By Toyin Falola
…it is clear there is little to nothing to celebrate about Nigeria in 2020. How can that even be when Independence Day was celebrated amidst protest and a month of bloodshed? 2020 for Nigerians could not have been any worse owing to the inactions, inadequacy and inefficiency of the disastrous government in Aso Rock.
December, 2019: Abuja, Nigeria. I penned down my plan for 2020. I was jubilant in the last week of that month, announcing my plans, building a support base for a new initiative I was putting together to forge an alliance between African private and public universities. Everyone I met was happy both with me and my plans. When I bade farewell on December 23, it was with firm assurances and a fixed date for my return journey to this elegant city. So confident, so excited, we were to link Abuja with Nairobi and to take the same mission to Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda. Yet it was not to be. An elaborate plan collapsed. The ground was shifting beneath our feet, a cataclysm produced by an unseen evil spirit ultimately labelled COVID-19 that manifested its unstoppable power in 2020 would put a halt on our once-thought-to-be an unstoppable enthusiasm! The great wind blew away all the amala powder; the Sahara poured all of its sand on the beef; the tornado lifted the beef to the sky; and the earthquake swallowed the bowls and the dining table, together with those seated around it. What a drama — a tragicomedy of the highest order!
My story is not unique — it is not that of a one-man narrative that could become a memoir. In the larger scheme of things, mine paled in significance. For Nigeria, for Africa and just like it was for the rest of the world, except for aliens beyond the planet, 2020, by the magnitude of its numerical uniqueness or for a different reason I cannot relate with, was touted to be one to look forward to. I looked forward to it.
So, everyone was left waiting,
Everything was left hanging,
Not even the low hanging fruits could be plucked,
The harvests were put on hold,
We all went back to seventeenth-century Italy
Where the word ‘quarantine’ became famous more than the Pope.
In this century,
The vocabulary competed only with equally strange phrases like ‘social distancing’,
So, I can no longer share my bowl of amala with a stranger?
And my cold beer only for my dry throats?
Now I understand why capitalism might be the end of humanity,
Karl Marx will have to wait longer for socialism to prevail.
Perhaps, it was just like any other year for the majority of the world’s population. “New Year; New Resolutions”; people made plans for their golden 2020. It is even more significant that it is a leap year. Many planned 2020 as the year they would stop being bachelors or spinsters. Others had touted it as their breakthrough year for financial growth, with a business they had intended to start or invest in. Pastor Lagbaja had promised himself to be of great wealth! For some youth, it is the year they were to graduate, done with their undergraduate or post-graduate programmes. Their poor parents looked forward to some relief. Some were already preparing for their National Youth Service, while there were those who till now, at the end of the year, are still waiting for when they will resume their programmes as undergraduate or post-graduate students. Indeed, many had even applied for their dream jobs and were hopeful of securing the ‘bag’.
Not even religion was left out. For several others, New Year resolutions involved more fellowship with brethren and devoting more time to worship and getting closer to God, physically and spiritually. Probably some had even been given appointment letters to resume work and were already gearing up for this, only to have to stay at home for a longer period. I could go on and on to infinity, but perhaps the saddest of all are the cases of many who have longer plans through 2021; 5-year plans; ambitions that will take 10 years, if not more.
No one saw 2020 coming as anything other than a normal year. Not our foremost scientists. Not even our first-rate, jet-owning prophets who speak with God every midnight. No prophet predicted the doomsday that 2020 will forever be remembered for. Not the Industrial Revolution, colonial era, or the World Wars, Cold War, or even capitalist democracy have united the world in uniformed participation and effect as the COVID-19 outbreak. Not even the Global Depression of the 1930s or Global Recession of 2008 could dare challenge the coronavirus in its effect on lives on a global scale.
The higher gods were no longer speaking:
The lower ones were on quarantine,
Or so it seems,
The weekly sacrifices of the common man sustaining his ostentatious lifestyle were no longer flooding the gates of heaven,
The Mephistopheles himself has taken over the haven,
But no room to battle this bad market called Lucifer,
Like the round leather game,
Everyone watched from the distance,
The Lucipharian battle was fought from this distance.
