Prof Sheriff Folarin, activist and cerebral scholar is Head of Department, Political Science and International Relations, Covenant University.
A researcher, and writer of international repute who has won many awards in academics, including US Commanding General’s Award for Excellence, Fort Jackson, South Carolina, lecturer of the year, Covenant University (2007), 2014 Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Host-Scholar, best graduating student in History award (University of Ibadan 1997), Oba Lipede Prize in History for Best undergraduate (1994).
In this encounter with Sunday Sun, he dissected the problem with Nigeria and its solution, what the government should be doing to secure the post-COVID 19 era and why he wants the Southeast to produce the next president in 2023 elections, among other sensitive issues
How would you rate the government response to COVID-19 fight so far. Are you satisfied?
When the government took it seriously from the middle of March, they started well, they shut the airports, closed local flights, closed all the institutions public and private, they imposed a lockdown generally and they set out to work. Lagos State government in particular and probably the FCT and Ogun state they were a little bit proactive in terms of ensuring that the index case and other cases that originated from the index case, like the contact case, building of isolation centres, trying to ensure they double up on getting ventilators, test kits, etc. In terms of publicity, it was top notch and to a large extent, we can say the government did enough in the beginning. I think things started getting bad when at the federal level government wasn’t kind of forthcoming as far as assuaging the fears, the concerns, and worries of the people, in palliatives and in terms of even addressing the people generally. Government started getting it wrong when people were yearning to hear from the government particularly in a lockdown that denied them of certain social welfare, movement to be able to make their money to feed particularly daily income earners. Of course, the people still kept hope alive not until the second time the President came to address the nation. I found that address not too bad, but I didn’t see much from the view of the palliative and unfortunately, that is the only language that the common people understand and if that is attended to if you ask them to go and stay on top of their roof from morning till night they would do as long as you give them something to feed. That is just the fact, so I think that was where the government began to get it very wrong as people were not paying the needed attention to the lockdown any longer, they were now leaving their homes, taking the risk of going far distances. Despite the presence of police and army checkpoints, despite the presence of a combined team of security officers vehicles were having a field day. In terms of controlling movements, the government cannot handle it because government says stay at home yet government is not taking care of the people the way they should. If the care is not there the people will break the rule and the people will compromise security operatives who themselves are sometimes corrupt, who themselves probably, don’t even have palliatives too, so they will simply let it be business as usual by collecting some naira notes and allowing people to go their way. This is how the thing (COVID-19) is spreading, so while the government is doing everything possible to do contact tracing there is a lot of contact tracing and more contact tracing because people are still moving around. And states that are regarded as epicenters are now having people moving freely, perhaps not too freely, but moving at a cost because they have to settle security operatives at certain points to be able to move. This is where the government is failing and like I said the people are obedient once you are able to speak in their language and that language is the language of food. Take care of their welfare, in terms of palliative and they will fall in line, they will stay at home. I know that Nigerians are obedient people the only thing that makes Nigerians disobedient and to break the law is when they don’t have something to be able to put food on their table. That is a major problem and the danger is that they are stretching the capacity for contact tracing and I just hope it won’t get to an elastic limit and that will backfire on the entire medical/ healthcare system and indeed the entire management process of COVID-19.
So far have lessons been learnt?
