As part of measures to cushion the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Enugu State government commenced distribution of palliatives across its 17 local governments. Sadly, series of complaints have dogged the distribution of these relief packages, with many alleging corruption and diversion. Arinze Chijioke who visited several communities reports
With the COVID-19 pandemic and its attendant effects on the economy and society, governments have had to cushion the effect on its citizens. In Enugu State, as part of measures to cushion the effects of the pandemic, the government commenced distribution of palliatives across its 17 local governments. Sadly, series of complaints have dogged the distribution
A 15-member committee, headed by the Deputy Governor, Hon. Cecelia Ezeilo, was set up to coordinate the distribution. The government distributed food items, including bags of rice, beans, garri, gallons of oil, noodles, cartons of Tomato paste, tubers of yam to local churches to pass on to their members. Since the palliatives were shared, allegations of corruption and diversion have trailed the exercise.
Ezeugwu Victoria, 80, is all alone in her world of misfortune. Before the entire country went into lockdown as a result of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, she had been indoors. Blind. Old. Weak and Wrinkled. Her day literally begins and ends within the confines of her dimly lit one-room apartment. She calls out for help each time she needs to ease herself and when she wants to eat. On days when there is no one to help with food, she sleeps hungry and only prays to wake up again the next day.
On a hot Tuesday afternoon, Ezeugwu sat on a black wooden mortar at the entrance to her room located at Onuiyi, a community, just one kilometer away from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), dipping her shaky hand inside a pot containing Ayaraya, a locally made dish from Yam and Pigeon Peas.
Beside her lay a walking stick. After dipping her hand inside the pot, it took her several seconds to raise it to her mouth and back again for some more- a clear sign of ageing.
Two years ago, Ezeugwu had someone she called her daughter who always provided for her needs of food, water and ran other errands for her. She had lost her husband years ago. They both had no children.
“She was the only one I always shared stories with. She was like the daughter I never had. We were always happy together and she made me want to live longer” Ezeugwu said, tears beginning to well up in her tired eyes.
But one day, Chiamaka, the girl helping her, took her bags and said she wanted to travel. She did not say where she was travelling to. She did not even tell anyone when she would return to continue taking care of Victoria.
“I insisted that she stay back, but she said no and told me that the angels would take care of me while she was away. That was the last time I heard from her,” Ezeugwu said her voice shaking and tears now dripping down her cheeks and settling on her lips.
The next story she heard was that Chiamaka had died mysteriously after she became pregnant. That broke her world and the thought of who would reassure her of the need to be alive troubled her every other day.
Failed Promises by Local Government
When Ezeugwu heard from her neighbours that the government had decided to provide palliatives across local governments for households that could barely feed during the lockdown, she could not contain her joy. Like others who belong to the class termed poorest of the poor, she prayed to benefit from the packages.
But her hopes were soon dashed. It is well over four months since she heard that her local council had been distributing palliatives to vulnerable households. But no one has come to her doorstep to deliver food items from the government.
“Those who bring me the food I eat are reverend fathers. Sometimes, when I go to church, they tell us that some individuals made donations for the poor. Sometimes, members of the Legion of Mary also bring me food items and I find anybody to help me prepare it so I can eat,” she said dipping her hand inside her tongue and raising it up to the sky to affirm that she was speaking the truth.
Like Ezeugwu, there are several vulnerable households spread across communities in Nsukka who are complaining that they have not received anything from local government officials and are wondering when and where the palliatives were shared.
For these households, the means of survival within the period of lockdown has been donations from private individuals in different churches, although the local government has claimed severally that they have made sure that households in Nsukka got palliatives.
…The Government Lied to Us
Ngwu Victoria, 53, completely disagrees that the LG distributed food items. She has had four different surgical operations in the last 15 years and has suffered from an illness she can’t even explain. On one of the several occasions when she went to be operated upon, she almost lost her life.
Before the lockdown, she had a major challenge-how to get what to eat. With her husband dead, no work to do and age beginning to weigh in on her, she had to depend on food from her neighbours. There was no choice of what to eat. Whatever came her way was good.
Ngwu prayed to be remembered when the government started distributing food items. Sadly, nobody has come to deliver any food package to her.
“If some people are receiving anything from the government, I am not aware”, she said insisting that the only time she got food was when one of the Catholic churches in Nsukka invited some vulnerable households and gave them rice tied in black nylon.
