In the past two weeks, the Coronavirus pandemic has produced many paradoxes to give Nigerians a life time of anxiety about the future of their country.
A virus that arrived in Nigeria with an evil reputation is now cautiously embraced by ordinary citizens as the “messiah virus” that may help resolve the country’s intractable political logjam.
In New York and Berlin, the COVID-19 is seen as a nimble and vicious enemy that continues to ravage their economies.
But in Nigeria, the virus seems to have chosen a surprising trajectory.
COVID-19 has infiltrated Nigeria’s political calculus by striking what some say are the “right people”, in the highest echelons of power.
On social media, there are animated mentions of “Osinbajo” “Abba Kyari” and ” Buhari” as characters to watch in an unfolding COVID-19 coup d’etat in Nigeria.
In an act of national mimesis reminiscent of the era of military coups in the country, Nigerians are openly asking COVID-19 to “finish the work” in Aso Rock, and set the country free from the grip of a so-called cabal.
Nigeria may well be the only country in history to outsource the task of political reforms to a virus.
Meanwhile, all around the country, COVID-19 has beamed a harsh flashlight on the ugly contours of our national life.
In Rivers State, Governor Nyesom Wike has approached
the pandemic with dramatic announcements that have little to do with the viral disease itself,
The Governor seems to see the COVID-19 crisis as yet another arena for political dissembling and media theater.
So far, his statements are long in bombast, but acutely short in substance.
For example, Mr Wike had threatened to arrest traders in the popular Oil Mill market, if they did not disperse with immediate effect
When the traders scampered away, the State government failed to take even the most elementary step of disinfecting the market.
Indeed, no single market, bus stop or public space has been decontaminated by the Wike administration, as part of a rearguard action against the Coronavirus.
In Delta State, Governor Okowa has built critical care centers, complete with ventilators, in readiness for COVID-19.
In Rivers State, Governor Wike is fighting the virus with volcanic garrulity, expressed in thoughtless State broadcasts.
But the people are asking: where are the critical care centers built by the administration? How many are they?
Why has the government failed to provide pipe-borne water to the 5 million residents of the State, in the middle of an lethal pandemic?
There’s a sick joke in Port Harcourt that begining from next week, the governor may hand out charms and amulets to native doctors in an all out war against COVID-19.
Governor Wike has already fenced off Rivers State by air, land, and sea. He has closed all markets, “no matter how small” – a step that is sure to alarm even the World Health Organization (WHO).
But in all his broadcasts, Mr Wike has made no mention of a nickel of financial support for the millions of residents of the State.
He has made no mention of trucking out food aid, basic medicines and water to millions of vulnerable families.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Rivers State has the highest rate of unemployment in Nigeria, under Mr Wike’s watch.
The State also has the highest misery index in the country, according to the NBS.
For 5 years, pensioners in Rivers State have not been paid tbeir gratuities and benefits by the Wike government
The governor has also refused to pay the nationally approved N30,000 minimum wage to civil servants in the State.
Some say in his earlier life, Mr Wike was a titled wrestler in his local community.
But public health is not a wrestling match. You succeed by building respectful alliances with civil society towards a shared vision.
Governor Wike’s toxic and belligerent politics has alienated the private sector in the State. Today, they are no where to be seen as partners in the critical fight against COVID-19.
According to the WHO, long term investments in education and health are the best bulwark against public health disasters such as COVID-19.
Governor Wike’s decision to abandon and dismantle all primary health care centers in Rivers State simply because they were built by his political rivals was wrong.
Well-equipped primary health care centres are our first line of defence in the event of a pandemic such as COVID-19.
I say this with infinite sadness because the neglect of the primary health care infracture of any State could spell disaster for the people.
To his credit, Governor Wike rebuilt and painted the residential quarters for doctors at the Braithwaite Memorial Specialist Hospital.
But this was typical of the administration’s cosmetic approach to sectoral reform. In medicine, nobody gets well by simply running into a newly painted apartment.
In 2016, the Wike government made a decision to renovate General Hospitals “according to senatorial zones” in the State.
But again this was wrong, because epidemics and viruses do not break out in politically selected senatorial zones.
People get sick where they are. COVID-19 could get to you anywhere. And primary health care centers are the closest to the people who may need immediate care.
In education, the Wike administration has an even more disastrous record.
Under Mr Wike’s watch, Rivers State has the highest number of children out of school in the South-South region, and the third highest school drop out rate in the country.
Teachers in Demonstration secondary schools in the State have not been paid their salaries for 5 years. This has sent over 20, 000 children out of school, and into the streets.
This is despite an order by the Industrial Court sitting in Owerri, that Governor Wike should pay the teachers.
For the first time since 1967, all scholarships and bursaries to Rivers State students have been canceled by the governor.
In a bizarre new policy, scholarships are given mainly to children who’s parents paid the ultimate price while snatching or defending ballot boxes during violent State elections.
Finally, studies show that Rivers State has the poorest air quality in Sub-Saharan Africa..
Why has Governor Wike not shown any genuine interest in ending the soot crisis that has poisoned the lungs of the State’s residents for five years?
In environmental science, there is a proven link between poor air quality and the premature deaths of those who breathe that air.
This means that long after COVID-19 is gone, Rivers State will remain trapped in the ecology of death, because of ongoing the air pollution.
The main culprits in the latest soot crisis in Rivers State are crude oil thieves. But these are not petty criminals.
They are a gaggle of political assassins, blood-thirsty ex-convicts, ballot box snachers, occupational kidnappers, cult kingpins, and drug dealers.
They steal and boil crude oil for sale in the black market, while heavily polluting the air with black, poisonous smoke.
These are the folks spearheading the genocidal madness that the soot crisis represents in Rivers State.
But you see, these are not ordinary criminals. Taken together, they are also a merciless and decisive resource in every election circle in Rivers State.
If you are wondering why Governor Wike has not gone after them with his trademark gusto, then you are entitled to your naivete.
- Dr Austin Tam-George is a former Commissioner for Information, Rivers State.