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COVID-19: Nigeria is institutionally weak to tackle major emergencies

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By Olu Fasan

A FEW years ago, some foreign security experts visited Nigeria to study its crisis management system with a view to offering advice and support. What they found shocked them. Nigeria’s standards, they said, were below what they had feared. The country’s technical ability to handle crisis was very low.

There was little day-to-day preparedness; there were too many competing agencies that never talked to each other, let alone coordinate their activities. The whole system was absurdly hierarchical and deferential, with an entrenched ‘Oga factor’. Basic IT skills were lacking. In short, the system was shambolic and chaotic.

Few Nigerians will find that surprising. But while the level of incompetence is tolerable in normal times, it is dangerous in times of emergencies.

The problem, of course, is Nigeria’s lack of institutional capacity, starting with its inability to make good policies. As the UK-based Institute for Government, IFG, points out: “Good government depends on good policy making”. But in Nigeria, it’s policymaking by muddling through!

Last week, I argued that President Buhari’s decision to impose lockdowns on Lagos, Ogun and Abuja was not based on sound science or evidence. Now, without proper consideration of science or practicality, he has “eased” the lockdown, but with two ridiculous conditions: “mandatory” use of facemasks in public and “mandatory” physical distancing.

Yet when people trooped out in Lagos this week, hardly any of them practised social distancing, defined as keeping a distance of two metres apart, and hardly anyone wore a facemask. The government reacted by threatening to “proclaim another round of lockdown”. But really? How do you expect people to keep a distance of two metres apart in Lagos, one of the world’s busiest cities? Or how do people maintain social distance in a public market in Lagos or Abuja? It was a thoughtless diktat.

Take the other diktat: “mandatory” use of facemasks. The World Health Organisation says it doesn’t recommend the general use of facemasks in public because “they can be contaminated by other people’s coughs and sneezes, or when putting them on or removing them”. In any case, would the government give facemasks to ordinary Nigerians?

I notice that some ministers, governors and public officials have turned the facemasks into a fashion statement, with different colours and designs; but poor Nigerians, who have just escaped the lockdown trauma, cannot afford that luxury, and forcing them to use cheap coverings is a potential health hazard because of the risk of contaminations.

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Truth is, the mandatory requirements on facemasks and physical distancing in public are a product of poor policymaking, the result of the inability to think through policy choices and consequences, and the utter failure to understand and apply behavioural insights, a key tool of modern policymaking.

But beyond the mediocrity in policymaking and strategic thinking, which has a huge impact on Nigeria’s emergency preparedness and response planning, there is the wider issue of institutional capabilities. I mean, which of the emergency or crisis management institutions in Nigeria is working? Which of them has strong ability to get things done? Take the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, established in 2011.

Interestingly, the NCDC’s strapline is “protecting the health of Nigerians”, which is an absolutely appropriate vision. After all, as the Roman orator Cicero said: “The health of the people should be the supreme law”. But rhetoric apart, how competent is the NCDC to achieve that goal?

Of course, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, the Director-General of the NCDC, is an internationally-renowned public health specialist. But the truth is that the NCDC he leads is severely hamstrung institutionally.

For instance, according to the 2019 Global Health Security Index, GHI, Nigeria ranked 123 out of 195 on emergency preparedness; 170 on health capacity and 174 on risk environment and vulnerability to biological threat. In other words, Nigeria is pretty mediocre, by world standards, on health security capabilities.

Indeed, this is evident in the fact that, to date, the NCDC has conducted fewer than 20,000 COVID-19 tests throughout Nigeria and still struggles to set up an effective testing and contact-tracing system. Nigeria’s very low rankings on the GHI’s category of “sufficient and robust health sector to treat the sick and protect health workers” shows that the NCDC would be significantly constrained in times of major emergencies and can’t, unlike its strapline says, protect the health of Nigerians!

What about the National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA? Well, earlier this week, President Buhari sacked its beleaguered Director-General, Mustapha Maihaja, a year before the expiry of his term, presumably because of incompetence. In 2018, NEMA held a workshop on “repositioning and re-engineering the agency’s operations” and a few months later held a retreat on “repositioning, strengthening and reorientation for effective performance of NEMA”. It is clear that all is not well with NEMA, and doubtful that it is in any position to manage major emergencies in Nigeria.

Ah, finally, what about the ministry in charge of emergencies? Last year, as he started his second term, President Buhari created a new ministry called the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, with a convoluted acronym, FMHDSD.

Surely, if there is any time the ministry should prove its mettle, this is the time. As the Financial Times wrote recently: “It is imperative to do everything possible to limit the consequences of lockdowns for the poorest.”

But FMHDSD has largely failed to do that. Its minister, Sadiya Farouq, is good at paying courtesy calls on governors and other dignitaries and grabbing photo opportunities. You can see that from the ministry’s website and Facebook page. Yet, many poor Nigerians say they are not getting the so-called social palliatives, and even some of the N-Power beneficiaries say they have not received their stipends since March!

Emergencies, such as pandemics, are inevitable. The question is whether a country can cope with them. Sadly, despite having many emergency management institutions, Nigeria lacks the capabilities to handle serious emergencies. It must build its institutional capacities!

You can engage Olu Fasan on: Twitter: @olu_fasan and/or e-mail: o.fasan@lse.ac.uk

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