COVID-19: Nigeria’s Response and Big Challenges

Etim Etim

Five months into the global health emergency, our world has changed drastically. What began as a health crisis is now a major economic challenge of immense proportion.

Huge job losses, business closures and sharp drop in crude oil prices are the immediate problems facing every nation on earth. No nation is unaffected by what is now the most devastating economic and social catastrophe of our time.

While other countries were caught flat-footed and remained in denial in the first few months, Nigeria rose quickly and responded efficiently with the benefit of its experience with Ebola in 2014.

As the federal and state governments set up incident management teams consisting of a broad spectrum of medical professionals and senior government officials, businesses, business leaders, industry captains and NGOs were quick to offer huge financial and logistics supports to the governments to fight the pandemic.

One of Nigeria’s truly visionary business leaders, Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, has also stepped up to help in a big way.

Aig, as his friends and associates call him, is remembered for his remarkable tenure as the chief executive of Access Bank, during which he transformed the bank and took it to the top four in the industry before his retirement six years ago.

Last week, Africa Initiative for Governance (AIG), an NGO founded by Aigboje, co-hosted a webinar with Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government on the impact of COVID-19 and the oil price crash on Nigeria’s economy and the response of our government to the crisis.
AIG serves as a catalyst for the transformation of Africa’s public sector with appreciation that an effective public sector is instrument to the attainment of a country’s developmental goals. I had in February written an article on AIG.

Many prominent citizens participated actively in the virtual dialogue last Friday.
I am glad to have been invited to join. Professor Ngaire Woods, the founding Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, UK, opened the session with a brief introduction of the objective of the programme. She noted that the School of Government is working with many countries, especially the oil-dependent ones that are currently facing peculiar revenue crisis, to set and reset their strategies for recovery and growth during and after the pandemic.

Tracing the genesis of the partnership between Oxford and AIG, Prof Woods noted that ‘’Aigboje’s relentless energy and determination to inspire careers in public service’’ has resulted in many brilliant young Nigerians studying in Oxford.

A son of a career civil servant himself, Aig has realised in the course of his long and successful banking career that the quality of the public service is a very important determinant of good governance in Africa.

As soon as Prof Woods finished with her opening remarks, she introduced Aigboje to speak. His first order of business was to explain what AIG stands for.

“We are not an African DFID’’, he joked.
“We are an independent, non-state, not-for-profit institution set up to transform leadership in government,’’ he said.

He then set out his presentation in three slides that focused on the stark statistics of our health crisis and the need to take advantage of the ongoing crisis to rebuild the Nigerian political economy.

Globally governments have so far committed $15 .6 trillion in response to Covid-19 which works out as $2,042.00 per person, while Nigeria’s $6.5 billion in commitments amount to a paltry $32.50 per person.

He commented that it is obvious that whilst Nigeria’s private sector has thus far contributed five per cent of the commitments, the nation has no option. The private sector should give more. Aigboje said Nigeria’s large population and pervasive poverty is fueling the impact of the pandemic. Our experience with previous health crises like HIV is that most pandemics don’t hit Africa first, so for us in Nigeria, the curve will take a while to plateau. While the rest of the world has defeated malaria and HIV, Africa has not.

This crisis, Aig concludes, is an opportunity for us to spend more on our health services. He is saddened by the high doctor to citizen ratio in Nigeria (1:2,600) against WHO’s recommended 1:600; and low budgetary allocation to the sector (a little above 4% yearly).
“So COVID is an opportunity to reset our thinking and spend on health,’’ he said.

He concluded that our governments must reset their priorities, spend smarter and act faster.

Next speaker was Professor Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford.
He set off by noting that although there’s been no guidebook anywhere in the world on how best to manage this crisis, Nigeria has done creditably well.

We appear to be managing the crisis better than the Europeans and the Americans, he emphasised.

I note that President Donald Trump was in denial in the first two crucial months of the pandemic, while Boris Johnson had this initial plan to allow the virus affect a good proportion of the population so that the people could develop immunity.

Today, the US and Britain are two of the most infected nations. But Nigeria was quick to shut down and move into the contact, track and race strict regime.

Collier then posited that each nation should design its own coping measures based on its unique peculiarities.

From the experience of the last five months, Collier asserts that two main types of leaders have emerged: the commander-in-chief and the communicator-in-chief. The latter is most suitable in times like this and his role is to lead his country through effective communication, he notes.
Nigeria’s Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 has done a great deal in this regard, especially in developing guidelines and policies, and briefing the nation daily. Prof Collier then sliced through a swath of issues on how nations are managing the crisis and quickly delved into our well-known difficulties: huge population, mass poverty, weak health systems and the miserable economy.

He dimensioned the economic crisis into three areas: Plunge in government revenue; dwindling foreign exchange earnings and citizens’ low capacity to spend.
Collier said countries like Saudi Arabia have since recognised these shocks and are responding in various ways.

For Nigeria, he has the following prescriptions: reduce dependence on imports, especially food imports; cut spending and raise revenue by expanding the tax base. To increase purchasing power of the citizens, he advocates increasing soft credits to businesses and the informal sector.
Midway through his presentation, former President Olusegun Obasanjo joined, as soon as Collier finished.

For this event, he participated as the Chairman of the Advisory Board of AIG. I’m not surprised that Aigboje chose the former president to be chairman of the Advisory Board while Aig is its Chairman.

Nigerians of my generation easily recognize the former President as one leader with the largest footprint on the nation’s politics.
He introduced his presentation by commending the Buhari administration for handling the pandemic well. We took the fight down to the states and the communities, he said, adding: “I was pleasantly surprised when I saw government officials in my village testing and tracing.’’

The kernel of his intervention was that we should ramp up our agricultural outputs drastically so that we can feed ourselves without a single imported item. A big farmer himself, his words on food production are taken seriously.

After Obasanjo, Prof Woods asked Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila and former Emir Sanusi Lamido Sanusi who were in the audience to make their contributions. In between them, was a detailed presentation by Dr. Ceyla Pazarbasiogu, Vice President for Equitable Growth, Finance and Institutions (EFI) at the World Bank while Dr. Yemi Folashade-Esan, Head of Service of the Federation was the last speaker.

The Head of Service highlighted her plans to digitize the public sector and reduce wastes. As a response to COVID-19, she announced that a lot more work in the civil service are now done online, and that would be the way to go going forward. But it was Sanusi Lamido Sanusi who made an impact on me.

He maintained that with over 500 federal legislators, over 1,500 members in the 36 Houses of Assembly, Commissioners, SAs, Chairmen and Councilors in the 774 LGAs nationwide, Nigeria’s political structure is too unwieldy.
“Can we afford over 500 federal legislators in Abuja?’’, he asked.

I made the same point in my article published early May titled ‘’Managing the war economy’’. I wrote: ‘’The expenses of the National Assembly, especially those dubious allowances should be cut by at least 30%. Eventually we will require a Constitutional amendment to restructure our legislature into one chamber of no more than 300 members”.

Femi Gbajabiamila’s comments which centred on plans to cut allowances and perks of the National Assembly members were quite insightful.
For one, we now know that our lawmakers in Abuja are not as out of touch as we believe. The programme ended with a wrap-up from Aigboje who commended the Head of Service for her push to digitise the operations of the public sector.
“Let’s bring the public sector into the digital age,” he pleaded.

This will entail digitising core processes, providing digital products and services and harnessing valuable data.
Other areas which Aigboje recommended for the public sector include: introducing performance management into public service; public-private partnership to scale up delivery of basic services; redefining jobs, re skilling employees and shift personnel to sectors of value.

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