Beyond PMB’s COVID-19 Address and Nation-building: Self-survival versus Self-deceit Attitudes

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Muhammadu Buhari

By Bola A. Akinterinwa

President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) gave an address on the COVID-19 pandemic last week Sunday, 29th March, 2020, after a long national expectation. Many Nigerians, rightly or wrongly, believe that PMB is challenged by physical unfitness or by intellectual incapacity to always speedily attend to urgent national questions. However, his Special Adviser on Media Affairs, Femi Adesina, made strenuous efforts to debunk that type of perception by arguing that PMB’s approach is a ‘matter of style.’

And true enough, PMB himself has admitted to the observation that he is ‘Baba Go Slow,’ that is, ‘the old man who goes slowly.’ This means that the extent to which the able presidential spokesman can be faulted is limited. What is noteworthy, however, is that PMB eventually yielded to public pressure. He addressed coronavirus-related national issues with serious implications for national survival. Serious national questions must always warrant urgent attention as a desideratum, and must go beyond rationalisation of style.

When it is a matter of life and death, a good soldier must seek to kill his enemy first, before allowing himself to be killed by an enemy. COVID-19 has been universally acknowledged as the number one public enemy. PMB should, therefore, be commended for accepting to speak to his Fellow Nigerians on this public enemy. He did not speak vertically as Mr. President, but horizontally, as if he is at par with other nationals. It is from this perspective that the address is worth explicating within the framework of polemology and social science methodologies.

The speech, called an ‘address,’ and structured into 65 paragraphs, deals essentially with anti-COVID-19 measures already taken and to be undertaken. It sought the understanding and cooperation of all fellow Nigerians, and expressed sympathy to the families of those who had lost their lives. Even though many observers have not seen goodness in the speech, we strongly believe that the address still has a lot of merits. It was logically consistent. Relevant issues were addressed. It was written in plain language, but not presidentially delivered, which is not yet a big deal.

Without doubt, some of the issues raised are analytically controversial and still far from being enough. The speech does not address the challenge of capacity-building in the health sector in a post-COVID-19 era in Nigeria. The issue of self-survival is raised for which there are no critical paragraphs dealing with its modalities in the address. There is also the critical challenge of self-deceit in the whole address: PMB gives directives that are directly and openly flouted by the implementers of the directives. How can Nigerians be yearning for cure and at the same time be flouting directives meant to ensure their safety? Whatever is the case, the address is a welcome development.

In looking at the issues involved, the exegesis of the address is necessary in light of three critical international developments: deepening gravity of the situation, the seriousness of the implications for Africa, and the global quest for collaborative solution. In the words of the Director General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom, there has been near exponential growth of COVID-19 and he is much ‘concerned about the rapid escalation and global spread of infection.’ Consequently, he warned Africa, Central and South America of the ‘serious social, economic and political consequences.’

In this regard, to what extent has PMB’s address considered the seriousness of the socio-economic and political consequences? And more interestingly, is Nigeria part of the 74 countries participating in the UN health agency’s ‘Solidarity Trial’ that will be comparing four promising drugs or drugs combination required to treat COVID-19 confirmed cases? 200 patients are involved and ‘each new patient who joins the trial gets us one step closer to knowing which drugs work,’ the WHO’s boss has said.

PMB’s Address
As noted above, the address comprises 65 paragraphs. Paragraph 1 is the shortest and simply draws attention to PMB’s address. It says ‘Fellow Nigerians,’ it did not say ‘Fellow Compatriots’ in the mania of change of government by coups d’état, but raises a question on who is a fellow. Ordinarily speaking, the word ‘fellow’ can mean many things. The New International Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Languages says it refers to a man, a boy, a person or an individual, a companion, a mate, a counterpart or one of a pair. It also refers to a trustee or a member of the corporation in some educational institutions, a member of a society, a graduate or student of a university holding a fellowship or stipend awarded for excellence in a field of study.

