TUESDAYBY REUBEN ABATI
This is a piece around and about what I have seen about Corona Virus in Nigeria, from a sociological perspective, and not a report of any pathogenic experience. It has been more than a month since the Federal Government placed Lagos and Ogun states, and the Federal Capital Territory on a lockdown on account of the spread of COVID-19 in those three parts of the country. Ogun state asked to be allowed to join the lockdown a week later to allow the people in the state to stock up on food and other essentials which is why as Lagos and the FCT began from May 4, what the President of Nigeria referred to as a “gradual and phased” easing of restrictions, Ogun State will remain on partial lockdown till May 10. Other states of the Federation following the President’s cue have also announced a relaxation of the lockdown which most of them imposed in line with Section 8 of the Quarantine Act and enabling state laws.
While the lockdown lasted, I was able to go to the Arise TV studio to co-anchor The Morning Show (TMS), armed with every possible piece of evidence to show that I was on the road as an essential worker. Not many people have acknowledged the fact that journalists like health workers are frontline workers in the face of COVID-19. No matter how bad a situation may be, in times of war and disaster, it is the duty of journalists to be out there on the field, to report the situation, act as the bridge between government and the people, offer analysis, news and entertainment and help society. It is therefore surprising that stakeholders are not pushing the idea of a Media Intervention Fund to support media houses reeling from the impact of COVID-19. Here in Nigeria, both the electronic and print media are suffering. With businesses shut down and the people locked up at home, sales have dropped. In pursuing the news, journalists are also often exposed to extreme danger. Globally, 55 journalists have died from COVID-19 in 23 countries.
On my way to and fro the studio, I observed in the first week of the lockdown, that the streets of Lagos were literally empty. It was a different Lagos: ordinarily a city of crazy traffic snarls, Lagos roads looked desolate and for the period that this lasted, I silently wished that the city could be just as peaceful on a permanent basis. Lagos roads are ever so chaotic because of urban planning crisis and the failure to institute a functional multi-modal transportation system in the city. The only reliable means of transportation is by road. There is no metro line in place. There has been so much talk about water transportation by successive administrations in the state but that doesn’t quite work either. Every morning, half of the people in the mainland part of the city troop out of their homes to go to work on the Island, and they return in the opposite direction every evening. No one has made any attempt to decentralize the city and ease congestion. COVID-19 provided an opportunity to see what Lagos would probably look like if it was a much better planned city.
In the first week, I saw policemen, soldiers, officials of the Federal Road Safety Corps and the Neighbourhood Watch mounting checkpoints at strategic parts of the city. It looked like the lockdown was working. But by the second week, everything had begun to change. Many Lagosians could not stay at home for long. I noticed a horde of persons trekking towards the Island, converging at bus stops in open violation of the lockdown order. In parts of the city, young men in the neighborhoods turned open spaces into football fields. Every major football league in the world had been suspended, every sporting event that involves any form of contact between persons had been postponed, but around Lagos, young boys were playing their own tournaments, something they called in some places, “the Corona Cup”. I often wondered every day, why the security agents on the road, seeing this and the danger it posed, did not bother to disperse the suicidal football players. I also began to see groups of persons huddling together in the early hours of the morning under the guise of physical work-outs and exercise.
As the days passed, it began to look as if the security agents were now part of the problem. In Delta state, there was the report of a young man who was gunned down by soldiers at a COVID-19 checkpoint. They had asked him to stop but one thing led to the other, and the fellow was murdered. Policemen in Lagos and elsewhere went to bars and restaurants and markets and brutalized persons on the grounds that they defied the rules on lockdown and social distancing. The highhandedness of the security agents added to the people’s anxiety. However, the attitude of the security agents was at best, ambiguous. Some of them behaved as if they were genuinely on the road to enforce the lockdown, others behaved as if this was an opportunity for them to engage in a power tussle with the people.
One morning, I was stopped at a checkpoint. The police man who came to the car didn’t look or sound friendly at all.
“Officer, well done. I am a journalist. I am on way back from the office.”
“Which one is journalist? Have you not heard that you people should stay at home? What are you doing on the road wearing coat, putting tie for neck?”
“Officer, you see, journalists are exempted from the lockdown. We fall into the category of essential workers. The President himself said so. A journalist is just like you at this time of COVID-19.”
The man cut me short. He brought up his gun to a higher level without pointing it in any direction. I respected myself and kept quiet. Some security agents had only a week earlier killed a man in Warri South.
“Who is talking about journalist? You dey compare me to journalist?” I said nothing. “Where is the proof you are a journalist?,” he barked.
I told him that I would provide whatever proof he needed, but on the condition that he will not touch my identity card, or the letter from Arise TV. I brought out the letter and my identity card and I asked him to look at both from a distance. The man was literally foaming at the mouth. He looked rough and dirty. He yelled at me: “How am I supposed read the letter and your identity card from inside your car?” I told him there is something called social distancing. Has he heard of it?
“I beg go away with your wahala! Na dat one we dey talk? “, he bellowed and immediately flagged down the next vehicle. As we drove off, my driver who had been watching the entire exchange offered an opinion:
“Daddy, you sef. All those things you were telling the man, why do you think he will be interested? The man was drunk. All those things about essential worker, social distancing do not mean anything to him. You should just have given him money.”