Ngwu says she does not have any food item inside her house as the one she received from the church had finished. She said she would have sought loans to establish a business. But she can’t since she has been ill.
We Had More Than Enough-LG
Samuel Ngwu, media aide to the late Chairman of Nsukka, LG, Patrick Omeje told THISDAY that they employed the services of ward councillors, traditional rulers and town union presidents and monitored the distribution process just to ensure that no household was left out.
He claimed that the items were “too massive”, reaching down to all the 20 political wards and 45 autonomous communities in Nsukka. He said that the chairman donated a total of 500 bags of rice, 400 cartons of noodles and 300 gallons of oil to the 20 political wards and 45 autonomous communities that make up the council.
This is apart from a total of 300 cartons of noodles and 20 gallons of oil donated by the MD/CEO of Wilson Nigeria Limited, Chief William Agbo and an additional 400 bags of 10kg Rice and 600 tubers of yam donated by the member representing Nsukka West at the State House of Assembly, Hon. Emma Ugwuerua.
When contacted, the Councilor of Ihe, one of the wards that make up Onuiyi, Okoro Onyekachi, said that the LG used community leaders who brought names of people with which they collected palliatives.
He, however, noted that there were people who did not get palliatives as the items were not enough to go round. His submission contrasts that of the media aide to the former LG chairman who said they had enough to go round every household.
One of the community leaders in Onuiyi, Leornard Ngwu, maintained that the government did not visit doorsteps to deliver palliatives as claimed. He added that he only heard when the LG invited some people in the community and gave them N1,000 each and three packs of noodles.
“That was all I heard about relief packages from the government. Lockdown has kept everyone at home. We no longer go to the market. I have had to borrow on several occasions to get food for the family, even when the government promised us food”, he said.
We Only Heard about Palliatives on Radio
Ajibo Rosemary has packed out of her home located at the backwoods of Alor Uno- another community in Nsukka after it was destroyed by erosion which has lasted for over 30 years.
She now stays at a family compound with some of her rescued property. Before the lockdown, Ajibo would traverse her community in search of palm fronds which she uses to make brooms and sales at her local market.
But since the lockdown, when the government asked people to stay in their homes, Ajibo has not been able to sell.
She says it has been difficult feeding. “The suffering is too much. We don’t go to the market because the government says we should stay at home,” she said as she tried to make fire with a matchbox.
Ajibo who lost her husband years ago said she was excited when she heard the government was coming to deliver food items to households who could barely feed as a result of the lockdown.
“They told us on the radio that they were giving palliatives to households. But I have not received anything”. No member of my family has received either. They are just deceiving us,” she said.
Letting out a smile, she alleged that it was possible that some leaders had brought the packages and kept them in their houses.
One Community, 4 Cartons of Noodles, 6 Bags of 2kg Rice
The traditional ruler of Alor Uno Community, Nelson Chibuzor Ogbonna said the local government was only trying to attract attention by reporting in the media that they distributed palliatives to households.
He, however, explained that the only time they got food items from the local government was when he was invited and given four cartons of noodles and six bags of 2kg rice and was told it was for the entire community.
“At first, we did not know how to share it amongst our people because we have six quarters in this community and each quarter is made up of five to nine villages. We decided to give each quarter a bag of the two kg rice and some packs of noodles. Most of them just gave it to their women. Many households could not benefit since it was very small,” he explained.
Some members of his community have had to come together to help those families who are hardest hit as a result of the lockdown.
“As far as I am concerned, we have not received anything from the government. If you go and ask many of them, they will tell you they have not received anything”, his voice switching from contempt to rage.
Palliatives, Only for Selected Household
Atama Augustina, has been cutting bitterleaf she intends to sell at her local market before the day runs out. That is the only business she does presently to support her husband who works on people’s farms and earns money barely enough to run the family.
Before the lockdown, Atama an indigene of Ajuona, another community in Nsukka, worked as a cleaner at UNN where she has not been paid for the past four months. She has had to put up with the delay since there is nothing else to do.
Sadly, her family has not received anything from the government, though she has heard some households say the government brought palliatives.
“Our village head is being selective in the distribution of the palliatives because he invites some people to his house and gives them food items. I have not been asked to come and collect anything and you can’t go there if you are not invited” she explained.
Tall, dark and lanky, James Uwabuike sits in front of his house also at Ajuona. He has been thinking of how to get the next meal for himself and his family.
