Private organizations, religious groups, and the government are working together for the first time in 21 years of democracy. All it took was a global pandemic.

The Lagos State Government launched an 80-bed isolation center at Landmark, Oniru. Photo Credit: Babajide Sanwo-Olu

On the 18th of March 2020, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was aired on national television, and in a nationwide broadcast to the German people she uttered the words: “Since World War II, there has never been a challenge for our country in which acting in solidarity was so very crucial.” No other statement could be more precise to capture the effects of the COVID-19 on Europe. In less than three months, not a single shot had been fired, but over one hundred thousand people were dead worldwide. The economic numbers that are showing up on country statistics are the same people saw in 1917, just before the first World War. The World Health Organization listed COVID-19 as a global pandemic.

Nigeria is not new to pandemics. Two people die every four hours through road accidents, and half of Nigeria’s youth population (over 80million people) are without jobs. The country has been fighting against an Islamist insurgency for over ten years, a group that has killed over 6,000 people. Health-related mortality rates are also staggering — Malaria alone kills over 25,000 people every month, a Lassa fever outbreak since January has killed almost 200 people, and one in every three Nigerians do not have access to clean water.

On the 27 of February 2020, the Nigerian government announced that a case of the coronavirus — a virus caused by the SARS-CoV-2 had been detected in Lagos state. An Italian citizen in Lagos for a short consultation had tested positive for the virus. The growing fears of a spread of the virus if stricter measures were not put in place, led Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to make a nationwide broadcast which instructed an immediate quarantine for three major states (Abuja, Lagos, and Ogun) — states that are home to almost 30 million people. Several other states immediately took this as a cue and the whole country went into a full lock-down.

Nigeria had been expecting the virus. In January this year, the World Health Organization listed the country alongside 13 other African countries identified as ‘high-risk’ locations for the spread of the virus.

A government of necessity

This is also not the first time an epidemic has hit Nigeria. The HIV epidemic was documented to have hit almost 3.5million Nigerians, a position that more recent data contradicts. In July 2014 Forty-year-old Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian-American civil servant on a business trip to Nigeria, reportedly collapsed upon arrival at Lagos’ main airport. Nigerian authorities first downplayed the risk of exposure, then later confirmed that the man was diagnosed to have contacted the Ebola virus and had come into contact with at least 70 people.

Nigeria’s problems are multi-pronged. An inherited civil service built more on governance simulation than actual problem-solving functions, a history of toxic religious, regional and ethnic politics, and an incompatible legal system copied verbatim from English common law have all combined to leave Nigeria’s public and private systems crippled and severely in need of reforms. One author, Richard Dowden described the situation as a failed country that works.

For the first time in this country’s democracy however, the coronavirus has forced her to survive on her own. One truth has been made clear: government coordination is essential to the delivery of governance to the people, and the coronavirus has made this impossible to ignore. The government’s response to the coronavirus has shown a new approach to dealing with national problems, and hopefully, they can take these forward.

Raising Funds — The spread of the coronavirus came at a time of huge economic downturns for Nigeria. The country was going broke with too many debts to service. Crude oil, Nigeria’s main source of revenue dropped significantly and left Nigeria below its annual budget. Early in March, the Nigerian Senate approved a request from President Muhammadu Buhari to borrow $22.7 billion from external creditors to finance infrastructure projects. In the wake of COVID-19 expansion, funds are unlikely to be forthcoming from these creditors. Every other country of the world is realizing that beating the virus will be a waiting game — one that will also be expensive to manage.

To respond to these economic challenges, the Nigerian government has had to look inwards. Through a combination of tactics that include cutbacks, donations, requests, and alleged strong-arming, it raised a total of 15billion naira (roughly $42million) by April 1, just as the country was going into a two-week lock-down. Amidst this, pledges that could result in a huge cut down in the cost of governance by legislators. This means large government offices running on fuel, diesel, drivers, security, power, and the internet will be inactive. This could also mean the possibility that monies which have been going into wasteful conduits — such as the salaries of Nigerian legislators — could be repurposed towards actual live-saving acts of governance.

Managing Information — Nigeria’s ethnic and religious diversity has been both a blessing and a curse. The first and biggest task for the government was managing information.

Religious leaders of the two main religions in the country are highly politicized and often contradict government directives. Churches and mosques refused to close in the beginning. An Izala sect leader in Plateau State, Sheikh Sani Jingir preached to his followers that the coronavirus was a ploy from the West on Nigerian Muslims, and renowned pastor Apostle Suleiman called on people not to take vaccines (if they arrive) because in his words: ‘some superpowers somewhere would infect them with the COVID-19 disease’.