What was locked on the inside was unleashed,
It was a different meal for different people,
For some, it was a time to reflect on their skills,
For others, it was their beliefs,
And for many, it’s just another episode,
At the time when COVID-19 had become known globally but there were yet no confirmed cases in the country, there were already warning cries from several quarters for the overtime proven figurine in Aso Rock to secure Nigeria and lock down airports, while enforcing strict health checks on immigration. As it is characteristic of Buhari, he played the game of deaf and dumb.
Perhaps, when historians start recording their perspectives of 2020, only sports can rival COVID-19 in its global dominance. However, even sports might have to take a bow in the sense that COVID-19 triumphed over all its varieties, with a pause brought to all sporting activities globally. The Olympics could not be held. The Premier League in England, La Liga in Spain, Bundesliga in Germany, Serie A in Italy – all over the world, football was shutdown. Similarly, all other sports, such as baseball, basketball, cricket, tennis, hockey, etc. all had to be shut down, at least temporarily. Businesses, banks, all events around the world had to be canceled, placed on hold, suspended or postponed indefinitely.
Nigeria was not left out of the global pandemic, as it was eventually confirmed to be by the World Health Organisation (WHO), perhaps a bit late. The country, after recording its first two cases, was thrown into panic about its widespread virulence, eventually culminating in the adoption of the global approach of lockdown, nationwide curfews from state to state, and restriction of working hours for staple food sellers, while major businesses had to temporarily shut down physically. Social distancing, the wearing of face masks, refraining from handshakes, etc. became a trend. It became a crime to sneeze or cough in public or even at home. Going out was a risk, while hosting visitors became even riskier.
However, while the measures above could be rationalised for countries in developed nations and maybe in some African countries, the same could not be entirely said of Nigeria. Certainly, the necessity and effectiveness of a nationwide lockdown in the country have been called to question by citizens all year long, and thus I would not be surprised if it became a subject of academic discussions subsequently. Meanwhile, a look back at how it started in the country, analysing the year in review would prove that Nigeria perhaps could have avoided the disaster of COVID-19, just as much as Trump is being blamed for the same lax in the United States. The tardiness, slow-wittedness and disastrous hesitation of both leaders (Trump and Buhari) in implementing proactive measures of performing their foremost duty — protecting the lives of their citizens —led to the death of many hundreds of thousands.
At the time when COVID-19 had become known globally but there were yet no confirmed cases in the country, there were already warning cries from several quarters for the overtime proven figurine in Aso Rock to secure Nigeria and lock down airports, while enforcing strict health checks on immigration. As it is characteristic of Buhari, he played the game of deaf and dumb. Worse is the fact that a month or even two after it became global knowledge, Nigeria was still not in the least prepared to counter and prevent a potential outbreak in the country, let alone contain its spread. Not only did it speak ill of the country’s terrible healthcare system in dire need of heavy investment and productive attention, but also of the ineptitude and incompetency of the Buhari administration.
The consequences? Many have died. Even more, billions of naira have been wasted, siphoned, and converted into personal use by looters in the name of audio medicare. More intriguing is the fact that Buhari himself lost his closest allies to the disease. To the jubilant Nigerians, Abba Kyari and Nda-Isaiah’s death perhaps would pain him the most. Folks perceived both deaths as divine punishment for or literal consequences of his carelessness and dormancy.
Simultaneously following the aforementioned and in no progression of importance is another highlight of 2020 — the death of the bigwigs. Big men do cry! Abba Kyari, feared by fellow political devils, reputed by many to be the most powerful in the Buhari government, relocated to the great beyond. To his political detractors, Kyari died of political greed. He had contracted COVID-19 on a national assignment in Germany, which many believed should have been undertaken by Babatunde Raji Fashola, the then minister of Power. Sam Nda-Isaiah was another member reputed as prominent in the cabal, who conceded defeat to COVID-19, while Isa Funtua — who even called himself “the cabal” — also passed away in further blows to the presidency.
