This should not be surprising. The President has, in his nearly six years of being in office, sufficiently demonstrated his reluctance to take decisive actions posthaste.
From the amount of time it took him to appoint his cabinet to the amount of time it took him to respond to the challenges that plunged Nigeria into recession, his delayed response to issues from the onset of his administration formed an easy-to-spot pattern.
Buhari’s slow, if not lethargic, response to issues, regardless of how urgent they might be, is now a trademark of some sort. It has earned him, though as an inverted compliment, the sobriquet – “Baba Go Slow.”
His supporters defend this as the “president’s style.” Yet, this style proves fatal when breathless and decisive action is needed, as is often the case during a pandemic. The human and economic costs of Aso Rock’s decision to delay closure of Nigeria’s airspace to high risk countries for way too long is beginning to pile up. And things are just getting started.
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Experts say “when COVID-19 hits Nigeria fully, the challenge and national mobilization required to respond adequately will require the replication of another civil war-situation capacity.”
President Buhari may have seen the need to act boldly in the wake of this raging storm. What is in question is whether he has seen the urgency times like this demand.
In these initial rounds of Nigeria’s fight against COVID-19, the President is yet to use the levers of his office in a way that inspires confidence. He may eventually respond to this virus with the full force of the Nigerian state. For now, he is throwing feeble punches and dangerously playing catch-up.
As costly as this presidential “go slow” in a time of unprecedented crisis is, it has inadvertently thrown up a pretty interesting situation.
Take the first few days of COVID-19 in Nigeria for instance. While the Federal Government was running at snail speed, some governors across the country promptly stepped up to set policies for their states’ academic, social and economic activities. Announcing shut down of schools, sequestration of religious and social activities, border closures and other varying degrees of restrictions weeks before the federal government woke up to that responsibility.
As governors took charge to protect their citizens in the absence of federal leadership, they took on responsibilities that were hitherto on Nigeria’s “exclusive list.”
The crisis and the absence of federal leadership offered state governments the opportunity to assert themselves as “independent entities within our system of federalism, not mere subordinate jurisdictions of the national government.” If necessity is truly the mother of invention, it may have birthed unofficial devolution of powers in Nigeria.
The increasing sub-national assertiveness is only a natural response to a vacuum. To be sure, it did not start with COVID-19. Not too long ago, some state governments and regional blocs, responded to Federal Government’s near absence by floating complimentary security structures to tame Nigeria’s mounting insecurity.
In the present circumstance, some governors have so far turned out to be reliable, explaining the challenges they face, justifying their decisions and providing much-needed leadership.
Experts agree Nigeria urgently needs to ramp up its testing capabilities. But Buhari’s government is staying true to type. Publicly available information say Nigeria has only conducted about 7,000 tests. At the same time, neighbouring Ghana has successfully conducted 68,000 tests while South Africa has pushed its test numbers beyond 125,000.
State governors may have bought time with the 14-day inter-state lock down they jointly announced. What is becoming clear is that they will have to step up even more to get the number of tests required to make informed decisions on the partial reopening of economic activities their citizens are pressuring them to do.
Beyond Lagos, Oyo State is already conducting tests independent of but with supervisory assistance of federal authorities. Akwa Ibom has announced its plans to begin aggressive but voluntary testing of its citizens. More states are beginning to find out that they have to acquire and expand independent testing capabilities. River State is working out a border control mechanism that will not be reliant on federal police.
Whichever way it is looked at, Buhari’s halting response to this pandemic has shifted some grounds. Yet many state governments have refused to extend themselves beyond their usual limits. Skulking that federal milk is not flowing as expected. While they are at that, other state governments are covering new grounds with whatever resources they may find.
A pattern is beginning to emerge. States with better institutional and financial resources are responding better than those with relatively smaller resources. Such “disadvantaged” states and even “advantaged” ones can easily scale up by forming inter-state or regional alliances.
Platforms for this exist already. For instance, the South East Governors’ Forum can decide to combine resources and acquire mass testing capabilities independent of, but complimentary to, Federal Government’s efforts. Same goes for any bloc that may need to collaborate to mount an aggressive counter-attack on COVID-19.
As Nigeria gradually gets to its casualty peak in the coming weeks, states will enjoy even more unchallenged primacy by default. In doing so, they will acquire more federal capacities they may not be so willing to shed after the crisis.
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When Buhari’s government fully wakes to its responsibilities, a few clashes with state authorities may be seen here or there. This should be resolved by healthy debates and trade-offs. It will help if big brother tendencies or adversarial posturing and grandstanding as may be seen with some opposition governors be done away with.
By default, COVID-19, to an appreciable degree, is helping state governments acquire operational capabilities some have been clamouring for. Proponents of Nigeria’s restructuring may be quick to point at Buhari’s legal resistance to their idea. What is easy to miss is that his governance style is fast turning out to be an operational catalyst.
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Analysts are right, Nigeria will not be the same after this pandemic. COVID-19 and a presidential absence in a time of monumental crisis is operationally restructuring Nigeria on at least one key aspect. This snail is moving, it will only take a while before it drags its shell along.
Chima is the Managing Partner of Preshdub Media – a consultancy outfit based in Awka, Anambra State.