In Katsina state, northern Nigeria, youths took to the street to protest the government’s social distancing instruction after an Imam was arrested for still organizing the Friday congregational prayers. US President Donal Trump’s announcement of Chloroquine as a possible treatment drug for COVID-19 led to a nationwide frenzy in Nigeria and shops sold-out most of their Chloroquine ignoring expert advice that the drug could have adverse effects. Lastly, the rise of the 5G technology ironically led to severe debates as to if this was responsible for the coronavirus.

Each of these events has required a massive amount of public orientation through information where the government has leveraged public service announcements through television and radio, including mobile technology and Social Media. The results of those efforts have been positive: most religious organizations and leaders back-peddled. The National Centre for Disease Control, Nigeria’s key forerunner against the virus went further to become more active on social media — it now maintains an active and responsive WhatsApp and Telegram account, taking inquiries and answering coronavirus related health concerns. Much of the disinformation has been curbed. Nearly all communities have become aware of the virus, and are equipped with enough information to slow its spread.

Inter-agency coordination — Before the era of international diseases, it was rare to see the Ministry of Health in any form of coordination with the Ministry of Aviation or any other ministry in Nigeria. Some agencies run duplicative services and often clash with one another. The rise of COVID-19 has seen greater inter-agency coordination.

More coordination like never before is happening now. Guarantee Trust Bank is working hand in hand with the National Center for Disease Control to rapidly build isolation centers. CBN is giving loans directly to small businesses to help sustain them in the wake of the virus. The Nigerian Police Force is working hand in hand with the National Centre for Disease Control, FCTA, the Ministry of Health, National Emergency Management Agency and the Ministry of Information to keep Abuja safe.

All of these efforts are not responsible for the low cases in Nigeria. It is still unclear why there are fewer cases of the virus across Africa and fewer deaths in general. But these forms of coordination are historically the bedrock of how nations deliver governance to their citizens, and Nigeria is only fully beginning to enforce them in the wake of the coronavirus.

Abuja, a city under self-governance

In Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, one of Africa’s wealthiest cities and the administrative capital of the seventh most populous country in the world, everything and everyone have become silent. A full government lock-down in place — transportation in and out of the city has been restricted, airports, bus parks, markets, and stores have been closed. All that is left at the city center are chained shops, security check-points, empty roads, silent streets, and the average daily weather of 37 degrees.

Sirens can be heard occasionally running around the cities. Key government departments have been kept active such as the Ministry of Health, the Nigerian Police Force, and the National Centre of Disease Control. The Nigerian government relaxed the curfew after one week, stating that people could move around for food, drugs, and essential services from 10 am to 2 pm.

Abuja is largely insulated from the rest of Nigeria. The highest cases of the virus have been Abuja’s elite area of Maitama. The virus’s ecosystem has been international travelers, politicians, big business people — largely picked up at the airports — low-income communities were initially shielded from it, except through gaps like Uber/Taxify riders. In communities like Bwari, Maraba, and Lugbe, government presence is significantly low, and many of the residents take strolls to friends, family members, and nearby bars. The social distancing policies and full lock-down aren’t in effect in these places. All everyone talks about is when the coronavirus will end.

People are finding ways to make things work. EBEANO Supermarket, located 16 kilometers from the city center is using WhatsApp to reach out to take orders from customers. Public stores have people in lines wearing masks over their faces waiting for turns to go into supermarkets for food and essential goods. This is a problem. Abuja has an estimated population of more than 2.4 million — up from about 800,000 people in 2006 when the last census was taken. It also hosts the headquarters of all government parastatals, agencies, commissions — as well as private organizations, all drifting into the city in the hopes of proximity to political power. The city center serves as the nation’s administrative capital of Nigeria and is made alive by hundreds of daily government and private business conferences, workshops, seminars, administrative activities, press briefings, political rallies, and academic conferences. It is also the home of Nigeria’s expatriate community and accommodates almost all the embassy staff of countries in a relationship with Nigeria. On the social side, Abuja alone records that over three hundred marriages are conducted monthly.

The effects are equally disturbing in other large cities. Lagos is home to over 20million people and doubles as the most vibrant economic hub in Africa. Three weeks after the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in Lagos, three cases of the virus were confirmed in Abuja. It only took one week after this for the government to decide on a lock-down of the major cities affected. In truth, Nigeria was expecting the virus. The Federal Government, working with airline authorities, had strengthened surveillance across five of Nigeria’s international airports, and a committee had been set up to oversee these activities. But the lock-down still came with severe national implications.

Death by virus or death by hunger?

