Nigeria’s Political Leaders Need to Win Trust to Tackle COVID-19 by Idayat Hassan

COVID-19 will require Nigeria’s government to rely on already stretched communities and informal institutions. But there is a yawning gap in trust and accountability between citizens and the state in Nigeria – the crisis will force the state to attempt to bridge this divide.

News stand in Lagos, Nigeria on April 12, 2020. Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images.

Nigeria is better placed than many to respond to the arrival of the coronavirus disease. In 2014, it successfully contained a deadly Ebola virus outbreak and the country’s current score on the Epidemic Preparedness Index (38.9 per cent) is higher than the African and global averages.

But the outbreak is compounding Nigeria’s numerous pre-existing crises. It was already grappling with a Lassa fever outbreak that has claimed more than one hundred lives in 2020, the aftermath of recession, and conflict and insecurity within its borders.

Effective leadership to build confidence will be vital. However, President Muhammadu Buhari has made few appearances, delivering his first speech on Nigeria’s response more than one month after the country’s first recorded case. And the indefinite suspension of meetings of the Federal Executive Council has raised questions on the efficacy of the response.

Extended lockdown imposed

The recent loss of President Buhari’s steadfast chief of staff Abba Kyari as a result of contracting COVID-19 is a further significant setback for the presidency. But the administration has established a presidential task force to develop a national strategy and an extended lockdown has been imposed on the most affected states – Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. The country has also closed national borders and is expanding testing capacity to 1,500 per day.

However, when Nigeria’s first case was recorded on February 27 it was state governments that initially took action – shutting schools, closing state borders and imposing lockdowns. Going forwards, the 36 state governments will have a key role to play although their governance capacity and commitment varies widely.

The federal government has released $2.7 million to support the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), and promised an additional $18 million – but this falls well short of the estimated $330 million needed to tackle the coronavirus disease in Nigeria. The government is looking to its private sector to help make up the difference. The country’s finances are under severe pressure with Nigerian crude oil – the main source of government revenue and foreign exchange reserves – selling for as low as $12 or $13 a barrel (with production costs of around $22 per barrel), and a debt servicing to revenue ratio of more than 50 per cent even before the oil price crash.

Facing its second recession in four years, with -3.4 per cent GDP growth forecast by the IMF, the country has little economic resilience. Nigeria will not be able to sustain restrictions on its 81.15 million-strong workforce, 83.2 per cent of which operate in the informal sector. One area at particular risk is food security, as the pandemic is disrupting farming, supply chains and trade. By building on past benefit programmes, the federal government is providing cash and distributing food to vulnerable households, but this important effort is being hampered by poor communication, inefficiencies and a lack of transparency – longstanding challenges in many aspects of public service delivery in Nigeria.

In the absence of a reliable social safety net, Nigerians trust and rely on their families, communities and the informal economy to see them through difficult times. It is these informal mechanisms that lend Nigeria its oft-referenced resilience, which has enabled society to function and continue while a largely disconnected political class has focused on self-enrichment.

It is through these traditional channels that the government will need to deliver information, support, testing and treatment. But without high levels of trust, the administration may find it difficult to do so. Many Nigerians initially considered the pandemic a hoax, some describing it as a ‘rich man’s disease’, while others see it as another conspiracy by politicians to loot the treasury.

Lockdown measures have also heightened tensions across the country. Some citizens are rebelling and in one instance burned down a police station in response to the closure of mosques in Katsina state. Marking a further breakdown in the relationship between the population and its leaders, the Nigerian National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) recently reported security services enforcing the lockdown have extrajudicially killed 18 people, while, so far, COVID-19 has killed 25 people in Nigeria.

Mitigating the spread and worst consequences of the virus will depend on the state rebuilding trust with its citizens through effective communication and action. It is particularly important that the community mechanisms of support are protected as they come under growing pressure as communities become increasingly affected by the virus.

The stark choice facing most Nigerians – between risking starvation and risking contagion – means a sustained lockdown is not a tenable option. People will choose to go to work. This will especially be the case as people grow weary of measures imposed upon them by a state that the vast majority of the population believe does not serve or care for them.

Having largely ignored the needs of Nigeria’s citizens for decades, the political class face an uphill battle in building trust with the population. Earning this trust is not only crucial for the struggle against COVID-19 but also for Nigeria’s longer-term progress and system of political governance.

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