From the technical and legal perspective, a ‘fellow’ is defined as any person ‘joined with another in some legal status or relation.’ It also refers to ‘a member of a college, board, corporate body, or other organisation’ (vide Bryan A. Garner, Black’s Law Dictionary (St. Paul, USA: Thomas Reuters, 2014, 10th edition). From the foregoing, the meaning that is most relevant is companionship, especially in the war against COVID-19. PMB did not address Nigerians as mates or boys or as members of any college or as counterparts. What is quite obvious in the address is ‘companion.’ It is from the perspective of this companionship that all the other paragraphs should be understood.

Paragraph 2 talked about the genesis of Government’s anti-COVID-19 efforts. In the words of PMB, ‘from the first signs that Coronavirus, or COVID-19, was turning into an epidemic and was officially declared a world-wide emergency, the Federal Government started planning preventive, containment and curative measures in the event the disease hits Nigeria.’ This statement requires clarification because, at the outbreak of the virus, it was simply referred to as Coronavirus and epidemic. When the impact was beginning to be uncontrollable, the World Health Organisation gave a new coinage, COVID-19 and changed the notion of epidemic to pandemic, meaning that there has to be a differentiation in both the meanings of coronavirus and COVID-19, on the one hand, and epidemic and pandemic, on the other.

COVID-19 is a coinage for ‘corona virus disease.’ The inclusion of ’19’ is to imply the year of its outbreak: 2019. The fundamental difference in meaning of epidemic and pandemic is defined by scope of impact of a disease. The dictionary meaning of epidemic is ‘affecting many in a community at once.’ It is medically defined as ‘a disease temporarily prevalent in a community or throughout a large area.’ The words in bold and italics are to draw closer attention to the defining factors of what constitute an epidemic, that is, it affects many people, but not all the people. It may affect a large area, and a community, but not in the sense of global community or the whole world as a global village of peoples.

Unlike epidemic, ‘pandemic’ is ‘pertaining to, or affecting all the people.’ Medically or in epidemiology, it is explained as ‘widely epidemic.’ This means that whenever we are talking about pandemic, it is the universal scale of an epidemic that we should always have in mind. Pandemic is more serious than an epidemic. The seriousness is in terms of its intensity, happening at once without interludes, and affecting all peoples without distinction.

Consequently, when PMB talks about ‘from the first signs of coronavirus or COVID-19 was turning into an epidemic and was officially declared a world-wide emergency,’ it is important to note that the time coronavirus became an epidemic is quite different from when it became a pandemic. The use epidemic starts with the emergence of the symptoms in China and ended with the emergence of WHO’s re-designation as pandemic. For purposes of future research in Nigeria’s foreign policy and medical history, it should be rightly stated that Government was referring to the initial period before WHO’s re-designation of the name. In other words, Government started to plan the prevention, containment, etc, of the virus, when the story was still at the level of coronavirus and epidemic. The chronological implication of this distinction is clear: all the observers who have accused PMB of late response cannot be right in their assessment of the situation.

But if the observers were to be correct, it cannot be because of the time of re-designation of the name by WHO, but essentially because the original name of the virus is ‘Wuhan 400’ given in 1981, when it was predicted that by 2020, the virus might come to life. This was the way Koontz put it then: ‘In around 2020, a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments…’ (vide Dean R. Koontz (1981), The Eyes of Darkness, 320 pp.). In other words, what prevented the Government of Nigeria from preparing for ‘Wuhan 400?’ As we noted hereunder, there is no coordinated all-research centre in Nigeria. Research and Development is not even given priority.

Paragraphs 3 to 6 dealt with Government’s readiness to combat the pandemic. PMB recalled the first confirmed case of February 27, 2020 and its increase to 97 on March 29, 2020. He regretted the loss of an employee of PPMC on March 23rd, 2020. Even though PMB condoled the family of the employee and prayed for the quick recovery of those infected by the virus, it would have been ideal to give the names of the employee on behalf of all Nigerians for greater collective condolence. Nigeria is not developing because of information hoarding like this. In fact, the perception in the Western world is that information about the true medical status of PMB is being hoarded and Government is always seen as a liar which should not be the case.

