“Some stakeholders believe that the the spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in Lagos State may be partly due to the non-enforcement of safety guidelines by the Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu led administration”.
Temidayo Akinsuyi, DAILY INDEPENDENT, June18, 2020, p 8.
As a regular contributor to DAILY INDEPENDENT on Mondays and Thursdays, I read our paper frequently. On several occasions in the past there had been temptations to send in a rejoinder to some views expressed in the paper. But, that urge had been suppressed by one of the rules passed to me by one of my seniors in the media. Prince Tony Momoh, former General Manager of the DAILY TIMES and an excellent columnist had in one of his writings warned against what he called “abuse of forum”. My senior will forgive me if I did not explain the term as well as he. But, to me it means this. As a regular columnist with any paper it amounts to abuse of forum if you write rejoinders to contrary views expressed by others. Up till now, I had accepted that verdict and generally lived by it. But, now there are some slight differences which call for me to make an exception to my self-imposed rule. It is the second time in almost thirty years of writing columns. However, a few explanations are required.
First, this article should not be misconstrued as a defence of Governor Sanwo-Olu per se. Rather it is a clarification of issues associated with COVID-19 and the performance of officials – President, Governors, Ministers, Commissioners, Police etc – charged with grappling with this monstrous pandemic. Let me state upfront that they have my sympathies and support. Sanwo-Olu just happened to be the specific victim of charges that can be made against officials nationally and globally. Any regular viewer of CNN on television would readily attest to the fact that compared to President Trump of the USA, Sanwo-Olu is a super-performer.
Secondly, it is hardly contestable that 99.99 per cent of Nigerians are either partially or totally ignorant of the scientific basis of this pandemic and the ways in which it is transmitted. Without claiming to be fully knowledgeable about COVID-19, I at least had a personal experience as a worker dealing with the epidemic of SYPHILLIS in New York City in 1965/6. That experience taught me a vital lesson which is still relevant for our handling of COVID-19 and our expectations from officialdom.
Thirdly, I have no reason to falsely defend the Lagos State Governor and the gallant men and women who constitute the front line army in this perilous war which is just starting. One, at 76, I fall into the category of most endangered citizens in any country. Two, as I am still recovering from a very expensive operation for cancer, I am again a top-draw potential victim of the pandemic. All those millions of naira spent so far for my treatment would have been wasted if COVID-19 strikes. I should therefore be one of the first to cry out if Governor Sanwo-Olu demonstrates any dereliction of duty. But, I am an enthusiastic admirer of our young Governor who had experienced a baptism of fire unknown to any Governor of Lagos State from Mobolaji Johnson to Akinwunmi Ambode.
“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing…” – as we all should know but don’t. Perhaps, I would have been in total agreement with the critics named if I did not have the New York City experience 55 years ago. I still remember, as if it was yesterday, how we started with one young man who tested positive for syphilis and traced up to 1270 individuals in 32 states of the USA – with the greatest difficulty imaginable. That most people infected with deadly diseases don’t voluntarily surrender themselves for testing for a pandemic was the first shocking lesson I learnt. Despite the will of governments to fight any new epidemic, lack of cooperation by victims – for several reasons – thwarts most of those efforts. What would have been an uphill task in the first instance is turned into a mission almost impossible by the patients and some of their relatives who hide them from officials until the disease spreads beyond concealment.
So, the notion that COVID-19 numbers spiked on account of non-enforcement by officials amounts to blaming the arresting officers instead of the thieves who increase in number and their activities while doing everything they can — with support from friends and relatives to evade arrest.
COVID-19 AND MY WINDOW WITH A VIEW.
“[Sanwo-Olu] as the Chief Security Officer of Lagos, he has failed in the area of enforcement of the safety measures put in place which may have triggered the spread of the virus in the state…”, according to one critic interviewed. The individuals interviewed hammered on the lack of enforcement and they all pointed to the illegal activities of okadas banned, refusal of danfos to observe laid down regulations about numbers of passengers to be carried, face masks and sanitizers to be used etc. And, they concluded that the Governor has failed to uphold the rules and regulations. Let me start by admitting that those charges are quite correct. Nobody can deny them. But, admission of the charges and apportionment of blame are two different things for several reasons.
First, Lagos State and the Federal Government announced the safety measures almost simultaneously. The bulk of the enforcement was the responsibility of the Police. Even the most unfair critic of any Nigerian Governor must admit that the title Chief Security Officer of the State is at best a misnomer; or, at worst a joke. No state Governor controls the Commissioner of Police. At best, the Governor enjoys a good working relationship with the CP. There is absolutely nothing the Governor can do on his own to get the police officers in the state to do anything contrary to what the CP instructs. We all experienced that when Lagos Police arrested doctors and journalists during the lockdown – despite clearance by Governor and Federal Ministers. As everybody knows, it is extremely difficult to lift load when the person expected to do the heavy lifting refuses to cooperate.
