By Tonnie Iredia
The general opposition to proposed laws by some senators to deal with the subject of fake news was informed by many reasons. To start with, the proposed laws essentially replicated existing legal provisions on the same subject thereby creating a feeling that there was an attempt to over-regulate on the fundamental subject of free speech. In addition, many Nigerians had become quite dissatisfied with poorly enforced laws and selective prosecution. But then, no one supports fake news in view of its several negative consequences. It is however important to state that Nigerians deprecate fake news the same way they abhor weighty allegations that are often swept under the carpet. One allegation amongst others which this column feels should not be so treated is the one raised a few days back by Senator Mohammed Ali Ndume who represents Southern Borno Senatorial District and also serves as chairman, Senate Committee on Army. He spoke to the media in Maiduguri on the impact of the lockdown by the federal government on the poorest of Nigerians.
Ndume’s news conference can be broken into several allegations. First, he says President Muhammadu Buhari is surrounded by corrupt politicians who use their positions to exploit and kill other Nigerians. With specific reference to the way and manner the COVID-19 palliative measures provided by the president were being handled, the senator claimed to have received numerous complaints. In his words, “if you see a minister or big person in anywhere going personally to do something, then know that there is something wrong. If not, what has the minister got to do with going from state to state to distribute palliatives? They should be in the ministry monitoring activities.” To hit the nail on the head, the senator alleged that “we have reliable information that the names they generated are fake and that they connived with some of the banks to defraud the poor” adding that “while the pitiable situation of the poor is visible to everyone, few individuals are rushing to squander the money meant for the poor.”
Although the senator’s allegations are grave, we consider as hasty his suggestion for the palliative measures committee to be disbanded and replaced by a taskforce comprising the military, police, civil defence, voluntary organisations and the NYSC, among others. We are unable to adduce evidence that a new group of people in a taskforce as he suggests would be more honest than those he has indicted. In truth, it is now a notorious fact that Nigerians who have become known for abusing their positions cut across board. We would rather call for an independent investigation of the issues Ndume raised which must lead to accountability and sanctions. We disagree with the escapist argument that Ndume should name those involved. The minister he named can be questioned, the process of distribution can be scrutinized, the banks used can be investigated. Accordingly, we prefer to extol Ndume for raising such allegations as he has always courageously done in the past. However, he too must be ready for sanctions if his allegations are found to be false. In this way, the culture of sweeping allegations under the carpet will start to fade in Nigeria.
A second allegation concerning the handling of COVID 19 that attracted our attention today is alleged fake news by the Cross-River State government which the state branch of the Nigeria Medical Association, (NMA CRS) has publicly debunked. According to the association, the claim by the health commissioner, Betta Edu, that the state has over 105 medical doctors in active duty is false. To this end, the association formally clarified that there are only 33 doctors in the state’s civil service suggesting that Edu’s claim “is misleading and a misrepresentation of a critical issue adversely affecting healthcare delivery in Cross River State.” Here, the state needs to explain how it generated its own figures to arrive at more than three times the actual number on ground. It is also necessary to find out if some officially identified ghost-doctors exist in Cross-River State. But more importantly, official fake news if exposed should not be swept under the carpet,
But why is Cross-River State unable to employ more doctors? The answer which the NMA provides is that poor pay makes retainment of critical workforce difficult. The association says doctors are paid lesser salaries than their counterparts in other states of the federation. In specific terms, the NMA alleges that doctors in the State’s civil service earn only about 50 percent of what other doctors across the country earn, making Cross River the only state in the country that pays the least salaries to doctors.
Also, in contention is the existence of an isolation centre for COVID 19 in the state. The centre according to the NMA is only a 4-bed capacity isolation unit at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital, (UCTH). This Centre which the doctors say has a grossly inadequate patient capacity is also ill-equipped because it allegedly lacks basic facilities, equipment, and accessories based on NCDC specifications.
It is important that these issues are quickly handled because failure to do so as the NMA argues could give a false sense of security to citizens of the state which so far has not had any person that has tested positive for the pandemic. We believe the NMA is not unduly critical because the same body had commended the government where she has done well and cautioned on areas calling for more action. For example, the doctors commended the government for promptly shutting the state borders which has largely prevented the transmission of the virus to the state while describing as unsafe, the policy on the use of face masks as sole protection against the virus. This is because face masks alone as protection against COVID-19 is insufficient. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) had made it clear that facemasks are complementary to social/physical distancing of at least 1 meter.
Considering that Cross-River State has remained one of the states where no one has been recorded as positive for COVID 19, Nigeria should be interested in keeping her as a model. For this to happen, we call on Governor Ben Ayade to meticulously review his order requiring all civil servants from Grade level 10 and above in the state to resume work. We imagine that except ample care is taken, this could adversely affect the global reality of avoiding mass gatherings. It seems too early in the day to assume that the states that are currently COVID 19 free would always be so. Afterall, the NCDC has already projected that the pandemic is likely to get to all states. This is why Ayade needs to encourage effective hand and respiratory hygiene and the cleaning of all contact surfaces. As more Nigerians especially those trapped abroad are striving to return home, every state including Cross River should have standard facilities such as isolation centres that meet the precise specifications of the NCDC. Our states should neither be economical with true figures and facilities nor should they sweep discrepancies and scandals under the carpet.