The sun does not forget a village because it is small – African proverb
At this stage, the most damaging effect of the pandemic (or its collateral damage) appears to be that it diverts attention from other vital issues that should be addressed either as routine processes dealing with social and economic problems, or unusual developments that challenge nations and societies. There are no clear lines here: the pandemic, in most cases, reinforces weaknesses and problems, making them more difficult to solve.
As our nation grapples with general and peculiar problems in the manner it fights this pandemic, it is vital that we do not take our eyes entirely off the ball. Many problems have to be confronted at the same time, time being the operative word here. In my view, these are some of the broad issues that the nation needs to pay close attention to, and deal with.
Quality of governance as a whole must be improved, not just because of the appearance of pronounced complacency exhibited by elected persons following their elections and victories in courts, but also because new challenges such as managing the pandemic and limited economic resources require higher levels of competence and integrity. Legislators must play vital roles in keeping the executive on their toes, and being active in working with it to improve policy and legislation that will reflect the difficult times we live in. Governors must show greater levels of empathy with the population and reduce distances between them and the public.
President Buhari’s appointment of Professor Ibrahim Gambari as Chief of Staff hints at a willingness to match quality with comfort. This is the historic moment when the president should signal a resolve to leave a positive legacy for his leadership. He has three years to salvage an image and a record that could be much better, but the truth is that he will not do this with many of the people he has entrusted with vital responsibilities. Many of the ministers and other chief executives who have been with him for most of his Presidency have run out of steam, ideas or the zeal to go beyond the routine. He must inject a sense of urgency and emergency in his government, and bring in new hands that believe that the nation faces a set of challenges that must be overcome, and this can be achieved even in the face of a pandemic and dwindling fortunes. He cannot just see out three years of his second term in familiar gears and in styles and standards that he is comfortable with. The nation cannot survive waiting for three years for another president to fix what President Buhari has an opportunity and a duty to fix.
The nation needs to pay very close attention to tendencies that are weakening the bonds of nationhood, some pre-dating the pandemic, some reinforcing them and others, which feed-off opportunism of politicians, mostly with an eye on 2023.Barriers and barricades going up against particular groups and inflammatory rhetorics that generate fear and hostility are rampant in the land. Those who see value in preserving this union, or halting a painful decaying process should reach out to others who can discuss a future with all cards on the table. It is very unlikely that the Buhari administration will see this as a priority project, but other Nigerians do not need a license from him to discuss the future of the nation.The president himself needs a strong and informed political adviser.
- National security, public safety
Just about every index on organised violent criminal activities appears to be on the rise. The president’s home state, Katsina, is particularly hard hit by rampaging bandits and kidnappers who appear to have the run of much of the state. Banditry and clashes between communities are creating huge spaces for violent crimes and squeezing increasing numbers of mainly rural poor out of their homes and livelihoods. Governors say there is little they can do when communities cry out. A few get chances to give the president additional information on how the fight against bandits, kidnappers and ethnic gangs is being lost. Food shortages are now a real possibility as vast tracks of farmlands lay uncultivated and cattle cannot graze with the onset of the planting season.
The military is more stretched than it has ever been, while it is under increasing pressure to resist factions of Boko Haram, which see opportunities to take more territories and populations. Improvements in its media war suggest that our side is winning, but it is not certain that it is hurting the enemy in a manner that will stop it from recovering and fighting back. It is a distinct possibility that Nigeria has problems purchasing equipment when and where it is available, so greater energy should be deployed towards addressing hindrances to improving the technical capacities of the military. Morale and welfare also need major boost. We should also re-invent collaboration with our neighbours and re-enlist them more actively in this war, which it is now obvious, we cannot win on our own.
Clearly, much needs to be done to improve the nation’s policing capacities, and this requires the highest levels of collaboration and a commitment to interests that can only be served by the realisation that everyone will benefit from major changes in policing capacities and strategies with the most minimal of delay. It is important that the federal government sets in motion machinery for examining options on expanding the size and capabilities of the police, and this should include processes on establishment of sub-national police. There is near-consensus on this, but President Buhari can help by initiating a genuine and inclusive process that should advise on all policing issues as a matter of national urgency.
- Managing a ‘COVID’ economy
The nation needs its best intellectual and managerial assets to help steer the economy through the many challenges and threats it will have to deal with, directly or as consequences of the pandemic. Managing public finances will need courage and a clear understanding of choices that realistically deal with today’s circumstances. Reports regarding the major outlines of the review of the 2020 federal budget suggest that the administration and the legislature do not plan to yield ground to a new reality that demands that the budgeting process must change radically, and basic assumptions that used to be poorly-grounded have no place in plans to face a tough future. Major interests in the organised private sector need more access to policy-making as we contemplate an economy that will show pronounced damage over the next months. Jobs and businesses will be severely threatened, and we need to brace ourselves for rising numbers of unemployed, shrunk production capacities, shortfalls in revenue and their social consequences.
Leaders need to accept cuts in their remunerations and expenditure re-prioritised, as much to assuage perversive impressions that the rich have an easier time dealing with the pandemic, as a major gesture that will make resources available to support the poor live through the many privations of the pandemic. There is a need to avoid a situation where large-scale corruption now makes a new home within funding of palliatives and provision of facilities for testing, isolation and treatment of infected Nigerians.
- Managing poverty
The federal government needs a critical evaluation of its poverty management policies to see the degree to which they address contemporary challenges. The flagship Social Investment Programme in particular is becoming a major liability to the administration owing to its insistence that it will not change the manner it serves Nigerians. When hard-pressed Nigerian hear of billions spent on various elements of the programme, and are assured with the only information that these funds reach and help real Nigerians, their levels of skepticism and even hostility rise. It could be poor salesmanship, but managers of this programme are not doing a good job convincing Nigerians that they performing vital national service in insisting that billions are indeed being spent in following school children home to feed them since schools are closed. It is vital that the nation addresses poverty levels with substantial resources, imaginative strategies and transparent integrity, particularly now that we know that the poor will take massive hits. This is the moment when northern governors and the Muslim community should find the will and the strength to put a permanent end to child destitution in the name of almajirci.
Prioritising reforms around the electoral process, improving the public procurement, mitigating poverty and reducing corruption is vital at this stage. The legislature will do great service to its image if it will rise to the occasion and engage the executive arm to work with it on these and other reforms.
No one knows when or if we can ever emerge into a post-COVID-19 era, but it will be disastrous for our future if we do not think and act as if we can, and will do so as stronger nation. If we will avoid that, the time to start is now.