Second, my view from my hospital bed at Anthony Village provided a front row seat to several shows of shame by Nigerians, including pillars of society, and the Police. Being in acute pain 24/7 kept me awake for hours at night. A check point mounted right from the first night lockdown was scheduled to commence quickly became a regular ATM machine by the officers. Despite the regular flow of incorrigible lawbreakers, no single person was arrested. Everybody had a price and was allowed to go once paid. After a week, I was convinced that a total breakdown in enforcement was inevitable. I observed the violation of all the regulations by Police, Army, LASTMA officials daily from just my window.
Furthermore, I updated my knowledge of what went on outside by interviewing my visitors, regular callers and the staff of the hospital. There was only one unmistakable conclusion. Any Governor of Lagos State faced with the pandemic and needing to institute tough measures to combat it was fighting not one but two pandemics – COVID-19 and endemic CORRUPTION. The second came first and will remain long after CORO had gone the way of HIV, polio and Ebola. You cannot blame Sanwo-Olu for that. You can only pity him.
“Governing Italians is not impossible; it is merely useless, Benito Mussolini, 1883-1945”. The late dictator who uttered that damning verdict on his people would alter his views of Italians after a week of running Lagos State. At least, he did not have to deal with soldiers presumed to be disciplined and sane driving against traffic. One hour at Mile 2 would convince him that he had stumbled into the world’s largest open mental asylum. To be quite candid, it was difficult for me to understand how any critic of government can blame Sanwo-Olu for what has been a long-standing breakdown of law and order in Nigeria in general and Lagos in particular. The Governor was probably still in secondary school when one of my former classmates in the university in the US came to Nigeria in 1988 and pronounced my country “the most rowdy in the world”. He had travelled to more than 55 countries worldwide before arriving in Lagos. He could not believe he was in our former national capital. COVID-19, which being novel in terms of its prevalence, had brought its own unique confusion, landed in a country which was ill-prepared to receive it. More to the point, a pandemic which required absolute societal order elsewhere – China, Germany, Belgium, Belarus etc – is now challenging the Governor of the most wilfully lawless places on earth. Whose fault?
Permit me to illustrate how Lagosians deliberately undermine governments’ efforts in everything – including eradication of COVID-19. Despite having a hefty hospital bill to pay, I made up my mind to provide face masks for several people on my street as well as visitors to my house. I had made the mistake of thinking that most of them were not using face masks because they could not afford them. So, on the day I was discharged, face masks were ordered and free distribution started. My first shock occurred when a senior cousin who was given two masks came two days after without a face mask. His reason? “Government is just bothering people. There is no CORO.” He was not alone.
Obviously, no government and no governor can succeed if the vast majority of the governed are unwilling to do their duties. If ever there is a common fault Nigerians have, it is our general refusal to do our own duties – especially with regard to obeying laws. Unfortunately for us, with Nigeria being under-policed, it is impossible for all the lawbreakers to be apprehended even if the police are totally honest. Added to this is our reluctance to point out the known criminals in our midst. A society which readily shields even armed robbers and cultists sees nothing wrong in hiding those infected with COVID-19. Enforcement starts with us, but, we have absolutely refused to undertake community enforcement. Instead, we prefer shifting the blame on Sanwo-Olu and Buhari.
It is not only in Nigeria or Lagos State that governments were faced with inadequate resources – hospital bed spaces, ventilators, masks, isolation centres and especially doctors and nurses. Even if Lagos State had all the money in the world, all the resources mentioned above would have been in short supply. One of the most important safety items are isolation centres. There was none on the day Nigeria first decided to act on COVID-19. Several have since been provided. Still, they are inadequate. Again, while the critics were absolutely correct about the situation in which the state finds itself, they have failed to acknowledge the scale of the difficulties faced by the state government. Another comparison with the USA will help to clear the point.
The USA, the world’s richest country and one of the best equipped to deal with health calamities has now become the COVID-19 capital of the world. America with 5 per cent of world population accounts now for 25 per cent of global deaths. Right now, the country is experiencing a spike in infections. Virtually all the spike was due to people not observing safety precautions prescribed by governments. Invariably, safety begins, and even ends, with each of us – not governments. We should stop blaming Governor Sanwo-Olu for what is essentially our own failings as inhabitants of Lagos state.