Leadership in a Time of COVID-19

The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi, Email: olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com

The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi, Email: olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com


Despite the fact that Nigeria recorded its first index case of COVID-19 on 27th February and five new cases yesterday, (eight in all), President Muhammadu Buhari is yet to personally take ownership of a crisis that has already sent the 2020 budget spinning like a yoyo. A barrel of crude is now selling at $29 against the budget benchmark of $57 at a period when there is no buffer (the Excess Crude Account has been depleted to $71 million) and the exchange rate of Naira is on another free fall. But the president continues to act as if our country is insulated from a pandemic that has practically turned our world upside down. Meanwhile, on the continent, the Presidents of South Africa, Ghana, Rwanda and several others are rallying their people and placing their authority behind measures to deal with the global emergency in their respective countries.

Let’s be clear here. In situations like this, precipitate actions may be unhelpful and exercising caution could be a positive virtue. But it is also true that in times like this, citizens look to their leader for reassurance. Yes, a presidential committee headed by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr Boss Mustapha, was inaugurated on Tuesday. Statements have also been issued by presidential aides in the past 21 days since the first index case was detected. The SGF has announced a ban on all forms of travel by public officers and civil servants until further notice; and restrictions on entry into the country by travellers from China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Japan, France, Germany, Norway, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Netherlands and Switzerland.

I applaud the federal government for finally responding to the crisis. But unusual times call for extraordinary measures. The president (or prime minister) in countries big and small are leading on this matter, providing assurances, making commitments, initiating actions. Without diminishing the office of the SGF, this crisis is beyond what he can handle. Even the American President, Mr Donald Trump who initially handed the assignment to Vice President Mike Pence has since taken charge. Yesterday, he tweeted: “The world is at war with a hidden enemy. We will win!”

There is a reason why the Number One citizen in every country is leading from the front on this crisis: Although it is a health challenge, the response chain to COVID-19, or any pandemic for that matter, usually cuts across several sectors. In Nigeria, for instance, there are institutions and officials in the response chain that do not report to the SGF. Only the presidency can ensure any meaningful coordination of efforts that must involve the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the aviation sector, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) and Governors of the 36 states, especially now that we hear of cases in Ekiti and Katsina States. Also, to guarantee essential supplies in a period of global emergency requires interventions from the highest authority. In a country of 200 million people, I understand we have less than a thousand test kits for Coronavirus. Chinese billionaire, Mr Jack Ma, has promised to send 100,000 face masks, 20,000 test kits and 1,000 medical use protective suits to each African nation. I hope someone has the presence of mind to take up the offer quickly.

There is a WhatsApp post going round credited to John Mabayoje, MD, a Nigerian-American who practices medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. On the Delta Airlines flight he boarded from Lagos to Atlanta at the weekend, Mabayoje claimed to have noticed many non-Nigerians at the check-in counter. Upon inquiry, a crew member reportedly told him “a lot of passengers from Europe are flying to Nigeria to catch Delta flights to the USA.” As he pointed out, “That is a serious lapse in our security. That means that people from high COVID-19 areas are transiting through Lagos using the e-Visa loophole designed to ease business travel and raise foreign currency. That is a ticking time bomb.”

Handling such a national security situation is beyond the remit of the SGF, even if what he exercises is delegated presidential authority. The COVID-19 pandemic is a most destructive force, the kind that we have never witnessed before in this generation. Yes, we successfully dealt with the Ebola crisis. But this is not Ebola. This is something much more. I have heard stories from friends and relations in the United Kingdom, United States and Canada of how essentials like water and toiletries are being rationed in malls, schools are sending their students home without completing the academic calendar, airlines are slashing prices of flights to ridiculous rates, streets are being deserted and there is a general climate of fear that has even deprived some of us the joy of watching football! As one writer aptly captured the situation on Bloomberg, “we are living through extraordinary times.”
Increasingly, President Buhari retreats from engaging with Nigerians at critical moments, and this is the main issue here; even though some of his supporters are trivializing the call for him to address the nation which the Senate joined yesterday. In January 2018, I wrote that the president “has most often looked aloof and distant when the occasion demanded that he be the consoler-in-chief. Yet, what Buhari and his handlers fail to appreciate is that whenever human emotions are exhibited in a leader, people take hope. A tear for the distressed, a sigh of contrition in moments of mistakes, one heartfelt utterance of genuine grief when people are hurting are some of the attributes of a genuine leader—it is not about taking all tidings with equal indifference, as Buhari does most times.”