“I will not bribe any security agent. I have a right to be on the road!,” I quipped.
But it was not always that the security men on the road proved difficult. Most of the time once they saw the press sticker on the windscreen, they would not even bother to stop the car. A few of them tried to double-check. I recall telling another policeman: “Journalist! Media!”.
“Oga, I don see the signboard for your windscreen oh. But anybody fit carry placard say dem be media. Wey your Coro-permit?” Coro-permit. That was a new one on me. Could it be that the government had been issuing COVID-19 permits and I was not aware?
“Officer, Coro-permit? What is that? I am not sure I have a Coro-permit.”
“Coro-permit. Every journalist wey don pass this place get Coro-permit. When we ask them, they show us. Oga, wey your own?”
I brought out a letter and showed him. He looked at it from a distance, and screamed: “Oga, you get Coro-permit! Na your Coro-permit be dat.”
The policeman and I started laughing as he waved us off. I laughed all the way to the studio! Coro-permit!
But there was no cause for laughter when after the lockdown in Lagos was modified and markets were allowed to open between 10 am and 2 pm, I had an encounter with a female Federal Road Safety Corps official. On this particular occasion, the driver and the housekeeper had gone to the market to buy foodstuff. The standard practice was that the driver will not drive onto the main road. He will park inside the Estate and the housekeeper will walk down to the market, while the driver waited for her. But due to the crisis of youth restiveness that reared its head by the third week of the lockdown, with less privileged persons and young boys attacking neighbourhoods and asking to be fed, the Residents Association took a decision to lock up every gate, leaving only one of the gates open in order to monitor movements. For this reason, the driver and the housekeeper claimed they had to drive onto the main road.
Somehow, they overstayed in the market. By 2:05 pm, they were already calling me frantically. They had been arrested by a Road Safety team, and the vehicle had been seized. I asked them to give the phone to the most senior FRSC official in the team. I introduced myself to her and pleaded that she should “please, let my people go”. She refused. She said a big crime had been committed and that everyone involved will be punished. She even threatened that if I dared to come to their office, she would release the younger persons and detain me along with the car. I begged her again to release the food items and allow the young persons to come home. She refused and cut off the phone. I called back and asked the driver to take the phone to her. She snapped at me:
“Mr. Man stop calling me. I don’t care about any Benjamin Abati or what did you call yourself? I won’t release this car.”
“But Madam, how about the food items?”
“Those food items are part of the exhibits!”
My driver later called back to say that he thought there was a solution to the problem. There were other persons whose vehicles had been seized, and if they offered money, they were promptly released, but the only problem was that the Madam would not collect N10, 000. It had to be more than N10, 000. I was advised to find something like N70, 000. I became infuriated. I told the young man, I would not pay a penny, instead he should try and get me the offensive officer’s name. His subsequent response was that she was not wearing a name tag. I resolved to prove to the woman that her job does not include being rude to others just because she wears a uniform…But she subsequently realised her folly and allowed “my people to go”.
On May 4, the easing of the lockdown began in Lagos and other parts of the country. The Nigerian government is depending on the security agencies to enforce its guidelines. That can only work if security agents act with discretion and common sense. I am very skeptical about government’s decision to relax the lockdown so early. In a previous piece, I drew attention to the failure of such a similar step in Denver, Colorado, during the Spanish Flu of 1918. Attention has also been drawn to a similar mistake in Marseilles, France between 1720 and 1722 during the bubonic plague. Businesses in both instances mounted pressure on government but the easing of the lockdown merely resulted in more infections and deaths. My fear is that the Nigerian government is about to make the same mistake. I hear it is called herd immunity: in the face of an epidemic, allow the people to go out, those who will live will, whoever will die, will die. This herd immunity response is a kind of religious providentialism but when people do not listen to science, they may end up counting the cost in terms of body bags. As it was in the past, so it is now. In the United States, there is an agitation nationwide for the lifting of restrictions but in the states where this has been done, like Georgia for example, there has been a spike in infections. There was a similar outcome in Germany recently. Nigeria must avoid copy and paste solutions to COVID-19. The numbers are rising and yet we want to re-open, even in Kano state where a toxic combination of corona virus and a leadership virus is killing the people in their hundreds.
In Lagos, yesterday, people trooped out in their thousands. The hitherto empty roads were busy, jam-packed. There were large crowds in front of every bank. The public buses were filled to capacity. For the first time in five weeks, there were traffic gridlocks again. Curiously, I did not see security agents on the road. Across the country, Nigerians besieged markets, banks and bus stations as if COVID-19 is a fictional tale. Apparently, what the people heard was that they were now free to go out. I am not sure they heard that part of the statement about “gradual and phased easing” and the guidelines announced by government, particularly the need for social and physical distancing. The Presidential Task Force has asked them to “take responsibility”, which simply means “You are on your own. We as government have tried our best. We have also offered you advice. Take it or leave it.” It is unfortunate that a country will leave the people to their own devices so soon, in the face of this murderous pandemic. Government should not hesitate to review or reverse its decision if there is a sudden explosion in the number of COVID-19 cases. Endangering people’s lives is not in the country’s best interest.