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When Buhari finally spoke about COVID-19

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Buhari, COVID-19
President Muhammadu Buhari

By Rotimi Fasan,

It was less than 20 minutes. It did not have to be more than that. But had President Muhammadu Buhari taken out time to address Nigerians on the raging invisible killer codenamed COVID-19, Nigerians would not have complained he said nothing.

Had he taken necessary and pre-emptive steps and ordered the closure of major entry points into the country as the terrible virus spread like wild fires across the world and Nigeria appeared immune, our people would not have been on edge. But it took our dear president all of four weeks to address the anxiety of Nigerians.

Four weeks when the number of infected persons had rapidly increased from the initial index case as at February 27, to 97 as I write this some two hours after the presidential address that was never going to be even though it was described as ‘scheduled’- for when and by who?

Was it after the impertinent presidential silence that was neither seemly nor golden? Silence that only helped fuelled rumour that the president had himself become a victim of COVID-19? Was Buhari’s speech scheduled after the invectives hurled in his direction by an unknown mullah that was outraged by the insensitivity of a president that appeared to be in government but not in power?

What really was the basis of the claim that Buhari’s address was scheduled? Was the address scheduled after Abba Kyari, the president’s chief of staff, went down with COVID-19 and had to be hurriedly evacuated from the presidential mansion?

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It is reasonable to ask if Buhari’s speech was scheduled after Aso Villa and other government houses across the country became the apparent ground zero for the spread of a murderous virus that appeared specially designed for the highly placed and sated members of our world?
No, Mr. President. You were forced by public outcry to speak. Otherwise, you would have remained silent as you did as cattle herders unleashed violence cross Benue, Taraba and other states across the length and breadth of this country. The call for the president to address the nation became too vociferous for Buhari to ignore and that was why he chose to speak.

Otherwise, he would have been satisfied with reports and still pictures of dying and dead Nigerians just as he did during the recent explosion that took many lives and destroyed properties worth billions of naira in Abule-Ado in Lagos.

And when Nigeria’s most standoffish leader finally bowed to pressure and addressed the nation, he painted a picture of a government and people that was stirred into action from the get-go. That would be more than what Nigerians could agree to. Nor would there be many willing to concede that the government acted early.

But in Buhari’s own words: “From 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.”

Such measures as claimed here by Buhari could only have been in the imagination of the Abuja that appeared to be in denial about the virus reaching Nigeria and was more interested in retailing false hope characterised by empty bluster. Abuja seemed paralysed by indecision or was waiting for only God-knows-what before moving.

In the light of the relative speed with which certain decisions were taken around the third week of March, it seemed the delay was contrived to enable relations and associates of key players in the Buhari government slip back home before the borders would be shut. Not surprisingly, it was from among this category of people, latest arrivals from Western capitals, that the coronavirus would be retailed to the rest of stay-at-home Nigerians.

The devil-may-care posture Abuja assumed at the outbreak of COVID-19 was unbecoming of a government that takes the business of governance seriously. It lacked empathy and was mainly responsible for the feeling that President Buhari had decided to abandon Nigerians to their fate. But his minders, lost for a better explanation, said it was a matter of the president’s style – one that forbade him giving assurance to a beleaguered people?

Or so, Femi Adesina would have us all believe. There is no doubt that Buhari’s spokespersons have a very tough row to plough managing him. But they are better off staying silent in many instances.

Late as it came, the president’s speech struck a note of reassurance. Nigerians must derive a measure of relief hearing from their president who some had all but convinced them had been stricken by the dreaded virus and is quarantined in Aso Villa. Failing to offer such assurance at a time of crisis is a luxury no leader can afford.

Nor should it be reduced to a matter of style or personal choice. Buhari freely offered to be president and he should be seen to be doing the job of a president, wielding and exercising the authority invested in his office. This is not a task to be executed through surrogates or hired hands.

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Which is why his submission in his address that “there is no such thing as an overreaction or an under reaction”, and everything “is all about the right reaction by the right agencies and trained experts” should be rejected as a puff of hot air.

A leader is either executing his duty and is seen to be doing so or he is not. Not when the paid hands, working under strenuous circumstances, as are the medical personnel on the frontline, are themselves coming down with the virus. A leader should step up to be counted not hibernate in the shadows, leaving the people to their own devices.

All thanks to Lagos governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, who rose to the occasion and has continued to provide leadership when Abuja chose to abdicate. Same for Dapo Abiodun, Gboyega Oyetola and others like Nasir El Rufai who, though now infected himself, did not wait before taking steps to protect his state.

Warriors like Akin Abayomi, the Lagos State Commissioner of Health; Chikwe Ihekweazu of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, are deservedly praised by the president and celebrated by Nigerians. They are among the heroes of the COVID-19 war. But in intervening, President Buhari should not be seen to be violating the law.

By unilaterally directing the ‘cessation’ of all movements in Lagos, in particular, and the FCT, the president has once again stepped outside the law. Lagos is a state and is not under emergency rule.

Every step taken by the governor has been backed by appropriate law. Buhari should not act differently. And what is that blather about school-feeding pupils at home? Really? Is Abuja listening to itself?


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