A handout image made available by the Nigerian State House shows the Nigerian president sitting beside his Chief of Staff Abba Kyari [File: Sunday Aghaeze/AFP]

Nigerian’s welcomed the government’s decision to take extreme steps to curb the virus. There were frantic calls to the government from civil rights activists, Social Media Influencers, and NGO’s to the Nigerian government to stop flights into the country. Since the virus broke out in Nigeria, almost 900 Nigerians have tested positive for the COVID-19, and 28 people have died. That’s quite precisely a 3% death rate.

But more Nigerians earn their living by the day. After two weeks of being locked indoors and being unable to carry out relevant economic activities, economic implications are becoming clearer. Citizens are becoming increasingly worried that if this lock-down continues, they will no longer be able to feed themselves.

“I work for my food every day. By next week I will be broke. It is either I go outside to look for money and die by Corona, or I stay inside the house and die by hunger.” — Emeka 31.

The Nigerian government, like many countries of the world, has shown that it is possible to keep over 200million people under lock-down. The danger is for how long this can go on without a viable solution. In Delta state Southern Nigeria, security operatives working to keep the lock-down have had skirmishes with local youths. One youth is reported to have been killed by a soldier who harassed him for breaking out of isolation.

In Akwa Ibom, Mike 33, reports that last week four armed men stormed into his parent’s supermarket in the state capital, tied up his both parents, and loaded the truck they came in with food supplies from their supermarket before driving away. In Lagos, gang violence is on the increase. Theft, robberies, and organized crimes have forced the government to send reinforcements to Lagos. The best summary of what will become the coming weeks is when Samuel 29, said:

People will start disobeying the government. You cannot keep everyone in hunger and expect them to stay that way.”

Moving forward

Two weeks have passed since the initial national quarantine. Four days after the coronavirus lockdown extension, Nigeria’s Chief of Staff, and close friend of President Muhammadu Buhari, passed away. He tested positive for the coronavirus on the 24th of March. The government has beefed up security in the Federal Capital to maintain nationwide isolation. Mobile courts are spread around the capital city of Abuja to restrict movement. Efforts to contain the virus are up and running.

There will be increased economic pressure on the country. Unlike most countries in the global north, countries in the global south cannot afford to cease social and economic activities. At some point, even the Nigerian government will be unable to support itself economically.

International trade has ceased, and major income sources for the government are down. The aviation sector, a regular source of income from local and foreign airline operators has been grounded as there is no longer anyone traveling. The Nigerian customs service has also seized operations with the ban on the local, interstate, and international importations. Income to the immigration service for ex-pats and foreign companies has been stopped, and as companies aren’t operating, there’s no one to collect taxes from. Tourism, even low in the past, has totally ended, and crude oil — Nigeria’s main source of revenue has been at its lowest international rate ever. All these are signals of harsher economic challenges on the horizon.

But none of these realities will be as distressing as civil unrest and hunger. The next six months are the most crucial. So far, national coordination has helped greatly, but more can be done.

Wealth & Food Distribution — The government palliative programs which is enabling the distribution of money, food, and medical supplies has kicked off, there are concerns about the approach that this is taking and complains that unregistered citizens (a large number of Nigerians are still without BVN) will be left out.

Food supply chains will have to be supported as food will start to dwindle at some point. Cities will be hit the hardest. Some of the states in the north-central have not begun to test, nor do they have isolation centers. Lagos and Abuja have begun to adjust, Kano, Kaduna and other North-Central states are likely to be hit hard by a supply chain breakdown.

Nigeria’s lower class is largely people in communities far from city centers. These communities are also incidentally mostly isolated from each other and this will help against the virus spreading faster. But fertilizers, water supply, and seed distributions should be part of the government’s plans.

Economic & Social Activities — The enforced social distancing approach is medically sound. The advice to use masks and stay at home is also without blemish. What the government isn’t looking at however is the sustained long term effects of these new adjustments. At some point, people will have to come out: Anti-lockdown protests are happening in the US. In Malawi, citizens are saying that hunger will kill them before the virus, and the judiciary is battling against the government over its right to put the country in a lock-down.

More people will become restless and need to go out. Government coordination can begin to make adjustments that will allow people to move around. Closing cities from each other, while allowing them to maintain their regular economic activities will be a better direction.

In a nutshell, it is possible to survive the effects of the COVID-19, and as with all encounters with diseases, lose some essential part of what Nigeria is. But this is also a time for internal change, and it is possible to win the battle against our own share of the global pandemic.

*Tahiru Sherriff is a freelance journalist, researcher, and columnist, with a focus on public policy, inclusive governance, and social change. He writes from Abuja, Nigeria.