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COVID-19 and the practice of federalism

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By Rotimi Fasan

NIGERIA’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic both exposes the fault lines of our peculiar federal structure as well as throw light on our present bind and the way to achieving nationhood as a federation of states with disparate needs, goals and concerns. In the weeks following the announcement of the country’s index case, an unnamed Italian businessman on a visit to Ogun State via Lagos State, there was no response of any significance from the Federal Government. It was all silence from the country’s seat of power as Aso Villa appeared disconnected from happenings in Lagos and across the rest of the world.

It was left for the government of Lagos State, led by Babajide Sanwo-Olu, to take the initiative to act. With a Commissioner of Health, Akin Abayomi, that was more than capable, the State stepped up to fill the vacuum that was created by Abuja’s no-show. Ogun State that was the actual destination of the Italian traveller also followed the example of Lagos as the governor, Dapo Abiodun, swung into action.

Thus, was the stage set for what has now largely turned out to be a state-led response to a global pandemic. The Muhammadu Buhari administration would not do anything until our entry borders had been left open long enough for Nigerians and foreigners arriving from epicentres of the disease abroad to have free passage into the country, thereby spreading the virus to different parts of the country among people who had no travel history of any kind.

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The pattern of transmission of the disease among members of the elite and others just back from abroad showed their complicity in spreading the virus and lent credence to the misleading notion that the pandemic was a disease of the elite.

The average Nigerians, therefore, chose not to take serious precaution under the illusion that they were immune from infection. Most have, to their cost, since learnt that this was not the case. But like an alien being just dropped from outer space, when Abuja decided it was time to act, alas, after a couple of weeks of avoidable infections that would take the life of many in the ensuing months, they acted as if everyone had been as tardy as they.

President Buhari decided to impose a lockdown on Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory. Remember that Lagos and Ogun had taken pre-emptive steps of their own in responding to the announcement of the index case. But Buhari acted as if nothing had happened in these two states even while he praised the government of both states for their early response in the same speech in which he announced the curfew on the states. The action of the president was a loud, belated and unnecessary assertion of federal might where all he needed to have done was align his steps with those already taken by the two states. After weeks of inaction, the first steps by Abuja went into overdrive.

The manner the announcement from Abuja was made had subliminal import in the context of the tension between the exercise of state and federal powers in Nigeria. This was legible enough and was not lost on those savvy in the art of reading government action. It formed the context for the criticism that followed the announcement of the lockdown from Abuja which some Nigerians, not those wilfully blind to errors made by President Buhari, misconstrued as unnecessary provocation and posturing by litigious people. For these supporters of anything Buhari, such erasure of state power was a mere detail that had no place in the face of imminent national deaths. Indeed, Nigerians could do without any delay at that time given the earlier tardiness of Abuja. But it was important to point out the error in the president’s action even when this was not pursued further.

After two extensions of the Abuja-imposed lockdown to which Kano State would be added following the irresponsible negligence of the state government that cued the people of the state into actively courting the pandemic after throwing all preventive measures overboard, leading to the rapid transmission of the virus- after the two weeks curfew was extended twice, it was clear Abuja could no longer pretend to be in charge. It ceded leadership to the states, asking them to take control of the country’s response.

President Buhari, whose government and party by their actions have refused to recognise the federalist intent of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) has, without willing to, accepted that Nigeria is a federation. It is remarkable that the President had to make this acknowledgement willy-nilly in the face of his own inadequate or the uncoordinated response of his government to the COVID-19 pandemic. Severely sapped of the means, including funds and ideas for responding to and meeting the needs of different states, Abuja in a sense chose to wash its hand off the coronavirus wahala and invited each state to own its problem or do what it thinks right in the circumstances toward containing the pandemic. It’s now “To thy tent O Israel!”

Like a true federation or what constitutes one (which nobody pretends not to understand now we have to respond to COVID-19), each state has been paddling their own canoe. Not even hitherto regional, ethnic, religious or sectarian links have held up. Thus while a state like Kano, with Abdulahi Ganduje in charge, chose to throw its doors open to the pandemic, offering it board like a prostitute offers her client, neighbouring Kaduna State with Nasir El Rufai overseeing things has in place, arguably, the severest lockdown regime in the country and has been firm in turning back trailer loads of Kano’s unattended youth population nicknamed almajarai to Kano, one of the worst hit epicentres of the pandemic.

While Kaduna has chosen to keep religious centres under lock and key, Kano has resolutely committed to opening up such centres. The likes of Yahaya Bello of Kogi State and Ben Ayade of Cross River State downright denied the presence of the pandemic in their states while actively supressing any report of it. From Sokoto to Oyo, Abia to Borno, it’s been to each its problem and there haven’t been many complaints.

At any other time before now, Abuja and our ever-ready, “detribalised Nigerians” would have insisted on a national or “federal” response; they would have impressed it on all who care to listen that no state can choose their own direction as the unity of Nigeria is “not negotiable”. That has been the standard response to Nigerians agitating for state police, fiscal federalism and control of resources accruing to each state.

What Lord Lugard has joined together and mischievous regionalists masquerading as federalists have misread as federalism for their selfish reasons, coronavirus is putting asunder.

Vanguard

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