Uwabuike who is in the works Department at the UNN told THISDAY that things have not been easy since the lockdown as he no longer goes to work. “When we went into lockdown, I expected the government would come to our aid, but I only heard over the radio that they had begun sharing relief packages.
He said he has not seen anybody coming to distribute palliatives to households in his area except maybe they bring it and give to indigenes.
Ugwudike Francis is the Chief Security Officer of Owerre Ede-oballa, another community in Nsukka with six different villages. He spoke of how the community became a victim of ill-distribution of palliatives by the local government.
He told THISDAY in front of his shop that the LG brought a total of 12 cartons of noodles, six bags of rice and six litres of groundnut oil and gave to the traditional ruler to distribute to different households.
Explaining how it was shared, a visibly irked Francis said each village got one bag of two kg rice, two cartons of 70kg noodles and a litre of groundnut oil.
“We had to look out for the most vulnerable households and gave them the items. We did not know how else to share them. That is the only thing we have got from the government as palliatives” he said.
Challenge of Re-distributing Palliatives
The Village Head in Ede-Ukwu, another community, Onyishi Vincent Ugwu remarked that the government has not been fair in its distribution of palliatives to the people. He noted that there has been a major challenge of how to re-distribute items among villages because of how small they are usually.
On one of two occasions when the government brought palliatives, Ugwu’s quarter, with eight villages got one bag of 25kg rice and two cartons of noodles and after it was shared, his village got some cups of rice and 10 packs of noodles.
“When we came back and I showed the people what we got, they were angry and said we should give it to the poorest household in the village. It is like bringing a tuber of yam and asking 100 people to divide it. How is possible is that?”, he asked.
He said it was annoying how the government would ask people to stay indoors and fail to provide them with food items to keep them alive.
Alleged Diversion by LG Chairmen
On June 7, the social media space buzzed with news of how the late chairman of Nsukka LG visited UNN where he donated a total of 300 bags of rice and other food items as palliatives to the Vice-Chancellor of the University, Prof Charles Igwe.
The palliatives, according to him, were meant to help cushion the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on members of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) in the institution. On hand to receive the
donation, apart from the V.C were principal officers of ASUU in the institution, including the chairman of the union, its treasurer, financial secretary as well as the secretary.
The decision by the former LG boss stirred up controversy, with many wondering what must have informed his move to donate palliatives to ASUU, a union that is made up of lecturers who earn salaries and apparently do not belong to the vulnerable class of the society, leaving behind many households who could barely afford a meal.
When contacted, media aide to the late LG boss, Ngwu said that he gave palliatives to members of the ASUU because they were being owed some months salaries at the time the decision was reached by the council.
He noted that the late chairman simply gave them a sense of belonging, considering the fact that the council is the host community of the prestigious university.
“While the salaries of the ASUU were cleared by the FG few days to the visitation, it was not necessary to cancel the already planned visit which had been well communicated”.
He maintained that they made sure that they only took palliatives to the university after vulnerable households in the council got their share.
When asked, UNN branch Chairman of ASUU, Dr Christian Opata confirmed to THISDAY that members of the union were truly owed salaries and added that they could not have rejected the palliatives that were brought to them.
“I would not know whether he had any hidden agenda for bringing the palliatives to us. But he told us the day he came that he wanted to give us a sense of belonging since some of us had our families too,” he said.
Weeks earlier, there were similar reports of how the Chairman of Igbo Eze South LG, Peter Andy visited the university where he donated 200 bags of rice to UNN’s Vice-Chancellor as palliatives for members of ASUU in the institution.
Peter’s decision equally became a subject of intense controversy with many linking his decision to his desire to regain favour from the university where he was suspended as President of the Student Union Government (SUG) after he led a violent protest against the increase in school fees and the alleged mismanagement of the institution by the then V.C, Prof Bartho Okolo and his management team in 2010.
Efforts to get the chairman to react to the allegations were unsuccessful as he neither picked calls nor responded to text messages.
In his reaction, the traditional ruler of Alor Uno Community, Ogbonna condemned the distribution of palliatives to staff of UNN, saying that the two chairmen only placed their personal interests above that of their people who have been suffering as a result of the lockdown.
“Our own chairman here in Nsukka only wanted to save his face after he saw what the chairman of IgboEze South did to members of ASUU in the university. The allocation that comes into UNN every month is more than what each council gets in a year,” he explained.
