Nigerians may love public holidays in succession but the restlessness of the last fortnight indicates they don’t like being grounded in a polite house arrest called lockdown. As creatures of habit, humans need some external economic and natural forces to sustain the routines that have placed them on top of the food chain. The stay-at-home order has not been easy for Nigerians and it was made worse by the government’s ambiguity for the reason of the lockdown.
Although the lockdown as stated in the Presidential broadcast initially affected only Lagos, Ogun and Abuja, practically all the states in the federation had in one way or the other imposed different degrees of curfews to control and contain the Coronavirus pandemic. Lagos, for instance, had progressively been tightening the limitations of its residents by first closing down schools, then asking civil servants of certain cadres to work from home, later restricting public gatherings to just about a score before the lockdown so that, among other control measures, it could disinfect public places.
Even though the fumigation was sparsely done for a couple of days, the distribution of relief materials has made headlines all around the country making the lockdown more an economic challenge than a health challenge. Compelled to stay home without electricity for more than fourteen straight days is sickening enough, and if one is among the over hundred million whose daily livelihood is being mortgaged for a disease he not only doubts exists but feels some are profiting from it, one can’t overlook the disproportionate distribution of relief by the authorities. What was supposed to have brought relief brought grief?
First, the recipients of the stimulus packages are loose. Who are the “poorest of the poor”? That such a caste still exists and commands the attention of the government that categorized them as such only mirrors a democracy that is wired for the few. The inability to have a credible database of citizens makes the delivery of these aids dodgy. How is this class of people determined? Are they women as the Ministry of Women of Affairs is sharing? Are they senior citizens?
Are they physically challenged? Do they live in satellite towns? Are they rural and illiterate? We can’t even attempt to go door to door as seen in other nations because town planning that sees dwellings accessible and addressed is lacking.
So far, the narrative is measures of rice, noodles, beans, garri and bread packaged in small bags branded in the pictures of the politician, political office and/or political party it came from given to a group of people. Reminiscent of electioneering. These beneficiaries convene at designated distribution centres to collect their packs frustrating the social distancing protocol of the times. When they are not assembled, the meagre parcel that hardly feeds a family is sent to entire communities as a relief. Adding insult to injury, they are made to receive it in front of cameras.
Because less than 40% of Nigerians are banked and with access to financial services, in contravention to the cashless policy and blatant abuse of the naira, cash is being shared in broad daylight in the name of conditional cash transfer to beneficiaries. Now, the Federal Government claims it is using a preexisting register of the poor. Is this how crude the social intervention programme has been running? Why do the recipients not have a Bank Verification Number so as not only to boost the banking system but also give them a trackable identity?
How do they pay back (if they will) the Tradermoni or other similar “loans”? In cash? To who?
The leadership of the National Assembly has called on the executive arm of the government to be more equitable in the distribution of these palliatives as it also called for coordination of COVID-19 donations to be in a central account independent of the Presidential Task Force. However, equitable distribution of palliatives won’t come by banal summons of the executive to the chambers, it would come when both arms of government put Nigeria and Nigerians ahead of themselves.
Beyond slashing the crude oil benchmark to reflect current realities, the budget review that will do all Nigerians good is not one that still retains renovation of the National Assembly Complex or repeated purchase of furniture, computers and cutlery for the State House. The budget review that will serve as an economic stimulus for Nigerians is the one that tweaks the opaque security votes for executives and the constituency allowances for legislators and the other obnoxious sub-headed stipends for meaningful developmental projects.
The equitable intervention that will benefit all Nigerians won’t come from the kobo by kobo reduction in the pump price of petrol. Rather, it would come when both the executive and the legislators work together to pass the Petroleum Industry Bill that will fully deregulate that sector for free market operations and pricing.
The suggestion by the NNPC Chairman, Mele Kyari, that the loss-making refineries would be sold should not just end as another soundbite, it must be backed up by policy statement and legal framework.
Following a proposal by the Federal Government and the National Assembly to cushion the effects of the economic downturn the coronavirus is bringing; Electricity Distribution Companies have responded by offering Nigerians free electricity consumption for two months. We appreciate it. However, more reaching would have been to mandate the DISCOs to ensure every consumer is metered. At the moment, less than 50% of electricity consumers are metered with far less than 10 million having prepaid meters. What this implies is that this awful will amount to nothing when the customer indirectly pays back through estimated billing.
Both the executive and the legislators have been working round the clock to ensure that Nigeria controls and contains this pandemic, at the same time trying to protect the economy. As mentioned earlier, only a few Nigerians are banked,
so the possibility of expecting bank alerts or tax reliefs to businesses whose spine is the informal sector in the form of palliatives is slim. The leadership of the
National Assembly can take advantage of the shock expressed by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation on the deplorable to work with the executive to insist on a double-digit percentage share of the budget for the health sector.
While also probing how past budgets on health had been spent, the lawmakers can exploit the ball dropped by the Minister of Health who claimed he was unaware that first responders to the contagious coronavirus were paid hazard allowance to ensure that lingering remuneration disputes between the federal government and medical officers are fulfilled. Medical officers cannot continue to be on the moral end of the Hippocratic Oath when their employers don’t do their part.
As much as receiving packs of grains would indeed help in this trying time, the populace should not be carried away by this stomach infrastructure. The preferable infrastructure would be Primary Healthcare Centres in every political ward. The preferred palliative would be the registration of large “poor and vulnerable” demography into the National Health Insurance Scheme. It is then that a pack of five loaves and two fishes would feed a multitude.
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