I have decided to dedicate this week’s column to the Incredible Nigerian. Following the recent announcement on how to contain, reduce, and stop the global spread of a deadly virus causing the respiratory disease now known as COVID-19, I have once more been confronted with our daily struggles. The lockdowns, the social distancing, the travel ban, and hand washing and upgrade in personal hygiene that even bars you from touching your own face, stops you from shaking hands or blowing kisses with fellow humans have now become the norm. Babies are wondering why their fathers, mothers and/or nannies are keeping their distance. Dogs now seem more loved than before.
For Nigerians, the touching aspect is both ironical and difficult to fathom and implement. In the main, the whole social distancing idea seems not to be made for Nigerians. We are perhaps the most social and fun-loving people on earth. We touch everyone, even strangers; we bump each other in various ways: bump elbows, fists, palms; we hug, embrace, lift people off their feet, sit on people’s laps, share drinks from one cup, taste each other’s foods, share bathrooms, sleep 12 in a room meant for two. We ride 17 in a van that is meant to carry just 10 people. Then we touch what is perhaps the dirtiest object in the world, the Nigerian currency, better known as the naira. Some of these naira notes are so encrusted in grime, crumply, and heavy laden with the weight of dirt on them that there must be enough coronaviruses in those notes to kill a community in days!
Working and writing from my farm in Delta State, I passed by a friend’s farm not too far away from mine, I found that he had installed a wash hand basin at the entrance of his farm with soap, hand sanitizers and disposable hand towels and was not going to allow anybody come into his farm without going through the process of washing and cleaning his hands. He was also ensuring that social distancing among his farm workers was adhered to. For these and many more, I salute my fellow Nigerians for their compliance and their adaptation to the new ways of 21st Century living.
Few days before the start of the lockdown, Nigerians prepared by bulk buying, selling and stockpiling toilet paper, face masks, hand sanitizers, soaps and different food items that they could afford. The whole country was agog as if we were preparing for the usual festive periods, never mind that Easter was still four weeks away when Lagos clamped down on movements. The country changed. I have never seen my nation like this; people stayed home and obeyed the orders of no movement. I stayed in my farm and found myself living with farm workers and domestic staff that I was conveniently able to accommodate. Since there was not going to be any movement, I left my driver in the socially distant Lagos. The day before the lockdown, I drove myself to the nearest fuel station from my farm 20 kilometres away. At the fuel station there was some queue though not as bad as what was usually observed during fuel crisis, I was like number nine from the pump but moving very slowly because people had in some cases many plastic containers to fill. My car was behind that of a middle-aged woman who had at the back of her SUV a generator and six plastic containers to fill. When it was her turn she went to the ATM for some cash, and realising that it would take the attendant a while to fill up her car, her generator and all the plastic containers, I decided to walk up to her and engage her in a conversation.
I started by introducing myself first and mentioned to her my role in the environment and my concern for her safety and that of the environment where she was taking all these fuel and generator to. Initially, she tried to snob me, but my persistence finally cracked her defences. She confirmed to me that she had been following my activities and advocacy on the environment since the time she was in college and knew about my activism. She knew about my expeditions and explorations going back 30 years or more, knew a lot about me and read some of my books, and has been following my weekly columns in the newspaper. She fitted my definition of an Ideal Nigerian Woman for 2020. A very interesting question-and-answer session then ensued for about 10 minutes.
Do you get paid by the newspapers, because I find you have been writing weekly for more than two years?
No, I don’t get paid. The column originated from a conversation I had with the publishers that followed my advocacies over the years. They extended an invitation to me to write a few essays on the origin of the Fulani herdsmen’s crisis in the sub-region as it was known that I had interacted and lived among the Fulani and their business of animal husbandry during my expeditions. The essays, fortunately, lent themselves for national and international discourse and I am now finding it difficult to stop because of the widely read column.
What do you plan to achieve from all your recent writings, especially on critical national issues?