How Allegations of Corruption Trailed Distribution in Church
In order to further reach out to the poorest of the poor, the Enugu State government distributed palliative to different church denominations in the state. The perception was that the church, being a sacred institution, was the best means through which deserving members of the society could be reached.
The benefiting churches include: The Catholic Dioceses of Enugu, Nsukka and Awgu, the Anglican counterparts of Enugu and Nsukka Communions, the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN) and the Internal Sacred Order of Cherubim and Seraphim.
Sam Ngene, one of the members of the committee in charge of palliatives distribution in the state, said the government made sure that enough food items that would get to vulnerable members of different churches were provided.
Sadly, days after the palliatives were shared; it was discovered that some of the benefitting churches adopted certain modalities for distributing the palliative, sidelining many of those who deserve them.
Blessing Chinedu, 30, lay face down in her single cramped room, her face partly burned from an accident she had a long time ago. Her husband was sitting on a couch with their three kids. They had just returned from one of the local Anglican Churches in the state- ST. Michael and All Angels Anglican Church, Ugwuaji- and were thinking of what to have for the day.
Before lockdown, Chinedu and her family lived in two rooms. She had a provision store which helped provide food for the family and pay their rent after her husband lost his job.
But since the country went into lockdown in March, she has not been able to sell. Her goods are finished and there is no money to buy. Now, she barely feeds with her family. She has had to work on people’s farms for weeks.
“It has not been easy on me and my family. I worked on a particular farm for two weeks. It was not easy on me. But I just had to do it. If I don’t go out to work, nobody will give me and my family” she said, letting out a smile, tinged with sadness.
When she heard that the Cathedral Church of the Good Shephard, the Central Church of the Anglican Diocese in Enugu, got palliatives from the government, she felt succour had returned finally. She hoped to be given relief packages that would serve her family for some time.
But she was not invited on the day the food items were shared. It was one of her church members who came home and gave her a painter of rice, two packs of Indomie noodles, four balls of onion and six cubes of Maggi and told her it was the remnant of what was shared.
Augustina Ani was into garri processing before the lockdown. She has been into the business for the past 28 years after her husband died and made money that was enough for her to at least take care of her basic needs.
Since the lockdown, she has not been able to work, making feeding difficult. She is one of over 20 widows who attend St. Michaels Church and whose source of livelihood have been cut affected by the lockdown.
“It has not been easy for me and my children since the lockdown. Some of them are married. But everyone is struggling. Sometimes, there is nothing to eat” I have been seeking help. But it is not coming” she said outside her church, her face looking pale showing signs of ageing.
Ani was not informed her church got palliatives from the government. She was not even aware when it was shared, how it was shared.
Like Chinedu and Ani, over 100 households who attend the church are not still aware that the church got relief packages from the government.
Reacting to this, the priest of the church, who does not want to be named said he only got one bag of rice, four cartons of Indomie noodles and other food items from the Cathedral and because the items would not go round every member of his church, he invited some of the widows and shared the items amongst them.
Another church leader, who preferred not to be mentioned, revealed that the church got little because the palliatives were shared on the basis of population and how each church contributes in terms of financial resources to the central church.
Using this method, he said the Cathedral church, being the headquarters in the diocese, with members who are rich, got more palliatives than churches in local communities with far less financial contribution but more vulnerable households.
“There are smaller churches that do not even contribute up to 100,000 to the centre. But the bigger churches that contribute as much as 3 to 5 million were the ones that got more palliatives” he disclosed.
Efforts to get the Archbishop of Enugu Province of the Anglican Communion, Emmanuel Chukwuma to react to the allegations of corruption in the distribution of the palliatives proved unsuccessful as he did not respond to calls nor replied text messages.
Civil Society Reacts
The Project Manager, Advocacy Partnership for Good Governance, an NGO that engages with the government to ensure that they are responsive to the need of the citizenry, Comr. Onyebuchi Igboke said the distribution of palliatives among certain groups in the state was a derailment from the original purpose.
He said the distribution to members of ASUU in UNN was particularly unacceptable and wondered where to classify the staff who receive salaries from the FG.
“It would have been a different story if the LG chairmen gave the palliatives to cleaners and other contract staff whose source of income is barely enough for them to feed”, he noted.
When the FG and states commenced distribution of palliatives, it clearly stated that they were intended to help tackle the widespread hunger brought about by the national lockdown. Sadly, that objective has clearly been defeated. But Ezeugwu would always be grateful to her church for always remembering her during the lockdown period.