The Gathering Storms in Nigeria
In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, I am becoming increasingly worried about the future of Nigerians and Nigeria itself, from economic, health, social and security perspectives. Several gigantic storms are gathering at the same time in Nigeria and I am worried that we may be ill-equipped to cope.
First, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Nigeria is beginning to jump exponentially every week now. The number of confirmed cases jumped by 117 on April 21st and by 91 on April 22nd, bringing the total to 873. That means that in the past ten days, the number of confirmed cases in Nigeria has tripled. That also strongly suggests that whatever we are doing now to contain the spread of the disease is not working well. The trajectory is alarming, raising the question of whether we can still contain the spread? Are we maximizing our capabilities in Nigeria and resources to avoid going the way of Italy, Spain, or the United States?
Second, we are beginning to discover community clusters of infections. We have recorded community outbreaks in Abuja (Mpape and Mabushi) that shocked health workers. What we have found is likely only a tip of the iceberg, given the fact that very few people have been tested in Nigeria. So far, we tested less than 10,000 people in a population of 200 million (which is less than 1% of 1%). The disease may have spread much more profound than our data shows. As of today, we do not know how many people are already infected or where those people are. That is very dangerous, particularly when you consider that lockdown could be lifted within a couple of weeks from now.
Third, Kano is recording mysterious deaths in its elderly population and many suspect that the deaths are related to the community spread of COVID-19 from the index case who allegedly attended many functions before he was diagnosed. More than 150 people have died in Kano in the last three days. At the same time, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Kano has skyrocketed to 73 as of today. That strongly suggests that there is a severe community spread. What is most worrying is that the burial of the 150 people who died was not done in conformity with established guidelines for the funeral of those who died from COVID-19 or similar infectious diseases.
Consequently, we are likely to see more infections and deaths in Kano, which is the most densely populated city in the North. You do not have to be a prophet to see that coming. What if the community spread has reached neighbouring States? Do they have the capacity to cope?
Fourth, Nigeria's mainstay, Oil, which accounts for 60% of its revenue and 90% of its foreign exchange, is trading at below $1 per barrel globally as of today. Yes, you read it correctly. Oil is trading at less than 1 dollar per barrel today. Even at that, nobody is buying Nigeria's Oil right now. It was trading at 12 dollars last week, which was already a historic low until it crashed further. We have numerous vessels laden with millions of barrels of Oil stranded at sea waiting for buyers. With the world economy virtually at a standstill and manufacturing plants shut down, nobody is buying. Nigeria is losing tens of billions of naira every single day. And the haemorrhaging is not likely to end any time soon. To make matters worse, Nigeria does not have enough storage capacity for the Oil that is not being sold right now. That is another storm looming.
Fifth, with a huge debt burden which gulps most of Nigeria's yearly revenue, with little or no Oil sales at the moment; (because of the lockdown), and with diminished capacity for internally generated revenue, Nigeria could be bankrupt within the next 60 days according to global experts. That means it will be unable to pay workers and pensioners, to meet its financial obligations, and to provide essential services to its citizenry. What is the contingency plan for this looming storm? The answer cannot merely be to borrow more.
Sixth, most States in Nigeria are not viable. Without the monthly allocation from FAAC, most States cannot pay salaries or provide essential services. Within 30 days of diminished allocation from the Federal, most States will be on life support. Within 60 days, most States will be bankrupt as well. Imagine the chaos that would ensue across the country when that happens. When the centre hub cannot hold the spokes, the whole wheel collapses.
A few days ago, the Chairman of the Governors Forum, Dr. Fayemi stated that States might get zero allocation from FAAC in June, because of Nigeria's dwindling fortunes. What are the Governors doing to ensure that things will not fall apart? Is any Governor currently working on an Emergency Preparedness and Response Plan?
