The Northern Governors’ Forum met recently over the COVID-19 pandemic, calling for a coordinated response to tackle the virus in the region.
Chairman of the forum and Plateau State Governor, Simon Lalong, who chaired the meeting via a teleconference gave reasons the region cannot be on lockdown in an interview with Sunrise Daily, a Channels Television magazine programme, monitored in Abuja.
How was it like holding meeting via teleconferencing?
The Northern Governors Forum, had a teleconference, it was in addition to the one we had at the Nigeria Governors Forum. We looked at it and realised that there are certain problems that are really peculiar to the North. You know even with this pandemic, we have only one testing center in the North which is in Abuja and is not adequate. Also, the fact that not much is being done by coming to the North to have a clearer picture of this issue. And also to have a general perspective after a peer review about the decisions that we will take to address this issue, especially cross border transmission. So, at the end of the day, we were magnanimous on some of the decisions that we took.
First of all, we all agreed to control the cross border transmission. We emphasized the need to have a very strict border attention, this was after we realised the effect of the virus in Kano. Kano is the largest city in Nigeria and so to underestimate the effect of this virus in places like that is going to be very dangerous, not only to the North but to the country.
You can see what is happening to Kano now and so all of us were even going to agree to have a unanimous lockdown but eventually, we listened to some of the states and at the end of the day, we realised that states have their peculiarities. But then we advised that we must have a lockdown, either partial or total lockdown. So, those were some of the things agreed upon.
We also looked at the social economic aspect apart from the health hazard. We looked at what will be the post-effect of COVID-19 generally in the North and then we set up a committee chaired by the governor of Kebbi to address the economic aspect as we try to address the health aspect. As it is now, that is our position.
Could you shed some lights on some of those peculiarities and as a result of what is happening in Kano now, do you think that may likely change?
Well, some of the complaints of the states were lack of palliatives. Some of them complained that we are almost getting to the Ramadan period and if you start the lockdown without palliatives, without proper arrangement, there will be grumblings here and there. Above all, you know the North are predominantly farmers and we are into the rainy season. Now, you have a lockdown and there is no food, there is no hope of producing the food even after COVID-19, that is going to be a dangerous situation.
So, what we agreed was that looking at these peculiarities, let us allow a little time for us to go to source for additional grants either from the Federal Government or spirited individuals. So, when we get these palliatives, then we can declare total lockdown. But in the main time, we agreed that states should look at their peculiarities and see how to do partial or total lockdown.
Did the meeting also factor in the possibility of quicker spread while the partial lockdown is going on? In your state for instance, you have had to take some measures even though there is yet to be any case. There is the general understanding that interstate travel is largely responsible for the spread in many communities?
I think that was discussed. For me personally, I was driving them towards a total lockdown because, at the time we were talking, I already had a total lockdown in my state and a few other states in the North also had total lockdown. We have a good experience from the governor of Kaduna State who himself is a victim of COVID-19 and till date, he still says “I am positive.” You can imagine that a governor after two tests still says he is positive and also narrated the impact of lack of total lockdown down in some of the states.
So it was something the governors will look at the seriousness of some of these issues. But at the end of the day when you are a leader, you marry opinions and look at it. But after that, I saw some of the states who said they didn’t want to lockdown, locking down completely because the virus was now getting to their state.
COVID-19 is not something you wait until it gets to your state, just like I did in my state. I used the Boy Scouts Motto, Be Prepared. So, I fight it as if I have an index case in my state because, when it gets to your state, you cannot control the effect of the spread. So, the best thing is to fight it as if you already have a case in your state.
For now, almost every part of the Northern states are almost getting into a lockdown. Part of the agreement was that even if you are going to do a lockdown, give them opportunity to stock up. In Plateau State, I wanted to continue with my lockdown but I realised too that we cannot talk about lockdown always because as you are locking down, people you cannot lock down hunger, so you must also look at those peculiarities. In Plateau State, we have about three days for people to go and restock; during the period, it is partial lockdown after the three days, we are going back to full lockdown.
In that meeting also, you talked about palliatives and you said you have not got any dime from the Federal Government. Is that still the case or has things changed?
