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 Standing up to be counted

Standing up to be counted


By Owei Lakemfa

THE Northern governors in their collective wisdom a week ago, decided against a lockdown of the region. The reasons for this, according to their Chairman, Governor Simon Lalong of Plateau State, include that the people are mainly farmers who need to tend to their farms; the Ramadan season is approaching, and the people need more palliatives beyond the Federal Government’s Special Investment Programme which includes cash payments or transfer.

My conclusion is that while the governors are convinced there should be a lockdown, they are apprehensive of a negative reaction by the people. So they decided to leave the inevitable logic of a lockdown to the sledgehammer of the virus. Tragically, while the governors will be waiting for the ideal conditions and time for the lockdown, the virus is not waiting.

The result of such decision or indecision is that more lives will be lost, and it will rub off negatively on other parts of the country, including sections of the North like Kaduna State that  have been on lockdown, as they may be re-infected. Lockdown takes its toll; it has psychological, social and economic effects on people, especially the poor who must work or trade daily in order to feed.

Even for the middle class with some money, the situation in a place like Abuja where banks are closed or open only once weekly and the markets only twice, the situation can be traumatic.  But it is a more tolerable situation than parts of the country where people, in addition, hardly sleep or do so with one eye open due to a sharp increase in banditry and criminality.

In Lagos and Ogun states where a lockdown has been effected directly from Abuja, hordes of criminals and cultists built a coalition and like zombies or swarm of bees, descended on streets and communities robbing, maiming and killing. The police chiefs in these states tried to drown the voices of the people calling for help by claiming the calls and claims were false.

When the people lost faith in the security services, they took things into their hands forming self-defence and  vigilante  groups. The failure of the state has led to near anarchy with both sides in the confrontation taking no prisoners.

Despite this surreal state of affairs, the Nigerian nation is evolving into a terrorist state where in the name of ensuring compliance with the stay-at home directive, citizens are being tortured on a large scale and lives are being taken by security forces. I read that in some countries like Panama, an underdeveloped country like Nigeria, the police go round communities, singing and playing music to help people cope with the lockdown stress. But in our country, the policeman is not carrying a musical instrument; rather, he is armed with a stick, whip or gun which he does not hesitate to use.

The National Human Rights Commission released a report last week which showed that whereas a dozen persons had been killed by the virus, a dozen and half Nigerians had been murdered by the security services in the name of enforcing the lockdown. In other words, more people are being killed to enforce the lockdown than the virus itself. The government that arms and sends these security men to the streets, has not brought any of the murderers to book. This would have served as a deterrence  and sent an unmistakable message that government will not tolerate such criminality.

The choice for the Nigerian masses should not be to choose between the Coronavirus and the hunger virus; torture or death should not be the penalty for the alleged violation of the lockdown order. The lockdown itself presupposes that all Nigerians have shelter where they can lockdown when in truth, there are millions of Nigerians, especially in the urban centres, who have no place to lay their heads.

There are many Nigerians who sleep in the markets, and now the markets are shutdown. There are many families who trade and live in their shops; where the order is that all shops must be shutdown, are they to be rendered homeless? If the poor had been hitherto neglected, is it too much in an emergency such as this to provide temporary shelter for the homeless?

When government says it is mulling the idea that people who venture out of their homes should wear face masks, has it reminded itself that these are generally unavailable and for the mass of the people, unaffordable? Can policy makers please think things through before making pronouncements as a number of state government have done?

The Federal Government which should take the initiative of building a joint and coordinated national response to the virus seems overwhelmed by its own politics and state of unpreparedness. So we have the judiciary dishing out its own directives, including shutting down the courts indefinitely; the National Assembly playing its own violin with members sitting in their homes collecting salaries, stupendous allowances and expecting allocation of new cars; the Buhari government spinning statistics of the hungry and beneficiaries of unaccounted and unaccountable payments to the ‘poor’, while state governments are left to their own devices.

Part of the tragedy of these times is that non-state power centres seem to have shut themselves down, and most mass organisations, gone silent leaving the people defenceless and thereby further empowering those in control of state power, resources and violence. Given this state of affairs, some state governors have announced the suspension of the legal minimum wage and salary cuts.

The Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, has promised sharp increases in the price of fuel under the guise of complete deregulation. Government plans to borrow more and is openly romancing the International Monetary Fund, IMF and the World Bank; agencies that have traditionally impoverished Nigerians. No organisation is raising a finger or a voice to defend mass interests.

It is clear that in the post-coronavirus era, many would lose their jobs and means of livelihood with many businesses collapsing. But I have not heard any mass organisation raising discussions on this and what we can collectively do to protect the working class, the vulnerable, the poor and the weak. None is positing a recovery programme which can be popularised and presented as an alternative to the expected poverty-inducing packages bodies like the IMF and World Bank will try to impose on countries like Nigeria.

Yet, it is not too late to stand up and be counted on the side of the Nigerian people. This is the time when patriots, true leaders of the people, leaders of mass organisations, human right activists and decent people need to stand up and be counted on the side of the Nigerian people.

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