By Dele Sobowale
“It is easier to do too little at the beginning of a crisis than too much. In the end, the price is more if the crisis becomes greater” – THE ECONOMIC LAW OF PRECIOUS RESPONSE SUMMARISED.
Long term readers of this page know that seldom do I comment on state matters since the first article was published in 1994. God knows there are more than enough issues at the federal level each day to engage the attentions of any self-respecting economist to warrant diversions to state matters.
Rarer still had been the defence of a state governor under siege for measures taken which are inherently controversial and divisive. Despite being a Lagos State indigene, I have never considered it a duty to defend or attack any government in the state. That decision was made easier by the fact that once Uncle Sam invited me to start writing these columns, I personally took a vow to be as non-partisan as possible; never to carry a party card or predictably supportive of any government in power. Each elected government must convince me that it deserves my support if a major controversy erupts.
As a corollary to the vow of independence, I also promised never to shy away from being in the minority on any issue – even a minority of one against 200 million Nigerians. To me, writing columns is not a popularity contest; we are not (or should not be) canvassing for votes. We are in the business of presenting truths as close as we can get to them without recourse to popular views.
The majority is not always right. If it is, we would not be in the mess we are in now after being ruled by majority governments since 1960. So, I am always prepared for battle whenever the matter is hot and there is heavy fire on both sides. COVID-19 and the basic measures taken by governments all over the world in general and Lagos in particular are as contentious as any the world had ever known. We must all stand up and be counted for what we believe.
Lockdown to avert serious health catastrophe or not, on the one hand, or to prevent economic meltdown constitutes the sort of devil’s choice which one prays no country would ever have to face. Somehow, globally and in Nigeria, our prayers have failed us. To the best of my knowledge, at no time in history have we had so many churches and mosques – especially here in Nigeria. Yet, the greatest economic/health disaster to envelope the world has occurred in our time.
This is not the place and time to argue whether or not the catastrophe was sin-induced and was God’s punishment for mankind’s alleged transgressions. As far as I am concerned, neither the church nor the mosque had been able to pray for Nigeria to prevent this disaster. They should allow governments to operate and manage this horrible pandemic as best as they can without self-centred heckling. Certainly, this is not a religious conflict.
The point is, once the pandemic broke out in China in December last year and it raced like wildfire through the advanced economies of Europe, Saudi and Iran, before slamming with the force of a hurricane on America, the world was faced with an unprecedented phenomenon for which no nation was fully prepared. Right in front of our eyes, the most powerful nations tottered and fell under its onslaught. African nations in general and Nigeria in particular were sitting ducks.
It was not a matter of if, but when it would berth here. Furthermore, it was dashing at our continent and country at such bewildering speed at a time all the governments of Africa had their attention riveted on inevitable recession which was also barrelling at us from another side. Like a military pincer-movement, our continent and our country and the 36 states of Nigeria faced an inescapable set of health and economic threats of unprecedented proportions shortly after all of them had secured approvals from their lawmakers for the 2020 budgets. Nobody can point to a single kobo being provided for COVID-19 by any government; and rightly so.
At the time those budgets were being prepared COVID-19 had not become an issue. Yet, today, they are all spending billions of naira, unbudgeted, on the pandemic. Not because they want to, but because they must. For the President and governors, individually and collectively, it has been a painful undertaking for which nobody in his right senses can honestly blame them. Unfortunately, it would appear that it is turning out to be a thankless task judging from the barrage of criticism they have attracted for their valiant efforts. Yet, even the worst performance, however that is determined, deserves a great deal of credit.
WHY SANWO-OLU AND COMO
“It is the part of a king [President or governor] to do good for his subjects and be maligned for it” – Alexander the Great, 356-323 BC, King of Macedonia, VANGUARD BOOK OF QUOTATIONS, VBQ, p 113.
Let me place my cards on the table face-up. This article is designed to provide the little bit of support I can for the governor of Lagos State as well as all the other governors and President Buhari who have been handed this very hot potato – called COVID-19 – to handle at this point in our history. Even the worst performer among them deserves sympathy. So do the members of the various Task Forces established –including the Presidential Task Force and the National Centre for Disease Control, NCDC. In my view, even my good friend, Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Strategy, had risen to the occasion and had handled the communication and publicity aspect with distinction.
Sanwo-Olu, in his first year as Lagos State governor, could not, in his wildest nightmare, have expected something like COVID-19 to stop him dead on his tracks. He was confronted with a monster problem for which there was no previous template for solution. As a learner/manager, he and his team have performed wonderfully. Ask anybody who ever had to tackle uncharted territory without road map. It is frustratingly difficult.
