The lockdown and restrictions on movement imposed by the Federal and state governments to contain the spread of the global Coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria is beginning to take a toll on the country. It has also opened a new vista on the relationship between the government and the citizens as Nigerians are anxious to know what plans the government has for them while the situation lasts.
Already, commercial activities in virtually all 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja have been suspended as the government has given a stay-at-home order and closed all markets. In Lagos, the commercial hub of the country, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu ordered the closure of all markets, except those that sell perishable food items, drugs, water and those engaged in sanitation. The administration also has plans to distribute food rations to households in the suburbs.
Benue State, ‘The Food Basket’, which produces the bulk of yam consumed in Nigeria has also closed markets; in Rivers State, Governor Nyesom Wike not only shut markets, he also closed all borders to the state; Ifeanyi Okowa, governor of Delta State has also barred travelling into or out of the state. The scenario is almost the same in other states of the federation.
As the lockdown lasts, sometimes with clampdown by security forces, many Nigerians are worried as to how they would survive during the period of restriction.
It is noteworthy that Nigeria is a largely informal sector economy, where majority of the citizens depend on daily earnings for their sustenance. The implication is that for the period of the lockdown, these groups of Nigerians will not earn any income to sustain them and their families.
To avert this scenario, prominent Nigerians have called on the Federal Government to go beyond the lockdown and make adequate provisions to take care of poor Nigerians in the period of restrictions.
President of the Senate, Ahmad Lawan and former Vice President and Presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the 2019 election, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar in different fora last week called on the Federal Government to devise ways of providing relief for poor Nigerians whose daily livelihood will be affected by the restriction on movement due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lawan, who spoke after a meeting between the leadership of the National Assembly and some Ministers and Heads of Government Agencies said that besides mulling a total lockdown of business activities in the country, a plan must be devised by the Federal Government through the release of funds specifically for the purpose of purchasing food and pharmaceutical supplies for ordinary Nigerians.
He said, “Our prayer is that we are able to overcome this menace of COVID-19 in good time, because it is really taking a toll on our lives. If we have to eventually shut down our country, then as a government we must be prepared to have some relief for the most ordinary people. As a government, we must find our own money to fund something for our people, because the United States of America that is talked about or the British Parliament is because this involves public funds. I’m not seeing anything at the moment targeted at providing some relief. If we lock up Nigeria today, then we will wake-up trouble, because majority of our citizens go to market every day before they can get something to eat. So, you lock them up in their houses with a threat of disease and without food. We need to have something, a plan of some sorts, in addition to making sure we don’t lock up the farmers market for example, where people can easily go and buy something, and of course pharmacies. We need to have some kind of supplies to people, I don’t know how we can achieve this, but we have to be ingenious. This is a time to think deep and wide, to provide for our people, in order for us at least to deal with this challenge at the moment.”
Atiku noted that the government must step in and provide drastic measures including devising modalities to distribute N10,000 as a supplement for foodstuff to each household, among other palliative measures, with no one left behind.
In a message posted on his Twitter page, the former vice president, who also pledged N50 million, said that the larger percentage of Nigerians who survive through subsistence living will not have the financial capacity to withstand long periods of self-isolation and a total lockdown of the country.
He said, “As the coronavirus pandemic ravages the world, I applaud the various state governments who have proactively taken measures, such as issuing stay at home orders, and shutting down non-essential markets and other places of mass gatherings, while also giving guidelines for social distancing. However, we must accept the fact that much of the Nigerian public have a subsistence existence. A large percentage of our people do not have the financial capacity to withstand long periods of self-isolation and even lockdown. It is, therefore, incumbent on the federal and state governments to provide palliatives to the Nigerian people to enable them to survive, even as they abide by these necessary measures put in place for their safety.”
The calls on the Federal Government and indeed government at all levels are indeed timely not just because of the large number of Nigerians in the informal sector of the economy, but also because Nigeria is a mono product economy based on the sale of crude oil. The price of crude in the international market has since plummeted from the $57 per barrel on which the 2020 budget was forecast to under $30. The obvious implication is that not only will the informal sector not have any income for the period of lockdown, the government will also face near impossible task of meeting expectations in the N10.6 trillion deficit 2020 budget.
Obligation owed the citizenry
Many argue that Lawan and Atiku deserve commendations for calling on the Federal Government to provide some measure of reliefs to the citizenry. However, it needs to be said that the Federal Government will not be doing Nigerians any favour by providing these relief measures. Rather, it will be living up to its responsibilities under the constitution.
Dr Olukayode Ajulo, Chairman of the Board of Incorporated Trustees of Egalitarian Mission for Africa and Principal Partner of Castle of Law, shared this view. He said, “One of the central pillars of Nigerian corporate existence is the safeguard of the welfare of the Citizens. Section 14(2) (b) of the 1999 Constitution states that: The security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of any government; and the participation by the people in their government shall be ensured in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.”