On Monday, the president held a meeting with All Progressives Congress (APC) Governors on the crisis within his party. Is that more important than the health crisis that looms on the horizon and for which other leaders around the world are taking charge? Instructively, that meeting with APC Governors resolved a crisis that had lingered for several weeks, simply by virtue of his moral authority. Could the president not have held a similar meeting with critical stakeholders on the COVID-19 crisis? How inconvenient can a recorded short address to the nation be? What will that take away from him? In good and bad times, citizens need their president to speak to them directly, rejoice and sympathize with them, inspire and soothe them, guide and reassure them. No matter the amount of work put in behind the scenes, and irrespective of having competent hands in place, appearing aloof in moments of national emergency is indefensible for any leader.

On Tuesday, the Association of Resident Doctors (ARD), Abuja chapter, announced a “difficult decision” to proceed on an indefinite strike that could have profound implications on how we deal with this health emergency. Yesterday on Channels Television, the ANAP Foundation Chairman, Mr Atedo Peterside highlighted four factors that make Nigeria particularly vulnerable in this COVID-19 crisis: The high population density which makes social distancing difficult; our major income source has been badly hit by the collapse of oil prices; the healthcare delivery system is in shambles while the delays caused by the global supply chain disruptions are being exacerbated by the congestion in and around our inefficient ports. These are critical issues that demand more than a committee headed by the SGF to deal with. That is what the president must understand.

All said, we must acknowledge the work being done by the Federal Ministry of Health, the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Lagos State Ministry of Health. They are putting in a decent shift and they need our support and encouragement. As I wrote two weeks ago, the clear signal that has been delivered to Nigeria by Coronavirus, as with previous global epidemics, is that a nation of our demographic magnitude must remain on perennial alert for such public health emergencies in an interconnected world. And that requires leadership and comprehensive engagement. COVID-19 is a public health emergency on a scale never seen since after the Second World War. Dispatching presidential minions and taking uncoordinated piecemeal actions that fit into no strategy cannot be the way to go at a period when Nigerians need to be mobilized for the hard times that inevitably lie ahead.
It is possible that President Buhari is trying to manage expectations by heeding the admonition, “Be quick but don’t hurry” on this issue. But far too much is at stake for any form of complacency. Last week Wednesday in Abuja, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) Group Managing Director, Mr Mele Kyari warned that we should “prepare for trouble for at least three months” and that “nobody knows what is going to happen tomorrow.”

Under such a regime of uncertainty, which has now gone beyond the vagaries of oil prices to that of life and death, we need assurance from our president that all will be well. And he cannot do that by keeping silent on the threats posed to our country by the COVID-19 pandemic or outsourcing responsibility to the SGF. Since the buck stops at his desk, the president must seize the moment.

Still Playing with Fire
With the foul smell of PMS thick in the air, Engineer Sola Jaiyeola conducted us round some of the buildings, stopping a short distance from a nondescript house that was probably designed by a fisherman and constructed by a butcher. All bricks without either a window or an entrance door, it could jolly well have been a poultry coop but even chickens need ventilation. “You see that house there,” said Jaiyeola, “it is standing directly on our (NNPC) pipelines. You don’t see people there during the day though I learn it is occupied at night.”

As Jaiyeola spoke about what is clearly an organised crime in a suburb of Lagos that has itself become an environmental nightmare, another NNPC staff interjected: “Most of the houses here are either on NNPC pipelines or on our ‘right of way’. The Lagos state government is aware of all these but will do nothing until another fire erupts. Then (Governor Bola) Tinubu will go on television to abuse (President Olusegun) Obasanjo and NNPC. Just go to Ipaja, you will see sprawling buildings with high fence… and some of these buildings are just facilities built for scooping fuel.”
The foregoing was published 13 years ago, specifically on 17th January 2007, in the first part of a series titled, ‘Playing with Fire’. In the light of recent developments, nothing seems to have changed. On Sunday, there was an explosion at the Abule Ado area of Lagos State, following a gas explosion. No fewer than 15 persons were killed with scores of others injured. While we are yet to get a full account of what exactly happened, it is clear that most of the buildings in the area are on the NNPC ‘right of way’.

