By Ikechukwu Amaechi
I STRONGLY believe that Nigeria is yet to see the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. As Chinua Achebe would say, it is still “morning yet on creation day,” and, therefore, it may be too early to pat anyone on the back for a job well done. But I am tempted to do just that because as the Igbo would say, ekele onye akidi, ya agwota ozo (when you thank someone for a bowl of local beans delicacy, he prepares another).
In this fight against the lethal enemy, COVID-19, Nigerians owe the Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, and the Commissioner for Health, Prof. Akin Abayomi, a debt of gratitude. Yes, it is not yet over, the enemy is still on the prowl and the country is at war, literally, but it could have been worse if Sanwo-Olu did not rise to the occasion.
While some other leaders hid behind the protective walls of state houses because as we were told, it is not their style to lead from the front at a time of grave national crisis, the Lagos State helmsman stepped up to the plate, effectively became the face of Nigeria’s response to the pandemic and proved that only one leadership style works at such a time and it cannot be standoffishness.
A good leader must show presence. Inspirational leadership is an anathema to aloofness. A good leader must level up with the people at all times and this can only be done by exhibiting the virtues of honesty and integrity. Good leadership demands confidence because that is the only way to inspire others. There must be commitment and passion. Above all, a good leader who must lead from the front must be a good communicator. You can’t as a matter of style hide behind the walls of the presidential palace and still lay claim to leadership.
There are times when delegation of responsibilities does not cut the ice: in those moments, a leader must show presence. That is what leading from the front means. And that is exactly what Sanwo-Olu has done in the last two months. He simply filled the yawning leadership vacuum in the land. If Nigeria succeeds in riding the COVID-19 storm, as we are all praying, that feat will be largely due to the proactiveness of the governor.
Following report of the index case on Thursday, February 27, Sanwo-Olu promptly addressed Lagosians, cautioned against panic and became COVID-19 Lagos Incident Commander. The index case, an Italian who works in Nigeria, had just returned from Milan, Italy, on Tuesday, February 25.
The state swung into action immediately the case was confirmed by the virology laboratory of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital. The patient was isolated and treated at the Infectious Disease Hospital in Yaba. Proactive contact tracing measures were taken to track all those who had physical contact with him. That was not going to be easy in a state with a population estimated to be well over 20 million, but the government devised creative tracking mechanisms to accomplish the task.
Liaising with the National Centre for Disease Control, NCDC and all other relevant bodies, Lagos State led the battle against the spread of the disease. In assuming the role of Incident Commander, good communication became a necessary tool and the governor deployed it most effectively, becoming in the process, Nigeria’s version of Governor Andrew Cuomo of the state of New York in the US.
While other state governors were dawdling, Lagos was busy setting up more isolation centres. Sanwo-Olu addressed residents everyday, allaying fears, debunking rumours and admonishing them on the need for strict personal hygiene.
Today, apart from the Mainland Infectious Disease Hospital, Yaba, there are at least three other isolation centres in the state, which are the most functional, equipped and best run in the country. Long before the Federal Government and other state governments started treading the lockdown path, Sanwo-Olu had placed Lagos on partial lockdown and rolled out palliatives. Have the measures been perfect and foolproof? Definitely no. But by taking those actions and early enough, Sanwo-Olu showed leadership.
Some may ask why what he did in Lagos matters to other Nigerians. The answer is simple. When Lagos sneezes, the rest of the country catches cold. The only reason why Nigerians are able to relatively breathe easy today is because the coronavirus has not been able to overwhelm Lagos as it did New York.
As at Wednesday, April 8, there are 254 confirmed cases out of which six patients have died while 44 have fully recovered. Of the six fatalities, the death on Tuesday of a 66-year-old Briton who travelled from India via Dubai to Lagos on March 17, was the third in the state.
Expectedly, the state continues to bear the brunt of the pandemic with 130 cases out of the country’s 254 cases. But of the 44 patients who have so far recovered, 32 did so in Lagos with 93 still undergoing treatment. And Sanwo-Olu continues, in the best traditions of leadership, to inspire hope.
On Saturday, April 4, he maximised, once again, the potency of his high office as a bully pulpit to bring out the best in the civic life of Lagosians who rightly feel besieged by telling them that the road ahead will be tough. But at the same time, he assured that the problem was surmountable.
“Fellow Lagosians, let me, again, seize this opportunity to remind you all that while the road ahead remains long and uncertain, I must however tell you that the bulk of the battle is fought and won in the mind,” he said.
“We must condition our minds and reinforce our psyche to take on that of a winning approach. By this, I mean that we must begin to picture life after this pandemic and a return to normalcy. We must continue to reassure ourselves that we are not weaker as a unit, but much stronger and our confidence lies in the fact that, working together, we have and will always emerge victorious.”
There is no doubt that Sanwo-Olu’s exemplary leadership role in this fight against the invisible enemy informed the decision of President Muhammadu Buhari’s chief of staff, Abba Kyari, who tested positive for coronavirus penultimate week, to relocate to Lagos last week for “additional tests and observation”. The medical experts who advised him on that are no doubt perceptive of the realities.
On Tuesday, the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 came to see what makes Lagos tick. And after a tour of the facilities, the chairman, Mr. Boss Mustapha, who is also the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, SGF, said: “So far, I think Lagos State is doing a great job. From what I’ve seen here, they’re putting up a first class and a world class facility that will help us in the management of those that are affected with COVID-19.”
While it is true that Nigeria is yet to flatten the curve of the pandemic because of the increasing number of new cases, the truth remains that Sanwo-Olu’s effective and early community isolation measures has helped in relatively mitigating community transmission and thereby keeping the daily number of cases at a manageable level for medical providers. Nigeria cannot afford an explosion in the number of new cases.
Truth be told, I can hardly recognise the Sanwo-Olu of the coronavirus-era. As I watch his deft moves, I cannot help but exclaim: “Cometh the hour, cometh the man.” When this is all over, as it will be one day, it is my hope that Nigerians will have cause to remember that yes, there was a coronavirus hour in this country and, indeed, there was a man who proved to be a leader – Babajide Sanwo-Olu.