By John Mayaki
Yesterday, I received the notice of concern raised by the Edo State Chapter of the Nigeria Union of Journalists. The issue addressed by the honorable body is important and vital, especially as we are in a period of great uncertainty and biting anxiety occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic.
The effects of the pandemic and the lockdown it affected are far-reaching and widely encompassing. It has wrought fear in our polity, it has charged the laymen to be alert, and it has ruffled professionals, tottering them to the brinks of their ethics and boundaries. Such is the unsettling nature of these despairing times.
For our great profession, journalism, parts and parcel of the job is to interrogate, to stir conversations, to question, and to make sense of suspicious patterns too coincidental or too shoddy for our curious and imaginative minds. Worse, we are compelled by the very substance of our vocation—timeliness—to make our judgments with little or no time for thorough reconsideration and examination especially in matters that are transient.
The same can be said about the story involving Philip Shaibu, the Deputy Governor of Edo State, his COVID-19 status, and that of his steward. There was a shoddy development that seemed to be concealed, a pattern, and there was a top government officer making visitations and applying himself to public functions. With our health worries charged, leaving us all freaking under the heavily damaging potential outcomes of a possible positive carrier mingling at such scale with unsuspecting individuals, I was moved by my journalistic specter to do exactly what my job requires me to do: ask questions, stir conversations, and by so doing, hope to extract the truth from its secret holders, and saving many from infection.
My publication did not, deliberately, seek to malign or besmirch or tarnish anyone’s image or reputation. Not the Deputy Governor, not the alleged steward, and certainly nobody. Yet, the forces and factors from the foregoing paragraph, combining with the fact that this current government has an infamous reputation for incompetence, recklessness, and sloppiness. All this leads to acting in the manner of our calling, possessed with the great care to avoid the irresponsibility of a party, from punishing the other.
It is important to clarify that at no point, in the first report and others that followed, was it said categorically that the Deputy Governor had tested in one way, whether positive or negative, to the viral disease. Also, in all the pushback, the report on the status of his steward was neither denied nor contradicted. This, therefore, makes the questioning rational and important. The combative response that followed on the part of the state government, instead of a simple clarification, is what threatens the sanctity of journalism, its ability to probe, and its sacred duty of keeping watch over those entrusted with powers by the masses.
In reaction to the series of reports on the status of Edo State’s Deputy Governor, Comrade Philip Shaibu, and whether or not he has been exposed to the coronavirus disease, his media team, in its usual combative and tactless nature, attempted to offer a clarification by claiming that regular testing is a natural occurrence for the Deputy Governor due to his position as the Head of Edo State’s Technical Committee of COVID-19 Response team.
The Deputy Governor, the statement claimed, undergoes regular routine testing, the latest being Thursday, May 7 where, according to them, he was given a clean bill. But there are problems with the statement and several questions that went unanswered.
Philip Shaibu’s team and the government have spent over a billion naira in the management of COVID-19 in Edo State, according to Governor Godwin Obaseki in a press address. However, despite this huge bill and Shaibu’s ability to get routine, regular testing as claimed by his own media team, several regions of Edo State remain without testing centers and the functional one in the capital city of Benin lacks adequate testing kits, an embarrassing situation that compels it to conduct ‘test’ by verbally examining people, according to multiple accounts from those who have undergone such tests.
Similarly, the health workers in the state who are the real heroes on the frontline, not Shaibu as claimed by his media team in an offensive attempt to make a hero out of an Executive who enjoys preferential and luxurious treatment at the expense of the state, remain without Personal Protective Equipment and are exposed to needless danger.
To bridge this gap, Edo State government has routinely begged private companies for handouts, and only recently, it took delivery of some items from a CHINESE firm. If the government and Shaibu’s technical team has spent over a billion naira, but cannot provide the basics needed to fight the viral disease, it begs the question: where did the money go?
Crucially too, in the denial cum grandstanding, a matter of great importance was tactically avoided: whether or not a steward in the service of the Deputy Governor tested positive to the coronavirus disease.
If yes as several reports already confirmed, then an explanation must be given on why this wasn’t announced by the Deputy Governor and his team who announced, almost with glee, the infection of the Deputy Commissioner of Police [without check with the Police hierarchy] – and why even in their response, they failed still to devote a single sentence to clarify this. Could this be another concealment?
Furthermore, in the phone-in program Shaibu appeared in on ITV, he gave an estimate of the cost of ventilators but refused to announce how much the state government purchased the equipments. However, upon checks, from the Deputy Governor’s interview, it costs the Edo State Government about N24 million for each one even though independent investigations into government invoices used for the purchase showed N50 million as the unit cost for one. This contradiction requires clarification with proof, especially as the administration has been accused by several agencies of bucking due process and using the public health crisis to continue its looting of the treasury.
Finally, nearly a month ago, the Edo State government boasted of contracting local tailors for the mass production of face masks for onward distribution to the people of the state AFTER it criminalized movement in the state without the masks. Since then, the special court Obaseki set up has harassed, abused, and extorted poor Edo people to the condemnation of the Nigerian Bar Association – but the government is yet to distribute a single face mask as promised. What happened to the contract?
No one is interested in stigmatizing a man whose public records have already earned him the stigma of an irascible public servant interested only in personal enrichment but if his media team must earn their keep, then they ought to stop being half clever and offer full accountability to the people. He who comes to equity must come with clean hands.