Paragraphs 7 to 20 raised the issue of curative measures and how Government had been going about the containment of the pandemic. PMB said COVID-19 has no cure (paras 7-10), that Government had been monitoring the situation closely since the outbreak was reported (paras 11-13), that Nigeria had adopted strategies introduced globally, but that the implementation programmes in Nigeria have been tailored to reflect local realities, and, in this regard, Government has taken a 2-step approach: protection of lives of Nigerians and residents in Nigeria; and preserving the livelihoods of workers and business owners (para 15). Mention was also made of some of the protective measures: healthcare measures, border security, fiscal and monetary policies, all of which PMB considered as right reaction by the right agencies, whose guidelines Government will always be ready to follow (paras 19 and 20) .

It is important to note the controversial non-curable character of coronavirus raised by PMB. He submitted that there was no cure to the pandemic as at the time he was delivering his address. In this regard, one cannot but quickly also ask here, if those infected by COVID-19 and have also been released from their isolation centres, were not cured. Is it not because they were cured that they were released to go back to the larger society? Or could it be the difference in the meaning of ‘healing’ and ‘cure’ that medical practitioners often make? Were they simply tested and found that they were not yet infected, and therefore, there was no case of healing or curing? Clarity is required in this case.

Paragraphs 21-29 elaborated further on measures being taken and to be taken: provision of initial intervention of N15 billion to support the anti-COVID-19 effort, establishment of a Presidential Task Force to evolve a workable National Response Strategy that is being reviewed on daily basis, call for nomination of doctors and nurses, as well as representatives from the military and paramilitary forces to be trained by the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and Lagos State Government. And more importantly, PMB recognised in paragraph 29 that the response to COVID-19 must be guided, systematic and professional as a nation, and, therefore, assured the general public that ‘all inconsistencies in policy guidelines will be eliminated.’ This means that PMB has now come to recognise that there are inconsistencies in policy dispositions of the various levels of government in the country and that there is the need for harmonisation.

In Paragraphs 30-37, PMB drew attention to the 97 confirmed cases in Nigeria, the people they had contacts with, and based on the advice given by the Ministry of Health and the NCDC, PMB directed in paragraph 34, ‘the cessation of all movements in Lagos and the FCT for an initial period of 14 days with effect from 11 pm on Monday, 30th March, 2020.’ For reasons of geo-political contiguity, the order on restriction of movement applies to Ogun State. Additionally, everyone is required to stay at home. All businesses and offices are to be fully closed, but exemption cases were also provided for in paragraphs 38-41. It is the ambiguity inherent in the exemptions that not only suggests a non-seriousness of purpose of the order, but also gives the impression of acquiescence of indiscipline and self-deceit that has always characterised political governance of Nigeria under PMB.

In this regard, for instance, media reports have shown that the very security agents meant to ensure public compliance with PMB’s directive, are the same people who came on board with their tainted blood of corruption, extorting monies from civilians, who are themselves criminals by refusing to comply with a simple order aimed at securing them. Security agents extorting money from people are criminals. Those who accept to be, and are, extorted are more criminally. All other Nigerians who sit down to acquiesce to the extortions and the flouting of PMB’s order are most criminally. Are the security agents extorting people against PMB, Nigeria or their own safety? Is their extortionist tendency not militating directly against national security interests?

The report by Olaleye Aluko et al in The Punch of Friday, April 3, 2020, page 4, according to which a middle-aged motorist, Mr. Joseph Pessu, ‘was cruising in a black Toyota Camry car without number plate, failed to stop at a military checkpoint on the NPA Road when the soldiers ordered him to stop… But a soldier in the security team, who was apparently infuriated by the motorist’s effrontery, fired at the right rear tyre of the car in order to force the driver to a halt. Mr. Pessu jumped out of his car and ran into the bush, but in the process, he was killed.

The death of Mr. Pessu is most unfortunate. However, why was he driving a car without a matriculation number? Why was he not respecting the stay-at-home order? Why should he refuse to stop at a military checkpoint? The Warri Area Commander, ACP Mohammed Garba, was quoted as saying that ‘the soldier who pulled the trigger and killed Pessu, had been identified and gave an assurance that justice would be served.’ Which justice would restore Pessus’ life? The truth of the matter is the general disregard for the rule of law and constituted authority in Nigeria. This is a national challenge that has to be addressed.

