© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
From Government to COVID-Security: Kill Them Before the Virus Does
Chidi Anselm ODINKALU
When he reluctantly addressed the country on Sunday, 29 March, 2020 concerning the crisis of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic (COVID-19), Nigeria’s elected President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, began with the claim that “[f]rom the first signs that Coronavirus, or COVID-19 was turning into an epidemic and was officially declared a world-wide emergency, the Federal Government started planning preventive, containment and curative measures in the event the disease hits Nigeria.”
This was the opening falsehood in a short address that was long on lack of presidential candour from a man whose claim to political fame was supposedly defined by honesty.
If it cared to prepare, the regime had a magically unobtrusive way of showing it.
When he made the above claims, General Buhari was speaking to a country that was shut down in a manner arguably unparalleled in its history since the day he took over power as a military ruler on 31 December 1983. Domestic airports were shut down. Governors across the country had acted to shut down much of inter-state commute and commerce and, extraordinarily in some cases, even maritime borders. It is a measure of the lack of preparedness by the government that none of these steps had been ordered nor foreseen by the Federal Government nor had they prepared citizens for them. In all cases, state governors were taking steps in silos with little preparation or respect for niceties of rules or regard for the federal government.
This in plain sight was evidence, if any was needed, that a regime with a worldview founded on a narrow, outdated, authoritarian wiring entirely unsuited to a democratic dispensation did not much care for an approaching pandemic nor rate the threat posed by it. It had missed every opportunity to prepare and rather than admit its failings, chose to double down with a menu of verifiable falsehoods and carefully calibrated non-disclosure. In a time of global uncertainty, they calculate that a popular desire for any form of feel-good will distract attention from their cynicism.
With its focus totally captured by the desire to shut down the civic space and pursue narrow regime security objectives, this Buhari regime did everything but prepare for a global pandemic whose arrival on the shores of Nigeria was both foreseen and foreseeable. Where his promise of “change” required him to adapt the architecture and doctrines of national security he inherited in 2015 for such times, General Buhari doubled down on militarizing them.
This architecture is founded on the National Security Agencies Act of 1986, which created the SSS for internal security, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) for external intelligence, and the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), to oversee defence-related intelligence.
The National Security Adviser, NSA, who, under the Act, distils the work of these various agencies for the attention of the President, has always been a soldier since Nigeria’s return to military rule. All these agencies together with the armed services have seen their roles in martial, shooting terms.
The security threats analyses prepared by the NSA under the present administration have operated on this assumption. When he addressed the course cohort of the National Defence College in June 2018, then-Interior Minister, General Dambazau crystallized Nigeria’s national security disposition in terms of retrenching even the police from its primary role, arguing that the country was “tilted more towards low-intensity conflicts and/or asymmetric warfare, which are within the purview of military operations other than war (MOOTW).”
Essentially, the Buhari regime only sees threats in things that it can shoot-to-kill. A virus does not fit that bill. So, as the virus made its way towards the Equator, the regime was busy elsewhere.
On 18 December, 2019, as scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China began the research partnership that would result by 29 December in the viral genome sequencing for the COVID-19 virus, a Federal High Court in Calabar, Cross River State, in the south-south Nigeria ensured that Agba Jalingo, the publisher detained since the August 2020 by federal authorities and charged with treason and terrorism for writing a story that his state governor did not like, would not be granted bail until the New Year. At the beginning of the same month, as the first signs of what would become a global pandemic were sprouting out in China, agents of the State Security Service (SSS) were busy taking uncivilized steps to frustrate the freedom on bail of another publisher, Omoyele Sowore.
At the end of January 2020, when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global emergency, General Buhari appeared to be interested in the growing insecurity in country, especially the rising violence in Nigeria’s largest state, Niger State, in the north-central region. While this clearly was an important thing to do, the regime did not much care to synchronise its concerns with the elected representatives of the people of Niger State or to allocate scarce political capital in pursuit of that legitimate goal.
Instead, it lined up both politics and propaganda behind the comical pursuit by Niger State’s contingent to the upper legislative chamber of the Senate of three separate bills respectively seeking capital punishment for whatever the government decides to be hate speech; shutting down social media as a source of what the government doesn’t want to hear, and seeking prison terms for Nigerians who choose to own generators in a country where government is notoriously unwilling and unable to provide electricity.
Emphasising the lack of preparation, procurements of the Federal Ministry of Health at the time of the President’s broadcast were parceled off to be handled by the Ministry of Agriculture, a development that was more than 30 months old, despite repeated protests from various echelons in the Health hierarchy.
Far from preparing the country, General Buhari’s government had as a fact done everything to ensure the country was not ready. This fits a global pattern noted by Florian Bieber, writing for Foreign Policy on 30 March, who observes that “autocratic leaders were ill-prepared for the pandemic”, citing their “disdain for science and expertise, combined with nepotism and neglect of state institutions, including health care.”
Even amidst this crisis, the response of the regime has not much changed. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control has been encouraged to fall into a pattern of lack of candour, by failing consistently to disclose its testing parameters or metrics. The regime’s Presidential Task Force is a collection of the most loyal political yes-men who know nothing about viruses and care only to burnish the credentials of the ruling party.
The only response that has made any sense is the deployment of uniformed security assets instructed to take out their frustrations on Nigerians whom they seem to have instructions to force to choose between the virus and hunger which kills them first. It may yet end up being a clever strategy – the virus may discover that it will have no one left to kill and whoever is left can report to the world that the death toll from COVID-19 in Nigeria was close to zero.
Odinkalu, a lawyer, is co-convenor of Nigeria’s Civil Society Alliance on COVID-19 and writes in his personal capacity.