Nigeria’s elite ‘above the law’ as the poor struggle with COVID-19 measures

A volunteer from Justice and Empowerment Initiatives, an NGO that works with slum dwellers to fight demolitions, paints numbers on the walls of a building in the Orisunbare Ijora Badia slum. Lagos, Nigeria, April 2015. Image by George Osodi / ICIJ. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of the global impact of COVID-19.

Researchers at Nigeria’s University of Ibadan have predicted that COVID-19 cases in Nigeria will spike to about 312 by Friday, April 3, 2020, and noted “a consistent increase in the daily reported cases” since March 19.  

The coronavirus has infected about 862,000 people globally. As of April 1, Nigeria has confirmed 139 cases of COVID-19, with two deaths and 9 recoveries. 

Beyond the numbers specific to COVID-19, however, structural inequalities within the Nigerian society will seriously derail the fight against COVID-19.

Social distancing and self-isolation is for the privileged

On March 29, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari ordered a two-week lockdown to slow the spread of the virus in Abuja, the capital, the megacity of Lagos, and neighbouring Ogun State — all epicentres of COVID-19 in Nigeria. 

But while social distancing and self-isolation have proved effective in the West, it is absolutely essential to contextualize this for a developing nation like Nigeria. 

Most Nigerians cannot afford the privilege of self-isolation. 

In a typical family that lives in a “face-me-I-face-you” run-down flat, that is certainly not possible. Most families lack sufficient sleeping areas with shared restrooms, public utilities and kitchen. In these types of living conditions, a lockdown and restriction of movement may not produce the desired effect. 

The nature and organisation of housing in any society is a reflection of the socio-economic realities in that society, asserts Lee Ogunshakin and Olatokunbo Osasona, urban development scholars.  

It is therefore not surprising that, according to the World Bank, most Nigerians exist on barely $2 United States dollars per day. This means that 69 percent of Nigeria's estimated 200 million population lives below the poverty level. 

Many Nigerians depend on their daily wages for survival. As expected, the price of staple food like garri, rice and tomatoes has skyrocketed across the country, an SBM Intelligence investigation reveals. With the economic realities of a lockdown, how will these people cater to their families? 

Foodstuffs displayed for sale in a market in Nigeria. Image by (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Chris Akor, a political scientist living in Alabama, United States, told Global Voices by email that the lockdown is “practically a blockage against the poor”:

How will a man with his wife and say, five children, who live in a one bedroom apartment and who survive on the man's daily earnings of 3,000 nairas (about $8 USD), survive for two weeks when the man is unable to go out and earns nothing? The poor are being effectively sacrificed to save the elite and middle class. It will not work. The result is that very soon, there'll be cases of burglaries, arsons, and riots in urban centres where lockdowns persist.

Keith Richards on Twitter makes a similar point:

The economic palliatives by Nigeria’s Central Bank for the COVID-19 was designed to exclude these class of citizens. The stringent conditions for getting household loans are beyond the reach of the average person. 

However, it is commendable that the Lagos State government has recently launched a relief package for indigent residents. The intervention will target 200,000 households with rations of staple foods that should last for a 14-day period: 

Lagos, Africa’s largest city, has an estimated population of 21 million, 8.5 percent (1.7 million people) of whom live in poverty. As of 2006, there were 19,667 documented households in Lagos State. 

From the beginning, the COVID-19 intervention by the government for indigent Lagosians is like a drop of water in an ocean. 

Working from home is also expensive for Nigeria’s middle class. Each household is a municipal council that provides private electricity supply, security, water and internet access. 

During the lockdown, it means that many Nigerian middle-class households will spend more money on fueling their generators for electricity. Without power, they cannot pump water from the boreholes either. 

Internet access in Nigeria is slow and expensive.

However, internet data is cheaper in Nigeria than in other African countries. Stears Business, an online business news analysis portal, states that one gigabyte of data costs around “US$2.78, compared to $2.33 in Rwanda, $3.63 in Ghana, and $5.99 in Gabon.” Quartz Africa argues that the speed of the internet within the African continent still falls short of the “global minimum standard.”

Working from home is therefore not so easy around here. 

Hypocritical Nigerian political leadership

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the putrid underbelly of Nigeria’s political class. 

Nigerian elites live in two separate realities: in private, they live beyond the law; in public, they say just the right things for the camera. 

Three Nigerian officials — Abba Kyari, Seyi Makinde and Garba Shehu — are potent illustrations of this Janus-faced duality among Nigeria’s ruling class. 

On March 24, Abba Kyari, chief of staff for President Buhari, tested positive for the coronavirus following a trip to Germany and Egypt, BBC reports.

What was baffling was that three days earlier (March 21), Kyari publicly chided 25 lawmakers for violating the COVID-19 airport screening protocol on their return from the United Kingdom. Rather than going into self-isolation, the lawmakers continued to mingle with their colleagues. 

Apparently Kyari failed to live out his own advice. 

Oyo State Governor Seyi Makinde also acted with this attitude of being above the law when he hosted a political rally in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria, on March 18, against social distancing measures. 

Makinde later apologized for that “lapse in judgment.” 

Similarly, on March 21, presidential spokesman Garba Shehu defied government prohibition on large gatherings. Shehu was the guest speaker at an event by his old-boys’ association in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. 

In Nigeria, the law is meant for the poor and underprivileged, while those in power flout the law at will. 

The COVID-19 measures are not going to change this mentality.

As though this was not enough, in the midst of poverty and ravaging COVID-19 pandemic, legislators in Nigeria’s House of Representatives received a delivery of 400 newly acquired Toyota Camry 2020 models: 

The legislators had on February 18, rejected local brands. The new cars cost about 5 billion nairas (approximately $13 million USD), according to the Vanguard newspaper.   

Nigeria's ruling class exhibits an agonizing discordance with the rest of society that is excruciatingly inhumane — in the face of extreme poverty, politicians are more interested in buying posh cars at taxpayers’ expense. 

Expecting them to care less about the impact of COVID-19 on the vulnerable is asking for the impossible.  

These issues will likely make a mess of whatever competent intervention that the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control is implementing to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. 

Thus, beyond the flowery promises mouthed by politicians, most Nigerians are in for a rough ride during this COVID-19 season, being at the mercy of both the pandemic and financial insecurity.

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