There was the report that members of the National Assembly refuse to submit themselves to checks at the airport. The minority leader in the House of Representatives, Ndudi Elumelu, had to ask the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, and others to submit themselves to the coronavirus test (The Punch, March 31, 2020, p.11).

Many churches and mosques also refused to comply with the stay-at-home order. In fact, the Agege Central Mosque had to be sealed off on Thursday, April 2nd, 2020 for not respecting the no gathering of more than 25 people. In the mosque, there were more than 300 followers. People came out of the mosque to attack government officials on patrol. The story is not different in Katsina where ‘one Mallam Hassan conducted Jumat prayer in one of the mosques. Hassan was consequently arrested…’, (and) on Saturday, his followers ‘attacked policemen on duty at Kuada Police Division and torched the police station and the DPO’s quarters.’ They burnt down seven vehicles there. Why must violence be the only language of expression or protest of Muslims as children of God?
Bishop Oyedepo and his followers’ similarly refused to comply with PMB’s order, but was later put on record to have donated medical equipment to assist in the anti-COROVID-19 struggle. They, like other Christian, have been different in the sense of not reacting belligerently. The way mosques often react to national questions has the potential to seriously undermine national unity and security in the foreseeable future. Government should begin to nip in the bud this problem by descending heavily on any church, or any mosque, or any traditional worshiping centre which consciously promotes disrespect for law and order. Any place of worship should be simply sealed off sine qua non for non-compliance with regulations adopted to ensure national security interests.
In other words, any individual faith should not be detrimental to collective survival. The God everyone is calling on is a God of orderliness and respect for law. God wants constituted authority to be respected. Political governance in Nigeria is not done, and should not be done, on the basis of a Christian law or a Muslim law. Let no one therefore try to impose any law outside of what is commonly accepted by attacking law enforcement agents. Nigerians need not be united in their faith in God, but they need to have a united, a common faith, in the development of Nigeria, which is the binding factor.
And perhaps more disturbingly, paragraph 41 stipulates that ‘workers in telecommunication companies, broadcasters, print and electronic media staff, who can prove they are unable to work from home are also exempted.’ This particular exemption, as good as it may be, is the most disastrous of all the exemptions because of its loophole.
Some telecommunication workers came to work in our estate in Yaba, Lagos on Monday, April 1 and Tuesday, April 2, 2020. They came to install internet infrastructure and I challenged the workers, and requested that they respect PMB’s order on stay-at-home to work at home or go directly to their offices. PMB’s order requires them to work from home, but where it is impossible to do so, and they can justify the need to go to office, it is then they can go out of their homes. The order does not, and cannot be interpreted, to imply going to private residential houses to work during the lockdown. The workers moved freely unprotected because they were given an ill-defined license of free movement. And most unfortunately too, my neighbours who wanted internet services were pleading with me to let them work. What if they are carriers of coronavirus, I asked my neighbours, answer was short: ‘let us leave everything to God.’ Again, this is an expression of self-deceit in the making of a secure Nigeria. Everyone complains about poor governance in Nigeria, and yet everyone encourages it. Why will God not be angry with Nigeria?
The exemptions to the lockdown are still covered in paragraphs 42-58. PMB prohibited the movement of all passenger aircraft, both commercial and private jets. He pleaded with all Nigerians to appreciate the fact that the anti-coronavirus is all about life and death and patriotism. In appreciation of the pains to be suffered as a result of the order, PMB announced a number of measures to mitigate the pains. They include provision of relief measures (para 49), sustaining the school feeding programme (para 50), a 3-month repayment moratorium for all Tradermoni loans, which is to be implemented immediately.
PMB’s appeal for national understanding continued in paragraphs 52-54, with the extension of the moratorium to the Federal Government-funded loans issued by the Bank of Industry, Bank of Agriculture, and the Nigeria Export and Import Bank, engagement of the development partners for negotiated concessions, and the immediate payment of the conditional cash transfers for the next two months. In the same vein, the Internally Displaced People are to be given two months of food rations.