Well, after that meeting, we addressed the issue with the Federal Government, we also addressed it with the Nigerian Private Sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID), ably led by Alhaji Aliko Dangote, especially relating to palliatives that are coming to the North. We discussed with the chairman of the presidential Taskforce on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha. We have hope that things are now going to start moving because, we realise that some things have been given to the FCT; now we are waiting for the palliatives. Because after the teleconference and inviting the CACOVID group, the MD of Access Bank, Mr. Herbert Wigwe, explained to us that 20 states are going to be the first beneficiaries and the rest of the states are also going to get immediately. So, we are very hopeful and still pray that these things will start coming because without palliatives, we will begin to get resistance from some of the states where there are total lockdown. Because, you know you cannot control people when you don’t have anything to assure them that when they are kept at home, especially the vulnerable amongst us, something will be done for them.
On beneficiaries of the national cash transfer. As at the 9th of April, 2020, they see Katsina, Zamfara, Jigawa, Kano, Plateau, Kebbi, Kogi, Benue, Nassarawa, Kaduna, Kwara, Gombe, Akwa Ibom, Yobe in that order, being the key high ranking beneficiaries of this transfer. Did you also factor that in or this is completely different from the palliatives that you are expecting?
Well, those are regarded as part of the palliatives. The social investigation programme did not start today. I have heard some states say that they are not aware of anything like that. This was brought to the National Economic Council and it was chaired by the Vice President. I saw the determination when the Vice President was trying to enlighten people and trying to encourage states to key into it. In my state, we keyed into it and for a very long time we have been beneficiaries of this programme for over two years now. So to us, it is a continuation and I will be surprised to hear that states were not aware. We put in focal persons and those focal persons were very active in accessing some of these and those are part of the vulnerables in the society.
If you talk of the graduates who are moving about, I think without jobs, they will be very dangerous species. If you talk about the poorest of the poor, the NPower is for the graduates and the school feeding programme which has the national awareness campaign. So, the next is for the states to determine who are the next vulnerable groups of people and that is the kind of palliatives we are talking about.
In the North, we did that but it was very slow, it is now that they are beginning to do and they have not even gone to many of the states. In my state, we started just this week and we are continuing because in spite of the lockdown, I still insist that they should be given exemption to go and do their palliatives. The other palliatives coming from the address at the Governors’ conference, is going to be in form of health equipment for hospitals and also food items. Because some people are waiting for money to be given to them. What they are saying is that food items will be bought, they are going to send it to the states and governors will be in charge. Governors will set up committees for distribution, identify the vulnerable groups and then send some of these food items to those categories of people.
I have emphasized in my state that people who are getting their salaries as at when due, they should now know how to manage your salary while sitting at home.
Arewa group has expressed some reservations about giving governors the funds because they are concerned about the management. So, what measures are you putting in place to ensure accountability during this period?
For the benefits of those who said governors wanted funds, that is not what the governors said. They said you choose any of it, we are amenable to any of the process. At the end of the day, we said buy them and bring to governors, let the governors have control of those who are vulnerable in the state. In addition to their contributions, states also did their own contributions. In my state, we started fund raising and we raised almost N30 million; in addition to that, we have also spent some money in addressing some issues while also looking up to the Federal Government.
Why we were asking the Federal Government for money is because the last distribution from the federation account went so low, it could not even pay salaries in many of the states and now we are talking about addressing COVID-19.
Why is the Federal Government looking for money, it is because it is overwhelming, so if it is overwhelming on the Federal Government, you will also expect that it will be overwhelming on the states. So, the federal government has given N10 billion or more to areas like Lagos, it is to address the issue, it is not because Lagos is very poor. But we are saying that this pandemic may go beyond what we are expecting but God forbid. So, if we are going to address it, we need some assistance from the Federal Government, so as they are bringing the food, the issue of transparency will also be addressed. Because, the chairman of NGF, Kayode Fayemi advised every state governor to set up a committee that will now see to the distribution of the palliatives.
In Plateau State, I have set up a very strong committee made of traditional rulers, religious leaders, the youth council, the disabled and all stakeholders and the deputy governor is chairing that committee. I am already sitting down to decide who to do the distribution, how to raise the funds and ensure that there is transparency in the management of those funds.
Still on interstate travels, are there some form of collaboration to curb the spread of this virus? In the 19 states of the North, six of them already have cases of COVID-19?