I hope the President and governors will not be discouraged by the vicious attacks against them. Instead they should all take solace in the words of one of the world’s greatest rulers. I came across that statement by Alexander while taking a course in Hellenic History in my Junior Year as an undergraduate in the US in 1967. The lamentations of Alexander were so totally different from my youthful idea of how kings/leaders are treated by their people that I immediately wrote four copies of it and hid them in different books before it ended in the VBQ. Today, there is nothing more appropriate as a take-off point in the defence of our leaders who are now being maligned for their great works.
The selection of Governor Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State, Nigeria and Como of New York State, US, was also dictated by Plutarch – a great historian of the Age of Alexander. Plutarch had pioneered the art of historical comparative analysis. In one of his books, titled PARALLEL LIVES, he had paired rulers from different nations and periods who had faced similar problems of governance and how each went about solving them.
From these historical details, Plutarch was able to provide some basis for assessing the performance of various leaders. Comparative analysis allows us to reduce sentiments and emotions to the minimum when judging our leaders as they battle with COVID-19.
New York is the financial capital of the US. Lagos is also the financial capital of Nigeria. The populations of the two states are almost the same. So Sanwo-Olu and Como are responsible for almost the same number of millions of lives. The COVID-19 pandemic first made landfall in New York State before spreading out to other states in the US. It also made its entry into Nigeria from Lagos. The New York State government and the Trump administration were ill-prepared to deal with COVID-19. That is why today, NY and America have recorded the highest number of deaths in the world. Granted, Lagos State and the Federal Government of Nigeria, FGN, were also not prepared for COVID-19 and were slow to act. Yet, when they finally acted and imposed lockdowns, the results had been astonishing. On this day, May 12, 2020, the US, the richest and most advanced nation on earth, has recorded over 80,000 deaths with NY accounting for about 44,000. Nigeria, by contrast, has recorded only 150 deaths in total and Lagos less than 50. How have Americans and New Yorkers received the lockdown and other draconian measures introduced by Como and Trump at first? How did our fellow Nigerians react to similar measures introduced in Lagos, Ogun and FCT?
“In the clashes between ignorance and intelligence, ignorance is generally the aggressor” – Paul Harris, founder, ROTARY INTERNATIONAL, VBQ, P 99.
I was on admission in a private hospital in early March when Como locked down New York with a television set turned to CNN 24/7 as my constant companion. Being in serious pain meant staying awake most of the time. While generally well-educated New Yorkers were alarmed at the economic repercussions of the lockdown, even those most radically opposed to it complied with the new regulations and none was actively defiant. The police and security forces were not called upon to enforce the rules. The New York and American lockdowns lasted two and a half months and recorded very few violations.
By contrast, the FGN and Lagos State responded more slowly; and mostly after there was a great deal of apprehension by Nigerians. Lockdown for two weeks was announced for Lagos, FCT and Ogun State and aggressive testing and isolation were introduced as measures. Later, wearing of face masks and social distancing were included to check the spread of a killer pandemic which could later claim the lives of thousands of Nigerians. My admission also made it possible to watch the Presidential Task Force, PTF, and the Lagos State group. If at all they can be accused of anything, it must be lack of innovation. They had studied all the countries where COVID-19 had entered and the measures taken to combat it – with the best results which also take into consideration the resources available and what could be obtained in a short time.
To the best of my knowledge, neither the PTF nor the Lagos State Task force claimed to have established a perfect structure. Contrary to the views expressed by critics, the two bodies were keenly aware of the economic implications. At the very least, they have watched CNN, BBC and other foreign networks. They knew that unemployment claims in America had risen as result of their lockdown. Nigerian government officials authorising lockdowns and other measures are not stupid. In fact, they have demonstrated admirable intelligence in dealing with this novel pandemic. What had been the response by Nigerians and Lagosians?
Unlike educated, disciplined and self-disciplined (one might even add civilised) Americans and New Yorkers, Nigerians and people of Lagos and Ogun received the measures with pervasive hostility and defiance. In this respect, the absolute illiterates, the badly educated and most of our well-educated were united in opposition to the directives. Many of my co-columnists writing for virtually every paper led the attack. In every article, they pointed only to the negative repercussions of the lockdown and other measures. Seldom did they mention the benefits. It was intellectual fraud on a massive scale as I intend to demonstrate.
Before closing today, permit me to end by restating my position. Sanwo-Olu and his team deserve our commendation and total support on this issue…
To be continued