation measures. Locking down 36 states without giving out palliatives will be putting the horse before the cart. It will be a recipe for disaster. As of 24 April 2020, Nigeria’s Covid-19 numerical stood at 981 infections and 31 deaths. Meanwhile, most of the 36 states of Nigeria seem to believe they are prepared for the Covid-19 onslaught. They are not. Any such assumptions will in time prove delusional as evidenced by the exponential infection rate in Kano State from zero to 73 in one day. FGN and NCDC remain seemingly blind to the census of asymptomatic carriers. They are also oblivious of the cumulative R-Value; the number of people being infected daily by unidentified infected persons. The unseen and undocumented numbers are at least ten times published infected and death figures and rising by the hour. Sadly, most Nigerians continue to exhibit a false sense of security by not observing mitigation measures responsibly.

Under auspices of Nigeria’s Governors Forum (NGF), the 36 Governors recently agreed to a two-week interstate spread-mitigation lockdown, albeit belated. Their decision is confirmation of the troubling scope of a huge national testing gap, and that partial lockdown and voluntary social distancing are not working optimally. It also affirms that FGN social palliative intervention remains egregiously skewed and dysfunctional. This reality underpins that before the envisaged national lockdown; we need to institute a nationwide palliative intervention, using the 36 States, 774 Local Governments and innumerable community structures. 

The scope of the unfolding challenge will be further compounded by limited financial and testing, mitigation, and therapeutic resources. Nigeria’s present challenges will be further compounded by national revenue from oil sales have just tanked. Her Bonny light oil is selling at $12 per barrel and no one is buying. Recently the FGN drew $150m from the Sovereign Wealth Fund leaving a balance of $210m, with the Excess Crude Account at $72.2m, and the badly depleted External reserves now at $33.9bn. Invariably, even as FAAC doled out N780.9bn to the three tiers of government this week; henceforth the FGN and States will be fiscally challenged. This lack of buoyancy may turn to insolvency. 

Here are the upshot and some plausible emergent scenarios in weeks ahead. Along with the pandemic, a conjunction of circumstances has placed corporate Nigeria at grave risk. Indeed, after many years of policy and governance missteps, Nigeria’s moment of reckoning seems to have arrived. Without being alarmist, if Nigerian authorities fail to handle the pandemic proactively henceforth, she risks a systemic collapse in the near term; that will mean a restructuring of sorts by default. 

We confront a complicated balance in the various measures to pursue. Nigeria’s Covid-19 spread will spiral upwards exponentially. Communal and institutional (prisons and IDP camps) infection outbreaks and death rates will rise. Since most Covid-19 related deaths will not be recorded, absent prior testing, national fatalities will continue to be under-reported. Federal and State authorities can anticipate further busting of the Covid-19 lockdown regime nationwide, protestations, possible food riots and related banditry and upheavals. Federal and State funding for Covid-19 response will taper and competition for scarce funding indescribably steep. Monthly FAAC allocations to States and LGs will be drastically reduced. Only states with up to 90 days savings will go unscathed. We can anticipate FGN-States’ relations to be strained. 

Meanwhile, FGN must also take some urgent interim public health measures, while contemplating the longer-term socioeconomic impact of Covid-19. FGN should devolve Covid-19 response to the States while retaining oversight responsibilities. Both FGN and States must in partnership continue to identify, trace, isolate and treat those already infected while pushing for broader testing at the state-level; ramping up masking, and making it mandatory nationally. Marginalized Nigerian scientists should be pulled into the technical response outreach fray. The Presidential Task Force (PTF) should pool available resources -N500bn stimulus package; N20bn CACOVID donations; the balance of the SIP interventions and External UN/EU/World bank donations all estimated more than N600bn – into a single treasury account. Of these, the 36 states should be allotted N2bn each immediately, as a confidence-building measure, for Covid-19 response and grassroots outreach and palliatives. 

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*Obaze is MD/CEO, Selonnes Consult – a policy, governance and management consulting firm in Awka.

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