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Once again, a major global illness has caught our country pants down. No country anticipated, let alone prepared for COVID-19. But other countries are ready for such eventualities. When they come, their response time is prompt and immediate and fully co-ordinated because they need no one to tell them when there is an existential threat to precious human lives.
We could not match their level of preparedness because we were not, and have never been, prepared to take on such challenges, big or small. China built a 1,000 bed hospital specifically to take on the challenges posed by the coronavirus in just ten days, a feat no nation had achieved before and none would probably ever achieve. Nigeria could not have built a one-bed hospital in the time it took them to build a 1,000-bed hospital. It was not magic. It was a product of commitment, preparedness and the authorities owning their responsibilities.
Other countries took immediate steps to help the sick as well as take preventive measures to contain its spread. They have a surfeit of test kits to handle all suspected cases of the illness. We do not have enough test kits to help our medical personnel diagnose the disease. We could only boast of a few. We do not have enough hospital beds to take in the sick. We do not have facilities to quarantine those who test positive to the infection. Our medical personnel are called upon to handle an emergency they are not really trained or equipped to handle.
While other countries educated their citizens on the symptoms of the disease and how to handle suspected cases, nothing like that happened here. The people were left on their own to respond to the devastating pandemic in whatever way they can. A panicky citizenry trying to catch at anything in an attempt to survive this latest ugly challenge to mankind on their own presented the rest of the world with the pathetic sight of a proverbially oil rich nation desperately flailing in the face of this monumental challenge.
Yet, despite the panicky situation, we are denied the right to hear from the one man whose voice matters and who alone can re-assure the citizens to trust the capacity of the government to save them from this killer disease – President Buhari. Last week, the senators took it upon themselves to ask the president to talk to the people because at times like these, the people need to hear from their leader. No leader can afford to padlock his lips at such challenging times. The primary purpose of the senate advice was to persuade the president and his handlers to unlock his lips and let him bond with the people by showing empathy and leadership. Part of the beauty of democracy is that it is the only form of government that promotes dialogue between the rulers and the ruled. A deficit of such dialogue is detrimental to the health of democracy. Without dialogue there is a disconnect between the rulers and the ruled. And rumours, wild and unfounded rumours, move into fill up the vacuum and complicate matters.
The distinguished senators, like the rest of us, were anxious to see our president do what the American president, Donald Trump and the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, among other world leaders are doing – talking to their people on a regular basis about what they are doing to save the sick and contain the disease from spreading and killing more people. These are difficult times for governments, businesses, the economy and the people. Times like these truly try committed leadership.
I was sad to see that the presidency did not take kindly to the well-intentioned advice of the senators. In a statement March 19, my good friend, the suave public relations guru and presidential spokesman, Garba Shehu, said the call by the “ranking members of our respected parliament are cheap and sensational. These are not the times for populism and cheap politics.” He then went on to list what the president had done or was doing, such as “the restriction of travel from 13 countries,” the reduction in the price of petrol and the imposition of “very stringent regimes and checks at points of air and sea entry into the country” as evidence that Buhari, contrary to the insinuations, is not sleeping on duty.
But I think Shehu got it all wrong. The call was neither populist nor cheap politics. It was actually responsible and in line with the constitutional mandate of the upper legislative house. They and the president are in this together. The failure on the part of one arm of government has implications for the other arms as well. The senators did not accuse the president of doing nothing. All they wanted was for the president to talk to the people. I am sorry the presidency has problems with that.
The senators were probably not ignorant of the steps the president and his relevant ministries and agencies have taken so far in response to this globally consuming challenge to human lives and the national economy. I suppose this motivated them to ask Buhari to show his face on television and tell the people how active he and his administration are by joining the rest of the world to defeat coronavirus. I find nothing wrong with the law-makers asking the president to be right there in front and confidently ask the people to trust him. That is not my definition of populism and cheap politics. In any case, politics, even at the best of times, is naturally cheap.
The senators felt, and I agree with them, that the president and his handlers have been remiss here. He does not need anyone to tell him that we need to hear from him – and why. We did not elect the ministers; we elected the president. He, not his ministers, is accountable to the people. He, not his ministers, have the constitutional mandate to lead the world’s most populous black nation and, therefore, must be seen to be doing so by his visibility at trying times such as these.
The entire country is paralysed by the fear of the coronavirus, partly because we do not know how it is contracted and partly because we do not know what to do to avoid contracting it. Governments, the private sector and institutions are in a lock down – part of attempts by the rest of us to comply with uncoordinated government directives in order to save our lives and our country. At times like these, the only voice that matters is that of the president. His handlers should encourage him to let us hear that voice. The consuming suspicion in the presidency that those who speak up and offer pieces of advice on how the president should correct course in our long trek to political paradise are Buhari haters, is not helpful to the president. Such people wish him to succeed. His men need to curb the easy resort to calling such people names and treat them as enemies of the president. I am sure Buhari would be the last man to arrogate to himself monopoly of knowledge.Shehu should draw his principal’s attention to the broadcast last week by President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. No case of the virus has so far been reported in his country. But he needed to sensitise his people and prepare them for the challenges that would sooner or later be upon them. He laid out a co-ordinated and measured approach to avoiding the virus and in cases of infection, what the people should do. That is what is demanded of leadership at trying times such as these. You do not need me to tell you that we do not have such a co-ordinated approach or a programme for sensitising the people. Heck, we are merely sitting ducks, desperately quacking in prayers.