Aside the danger this poses to the safety of people who reside in these areas, the challenge we face in the country today dictates that we plug the loopholes being exploited by economic saboteurs. There is no greater one than the recurrent breakage of NNPC Pipelines, especially when the two that are most critical to the effective distribution of petroleum products in the country remain exposed. They are Systems 2B (Atlas Cove-Mosimi-Ibadan-Ilorin) and 2E (Port Harcourt-Aba-Enugu). These two systems have over the years been subjected to serious attacks by vandals, oil thieves and smugglers operating across the entire oil and gas value chain. This has led to high cost of operations due to frequent maintenance as well as declining revenue to huge losses associated with stealing of high volumes of crude oil and petroleum products. More importantly, hundreds of lives have been lost to these crimes.

While I intend to deal with the cost in human tolls another day, the economic cost is quite enormous and should worry all of us. From January to December 2019, according to figures from the NNPC, about 304.41 million litres of petroleum products were lost to the activities of vandals along system 2B alone while 25 PMS trucks of 33,000 litres capacity are stolen every day. These criminal gangs operating in system 2B axis work in collaboration with compromised NNPC employees and rogue elements within the security agencies. Of the 70.1 million litres lost to theft along system 2B in the last quarter of 2019, Atlas Cove/Mosimi/Satellite segment alone accounted for 63.31 million litres.

Along the same Systems 2B & 2E, no fewer than 446,635 number of 25 litres jerry cans, totalling 11 million litres of stolen PMS (and equivalent to 338 Tanker Trucks) were recovered last year. In the on-going demolition of shanties used by oil thieves along NNPC’s System 2B by the military, no fewer than 1,283 illegal structures have been dismantled. Also destroyed were 310 illegal petroleum product reservoirs connected to NNPC product pipeline along system 2B. An illegal refinery facility has also been recovered and destroyed with 23 boats and canoes conveying stolen crude oil for delivery to illegal refinery confiscated. 26 persons have been arrested, including a vandal with equipment used in siphoning crude oil from NNPC pipelines.

As I have argued in the past, the ease with which these vandals identify the pipelines buried in remote areas, sometimes six feet below the ground, is an indication of some expert knowledge. The confidence with which they have been operating also reveals that they definitely have powerful godfathers. The more fundamental questions are: Since this problem has persisted for years, why is it that no workable solution has been found? How come we have not attached a strategic importance to the pipelines such that there would be proper security monitoring?
In most countries, protection of pipelines is usually a security matter and is most often left for the military. In a situation of war with another country, pipelines are usually one of the first targets by the enemy and could make a difference between victory and defeat. That is why in military terms, it is a strategic asset. And until we see it that way, our oil and gas sector will continue to operate at the mercy of criminal gangs.

Sex for Grades and Coronavirus
In view of the uncertainties created by the coronavirus pandemic, I have decided to cancel the public presentation of my book, ‘NAKED ABUSE: Sex for Grades in African Universities’ earlier slated for 31st March. Yesterday, I reached out to Senator Daisy Danjuma who was to chair the event; the First Lady of Kaduna State, Mrs Hadiza Isma El-Rufai who was to present the book and the reviewer, Ms Maupe Ogun-Yusuf of Channels to explain and apologise. I have also contacted the Education Minister, Mallam Adamu Adamu and the First Lady of Ekiti State, Mrs Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi who wrote the book’s Foreword. Special appreciation to the Norwegian Ambassador, Mr Jens-Petter Kjemprud; the British High Commissioner, Mrs Catriona Laing, Senator Oluremi Tinubu and Mrs Yoyinsola Makanjuola. I regret cancelling the event but the timing is just not auspicious for a large gathering; in view of the complex health challenge we now deal with.

Given that the plan was to use the book presentation to open a conversation on the vexatious issue of sexual exploitation on the campuses of tertiary institutions in Africa, I did not take the decision lightly. Indeed, the gravity of the situation was recently brought to me by a friend. On a recent visit to a town in the South-west where a federal university is located, according to his account, a friend of his who teaches on the campus came to his hotel and reportedly told him: “I will send one of my female students to keep you company for the night. Since our pay is meagre, that is the only ‘fringe benefit’ we enjoy on this job.”

Even if we ignore the issue of treating young girls to whom the man has a duty of care like pleasure chattels and the obvious abuse of power in such sordid arrangement, the only way that lecturer can ‘reward’ those exploited female students is by upgrading their examination scores. We need to rid our campuses of such irresponsible male lecturers. That is the essence of writing the book, for which I received a research grant from the Ford Foundation. While the public presentation may have been cancelled, the book will still be released to the market on Tuesday 31st March as planned. There will be more details on this next week.

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