I told you that first of all, that was what we strongly advised at the Northern Governors forum. Because we saw that there was pressure on states that were doing complete lockdown. Because, if you do lockdown and the neigbouring states are not doing lockdown, you have a lot of people rushing and moving to your state. You know most of these is transmitted by people traveling, taking it from one place to the other. What happened in Kano came from Lagos, what happened in Lagos came from outside Nigeria. So, if you have to curtail this, then you have to put up stringent measures to address the cross border transmission.
So, we have emphasised that states that are under lockdown and people are complying are getting pressures from states that have refused to lockdown. You know there is an extent to which you can control people at the border, as you are controlling on major borders, they are filing in through different routes.
What we have in Plateau for instance, of the 43 we picked from the borders, we took them to isolation centers and forced them to do the test, all of them came from outside the state. Sometimes you have isolated cases where people will sneak in through the bush but what we have done and Kaduna did the same thing and Kano is about doing it, is that when we get you, we will quarantine you for 14 days and after 14 days, if you are negative, then you will go back to your house. And when you are caught, you will be prosecuted, after isolation center, if you cannot pay the fine, then you will do community service because, is an offense to break any of the regulations put in the state.
I can see other states are complying now because people were looking at it that it is not a serious thing but we can see the way it is moving. It is moving in a very dangerous manner and these are the incubation period. And so during this incubation period, any leader that is not serious, then it means that the purpose of our being elected is not there.
You said you have been getting pressures from states that are not on lockdown, is there anyone caught during the lockdown order?
Yes. We have border with Bauchi. Bauchi has not locked down. You remember even the governor was a victim, until today Bauchi has not locked down. We have border with Benue and Benue is not on lockdown, we have border with Taraba it has not locked down; Nasarawa is on partial lockdown. It is only Kaduna that is on lockdown. Within these borders, no matter what I do in Plateau, pressures will also be coming, people will move in. People move in; they say they want to come and do business, they want to come and well, pass through. Plateau is a transit route for Bauchi, Gombe, Adamawa, Yobe, Borno. So it has been very difficult for us controlling the border. But whatever it will take us, we will do our best to control borders. Because, we see trailers coming and some of them were coming from Lagos. We had a case of a bus and those there pretended that they were journalists, they put a label that they were journalists moving round but at the end of the day, when they were caught and investigated, we realised they were not journalists but passengers, they are all under quarantine.
It may not be 100 percent compliant but we are advising the governors because this is a pandemic that can get to any state. The DG NCDC said every state has it; it is the ability to fish out and get the proper testing that is the problem. But thank God we have a testing center in Plateau and I have told the neigbouring states to come there for testing; the place is there idle, it has capacity to test about 1,000 people in a day.
After seeing what happened to Kano because this happened after your meeting, do you think there will still be disagreement for a total lockdown in your next meeting?
You know I said we did peer review and after explaining what was happening in the state and we said we should all go back and look at our peculiarities. Immediately we left that place, we saw what was happening in Kano and because it is happening in Kano, I have seen a lockdown in Kwara and I have seen other states adopting it. But we have agreed we are going to meet again to look at how far. I see a situation where if what we are seeing in Kano is anything to go by; it means all the states will be struggling for a lockdown. Some of the difficulties we had mentioned are now being addressed. The issues of palliatives are coming but also the states are going back to prepare their own palliatives so that the one from the Federal Government will be complimentary. Otherwise, if we continue to wait for palliatives, we will not take measures to address this pandemic. We may not have a total lockdown in all the states but we are also asking the Federal Government to look at it. Because, as we are clearing our roads, the Federal Government has the authority to at the end of the day just like they declared in Lagos and Ogun and FCT to also declare a total lockdown. Eventually if this thing is getting worse, the Federal Government may declare a total lockdown in the whole country, so with that, everybody must abide by it. But I still see the sit at home, total lockdown as the best remedy to the pandemic.
You said some of them are saying Ramadan might be the reason why total lockdown might not be advisable. But we know the critical element in preventing this pandemic in spreading is social distancing. We know Ramadan’s culture is to have communal feasting after the fast, if there is no lockdown in these states, it will be difficult if not impossible to curtail the spread. Are the northern governors thinking along this line?
