By Emma Agu
Every crisis throws up either a hero or a villain. Most often, the person at the epicentre of the crisis, either as provocateur or solution, does not necessarily have to be the leader, be it of a nation or a group, no matter how that group is defined.
The coronavirus pandemic is one such crisis that, at the end of the day, will not only redefine socio-economic and other relations among and within nations, it is bound, by the nature of things, to determine the fate, the future of some key actors in the survival game that is playing out. If you take the United States of America, for instance, though President Donald Trump is present at every briefing, there is no doubt the person everyone wants to listen to is, a man called Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, in the United States. His authoritative responses to questions, laden with both wisdom and expertise, provide a compass for making informed judgements on the pandemic. In Britain, even before he was infected, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been the cynosure of public attention.
In Nigeria, the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, headed by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), is unquestionably, the agency charged with the responsibility of managing the country’s COVID-19 response. Populated by very strategic office holders, the body has incorporated a daily media briefing as part of its overall strategy for keeping this enemy at bay. While questions still arise over the impact of the PTF, the fact remains that, to the extent that infections can be held down and the recovery rate of patients of the pandemic remains high, the panel will be entitled to any plaudits it demands.
But, given the nature of things, neither the SGF nor any other member of the PTF has been under as much persistent scrutiny as the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, Hajia Sadiya Umar Farouq. Her relevance stems from the fact that, on her shoulders falls the critical task of bringing succour to the many homes and individuals who, even at the best of times, are unable to meet their basic needs. These are the poorest of the poor, the vulnerable and the physically challenged members of the society. This she has done as the custodian of the Social Investment Program SIP, of the government. Besides, as the manager of disasters, whatever palliative from the government to mitigate the humanitarian challenge posed by COVID-19, passes through her ministry.
A vibrant but self-effacing personality, even prior to the COVID-19 challenge, two recent tragedies ensured that the Minister would have no respite from challenges of a humanitarian nature. The mayhem by Boko Haram insurgents at Auno, in Borno State, in February in which 30 persons died and the gas pipeline explosion in March, at Abule Ado area of Lagos State that killed over 25 persons have both put her crisis management capability on overdrive. Her personal visits to the scenes coupled with immediate relief efforts amply demonstrated that she possessed the temperament and expertise demanded by the nation’s humanitarian challenges. Of course, only last October, the minister, assisted by the Nigerian Air Force, oversaw the return of about 133 Nigerians who had taken refuge in Cameroun.
Those who credit President Muhammadu Buhari with all kinds of powers have never credited him with the gift of clairvoyance. One begins to wonder if he had a premonition of the COVID-19 pandemic when he took the unprecedented step of creating the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development in 2019. But here we are. With the pandemic, Hajia Sadiya Farouq, is already in the eye of the storm. What has she done, or not done, to find herself in the eye of the storm?
In my view, the answer is to be found in Nigeria’s crisis of confidence. The trust gap between the Government and the governed, is a major factor in this crisis. Of course, in the era of fake news, the tendency for self-serving mischief makers to make political capital out of even issues of life and death, has compounded this hiatus, not to ignore the clear abdication of roles by institutions with the responsibility of creating the environment of trust.
For me, I have some great admiration for her youthful energy, calm disposition and focused pursuit of her charge. Have you noticed as she waltzes through the length and breadth of the country, trying, as best as she could, to deliver hope to the hopeless and succour to the despondent? Within one week, she was in Imo, Oyo, Lagos, Anambra, Niger, Ogun, Ebonyi and Nasarawa States, distributing palliatives to the needy. She had started from Kwali Local Government of Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory. At every point, she conveyed not only the President’s palliative measures but kick-started payment of the mandatory cash transfer to beneficiaries.
In these dangerous times, it takes great confidence, ownership of a programme and untrammelled patriotism, for anybody, minister or not, to risk exposure to an invincible and unforgiving enemy like the novel Coronavirus, aka COVID-19. Yet that is precisely what she has done. To be sure, the recipients of the Federal Government’s largesse will always remember the messenger of hope who brought smiles to their faces and rubbed a balm to their broken hearts. I am told that when she got to Iho, the headquarters of Ikeduru LGA in Imo, my home State, in company of the Imo State Deputy Governor Professor Placid Njoku and the Minister of State for Education, the equally youthful, vibrant and cerebral Hon. Emeka Nwajiuba who doubles as the head of operations of the scheme, she was received by an appreciative crowd who had patiently waited for the flag off of payment of stipends of N20, 000, to the beneficiaries of the Conditional Cash Transfer Programme and distribution of the palliative. That is as it should be: the presence of government officials especially when they are representing the President, should elicit joy, not sorrow; provoke love not hatred, and instil courage, not fear.
Thus, all things being equal, in the days and weeks ahead, this emergent Amazon will be all over the country, dispensing largesse and happiness to many Nigerians; from Sokoto to Cross River, from Bauchi to Edo and from Jigawa to Rivers States. Yet, as one of those paradoxes that trail governmental actions and the lives of public officers, her every statement and every action will be trailed, as it is already the case, by both positive and negative responses. Many will applaud. From commendation to condemnation, the Minister needs to gird her loins for the inevitable eye of the storm.
Some of the questions being asked include, the disparity in the quantum of cash transfers between states in the North and the ones in the South, how the beneficiaries were selected, the measures aimed at guarding against mismanagement of the palliatives and donations to the PTF, the claim that the National Assembly has been left out of the management of both the palliatives and the SIP (cash transfer register) and many other posers that beg for answers. These are legitimate posers that call for honest answers. But shouldn’t these questions have been addressed long before now, by representatives of the people? Agreed that uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, it is still left to question if, the present anger against the Minister, is not a case of misplaced aggression.
In the instant case of the management of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am inclined to ask: if the Legislature was not carried along in handling of the palliatives, should it not be attributed to the failure of the NASS to be as proactive as its counterpart, the Congress of the United States, another country that runs the presidential system of government? Was it right to leave the entire decision-making process to the Executive Branch, only to turn round to bemoan exclusion from governance? I raise these posers because I see some merit in the misgivings over the manner of distribution of the palliatives. It does not speak well of the government’s effort and the personal sacrifice of Sadiya Farouq, with members of her team if, at the end of the day, the deserving beneficiaries of the palliatives are excluded. Furthermore, it will amount to an unpardonable squandering of opportunity if this humanitarian situation is derailed by self-serving politics, with our emergent Amazon becoming the latest victim of Nigeria’s crisis of confidence. We should never allow that to happen.
The humanitarian crisis that has befallen the nation dictates that it takes advantage of the Minister’s rich antecedents as former Federal Commissioner for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons, to deliver the palliative measures, to as many Nigerians as possible. That is the least we can ask from a Nigerian who is blessed with the antecedents, compassion, presence of mind and physical energy to drive this historically important process, in an equitable and just manner.
*Emma Agu, a fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) and Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), was chief press secretary (CPS) to Chief Ernest Shonekan, head of the ING in 1993.