Covid-19 has revealed waning strength of government –Oseloka Obaze

Aloysius Attah, Onitsha

Mr Oseloka H. Obaze is a diplomat, writer, public policy and governance expert and politician. He was the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate in the Anambra State governorship election in 2017. Obaze, a former United Nations official, served as Secretary to the Anambra State Government under Governor Peter Obi and Governor Willie Obiano from 2012 to 2015. In this encounter,  he looked at COVID-19  and other national issues.

You have been very outspoken on the COVID-19 crisis, offering policy advice as well as constructive criticisms. Do you think the governments -federal and state -have given Nigerian citizens enough incentives to comply with the lockdown order imposed to control the ravaging Coronavirus from spreading in the country? Has the FGN and the states done well? Secondly, how have you coped with the COVID-19 challenges and lockdown as  an individual?  

Doing well is relative and depending on the applicable standards. If you posed that very question to Nigerians on the streets and markets, you will get very mixed responses; mostly negative. But my role as a private and attentive citizen is to offer honest advice and constructive criticism, without grandstanding or politicizing the issues. Both the Federal and state governments have responded constructively to the Covid-19 pandemic within the scope of their governance abilities. But as a nation our overall response has been very weak. Some states passed with flying colours, while some states failed woefully. We have also witnessed some  draconian measures. But overall, we failed in healthcare delivery; we failed in communications; we failed in education and orientation; we failed in mobilization and logistics and we failed in our responsibility to protect the average citizen. As I’ve said before, the Covid-19 pandemic has debunked illusions, unraveled myths, and shredded soft power of big and small nations. It has uspended normalcy and unfolded a very dysfunctional and chaotic world. Nigeria is no exception. In Nigeria, the Covid-19 revealed the waning strength of government.   For the other question, I have been in Awka since January. Like everyone else, I was affected by the lockdown and focused on keeping safe. Naturally, I have also worried about my family and dependents, staff, friends and constituents in terms of their safety and subsistence. I managed to use the lockdown period productively to complete work on my forthcoming books. However, these are still very difficult, disturbing and interesting times.

The number of suspected COVID-19 positive cases is on the increase daily across Nigeria, what other measures should have been adopted by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control(NCDC), Federal and state governments to control the rising trend, vis-a-vis lock-down, curfew etc?

There is no denying that Nigeria lost invaluable lead response time. We underestimated the power of this unseen enemy that respected no boundaries. As a nation the pandemic caught Nigeria totally unawares and unearthed our limited national capacities and competencies in various sectors. Whether within the NCDC or outside, we had neither the vaccines nor ventilators. We also did not have isolation and treatment centres, despite the numerous University Teaching Hospitals in this country. The only practical option left to us, was containment and mitigation; and both required effective communications. But we also failed in that regard. Stark evidence exists of a huge trust deficit as reflected by the collective failure of our leaders in persuading the national population to comply with stipulated public safety measures. Also, the government’s inability to take the hardheaded decision to lockdown the nation totally and longer, after putting the correct palliative and testing measures in place, was a clear policy and systemic failure. There was clear absence of national resilience strategy and synergy. We have not utilized our scientists effectively or explored possible local remedies like Madagascar and Senegal. If not, why would Kano State export infected Almajirai to other states? Why would some states suppress or hide their infection rates? In terms of successes and failures, all the numbers are not in yet. People are still being infected daily, people are dying daily; thus the scope of our failure is still being reflected in the hard numbers of continuing infections and rising fatalities. Painfully, we are not yet out of the woods and I’m deeply troubled that palliative and mitigation measures being put in place are largely transaction-driven. If not, why has FGN not disbursed funds directly to the states and the states not disbursed cash and food palliatives directly to the people? Where is NEMA, SEMA and the social welfare agencies? It is regrettable that some policymakers and bureaucrats at federal and state levels see the response to the pandemic as business as usual; even as people are dying daily from infections and hunger. It’s most regrettable that the national leadership initially tackled the pandemic perfunctorily.

