We seem to have lived with the erroneous impression that the coronavirus went away with the end of the lockdown last year. Life returned to near normalcy such that markets, churches, burials, parties and general social gatherings came back in full force. We all lived our lives as though the virus had gone away, or that it hardly existed. Today, there is a rebound, and the effects appear to be more devastating.
The Federal Government has put school resumption at the university level on hold. The numbers have spiralled such that the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 says the hike in numbers may force it to recommend another lockdown. Secretary to the Government of the Federation and chairman of the task force, Mr. Boss Mustapha, said it would be the hardest of decisions to make because medical facilities would be overwhelmed, if the numbers continue to spiral, and the economy cannot afford a second lockdown. He said the move would largely be dependent on how people comply with the non-medical remedies, hand washing, social distancing, nose masks, avoidance of social gatherings and the like.
The doubting Thomases have reduced in number because they can now see people they know who came down with the virus. Erudite mathematician and academic, Professor Ibidapo Obe, former vice-chancellor of the University of Lagos, fell to the virus, just like another professor who was said to have attended a social function with him, where they all contracted the virus.
My pen had not dried of this article when the sad report came that former Military Governor of Lagos, Rear Admiral Ndubuisi Kanu, had fallen to the virus. A certain chieftaincy installation event in Imo State, which went viral on social media, was said to have resulted in several infections. One of the key participants has since kicked the bucket, and several others are in isolation centres. That situation is a pointer to a revert to situations prevalent in the tick of lockdown, where mass gatherings such as burials and parties were restricted to specific numbers, and monitoring teams from local government ensured that people did not fall short of the guidelines during burials.
There is clear and present danger, but the clear fact is that an economy weighed down by recession would go comatose in the face of another lockdown. We need to stay alive, yet we need to sustain life. Another lockdown could make us stay alive but we would be unable to sustain the life. It is a tough one for the President. He would not dare another lockdown. He cannot damn the consequences, not when speculations, and even preliminary investigations, showed that the country-shaking #EndSARS protests were hatched during the lockdown. Perhaps an outright revolution could be added to the kitty, if young people are asked to stay at home. I think states should set up task forces at grassroot level to mete out sanctions to people who fail to observe the protocols; that way, the nation would avoid the seeming situation of dangling between the devil and the deep blue sea. This will suffice, until the Federal Government gets the vaccines.
Nigeria is in another situation that comes close to the one above, though on a lesser scale. In December 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Finance Act into law. In its seeming aggressive search for funds, the Federal Government gave itself power to ‘borrow’ money from unclaimed dividends, and dormant accounts. Already, the government is gearing up to borrow N895 billion from unclaimed dividends and dormant accounts in banks. The law empowers the President to do so. There had been moves to ‘borrow’ pension funds in the past but Labour and civil society cried blue murder. Government stepped back on that move, but has now found a soft target in unclaimed dividends and dormant accounts.
The matter of unclaimed dividends had been a matter for debate. The dispute has been to let the money remain unclaimed or allow government to use it for infrastructure, in public interest. Governments in other climes are said to borrow from pension funds, but the treasury is said to treat such money as first line charge, which is why it has no effect on pensioners. For Nigeria, which has factored borrowing (external and internal) as an avenue to finance its budget, anyone can wager that such funds as unclaimed dividends and funds in moribund accounts can hardly come in the priority line when money becomes available.
Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project(SERAP) has kicked against the proposal. According to the body, the right to property is a sacred and fundamental right. Borrowing unclaimed dividends and funds from dormant accounts amounts to an illegal expropriation and would hurt poor and vulnerable Nigerians who continue to suffer under reduced public service, and ultimately lead to unsustainable levels of public debt. SERAP put it thus: “The right to property expands to all forms of property, including unclaimed dividends and funds in dormant accounts. Borrowing those dividends and funds without due process of law and the explicit consent of the owners is arbitrary, and as such legally and morally unjustifiable.”
When SERAP says consent of the owners must be sought, the comment does not follow any logic. If the owners were available, they would have claimed their dividend. Does SERAP imply they deliberately left their dividends unclaimed in order to take them at a later date when interest would have accrued on them? The money would not be unclaimed, if the owners had gone for them. However, it remains their money though they have not showed up to take such funds.
The real issue is that dividends, especially for small investors, are so small that most people simply ignore it rather than go in pursuit of funds that would take more out of your pocket in the process. But bits and pieces of such funds build up to billions of naira, and government, in its wisdom, wants to use the funds for public good. The average Nigerian has no confidence in government, which is why he would rather the money remained unclaimed and dormant than entrust it to government.
The matter of another lockdown on account of COVID-19 and taking funds from unclaimed dividends and dormant accounts is like standing between the devil and the deep blue sea.