We have learnt a lot of lessons. Let me start with my sector, the educational sector. One of the things we have learnt is that we can always continue with what we are doing, teaching, and learning without necessarily being physically present in a classroom. We have also realised that it is something that can be sustained because now we are heading gradually towards the mid-semester examination and the way things look even if the lockdown is relaxed what about the resumption of schools, they may not want schools to resume yet and that might drag up to maybe sometimes like July and once it is July or thereabout there will be second-semester examination and that will mean that we have learnt something, that we can actually teach, we can learn, we can conduct a continuous assessment, we can examine in the major end of the semester examination, we can even process results and have senate meetings. We have had senate meeting online here at Covenant University, we used the Zoom technology and it was a very successful senate meeting, so we have learned that lesson, it is one of the good takeaways of this situation. Another thing we have learnt is that for those who are into start-ups and all of that they have been able to come up with fresh ideas of going ahead making money while not going to the physical market or while not having a physical store to put their wares out for advertisement and for people to come and buy. They can engage on-line medium to be able to get their things done. Another thing which was more of an eye-opener is that we have probably the worst health-care system in Africa and I say this with a sense of responsibility because if you look at all of these dispensaries that we call a hospital, these consulting clinics, glorified consulting centres that we call hospitals, if you look at them critically you will see that they have no capacity not even to be able to put a patient on a comfortable place to treat malaria let alone to threat this COVID-19. Now, we are talking about things that we never considered before: ventilators, respirators, test kits for coronavirus. We have realised right now that indeed we need to revamp, overhaul our healthcare system, it is in total comatose. As a matter of fact, before, we could afford to quickly take the next flight, private jet chartered and fly into Germany, Britain, UK, India, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, France, etc for treatment, for medical attention, but now there is nowhere to go because they are also contending with their own COVID-19 epidemic. So, there is nowhere to run to again, we just have to pitch ourselves here. Look at the beautiful isolation centres everywhere that are now put in place, these should have been in place before now. We don’t pray for emergencies or this kind of pandemic, but it is necessary to take care and prepare for emergencies before it occurs. Now states are the ones building isolation units not only in Nigeria, but in many parts of the world but the fact is that because of this globalised nature of Coronavirus we have no choice, but to also toe the line of what is happening around the world. We also have to align with the rest of the world because whatever they do if we don’t do it here we will be at the receiving end. I know for sure that there are some countries I know on this continent that they are able to maintain and follow this contract tracing with ease; it is not a problem for them. It is not because they had expected Coronavirus, it was because even during the outbreak of Ebola they had begun this process of ensuring that if there is Ebola again this is what they are going to do, but we were so successful with Ebola, but see what is happening now as if we never had anything like that before. It is because once our people are over a particular phase they just abandon it all and they move on. We built a national stadium in Abuja, one of the best in Africa we abandoned it and moved on, not until we had a former governor of Akwa Ibom State, building another fantastic and big stadium and I can assure you that we will abandon it with time and move on. This is a problem we have in Nigeria and it has permeated the entire system, it is not just about maybe sports or education, but it’s pandemic on its own in the health sector. When HIV/AIDS broke out in the 80s, of course, the level of globalization at the time was lower, so people thought it was still far away from Africa, that it was still far away from Nigeria, that it was still far away from our different communities, but they forget that these our different communities are also part of the world and people move from one place to the other. We have kinsmen from different part of the world and they will bring this thing (HIV-AIDS) home one day. Although HIV/AIDS is transmitted through blood transfusion, sexual activities, and the rest of them, but people never believed it was real, they thought it was a fabrication of the West to want to outdo us, but later the truth dawned on all of us that it is real. At a time they said it was an attempt to depopulate Africa, so you can see how we have had an evolution of conspiracy theories. But that will not help anybody. We need to be very careful, Coronavirus is real and the better people change that mentality the better before they become victims. We don’t need to have personal experience of it before we now admit that there is COVID-19. We just need to be careful and leave the rest to God.
What do you expect the government to be doing in preparation for the post-COVID-19 era?