While Abiola Ajimobi might not have been a core member of the cabal, he was another prominent politician, senator, two-time governor of Oyo State, the infamous “Constituted Authority” and “Koseleri” who even became the national chairman of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) on his sickbed. Although he was already battling health issues, there were disputations about the immediate cause of his death or the exact day of death, with rumors of COVID-19 complications and the certainty of death in some quarters by up to a week before an official announcement by the family. With politics in Nigeria shrouded in secrecy and transcending family or religious considerations in the real grand scheme of things, it was no surprise there were complications and controversies surrounding his demise.
The icing on the cake was the Lekki Massacre in which soldiers were deployed to put out the protest after all other means, such as bribing thugs to infiltrate the protests, failed. These soldiers, as evidence from sundry investigations have proven, opened live round ammunition on peaceful protesters who were demanding the government to protect their right to life.
Other prominent Nigerians who bowed out this year included Senator Buruji Kashamu, Senator Adebayo Sikiru Osinowo, Habu Galadima (the director general of the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies; NIPSS), Major General Johnson Olubunmi Irefin, Abdulkadir Jimoh (Cross River State commissioner of Police), Jerry Agada (a former Education minister), billionaire and socialite Harry Akande, among many others, some of who died of COVID-19 complications and others of brief illnesses. I hope the politicians know that there were daily prayers behind their back that many more should die.
More deaths. Nigerians mourned global celebrities they had grown fond of such as Kobe Bryant, an African-American basketball legend; Chadwick Boseman, a legendary actor who keeps representing and advocating for the black race through his exceptionality in Hollywood; Jerry Rawlings, Ghana’s former and longest-serving president; Majek Fashek, a Nigerian singer and songwriter based in the U.S.; and Diego Armando Maradona, Argentinian and global football star of “the hand of God” fame, among sundry others.
The death of higher education followed that of humans. While COVID-19 was responsible for the nationwide lockdown, tertiary education at its apogee was equally on lockdown. I wrote many times about this during the year. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) strike is third on my list of national phenomena worthy of note in 2020, which I will be pinning on the government again. Disputes over unmet government promises of over a decade that have been renewed over time, logistics of the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System (IPPIS) and unpaid arrears snowballed into the declaration of a two-week warning strike in March, and subsequently an indefinite strike amidst COVID-19. While the government has seemed to come to an agreement in the month of December with ASUU, the ten wasted months in federal institutions cannot be remedied for students. Their colleagues in private institutions, on account of this year, are already a session ahead of them, let alone adding previous ASUU strike actions. Many students have resorted to fraud, prostitution, or trade in a bid to make money, while losing focus on their academics. A student recently committed suicide at the University of Ilorin after losing N300 million to foreign exchange (forex) trading. Where did he get the money from? You have to inquire after the odds of this happening, if academic life had not been paused for avoidable reasons. Further, and perhaps a huge cause for concern, many are not even looking forward to resumption. The few who do only want to get their certificates and get out. The purpose of education in Nigeria is being defeated and the youth are gradually losing interest.
Fourth on my list is another matter I have hitherto contributed to in writing — the #EndSars saga. The hashtag trended all across the world, prompting international investigation from Amnesty International, BBC, CNN as well as local investigation by PREMIUM TIMES. Many are said to have lost their lives, having become victims of the very ill they sought to correct from devilish policemen. The icing on the cake was the Lekki Massacre in which soldiers were deployed to put out the protest after all other means, such as bribing thugs to infiltrate the protests, failed. These soldiers, as evidence from sundry investigations have proven, opened live round ammunition on peaceful protesters who were demanding the government to protect their right to life. Instead, the hostile government killed more and failed to bring to book any of those responsible. Further, the government went after burying the truth, peddling false narratives, one after the other, all of which were debunked. Authorities threatened witnesses, forcing DJ Switch — who had live-recorded the event on Instagram — to seek asylum in Canada. The president remains in power, Governor Sanwoolu of Lagos has not resigned, Chief of Army Staff Buratai has not lost his job, the soldiers got away with it, young lives were prematurely terminated, and the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) remains. What a tragic irony!