The rest of the paragraphs (55-65) focused on the conversion of all Federal Government stadia, pilgrims camps and other facilities into isolation centres and make shift hospitals (para 57), call on all Nigerians for support (paras 58 to 60), assurances of government’s commitment to the anti-COVID-19 war (para 61), and expression of gratitude to all those that had been directly engaged in the anti-coronavirus war.

Issues in the Post-Anti-COVID-19 War
The first problem is how to explain the fact that security agents who are required to prevent the people and vehicles from coming into a State are also collecting their own illegal tolls for free passage? If there are boko haramists in government, if there are anti-PMBs in government, is it possible to survive in that type of situation? Can Nigeria survive in an environment of conscious self-deceit?

Secondly, there is little public enlightenment on cases of infected people dying at their homes unreported. How should close relations around the infected person and their neighbours handle the matter before the intervention of state health officials? COVID-19 is a reality but the problems created by it are still difficult to articulate.

A third issue is the future of the virus itself. The world has been told that there is no new coronavirus in China, but the Head of the Chinese Expert Panel on Outbreak, Response and Disposal, Mr. Liang Wannian, has it that ‘we still have a lot of unknowns regarding the novel coronavirus, including the source of infection, virulence and mutation… We only have a rough idea about the proportion of asymptomatic, mild, severe and critical cases of COVID-19. The whole picture remains unclear. That’s why the risk still exists in spite of zero cases’ in some provinces and regions of China. How well is Nigeria preparing for the ‘unknowns?’
A fourth issue is the future of the controversy over the legality of the lockdown of the FCT, Lagos and Ogun States. While many patriotic leaders of thought, particularly the Nobel Laureat, Professor Wole Soyinka, and social activist and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Femi Falana, have posited that the lockdown is illegal, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, also a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Vice President, has argued to the contrary, referring to the Quarantine Act of 1926, which, he said, is published in all the Laws of Nigeria.
According to the Vice President, the one-page Act ‘allows the President to designate any local area, any part of the country, as a place that may be infected or under the threat of a communicable disease, and he can then make regulations of any kind.’ In the defense of national interest, both the proponents and opponents of the lockdown in terms of legality or illegality cannot be faulted. The opponents do not want a situation whereby state powers are technically, using the framework of COVID-19, usurped by the President. Not drawing attention to it now may constitute a legal precedent. And beyond the argument of legality of the Vice President, safety and self-survival takes precedence over law when life is seriously threatened in a battle field or theatre of war. PMB’s lockdown should be taken as an acceptable act of illegality if really it is illegal.

A fifth and critical issue is the strong belief that coronavirus is not biological in origin but man-made in design. Different strata of societies, particularly in the United States, are pointing accusing fingers to the Chinese. The virus is seen as a testing of a chemical weapon and efforts are consciously being made to go back to the memory lane. Americans even believe that they are being specifically targeted by the Chinese. The clear message from COVID-19 is that Nigeria must now begin to learn how to prepare for peace the Von Clausewitz way: if you want peace, prepare for war

Benjamin Franklin said ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ In this regard, can it be rightly argued that all PMB’s efforts so far are worth an ounce of prevention, not to talk of being a pound of cure? We can also borrow Charles de Gaulle’s idea of losing the battle and not the war. Nigeria has neither lost the battle nor the war. The war on coronavirus has just begun. Nigeria must, therefore, learn how to understand coronavirus in its appropriate context, and therefore, prepare for it militarily, strategically, economically and culturally. COVID-19 is more of a political disease with which epidemiology is not much concerned. One good way of preparing for the coronavirus war is for PMB to have a National Sabbatical Research Village to coordinate all researches in the tertiary institutions and to where academic researchers in Nigeria and overseas can do their sabbatical year. The village should host a world-class, specialised hospital, first of its kind, where there will be all facilities for the treatment of any disease or sickness. It should be a think-tank village covering all aspects of human development research.