I will say, I am sorry to use the word, but our government has not been responsible enough. Look at some of the Almajjirai that they are sending to the Southeast and trying to find a way for them to have job opportunities, look at the North where they are taking them from, North that is the food basket of Nigeria. They are potential farmers who will be employed; government can farm lands and put them there to be gainfully employed, they will be growing crops for Nigeria, there will be more food for the country so that when COVID-19 is over there will be enough and we will not have a problem about Almajjirai and more Almajjirai who are not even Almajjirai, but have become Almajiri too because they are out of jobs. They will now pose more problems for us, more social problems, social pressures that will lead to more crime and these are potential recruits for Boko Haram and ISWAP and all other criminal gangs all over the country. So, what the government needs to do is to let us farm these lands, put those boys there, let them eke a living from there. There is too much land in Nigeria and we should not be talking about that people are not employed. With all the money that the government wastes on so many irrelevant things why can’t the government just farm these mass of lands and let the people be gainfully employed and there will be food in abundance. We will have enough food and begin to process them for export abroad. We will have more than enough here if we do all that we need to do well. Britain as small as it is, that is what the country is doing, every available piece of land is farmed and people are gainfully employed. Secondly, we can see that the era of oil as a major source of revenue is speedily phasing out. This means that oil will soon not be a source of revenue for Nigeria and this is no longer a mirage, it’s becoming real and it is stirring us in the face, so we need to diversify our economy. Most of our companies that are privately owned where do you think all the money that they are using to run it are coming from? Apart from the money that is stolen or those got from different scams or money from other means, oil is probably one of the major source bases that drive these private companies. There will be greater unemployment after COVID-19 unless we do the needful and take care of necessary issues, but if nothing is done properly there will be a problem. But if we diversify and make agriculture more attractive, make start-ups, on-line shopping more attractive, sponsor start-ups, you will see that they will do well. We are already seeing start-ups that are doing well now that there is COVID-19, so we must seize the opportunity and do things that are expected to be done very well. We can get things done from home, the university can be on-line in Nigeria, it is possible, we can have universities like we have them in Liverpool and in other places that are fully online and things will be moving on smoothly. Another thing is our healthcare system; sorry I am going back there, we really need to bring it up to standard because after this COVID-19 we should have hope in our healthcare system, we should have a situation where the healthcare system will be a major revenue earner and it can attract our doctors abroad back home. Are we not treating ourselves now? Are the white men here to treat us now? Are we now going abroad for treatment? We are here now treating ourselves, bringing our hospitals up to standard, there is competition now even among the government hospitals. Lagos State government wants to be on top now so that is a good competition. We should have faith in our health system in such a way that we will not have to look for all the dollars here, mop them up again, which will further affect our economy to begin to look for hospitals abroad for treatment. Let our money be spent here, I know that some of them are habitual thieves that can’t be stopped, but whatever money they are stealing let them spend it here, invest it here, let them not take it out of this country. Let there be a situation that we are plaughing into our economy, we are re-investing into our own economy so that we can just forget about oil as a source, let oil just be as a bonus. It should no longer be a major source of funding for our budget.
There is this debate on the problem with Nigeria; while some say its structural others say its leadership, as a political historian where do you stand?
It is a multiplicity of factors, a combination of factors. Bad leadership is number one; the structure of Nigeria is another problem. But let me also tell you that people will not remember the structure again if we have sound leadership. If you have a good leader people will forget about structure, people will forget about saying, oh it’s because of the federal structure that we have, that it is not a perfect one, that it is very flawed. If leadership is sound, effective, visionary, transformative, benevolent, I tell you, people will not remember structure again. It is when there is bad leadership, corrupt leadership that we begin to remember where we are coming from. When the Israelites began to talk about going back to Egypt in the Bible it was because of suffering in the wilderness, but if they were not suffering will they have remembered going back to Egypt? Everything rest on leadership.
How can we bring up a crop of new leadership under this situation or is it impossible?
If you begin to think about it, where are the leaders? I engage people a lot on social media, I put something up today in the social media and when you get reactions you will definitely be frustrated. You discover people are so lowly-minded and these are young people, they are the ones that we are fighting for, they are the ones we say they are the leaders of tomorrow, but you see the way they argue and how they are lining behind all those that have destroyed Nigeria. Some are lining behind the current leadership, some are lining behind Jonathan, some behind OBJ (Obasanjo), some are lining behind all sorts of people even behind Babangida with all that he did he still has supporters, young people. If you come out and think that everybody will support a particular cause/call no matter how good, you will be disappointed, there are those that will kick against it. Do you know that some people still praise Abacha to the high heavens? And those people are not old people, so you now begin to wonder where the solution lies in terms of good leadership. That is why sometimes I don’t want to look at leadership from the perspective of age. I just want to look at leadership from the perspective of changing the system this way; de-monetize the process for the emergence of leaders. There is too much monetization and this is what is killing us. If you de-monetize even me, I will run for the President of Nigeria. Where will I get tens of millions of naira to even be able to indicate interest, buy form and buy people because you have to buy people and later you begin to take care of stomach infrastructure. These are the issues.