Amidst the whole #EndSARS saga was another revelation of corruption, a shockingly embarrassing one. Traditional and local political leaders were shown to have hoarded COVID-19 palliatives meant for struggling citizens who are finding it very difficult to cope with the economic reality of the lockdown and curfews. It only shows how endemic corruption is, from top to bottom across all tiers of leadership in the country. Not only that, it exposes the wickedness of these leaders in that the palliative measures could rot where they were kept and people wouldn’t know about it, while many will die of starvation or commit suicide from depression. Some of the politicians who were apprehended confessed shamelessly that they were actually storing such palliatives in preparation for the election season when they would have handed them to the people!
The sixth on my list was generated from the fifth — the economic reality of Nigeria in 2020. Towards the end of 2019, specifically in August, President Buhari ordered a border closure, an excuse to boost demand for Nigerian rice. The intention, from the point-of-view of the government, might seem noble to the average Nigerian. To those who spoke to me, they saw the policy as nothing short of wickedness. First, the local rice is of terrible quality, always accompanied with sand and pebbles, making the gnashing of teeth inevitable when eating. The so-called refined ones are still substandard to the imported ones in terms of processing and are often too starchy. Worse still, they cost almost the equivalent of imported rice, which makes one question the benefit of rice to the common man — the major consumers. Poor quality, painful diet, yet expensive.
The cost of a bag of rice, even when imported in 2015, was still between N7,000 and N8,000. During the lockdown, it fluctuated between N26,000 and N32,000, and maybe even more – almost five times the original price before the government measure came in. The reality of rice is the same with virtually every staple commodity in Nigeria. Even onions trended for being sold for ten times its usual price. The N5 currency is now so worthless that it can purchase nothing in the country, yet it is still considered a unit of currency. The most the N10 currency can purchase is one sachet of water. The cost of living in Nigeria for the common man is dreadful to think of; the standard of living is equally low, given the poor earnings of the average Nigerian. Minimum wage, yet to be implemented nationwide, can hardly purchase beyond a bag of rice. You have to ask how a man’s earning can pay for the house rent, other food commodities, cooking materials, transport fare to work, new clothes when needed; add to that the possibility of being a single father with a kid or two and you realise the economic reality of Nigeria is suicidal for many. This is not to consider the fact that many Nigerians, for instance in a city like Ibadan, live on a N10,000 salary as teachers of primary and even secondary schools. While the border closure has been reversed, the high cost of living in Nigeria, relative to average earnings, still makes living and surviving an extreme sport. To compound the woes, the country has slumped into recession, as a dollar recently hit almost N500.
As the country marches into a new year, like the rest of the world, and with no change of government in sight, I join well-meaning Nigerians to demand that this government must prioritise the welfare and interest of its common citizens, at least to a reasonable extent. Citizens, especially in a democracy, which Nigeria claims to practice, are the fulcrum of any government.
So far, I’ve compressed my review of Nigeria into six categories, and yet we have not even discussed security issues, which have become a prevalent challenge in the country. The abduction of the Kankara boys in Katsina might have been the most famous issue or the Boko Haram insurgency, but insecurity in Nigeria heightened in the year 2020, like no other issue in the country. Kidnapping has been on the rise. Abduction and killings occur with hardly anyone being brought to book. It is even baffling if there was no police station close by when over 300 boys were carted away from Kankara or if the Nigeria Police has been working in collaboration with those responsible for security threats, as speculated in many quarters. The drama surrounding how the boys were released and the secrecy around the whole saga make a mockery of the Nigerian polity, regarding whether the boys had just been part of a large-scale drama, threat, or were pawns in a game of chess involving some political heavyweights.
