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Nigeria – Enforcers kill more people than virus

COVID-19 in Africa

Nigeria – Enforcers kill more people than virus

Nigeria, at the time of writing, has one of the lowest rates of Covid 19 infection but the response to it from the government and security agencies has been both heady handed and largely ignorant. This has led to lack of confidence in the state’s ability to tackle the epidemic should it explode. The government must quickly regain its credibility if it expects people to abide by its recommendations, writes Peter Ezeh.

Nigeria has one of the lowest infection rates per capita worldwide at the time of writing (third week of April); less than 500 for a population of 200m people.

About 17 had died from the disease. Cases are mainly either people who travelled from outside Nigeria or people that had had direct contact with such travellers. Those who died included one of the most powerful men in President Muhammadu Buhari’s government; Abba Kyari, Chief of Staff in the Presidency.

The panic on the part of the Nigerian leaders seemed to be a lot higher than the threat. Those who witnessed the exemplary way the country handled the Ebola outbreak of 2014 are wistfully watching current goings-on.

In the panic, officialdom resorted to a carryover from days of the military junta – disproportionate coercion. In Ebonyi, a state at the edge of the south-eastern districts, local newspapers reported that one of the men in the task force that was in charge of implementing the stay-at-home directives had ordered that offenders escaping arrest should be shot on sight.

In a related event the Governor of the state, David Umahi, ordered a member of his cabinet that travelled to China not to return to base until the traveller had been confirmed free of the virus. He ordered him to stay in Lagos, about 900 kilometres west of the state, until he was certified risk-free.

Governor Umahi briefed the press after the encounter with his official. In a strategy that has now become commonplace in the anti-COVID-19 campaigns in these parts, he named himself the coordinator of the anti-COVID-19 team.

The New Telegraph, a Lagos newspaper, quoted him as saying regarding his official who travelled to China, “I told him, ‘Choose between life and death. It is better to sacrifice one person than to endanger everybody because going to China in the wake of this very dangerous outbreak is like [going] to purchase deaths’.”

The newspaper reported him as adding, “We would have made him to die alone … I am not joking about it. If he comes, I will lock him in his house. This coronavirus is a very dangerous disease.”

Trigger happy

In Abia, Ebonyi’s neighbouring state, a policeman actually shot and killed a filling-station attendant who tried to plead for a distraught family taking one of their members to the hospital for a different serious medical condition.

Police spokesman in that state, Geoffrey Ogbonna, later said that the man was shot in error. “It was an accidental discharge; it was not intentional,” the independent daily, The Punch, quoted him as saying. The police spokesman was also quoted as saying that the trigger-happy policeman had been arrested and would be prosecuted.

Up until the time this story was filed, the number of those who died from the COVID-19 was a lot smaller than that of those killed nationwide by security men enforcing the stay-at-home orders.

By Friday, 17 April, when 12 people had died from the disease, 18 people had been shot and killed by the security. Following protests by human-rights activists, opposition’s major politician, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, said in a widely reported statement, “I call on President Muhammadu Buhari and relevant security and government agencies to ensure that the reprehensible acts are thoroughly investigated and the culprits brought to book.”    

Top officials succumb

Some of the 36 coordinate states in the Federation began locking down before President Muhammadu Buhari took a similar decision regarding the capital of the nation-state, Abuja; Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos and its adjoining state of Ogun.

Ebonyi, Rivers, Kogi, Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Oyo, were among the first to close their borders with other states. By the second week of April, practically all the states had locked down. Gun-toting teams of troops and policemen bar people attempting to leave or enter the states.

A number of top officials in central and state governments had also tested positive for the virus. They included the most powerful man in President Buhari’s kitchen cabinet, Abba Kyari, who later died of the disease. He had flown in from a trip to Germany with the bug.

Another of President Buhari’s henchmen, Nasir el-Rufai; governor of Kaduna State, was among the four governors that tested positive and went into self-isolation. Mohammed Atiku, son of Atiku Abubakar who was President Olusegun Obasanjo’s deputy in a previous government, also tested positive.

Buhari under fire

President Buhari’s critics took him up on three counts: his delay in addressing the country on the disease, his locking down of Lagos and Ogun State, and his permission for the visit of a Chinese medical team.

Nigeria announced its first case in February after a European travelling from Italy tested positive for the coronavirus. President Buhari’s national broadcast on the development came more than one month afterwards on 29 March.

