By Edward T. Dibiana
Nothing in recent history has brought governments across the world to their knees as COVID-19 pandemic has done in a few months. The global health crisis has not only exposed the fragility of government institutions and their pathetic inadequacies, it has also, underscored the economic vulnerability of world population, especially in a developing country as Nigeria.
In fact, President Mohammadu Buhari, has described the global impact as a “leveler between the developed and developing world”.
The effect is particularly biting in Nigeria. With huge unemployment challenges and nonexistent social security programme, the resultant widespread poverty exposes the underbelly of a country grappling with a population in precarious social and economic conditions.
The pandemic is also casting critical light on the opaque and insensitive manner some officials conduct government businesses in a democracy that ought to encourage openness, responsibility and responsiveness, to ensure trust between government and the citizenry.
Such insensitivity played out recently, when the Minister of Health, Osagie Ehanire and other members of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 met with the leadership of the House of the Representatives, over the pandemic. Ehanire was asked by the Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila about the hazard allowances of the Doctors on the frontline. The minister’s shocking response was: “I don’t know; I’m not aware”. When queried further, an obviously irritated minister said that the doctors weren’t doing any special duties outside the routine job they were doing before the pandemic, implying that they probably don’t deserve any special allowance or incentive for the risk they take on the frontline in the battle against the dangerous virus.
A very disappointed Gbajabiamila was livid in scolding Ehanire, “you dropped the ball, minister, you just dropped the ball for saying that”.
The video clip of that altercation instantly went viral and Nigerians overwhelmingly agreed with Gbajabiamila that the Health Minister embarrassingly, “dropped the ball”, for his insensitivity, poor judgment, lackadaisical leadership trait and seeming lack of interest in the welfare of the workforce under him.
The same Ehanire gleefully received the Chinese doctors at the airport on their controversial arrival in Nigeria over COVID19 mission and later denied knowledge of their whereabouts, claiming that there were not government guests.
That critical intervention was one of the rare high points of Speaker Gbajabiamila and the institution of the House of the Representatives under his leadership, since they came into office a year ago. That incident expectedly won him admirers.
But curiously, whatever goodwill Gbajabiamila and the House won as a result of that incident, they squandered few days later when the Speaker and two other reps co-sponsored a quarantine bill, entitled: “Control of Infectious Diseases, 2020”, and took steps to expedite its passage without adequate consultations with stakeholders, in a manner that raised questions over the true objectives of the bill.
The inexplicable insistence on passing the bill in spite of public outrage eroded public trust and threw the further into controversy. Their actions elicited public outrage for obvious reasons. One, the bill contains some provisions that would impinge on the fundamental human rights of the people. The speed with which it went through 1st and 2nd readings, made the intent and interests behind the bill suspicious. The bill was also found to be a plagiarized version of a Singapore’s Infectious Diseases Act of 1977. Plagiarism is a crime of intellectual theft. And a lawmaking institution shouldn’t be seen as an enabler of any form crime.
The extent of the plagiarism was so much that it attracted international attention. The Times, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, on Monday, May 18, 2020, did an article on it which it captioned: “Nigeria copies and pastes new laws from Singapore”. The paper went further to state in the article that Gbajabiamila’s version “repeatedly delete Singapore, type in Nigeria… The crunching of the document through anti-plagiarism software confirmed Nigeria’s new coronavirus-fit legislation to be 98 per cent the same as the Asian original written 43 years ago”! What a feat!
Aside this embarrassing low point, several observers have expressed reservations in the content and intent of the bill, especially as regards noticeable inconsistencies with the provisions of the Nigerian constitution and apparent lack of adequate consultation, in order to carry critical stakeholders along, since representation democracy draws its legitimacy from the people.
For instance, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, the Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), who appears not to have been consulted, had suggested that such bill is premature especially coming in the middle of a crisis.
Ihekweazu said, “To be honest, I saw the bill just like everyone else, circulating on social media. I take it in a good way. I’m personally not in favour of drafting a bill in the middle of a crisis. I think we need to get over the crisis and use the momentum to engage with all stakeholders to come up with a bill that will really serve this country.”