He also said the government needs to alleviate the pains of the shutdown by providing palliatives.
“In circumstance like this, the necessary thing for the government to do is to make adequate provisions for the life and safety of the health of the citizens. Nigeria should take a cue from other countries of the World who have taken palliative measures to ensure the safety and welfare of their Citizens in such a time like this. For instance, the United States Government has made provision for the sum of $1000 to all its Citizens. In the United Kingdom, provisions for the sum of €1500-2000 pounds have been made available for the citizens.
“With the rate of poverty and unemployment in the country, the Federal Government should ensure adequate supply of basic amenities for the citizens especially the indigent citizens living in deplorable conditions. With over 40 Million Nigerians with verified Bank Verification Number (BVN), out of about 200 Million population, the Federal Government should approve at least a sum of ₦6,000,000,000 for the welfare of the Nigerian Citizens who have been forced to work from home. If the Federal Government can budget about ₦150,000,000,000 for the National Assembly, nothing stops the President from approving palliative measures in the interest of the welfare of the Citizens at large”, Ajulo said.
Another lawyer, Chief Goddy Uwazuruike, who is former President of Aka Ikenga, an Igbo think-tank believes the government should roll out plans immediately to provide for the citizenry.
He said, “Nigerians on daily income constitute about 80 per cent of the population. In this group are traders, hustlers, labourers, artisans, drivers and park workers, food providers and daily paid employees. People in private practice too are included. The government often ignores this demography in its economic planning. It is common sense that the government must make payments to Nigerians to cushion the effect of this lockdown. The various governments in the world did not waste time in planning for this payment. My advice at this time is that the Federal Government must make haste while the sun shines. The obvious consequences are starvation, economic recession and quack medical reliance by the citizenry.”
Yunusa Tanko, former presidential candidate of the National Conscience Party (NCP) has also asked the government to pay Nigerians to cushion the adverse effects.
He said, “it is absolutely necessary if the government is compassionate to the citizens, to pay Nigerians their full salary this month plus a bonus half their full salary. This must be done urgently to avert hunger and starvation. This will also keep the economy going because goods and services will still be paid for; it will also help the small-scale famers to sell their perishable goods.”
Indeed, the preamble of the 1999 Constitution suggests that provision of welfare is the cardinal reason why the various people that occupy the territory called Nigeria surrendered their independence to the federation in the first place.
The preamble to the constitution says, “We the people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria; having firmly and solemnly resolved, to live in unity and harmony as one indivisible and indissoluble sovereign nation under God… And to provide for a Constitution for the purpose of promoting the good government and welfare of all persons in our country… do hereby make, enact and give to ourselves the following Constitution…”
Many other sections of the constitution also hammered on provision of welfare. Section 14 (2) (a) states that “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.” Section 16 (1) (a) and (b) goes on to say that “The State shall, within the context of the ideals and objectives for which provisions are made in this Constitution: (a) Harness the resources of the nation and promote national prosperity and an efficient, dynamic and self-reliant economy; (b) control the national economy in such manner as to secure the maximum welfare, freedom and happiness of every citizen on the basis of social justice and equality of status and opportunity…, while section 17 (3) (a) says; (3) The State shall direct its policy towards ensuring that- (a) all citizens, without discrimination on any group whatsoever, have the opportunity for securing adequate means of livelihood as well as adequate opportunity to secure suitable employment…”
Arguments abound that the 1999 constitution is a fraud since the various nationalities never met to agree on, “we the people.” Elder statesman and Afenifere chieftain, Ayo Adebanjo has argued this point severally and described the subsisting 1999 constitution as fraudulent.
However, assuming, without conceding that the people of Nigeria did not agree to the terms of the 1999 constitution, but since the legislature elected by the people in successive governments that have ruled the people debated and passed at least Four Alteration Acts to the constitution, it is safe to say that the constitution is a pact and thus the government must be held accountable to abide to and provide this welfare especially in this time of lockdown.
As at the time of filing this report, the Nigerian government has yet to announce any relief package for the hundreds of Nigerians whose means of livelihood are threatened. Although some corporate organisations and individuals have made donations in cash and kind towards containing the pandemic, the citizenry so far are left to fend for themselves.
World governments’ response
In contrast to the action so far taken by the Nigerian government, many other countries of the world have rolled out stimulus plans to help her citizens cope with the economic crisis occasioned by coronavirus.
South Africa which is the second largest economy in the African continent, behind Nigeria, which is at the top, has put in place a Debt Relief Fund to help alleviate the economic impact of the coronavirus on small businesses. The fund which is already running came into operation on March 24, 2020.
Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, the country’s Minister for Small Business Development, said the fund is open to all businesses registered with the Small, Micro and Medium Enterprises (SMMEs).