At the expiry of his first two-week stay-at-home order, he spoke again extending the order by two more weeks. Nobel-prize-winning dramatist Wole Soyinka was among the most vocal in flaying President Buhari’s lockdown of Lagos, arguing that the former military dictator lacked constitutional power to do so in a democracy where governors are the executive heads of their various states and the President only heads the central government at Abuja.

But Buhari’s deputy, Yemi Osinbajo; a lawyer by training, shot back saying that the President was right. He cited a law that was made by colonial officers in 1926 when the so-called ‘tropical diseases’ where such a problem for sojourning Europeans.

“There is the Quarantine Act of 1926,” The Guardian of Lagos quoted the vice-president as saying. “It’s been published in all of the Laws of Nigeria; it is there. It is a regulation that gives the President powers, and these powers come from the National Assembly.”

Poor timing of Chinese arrival

The most biting of the criticisms came up after it was announced that a team of Chinese medical personnel was coming with assistance in knowledge and materials.

The Nigerian Medical Association, drawing from widespread sympathy among the public said it amounted to a lack of appreciation of the work its members had been doing to contain the spread of the virus and to treat those that had picked up the infection.

Government denied that the Chinese had an official invitation. The Chinese, 15 in all, arrived in Abuja on 8 April bearing medical materials, which has been estimated at $1.5m, including ventilators and face masks and medicaments.

It does not help that the news of their arrival coincided with the bad press on allegations of discrimination against Africans in China on the heels of the outbreak of the COVID-19.

The Daily Sun, a popular daily based in Lagos, had reported that Africans living in the Chinese Guangzhou province where being ejected from their houses, denied hotel accommodation, and had no flights to return to their home countries despite the fact that the results for more than 99% of those who had had the COVID-19 test were negative.

The paper reported, “The story going round is that black people are carriers or potential carriers of the coronavirus.”

A transporter in Enugu in Nigeria’s south-eastern districts, Uchenna Onuigbo, told New African that he suspected that Nigerians would not cooperate with the Chinese despite official preferences. “In this matter of the COVID-19 China has not really helped itself. How can it help others?” he queried.

He added, “Did you read the newspapers today? Did you see what they are doing to Africans living with them? If they hate us that much, what is the assurance that what they bring as medicines or even masks are not impregnated with what can kill us?”

An opposition politician, Ikenga Ugochinyere, echoed Mr Onuigbo’s wary stance in a recorded message that has gone viral in the social media. He asked, “Has anyone run background checks on these Chinese doctors to determine their true intentions?” adding that Nigerian doctors had recorded high success rate in their handling of the COVID-19. Are they coming to know why we are not dying like chickens like it is happening in the United States, Spain, Italy, France, etc?”

Alternative medication

There have also been suggestions to consider alternative medicines. A Nigerian scientist based in California, US, Dr Emeka Uzo, made a video with a commentary in Igbo, one of Nigeria’s major indigenous languages, claiming that an indigenous heat-generating therapy of this ethnic group could help handle the disease.

Another scientist but who is based Nigeria, Dr Olawale Qazeen, combining multiple therapies from diverse cultures in Africa and Asia, gave a full-page interview to a newspaper in Lagos. His conclusion was forthright. “The fight against this pandemic – corona virus – may not be successful if we do not begin to look in the direction of integrated medicine.”

The fact, though, is that down here no one is sure about anything concerning this disease. is said that it came from a virus that mutated and jumped species from a wild animal to humans in Wuhan, China, but lately the information that is trending is that it originated from the 5G technology that the telecommunication companies are trying to bring in.

Nigerian Senator, Dino Melaye, is one of the most vocal proponents of that theory. In a video that he circulated through the social media, he said, “From my research, this coronavirus is really not the problem. The major problem is this 5G technology that has been deployed and which has some reactions with the human cell which now manifests as a flu.” He claims that he has done his research for two weeks. He advises the government to stop the installation of the 5G technology.

This theory has been thoroughly disproved but it still persists. In the UK, some people resorted to burning down internet masts. What it proves is that during a time of fear and panic, people will believe anything, the wilder the better. This is a dangerous trend and the government must do a lot more to debunk such ideas before they cause more harm.

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Written by Peter Ezeh

Peter Ezeh is one of New African magazine's longest serving correspondents. He began his career in Nigeria and rose to the position of news editor of the Punch; served as Lagos chief correspondent of the Satellite newspaper group in Enugu and edited The Point in Port Harcourt. He he is an alumni of the University of Cambridge’s (Wolfson College) Press Fellowship programme.

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