Amid fears in some quarters that severe hunger looms following the lockdown in many cities across Nigeria to contain the spread of Covid-19, a chieftain of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and former Minister of Information, Prince Tony Momoh, has assured that the communal nature of Nigerians would not allow that to happen. He is optimistic that the country would come out of the pandemic victorious, even as he expressed worry that the economy would be badly bruised.
In this interview, the former minister, who said the pandemic has humbled humanity, spoke on other national issues.
Nigeria, like the rest of the world is currently battling to contain the spread of Covid-19 pandemic; do you think the government has handled it well so far?
Yes, I think so because we took the threat seriously enough to have sent people to China to understudy how the Chinese fought it. And the team we have today – the presidential team that is handling the matter and briefing Nigerians everyday has done very well. I heard that once upon a time, if you wanted to test, you send the sample to South Africa but today, we can do the test here in Nigeria. Look at what the governor of Lagos State has been doing. The state is doing a fantastic work just the way it handled Ebola during Fashola’s administration. So, the Federal Government is handling this pandemic so impressively and beautifully such that more than 30 persons have been discharged in Lagos alone, although Lagos and Abuja are epicenters. But, the pandemic is real; it is not a hoax as many people think and it is deadly and we are also not immune. Those are the things we must know. Some people say it is a disease that doesn’t affect black people. That is true because it actually affects black people. In Chicago for instance, I read that over 70 percent of people who died there are blacks. So, nobody should think that because he is black, he is immune. All of us should take it as a disease that is ravaging humanity today and nobody is immune. The pattern shows that everybody in the world must have their share because it comes, rises, peaks and then goes down; that’s what it does just like it did in Wuhan.
The Federal Government’s move to import a team of medical experts from China has been rejected by the NMA and some other Nigerians; do you have any problem with that?
Look, we must not play politics with everything. The FG did not bring in any team from China.
Not that they have brought in the team yet, the information is that they are planning to bring in a team of medical experts…
They are not planning to bring in any team. The fact is that companies in Nigeria are packaging what should be brought to Nigeria from China. Even America is looking for help from China. Recently, 1000 ventilators were delivered to America from China. What do we want to prove? America cannot cope. If there are people who want to help us with materials, why are we kicking against that?
It is not that they want to help us with materials. The news is that a team of medical doctors will be brought into the country from China to assist in the fight against the virus.
A team of medical doctors from China, about 15 of them, went to Italy to assist. They have been going round the world to help countries combat the virus. What do you think they are coming to do in Nigeria? Do you think they are coming to take over from you? Wuhan where it started is back to normal. Life has returned to Wuhan and a lot of places in China and they have dispersed all their things, dismantled all the emergency structures and they are living their normal life. And, if for instance, the world is threatened and seeing that this thing will appear everywhere in the world, can’t they go round and share the experiences they have had with everybody? How many ventilators do we have? They are bringing in ventilators, bringing in materials and other things as they have taken to other parts of the world. Who do we think we are?
Nigerians have over the years complained about the parlous state of health sector and the need for government to do something in that direction. This Covid-19 pandemic has just exposed government’s laissez-fair attitude to that sector over the years. What lesson do you think we can learn from this pandemic?
This pandemic is a good thing; everything that happens in nature is a challenge that you should thank God for. You don’t avoid challenges; we thank God for challenges of this nature. Ebola came and we were able to overcome it. Lassa fever is there and we are tackling it. There have been pestilences and lots of challenges in the health sector, in the economy and other places over time in the history of man and man has confronted them and technically defeated them. In other words, he has been able to find solutions to all of those challenges. So, now, how many people can say they are rushing anybody to London or to India for health assistance? You can’t do that. The challenge is there for us to look inwards and we are already looking inwards. You know when we started, we would send samples to South Africa to test; but now, we have solved the problem of testing in Nigeria. That’s how it starts and it will go back. It is a disgrace that anybody who has catarrh in Nigeria will go to India, Dubai, London or America for treatment. Now, the challenge is there. Even if you want to fly anybody to anywhere in the world today, you can’t do so because the whole Western world where we have been rushing to are all challenged. At least, 1000 people have died daily in America in the last three or four days. America, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, India are all in need; countries all over the world are in need. There was a prophecy by some of these prophets that in 2020, man will be humbled. I am not sure if he knew it will come in this dimension. Man is humbled. God is telling us, ‘I am the Lord thy God; thou shall have no other God but me.’ We have been acting God; man has been acting God over the years, but now, we are really being humbled. This is a disease that does not know race, religion or wealth. It is not even as serious as malaria or Lassa fever but it has brought the whole world to its knees. It is curable; it’s not a death sentence. So, this is an opportunity for us to attend to our health needs and build infrastructure in other areas. We shouldn’t be importing drugs from other countries. We should stay at home and do all these things in-house. We have enough market to take up all that we produce in Nigeria. We shouldn’t be consuming what other countries in the world produce.
