COVID-27: The National Virus

There was widespread outrage this week after it emerged that the presidency had approved N27bn for the renovation of the National Assembly complex in the revised 2020 budget. It was a shocking new low for a country infamous for criminal profligacy, particularly at a time when governments around the world had adopted various measures of financial prudence to mitigate the ravages of coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The revelation was made days after the House of Representatives approved President Muhammadu Buhari’s $22.7bn loan request – toeing the line of the Senate which approved it in March before the lockdown. It also comes a week after the president wrote NASS requesting a separate $5.5bn external borrowing to finance the deficit budget. With oil prices on its knees following demand shocks in the global market over COVID-19 fears, Nigeria has been teetering dangerously on the edge of fiscal crisis.

If the spate of borrowings wasn’t alarming enough, the IMF drove the point home by projecting the economy to shrink by 3.4% after the second quarter leading to a recession that will last till 2021. For millions of citizens, it will be the death knell in an economy still struggling to rally from the recession of 2016. Yet the government, in all too familiar tone-deafness, saw fit to allocate N27bn for the renovation of a structure that is not in any serious state of disrepair.

Nigeria’s political journey has undoubtedly been a tale of pillage and plunder, but this latest episode struck a chord for its brazen insensitivity.

President Muhammadu Buhari has come under fire for the allocation

Like elsewhere in the world, the coronavirus pandemic brought life to a standstill in Nigeria, leaving millions in a miasma of uncertainty and depression.  The situation was however exacerbated by the tardy response of a government that chose to fold its arms when the alarm bells were ringing. It would be a much different scenario had the Buhari-led government intervened promptly and shut the nation’s borders and airspace before the index case was reported. Alas, about 12,000 Nigerians have been infected, over 300 dead in addition to hundreds of ‘mysterious deaths’ and billions lost to the shuttering of the economy.

To add insult to injury, even the Special Intervention Programme (SIP) initiated by government to ameliorate the suffering of vulnerable Nigerians through cash transfer, has proved to be yet another fiasco. What would ordinarily be a laudable initiative was turned into a cesspit of corruption and nepotism over alleged lopsidedness in distribution and the curious decision to make table payments. Nigerians watched in utter dismay as Governor Seyi Makinde rejected weevil-infested rice sent to Oyo State by the Customs Service. Also, the internet is awash with heartrending videos of starving residents scampering over paltry relief materials as the lockdown takes a devastating toll.

Hence, it beggars belief that a president – who even acknowledged the suffering of the masses in his nationwide broadcast – would vote N27bn for the renovation of a government building.

It’s been suggested in certain quarters that the coronavirus pandemic would bequeath Nigerians the unintended legacy of a robust healthcare. But events of the past few weeks have exposed the naïvete of such reasoning.

Amid threats of strike action from the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), the Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire admitted to a parliamentary committee that he had no idea how much doctors and other health workers battling COVID-19 received as ‘hazard pay’. They are being paid a ridiculous N5,000. More bizarrely, President Buhari, in his bumped down 2020 budget factoring in COVID-19 realities, slashed the budget for healthcare from N44bn to N25.6bn. In a country of 200 million people, this translates to N125 for healthcare per citizen.

For context, South Africa, the second biggest economy on the continent, budgeted $12bn for healthcare after coronavirus. With a population of 60 million, that leaves N70,000 per citizen for healthcare.

At the very least, the COVID-19 pandemic has ended the age-long debate over the importance of politics and economics to society – by making it abundantly clear that healthcare is paramount. Yet the Nigerian government has given precedence to the comfort of parliamentarians over it. German philosopher GWF Hegel might have been referring to Nigeria when he said: “we learn from history that we do not learn from history”.

It is a similar sordid tale in the education sector where government slashed the budget for Universal Basic Education (UBE) targeting 40 million school-age children, from N117bn to N51.1bn. Unperturbed by the dilapidated state of public schools, rising almajiri menace, declining standard of education and frequent dislocation of tertiary education through industrial action, government has poured gasoline in the fire by reducing the budget for this all-important sector. This however, is unsurprising, considering that the future of the youth – in their design – is to be paid Vuvuzelas for recycled gerontocrats.

Senate President, Ahmed Lawan has been accused of heading a rubberstamp legislature

The comfort of political office holders shouldn’t be a priority amid the unending Boko Haram crisis in the north-east, growing brutality of bandits in the north-west and nefarious activities of armed Fulani herdsmen along the Niger-Benue trough and beyond. Indeed, our overpaid politicians are duty-bound to take massive pay-cuts to address the scourge of insecurity that is not only costing us lives, but has resulted in unprecedented capital flight from the country.

In saner climes, government borrowings result in massive infrastructural transformation – power, transportation, housing and other social amenities – which in turn facilitate faultless repayment of such loans. The reverse is the case in Nigeria today, where a rubberstamp legislature – for a slice of the pie – speedily approves extravagant loan request by the executive in an obscene quid pro quo.

An even bigger obscenity is the jumbo pay for these fly-by-night politicians and their coterie of aides. On a yearly take home pay of about N250m, Nigerian senators are the best-paid in the world – earning about three times the salary of the average US senator despite our annual budget of $25bn being a tiny fraction of the budget of the state of New York ($175bn).

Yet governors are up in arms over the payment of N30,000 minimum wage.  The only possible explanation for this contradiction is that in our warped sense of priorities, we’ve succeeded in redefining democracy as “government of the politicians, by the politicians and for the politicians”.

While the virus was the problem for much of the world, in Nigeria, it’s a variant of a virus – corruption – that continues to be the real menace.

The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), in a letter to the UN challenging the N27bn for NASS renovation, said: “Nigerian authorities are putting politicians’ allowances and comfort before citizens’ rights.”

Increasingly, the rights of citizens in Nigeria have been reduced to silence. Silence in the face of poverty, injustice, insecurity, brutality, a badly managed virus crisis and the excesses of libertine politicians.

The big question though –for both the classes and masses – is what is festering beneath the silence…

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