I see my writings as a national service and have been able to notice some changes that have been introduced following my interventions.
Do you think that the leaders of this country have time to read your interventions?
Yes, some do, because, some years ago, I wrote about the near collapse of the Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos, following an investigation I conducted. Some months later they closed the bridge and carried out some remedial works that lasted almost one year; recently, I did a similar intervention with the Eko Bridge in Lagos pleading for the heavy trucks on the bridges to be removed because of the effects on the expansion joints. Not only that the trucks were removed soon after from the bridge, some remedial works is ongoing as we speak, and the bridge is now closed to the traffic.
At this stage she opened up and told me that she was a single mother with four children, some in the university and some in the upper secondary school. All are currently at home with her following the lockdown and school closures, with hardly any electricity supply in the part of the state where she lives. She assumes that probably all her children are going to be busy online with their lectures, watching television, charging their phones, and not knowing how long the lockdown was going to last for, there was the need to prepare herself and the family for the unseen war that the entire global community is fighting with little success. I then lectured her on how to stay safe and protect her environment not only because of the storage of the fuel but fumes coming out of the generator, the effects on her health and those of her children, and possible the hazardous fallout from the storage of that quantity of fuel. She showed some appreciation and I wished her well.
I kept thinking of her and her quest for her family’s survival. My thoughts dived to less fortunate Nigerians. Here we were, stacking up on food, with no power to preserve them from rotting away. Which one will kill us first or eventually: The COVID-19, hunger, food poisoning from decayed and stale foods, or the virus-laden naira notes that we trade with in this supposed cashless society where the typical Nigerian marketwoman does not know what a POS means nor has Internet access? Why do we make policies without building the infrastructure that will ensure the operations of those policies? On April 4, 2020, Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information, informed us that the Government had disbursed N100 billion to the poor in Nigeria. A colleague calculated that if that was true, the government had just distributed N1,111.11 to 90 million Nigerians below the poverty index. What a pittance! The following day, someone else clarified that N20,000 was given to one million people in Nigeria. So, are there only one million poor Nigerians in Nigeria? Where is the remaining N80 billion of the intervention fund? Then two days later, fire gutted the offices of the Accountant-General of the Federation. And speculations were rife that N700 billion relief funds have been lost in the inferno. Where are all these figures coming from, conspiracy theories? Then some days later, we were told that more citizens would receive N20,000 from government. Who are these citizens and how many are they? We do not know. This is what happens when transparency is more opaque than darkness.
With over three weeks of the lockdown (a further two weeks extension added to the originally proposed two weeks stay-home order), tempers are beginning to fray. Daily paid workers and petty business owners are running out of cash. The unemployed are penniless and unable to be helped from the usual extended family lines. Even the employed are going broke as most of them have little or no savings and are unsure of this month’s salary. Most companies have quietly let it be known that April salaries could be long in coming, if at all. All these are no fault of the Nigerian workers or the business owner or the corporations, or even government. The pandemic was unexpected and unplanned for. But the issue here is how a responsive government deals with crises such as this.
A responsible government ought to have monetary reserves in whatever currency to deal with eventualities. A responsible government ought to have the credit worthiness to borrow funds from international finance institutions at good interests for situations such as this. A responsible government should be able to guarantee its citizens a steady monthly payment of subsidy to tide over periods like this. A good government should be able to set up food banks at state and local government levels for distribution of food to the unemployed, old, and widows, rather than throwing bags of grains to multitudes of starving citizens surrounding food-carrying trucks in a stadium. A responsible government should know where to find its taxpaying citizens and how to reach the electorate. We cannot be this bad by ignorance and ineptitude. We are this bad by design, because we have no empathy for our fellow Nigerians. The government does not seem to be Nigerian.
Who looks after Nigerians but themselves? I marvel at the indomitable but cowardly spirit of the Nigerian. He or she is indeed an incredible human being.