Are you not worried that both the Federal and state governments are not giving accounts of COVID -19 funds? 

As I mentioned earlier, there is an element of opacity in the way the funds are being segregated and handled. This is quite in contrast to how the FGN handled the 2012 flood disaster. There was clarity and transparency in handling the funds and donations. Presently, we read of and hear lots of donations and pledges being announced, but no transparent record of how the funds are being disbursed or spent. That amounts to fiscal irresponsibility. Some states have set up committees, published funds received and funds spent in the spirit of full disclosure. Others have not. Such dichotomy in fiduciary practices, duties and responsibilities has created room for speculation, for mischief and indeed for official malfeasance. The situation is sufficiently worrying.

You warned that unlocking Anambra without adequate preparations will spell doom. Nearly two weeks after Governor Obiano unlocked Anambra, which you described as “precipitate”, are you still nursing fears that the worst is yet to be over. As Anambra is at the moment active COVID-19 case free, does this call for celebration?

As you know, I went out of my way to make a pronouncement on Anambra State’s COVID-19 policy trajectory. For some, it is extremely difficult to accept constructive criticisms. I don’t want to be a harbinger of bad news, but the grave implications of Anambra unlocking early might be sorely felt in the months ahead. Naturally, every success should be celebrated. However, we should do so with cautious optimism, since whatever celebration or relief that is being enjoyed now might be ephemeral. Again, I hope and pray that I’m wrong. It made no sense to unlock without testing; just as it made no sense to embark on lockdown without putting mitigating fiscal and subsistence palliative measures in place.

How would you react to the increasing internal human migration and flouting of restriction of movement and lockdown order by federal and the various state governments as means of checking Coronavirus spread? Also Anambra State government mapped out measures — some shrouded in controversy- to help mitigate the spread of Coronavirus in the state, do you think the governor has done well in handling the situation?

I spoke earlier about absence of synergy and lack of coordination. I also talked about failure in communication and civic orientation. You cannot ask people who are uninformed to take their civic responsibility seriously. Our people feel that government lies to them all the time. If frequently, the government cries wolf; now there’s a wolf no one believes them. It ought to have been evident to the FGN and to the states that a collaborative approach was needed. Going it alone was not an alternative. We seem to be closing the door of the barn long after the horses have bolted. Now the entire nation is infested. I can assure you that the 36 states of Nigeria bar none, now all have Covid-19 carriers, even if they are untested and unidentified. Monitoring and mitigation measures adopted by Anambra are not peculiar, other states like Rivers have done the same. The devil is in the style and details of implementation.

What do you suggest as a way out?  Federal Government reportedly attached distribution of palliatives to mandatory vaccination to curb the spread of COVID-19. Do you consider the vaccine safe as many are indicating that they will forgo the palliatives and the vaccine?

That is absolute balderdash. There is no known vaccine for Covid-19. And FGN certainly cannot make such a vaccine which does not exist mandatory.

COVID-19 is seen as a conspiracy directed against President Trump to trample the U.S. economy so he can lose grip and fail his second term bid. As a retired U.N. Diplomat, what is your view on this matter?

This is another speculation that falls within the realm of conspiracy theory. Is Covid-19 pro-democracy or anti-democracy? Does the pandemic distinguish between democrats, socialists, and communists? Really, we ought not to dignify such assertions with answers.

You made reference to your forthcoming books. In 2017, you published Prime Witness, which assessed President Buhari’s early years in office. Your assessments in that book stand validated. What are the new books about? 

The first, Africa’s Vision is my second collection of poems. The second, Waning Strength of Government is on governance in Nigeria, with a focus on the diminution or the rule of law, ordered liberties and possible rise of illiberalism in our democracy. The third, Nigeria: Caught in the Whirlwind, which I’m coauthoring with a former U.N. colleague, Ambassador Eloho Otobo, is due out in the latter part of 2020. It is also on governance and explores how the weak democratic leadership combined with weak democratic institutions; continue to undermine our nation-building efforts and development.

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