Government has resorted to locking down the country as one of the measures to contain the spread of the disease. The effect of the lockdown is sweeping across the country with Nigerians raising fears that hunger virus is lurking around; what is your take on that?
It is true and I agree with them because it is a way of looking at things, but is it not when you are alive that you can eat?
Consequent upon the complaints of imminent hunger by Nigerians, the FG has come up with palliatives of N20, 000 per family; Some people have described this as a drop in the ocean, what are your thoughts on that?
Why do you limit the question? What is the structure of Nigeria? We have the federal, state and local governments. They are all autonomous. The Federal Government is not in charge of people as such. The state and local governments are in charge of people. If the FG is bringing out things to ease problems, the state and local governments are there to attend to people’s needs. The parliamentarians, the churches, the mosques, as well as the traditional institutions are all there to attend to people’s needs. We have thousands of communities in Nigeria, although there is no community that starves because we practise communal living where everybody should be his brother’s keeper. There is no community in Nigeria where there is hunger and a family will restrict eating to itself alone. During harmattan, people do communal eating, you know. And all over the country, people live together during ceremonies. So, you should not look at what the FG is doing alone. The responsibility is spread among all the strata of relationships all over the country. So, look at what the state government does, what local government does, as well as what communities, churches and mosques do. Nigerians will not die of hunger virus.
What do you think will be the best way of reaching out to Nigerians in the distribution of palliatives because already, about N15billion has been donated by individuals and corporate organisation? What would you suggest as the best way to distribute the money already donated to avoid mismanaging it?
It is not for me or any other person to suggest. The fact remains that a committee has been set up. All the states have put up committees and if there is anything to be shared, the committees are there to disburse them. It is very easy, there won’t be any problem.
To cushion the effect of Covid-19, the FG reduced the fuel pump price, first from N145 to N125 and then to N123.50 per litre, even though the Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria (IPMAN) is still kicking against the last reduction. Do you think the reduction is commensurate with the fall in the international crude oil price? What effect do you think the reduction will have on the welfare of Nigerians?
Are you not aware that we have been spending so much money to sustain the fuel prices? Have we been paying the market value of fuel at N145? Have we not been supplementing the price of fuel over the years? Everybody knows we have been doing that. The Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is the only one importing fuel and then giving the fuel out at lower prices to ensure that there is fuel all over the country. If we are to sell fuel at market cost, we would have been paying over N170 per litre. But now, it is N123.50 per liter because of the fall in crude oil at international market, if there is anything it could be less; it could even be N80 per litre or so. What I am saying is that if the market price is now N80 and government charges N123.50 per litre, the gain will be a good thing to improve our pocket rather than what we have been doing over the years.
In other words, the reduction is commensurate with the fall in crude oil price at the international market; is that what you are saying?
I am saying that it is good to have a fall but the fall should not be such as to ensure that in future when the crude oil price rises, you start increasing the fuel pump price.
With what is happening now, not much money is coming to government’s purse; how are we going to handle the economy post Covid-19 pandemic?
One thing you must know is that when you experience catastrophe of this nature, you sit down at the end to count your losses, and man is equipped enough to see challenges and pray for solution. The whole world is grounded economically, politically, and even religiously and spiritually. The prophet who said that man would be humbled in 2020 might not have known what was coming through him. Man has really been humbled. Those who have been acting God now know that God is in charge. The whole world economy has collapsed. So, if you want to count the cost, many people are going to commit suicide. People who lost trillions will find it difficult to recover.