First of all, I always start with myself. During the Easter, I am a Catholic and we know what Easter means to the Catholics. When it was getting to Easter, there were agitations here and there, appeals here and there that we must be allowed to celebrate Easter because this is the period we are going to pray. I just kept quiet, I said you can only pray when you are alive, if you are not alive, you will not pray. So, what we did in Plateau when we realised that if we allowed them to celebrate Easter, the social distancing will be abused, was to appeal to the people. We didn’t celebrate Easter, we had a lockdown. If we had allowed that toda, we would have been talking about one or two index cases and then they will start running and they will say why did you allow that. The best thing is to take the insults, the abuse.
So, is the same example we gave to the Northern governors. We said let’s look at this thing holistically and objectively without religious bias. I know Jigawa has taken a step, that during the Ramadan that issues that will bring people together like prayers will not be allowed. Of course, Kano has already taken a decision, you know Kano is predominately a Muslim state, they are on a lockdown and I am not sure the governor is going to settle for observance of lockdown. Kaduna has done same, so we are also appealing to them because if we allow it because of Ramadan, at the end of the day we will regret in controlling the spread of the virus not only in our states but other parts of the country.
This pandemic has exposed the flaws in our health system from the primary healthcare to tertiary healthcare to major value chains of our healthcare system. Do you have any regrets, lessons learnt from this pandemic as a governor as to what should have been done?
For me, I will not say I have regrets because right from the beginning, my focus was on health and education. You can see that even before COVID-19, we had Ebola, we had Lassa fever and the way we managed it in Plateau was fantastic. We didn’t have much of the case in Plateau, we didn’t have Ebola in the state. To that effect, we started building first class hospitals in the state. As I am talking to you, there are ongoing projects of first class international hospitals in Plateau State, there are 10 of them already. Apart from that, we went into repair and equipped moribund hospitals, we were almost getting into full standard when this pandemic came in.
So, when the pandemic came in, it was very easy for us to address it with regulations by setting up mobile courts for enforcement, a committee was already in existence. When they said they were giving Plateau State a testing center, I told the NCDC DG it was long overdue. Because I have four good laboratories in Plateau State; we have one in Jos Teaching Hospital which was also addressing the Lassa fever and also Ebola. We have the government hospital, the Plateau State General Hospital, well equipped and confirmed by the World Health Organisation. And then we have one of the best in West Africa, the NDRI laboratory and that is why I said it is under utilized.
The Federal Government should pay attention to where they have invested so much money rather than allowing people to set up new ones. This laboratory was there and 200 people were already trained on the job, all they needed are reagent to put in the place and then it will take care of neigbouring states. So when they were dilly dallying, I said if it will take us to begin to write protests letters, we will but it eventually it was considered. Also the Vom Veterinary Institute now has a testing center, so now Bauchi, Gombe, Nasarawa, Taraba and Benue will come to that place and utilize it instead of going to Abuja.
I am happy that we don’t have an index case in my state but that does not mean we don’t have; I am now sensitizing people to go for testing when they see symptoms of this disease anywhere. The level of awareness is so high that even if they see any sign, even if he is their brother that just came back from Lagos, Abuja they will ask him to isolate himself and they will call for people to come and have him tested.
We use to send our blood sample to Abuja but we are no longer doing that.
At the end of this two weeks, do you see an extension of the lockdown?
We are going to be evaluating it from time to time. I have also said as far as this pandemic is concerned, we should be prepared to make sacrifices, so that at the end of the day, we will get it over and done with. We have a special TaskForce so we are looking ahead, to look at what we are going to do after COVID-19.
Talking about stigmatisation, I have made it clear that COVID-19 is not a death sentence. That was why when people were running away from the tests, I put myself and the whole of my family to do the test. My son came back from UK and the first thing we did was to isolate him and he did the test and the rest of the family as well. And all of us were confirmed negative. If I was positive, I would have said it. Even before the test, I had gone into self-isolation because when we came back from Abuja and saw that some governors were positive, we had interactions with all the governors, so it was best for us to do the test and show example and I will advise people to follow the rule very well.
We are being very proactive in Plateau state, we have cut our budget size by 40 per cent; we have reduced allowances of political appointees and suspended the issue of employment, suspended the payment of N30,000 minimum wage for now; our workers agree with us. We had concluded on the issue of N30,000 but then they said suspend it because this COVID-19, we don’t know the extent. So, we are planning ahead.