She said, “All Small, Micro and Medium Enterprises (SMMEs) may apply for relief on existing debts and payments. In order to be eligible, all applicants will be required to show an impact, or potential impact, of the virus on their business. This facility will also assist entities to acquire raw material, pay labour and operational costs. All these interventions will be structured to match the patterns of the SMME’s cash flows, as well as the extent of the impact suffered. As the nation grapples with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the department will be guided by the National Command Council in determining the sectors that are deemed severely impacted in order to qualify for the Debt Relief Fund.”
She further said, “The department’s insistence on the use of the database is based on the need to track, monitor and strengthen the impact of business development support to SMMEs by both government and the private sector, during this period and beyond. In future, the database will also be used to apply for both financial and non-financial support, access information about business opportunities and market access support,”
In America and Europe, the governments are also implementing emergency tax measures to support their economies. In the United States of America (USA), a $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill, described as the largest ever American relief bill has been put in place. The relief plan directs payments to Americans, strengthened unemployment insurance, loans to businesses and increased health-care resources. It hopes to lessen the coronavirus pandemic impact on human and economic toll and was to save the workers face which faced layoffs, even as states starve for resources and businesses worry about their survival.
In France, the government announced a stimulus plan for approximately 600, 000 small businesses and self-employed people, who can apply for €1,500 in financial compensation if they can prove the impact of Covid-19 on their business. In the Great Britain, the Chancellor has set out a package to support public services, people and businesses through this period of disruption caused by COVID-19.
The packages include: Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which will cover the cost of wages backdated to 1 March and is initially open for 3 months, but will be extended if necessary. It also deferred VAT and Income Tax payments and provided a Statutory Sick Pay relief package for small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) among others.
CBN action of no consequence to average Nigerian
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has released a N100 billion grant, but the fund may be of no consequence to the average Nigerian because the funds are for big corporations and not for the average citizen whose means of livelihood was hindered by the lockdown.
A circular signed by Mr. Kevin Amugo, Director Financial Policy Regulation Department, indicated that the fund is for indigenous pharmaceutical companies and healthcare practitioners that intend to expand or build their businesses.
The CBN said the scheme was also expected to increase private and public investment in the healthcare sector, facilitates improvement in healthcare delivery and reduce medical tourism to enhance foreign exchange conservation. It added that the scheme was also expected to increase private and public investment in the healthcare sector, facilitates improvement in healthcare delivery and reduce medical tourism to enhance foreign exchange conservation.
Mr Olanrewaju Suraju, Chairman of Board of Human and Environmental Development Agenda (HEDA) Resource Centre, said, “The Central Bank of Nigeria has announced grants and stimulus without appropriation or approval from the parliament. This is the same Central Bank that has never displayed any sense of responsibility and accountability in its intervention in the power sector, agriculture, telecommunications, aviation and forex administration. It is presently a subject of parliamentary investigation in some of the interventions.”
FG accuses Nigerians of undermining government’s efforts
The Minister for Information, Lai Mohammed, has said some Nigerians are not giving the Federal Government the kind of cooperation it needs to fight Coronavirus. He said that rather than show appropriate support, many Nigerians are busy engaging in meaningless criticisms, while other thrive in circulating fake news, which he said, is not helping to fight the pandemic of coronavirus.
He said, “We are not getting the kind of cooperation that this moment deserves from Nigerians. Many are busy engaging in meaningless criticisms instead of complying with the stipulated directives to keep people safe. Some Nigerians who flew into the country from overseas filled wrong addresses and phone numbers in their forms, making it difficult to trace them when the need arises. Some Nigerians defied orders to stay away from large gatherings while some religious leaders wilfully flouted the directives to ensure social distancing. The government is doing its best but we need the citizens to do their best too. We have now gone past the stage of persuasion. It’s time for strong enforcement. The epidemic of fake news is now competing with the pandemic of coronavirus, and this is not helping the fight against the disease.”
Government insensitive to Nigerians
Spokesman of Yoruba pan cultural group, Afenifere, Yinka Odumakin said the idea of paying Nigerians some kind of allowance during the period of restriction is welcome, but doubts whether it will work in the country.
He said, “it is a good idea, but governance here is not about the people but the power elite. Is it not ironic that as the people are being locked up in their homes on empty stomachs, members of the House of Representatives are receiving exotic new cars at the expense of the people? The truth is that there cannot be equilibrium here for as long as we keep it so.”
Mr Suraju supports providing palliatives to the people as he accused the Nigerian government of being insensitive to the masses.
He said, “It is certainly the way to go. The challenge in this is our corrupt and greedy elite. Every opportunity such as this is taken to enrich the politicians and bureaucrats. As at now, positioning must be going on in ministries and agencies for contracts and kickbacks.”
He argued that for any palliative measure to be effective, it should be put under “strict supervision of citizen-centered monitoring and evaluation.”
“In providing palliative under the current circumstance, it must be with a strict citizen-centered monitoring and evaluation. We need to ensure a well-defined intervention that is genuinely targeted at the desired beneficiaries and not corruptly enriching our wicked and greedy political elite”, he added.