A civil rights advocate, Samson Itodo, said this about the bill, “I joined a meeting of CSO leaders and the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the National Assembly to discuss legislative response to #COVID19NIGERIA, human rights and the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill. We highlighted citizens concerns with the bill such as threats to human rights and abuse of power; ambiguity and lack of clarity; interagency conflict and jurisdictional rivalries; and lack of public scrutiny, stakeholder review, and engagement.”
Also in a joint statement over the controversial bill, 65 civil organizations groups, stated, “Any legislative process that does not guarantee the active and free participation of the people fails in its purpose and will not be accepted.”
The positions of these rights advocates are in agreement with the submission of a Nigerian writer, Obi Nwakanma, in an earlier article about leadership in a democracy, “The promise of democracy itself is not just that it makes prosperity attainable, but that citizens feel themselves direct participants in the ways that they are governed. That they send representatives who listen to them; who do not impose their will, or act beyond the legitimate authority that defines the consent of the governed.
A similar call was made by the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (a group of all the state governors in the 36 states of Nigeria, led by Gov. Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti state), that the House should step down the bill to allow for more consultations. But Speaker Gbajabiamila and the House in a bizarre statement by the House spokesman, Hon. Ben Kalu, singled out the governor of Sokoto state Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, for personal bashing, accusing him of “misleading the NGF for his biased position” against Gbajabiamila in a past speakership election in the House. The House subsequently rejected his inclusion in the NGF committee to interface with the committee of the House to address the COVID-19 issues, before the Chairman of NGF, Fayemi, intervened. Tambuwal was a former Speaker of the House.
This strange undemocratic act of the House under Gbajabiamila, of attempt to impose personal will on the people, unwillingness to accommodate alternative opinions and petty recourse to fighting personal battle with public institution of democracy, questions the temperament and belief of the House in the principles and norms of democracy. By that action, Gbajabiamila and the House, just like Health Minister Ehanire, also “dropped the ball” when proper leadership was expected.
This avoidable leadership inconsistency, many believe, accounts for citizens’ lack of trust in government. For instance, when recently the federal government, through the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, announced that it had reached out to over three million Nigerians, among the “poorest of the poor”, with N20,000 each as palliative under government’s Conditional Cash Transfer programme, to cushion the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown, many received the news with cynicism, apparently because of the less than transparent manner the programme is allegedly being managed by those charged with the responsibility.
Not only was the selection process for the beneficiaries clouded by allegations of absence of equity, fairness and justice, the supervising Minister, Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouq, declined to make public the names of the beneficiaries in order to ensure the integrity of the programme, in spite of public outcry over allegations of malfeasance over the programme. Not even request by the National Assembly for full disclosure swayed her.
Her reasons; “Some of the beneficiaries wouldn’t want their names published in order to preserve their dignity”!
That flimsy assertion runs contrary to the realities on the streets of Nigerian communities. The real vulnerable poor are not likely to care about their names being disclosed while in the jaws of hunger. Minister Farouq and Nigerian government should know that.
Such gory human conditions of the very poor litter every neighborhood in Abuja, including Mabushi – a community that houses some key Federal Ministries such as Environment, Power, Works & Housing. Mabushi community is also a junkyard of human nightmare, encircled by fancy residential estates and government offices.
Since the pandemic the true poorest of the poor roam the streets of this neighborhood in search of morsels of food in this Madam Minister’s Abuja.
The look on the famished and anxious faces of these people is always troubling with sunken eyes that tell sad stories of hunger, fear, deprivation, uncertainty and emptiness.
The manifestations are mostly on women, some elderly of about 75 years and above. Tired, weak and sickly, they wait on the streets for their next meal. Some are nursing mothers with their malnourished children clinging on them.
In a humane democracy, such vulnerable people, constitute the reason for the institution of government. It is the duty of the government to protect them. But the situation here is different. So it is unlikely that government captured the data of these suffering nursing mothers and their elderly, weak and tired Mabushi destitute teammates, or those of millions of their ilk, across the nation, in any database for meaningful economic/social planning. But it is not impossible to find such names in voters register!