No doubt, 2020 has been a dramatic one for most Nigerians. Any news from or about the government has been one of comedy, taken as originating from the pit of hell and hardship. A case in study was the release that all citizens should link their National Identification Numbers (NINs) to their mobile phone SIM cards in less than fourteen days or they will have their SIM cards blocked. The deadline, given the lack of commensurate infrastructure, exposed the anomalous tendencies in decision-making in Aso Rock. And this even ignores the fact that there are probably less Nigerians with NIN than are without. The disregard for the presidency and its unpopularity is no hidden fact, even from members of the presidency. Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu, spokespersons of the administration, can hardly say anything on Twitter — the now acceptable medium of global communication — without public backlash. In all fairness, they don’t help themselves when most of the time, their comments betray logic and defy rational thinking.
Responses to tweets from Buhari’s handle is even worse. There are no better signs of rejection via social media than when a President tweets to his people and the only responses he gets are variants of “I follow back”, with Nigerians mainly interested in gaining more followers than actually what the president has for them. Not even Donald Trump, as hated as he is, lacks engagement on his Twitter account or is disrespected this much. Calls have been made quite often for the president to address the nation live, but Nigerians have come to terms with edited video recordings, further fueling rumors of a chronically sick man in Aso Rock. Recently, a scheduled invitation from the House of Representatives was cancelled at the eleventh hour with Malami, a “yes man” attorney general, saying the House lacked the power to invite the president. As bad as it is that a whole Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) has contributed into making the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria totally unaccountable and a man who prefers to visit his never-increasing or decreasing 150 cows in Daura to answering questions on insecurity in the country, this is not the worst end of the year take from the government. What is worse is, with all the powers conferred on the House and the Senate, and the alleged intelligence of Femi Gbajamiala, the Honourable Speaker, the House, without shame, not only withdrew its invitation but also denied that it had apologised to Buhari. What a catastrophe! Nigeria, at the moment, can’t be said to be a constitutional state, but one directed and ordered as the cattle breeder of Daura pleases.
The train moves on in my land, Nigeria,
Death becomes meji-epini,
Both the low and the high are pronounced dead;
I wonder who feeds on their bodies,
If the mother-earth ever gets belle-full,
It is a moment for her to develop constipation,
So, I wonder who shall offer her Andrews liver salt,
Maybe the cankerworms and the maggots,
But I fear this monster never gets her belly full,
The belly expands by the sunrise,
And goes farther even by the sunset,
Of course, bullets kill faster than “Covic-1.9,”
Yet, the fast-racing metal object is just a child’s play beside the logic that governs my Nigeria,
That one kills you faster than you can imagine,
Some were buried by it,
Others can barely breathe
Some of these ones are shouting “I can’t breathe”
Like their brother, Eric Garner, in the Land of the Free,
Few others have grown accustomed to it,
Now I believe the truth that says:
It is insane to be sane in an insane clime.
You can’t beat it,
Welcome to Nigeria!
As I bring my end of the year review to an end, it is clear there is little to nothing to celebrate about Nigeria in 2020. How can that even be when Independence Day was celebrated amidst protest and a month of bloodshed? 2020 for Nigerians could not have been any worse owing to the inactions, inadequacy and inefficiency of the disastrous government in Aso Rock. When people count their wins this year, hardly would anybody count any from the government, outside of hardship and misery.
While it might sound funny and ironical to demand good governance from a classified inept government, it still seems the only rational thing to do with an eye on 2021. As the country marches into a new year, like the rest of the world, and with no change of government in sight, I join well-meaning Nigerians to demand that this government must prioritise the welfare and interest of its common citizens, at least to a reasonable extent. Citizens, especially in a democracy, which Nigeria claims to practice, are the fulcrum of any government. Policies should be citizen-centric. Government should prioritise more and more policies that positively affect its citizenry. The year 2020 has been a national disaster. The government and its personnel should at least, once again, summon the humanity in them and for once, please its citizens by making 2021 a year of relief. It is not too much to ask. It is the least any government could and should do.
Toyin Falola is University Distinguished Professor at The University of Texas At Austin.