Seventh, lockdown enforcement has led to the shutdown of production and the stoppage of commercial activities in most key centres. Virtually all import activities have stopped as well. Consequently, the government cannot receive any assistance from the Private Sector by way of duties, taxes, and fees. Indeed, it is the Private Sector which needs help from the government at this critical juncture. And because Nigeria is undergoing its financial crises, there will not be any meaningful help given to the Private Sector. Beyond the rhetorics of Stimulus and Intervention announced by the Central Bank of Nigeria, how many businesses and households received money one month after the announcement? Predictably, many businesses will not recover from the lockdown. Many workers tenuously holding on to their jobs may never go back to work. In our interdependent society, the ripples will be felt in the nooks and crannies of every region in Nigeria. That is a gathering storm which is going to sweep a lot of people off their feet.
Eight, more than 70% of Nigerians are engaged in Agriculture. Much of our farming is rain-fed. With the lockdown in effect currently, most people do not have the financial resources or the freedom of movement to return to agriculture, despite the onset of the rainy season. The inability to return to the farm during this season is going to reverberate later with dire consequences. It portends danger for our food security. Already we have seen a sharp rise in the price of essential commodities. With 70 million people in Nigeria previously classified as extremely poor, there is likely to be starvation and death, resulting from people's inability to return to the farm with adequate resources and as quickly as possible. Nigerian agriculture was already on life support because of the menace of rampaging bandits prone to destroying livelihoods and lives wantonly, which has kept many, especially women, from venturing out to the farm. When the situation is compounded by COVID-19 restrictions and deprivations, there is imminent danger of food shortages and starvation at a scale we have not witnessed before. What are we doing to avert the looming food crisis?
Ninth, as lockdown continues in our major cities, expect a rise in insecurity. Incidents of armed robbery, home invasion, theft, rape, and kidnapping are being reported now and are likely to increase exponentially in the coming weeks if the lockdown measures are extended. We already see the breakdown of law and order in Lagos and other parts of the Southwest, probably because they went into lockdown before other zones. As the hydra-headed monsters of idleness and financial hardship bite, we are likely to see an upsurge in youth restiveness and criminality in many zones. Given that Nigeria's COVID-19 burden is still growing at an alarming rate, we are now caught between the proverbial rock and the hard place. That is another storm on the horizon.
Tenth, I am worried about the compound effect of all these shocks on the psyche and the wellbeing of the illiterate, extremely poor Nigerian who survives from day to day only by going out to hustle for his or her livelihood. Already the fault lines are beginning to crack in some places as people openly defy stay-at-home orders. How much longer can good people who are hungry and hopeless maintain their pretence to civility and order? How long can starving people endure lockdown without revolting, particularly when they only hear rumours of palliatives being given to others? This storm is also gathering.
In conclusion, we are tethering on the edge of a make-or-mar moment in the history of our country. As we pray for God's mercy, we must also begin to prepare ourselves for a looming period of famine and unprecedented hardship at all levels. There is going to be a radical realignment of our system as we know it. It has already started.
Because of systemic and strategic deficits over the past 60 years since independence, I foresee a period of severe hardship for Nigeria and every Nigerian in the short term. It is inevitable. Saying "God Forbid" is not enough.
Consider this piece as a call to action to the reader and our leaders to buckle up for the unavoidable turbulence when all these ten storms I have identified begin to converge. Being a prayerful nation (not necessarily a spiritual one judging by our actions most of the time), this is the time for earnest prayer and sober reflection. But most importantly, it should be a time for planning and preparation.
To survive the storm whose thunderous rumblings we can already hear, we must become wiser and more focused as a nation on how to contain the current health pandemic, how to weather the economic crisis, and how to build sustainable systems and structures for resilience.
Instead of hiring 774,000 people as planned by the government, thereby swelling an already bloated workforce on the payroll, we should devote the resources to helping farmers to return to the field quickly, ensuring security everywhere, and helping our MSMEs to go back to production.
The time to nurture self-sufficiency for our nation, truly diversify our economy, and find ways to reduce our dependency and mindless addiction to things foreign is now!
It is my earnest hope that the reader and his or her family will survive the myriad storms confronting us. It is also my hope that after this seismic quake, Nigeria will emerge wiser, more reliable, and better - eventually. But the preparation must begin in earnest. We are already running out of time.
Dr. John Osonwa.
Dr. Osonwa is an Environmental & Climate Change Expert and a Consultant to the National Assembly, Abuja.