How much of a problem this still is remains to be systematically ascertained but it was the biggest part of the COVID-19 crisis in Nigeria. Whom or where do the ordinary Nigerians, especially those in the slums or “the voices from below” call to say they think they might be confronting Coronavirus? A Bauchi State governor could easily do that just as an Atiku Abubakar’s son or a Buhari’s daughter or an Abba Kyari could also easily do and even get invaluable publicity therefrom. After all, for most politicians, Oscar Wilde has the last words when he said that there is no bad publicity but not being talked about at all.
But how does it work with the other half – those for whom access to the telephone lines of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, (NCDC) would not be taken for granted? The initial report on this was a stunning story of illiberalism or closing the gate against the poor and powerless members of the society on a scale that MUST be considered a national security threat if we get out of understanding security only in terms of the military and secret police.
It is not that NCDC left no numbers or platforms by which it could be reached. It is that every of them led the caller to nowhere. For instance, anyone calling the 12 figure toll free line 080097000010 that was most widely circulated as at March 22nd and 23rd, 2020 was wasting his, her or their time. It endlessly murmured few instructions that appeared programmed on purpose to a dead end. The other numbers were no exceptions even as most were ringing and they include: 08052817243; 08033565529; 08059758886; 08028971814; 08023169485. There was another one, (08099555577) which was said to permit text messages and yet another one for those outside Nigeria, (+234-7087110839). New set of numbers are now available, especially as from March 25th, 2020: 07087110839 for Whatsapp; 08099555577 for SMS and 07036708970 for calls. Does anyone pick them when someone who is not a governor or minister dials?
No one can be allowed to dismiss this concern if the experience of the Kano based Centre for Information Technology and Development, (CITAD) is anything to go by. CITAD is privileged here because it deployed field operatives to assess the response mechanism of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). It tells an equally interesting but disappointing dimension based on what its 15 field operatives brought back on how the NCDC was managing information request from Nigerians on the pandemic or Nigerians wanting to give information to the centre on the pandemic, particularly using the Twitter handle and it’s phone lines for SMS and WhatsApp. “None of the three platforms were serving Nigerians since their concerns/questions are either completely not responded to or in rare cases responses are received hours or days after one sends request”, said CITAD. Of the multiple requests the monitors sent to NCDC, using the two platforms and contact telephone numbers, the NCDC only responded to one and it came after seven hours. All other over forty-five (45) requests/questions/concerns raised by CITAD’s monitors were either ignored or found unworthy of a response. CITAD, therefore, concluded that it appears NCDC used it’s Twitter handle “only for giving statistics but not serious and prompt engagement with Nigerians on the pandemic”. Turning to morality, CITAD declares that to be bad and a setback for the crusade against the COVID-19.
But CITAD was not done yet. It tells the story of how the Kano State Committee on Infectious Disease handled a report from Kano State Hisbah Board. According to it, some people brought the dead body of a traveler who died on his way back from Abuja. Hisbah refused to take the body and decided to contact the Committee before taking any action on the corpse. Hisbah had to bury the dead.
It would require a more organised study to determine whether the stories from other parts of Nigeria are confirmatory of the above story but, even then, two issues are already jutting out for critical attention.
The first one is the biopolitical. Nigeria strives for modernity. It is not there yet but that is the aspirational claim. At least, that is what the political leaders proclaim. Whether they mean it is a different argument. If you ask the late Prof Claude Ake, he would say these people are the very anti-thesis of profound modernization. That is the message of his essay, “How Politics Underdevelops Africa”.
Ake or no Ake, modernity is what is proclaimed on roof tops. But modernity is organised around a definitive framework for managing free citizens. At the centre of that framework is the body – the human body. Interestingly, there is nothing more than the human body when we talk about containing COVID-19. It is the body that is infected; that has to take the drugs; that resists COVID-19 through immunity and/or genetic make-up. It is the body that is stopped from moving through lock down. It is the body that resists lock down; that survives it all or that dies. This is why critical scholars conceptualise security as emancipation rather than what boots on ground or secret police do, important in a different way as that is.
NCDC might have its own problems of managing extra pressure on it, aggravated by the fact that there is no precedence to learn from in managing a pandemic of COVID-19’s magnitude in recent history. Still, there is something fundamentally wrong if its system doesn’t reckon that it is illiberalism not to have powerful contacts with the mass of human bodies at this point in time because, as CITAD noted in its April 1st, 2020 statement thereto, NCDC must understand that population of Nigerians on social media platforms is significant and engaging with them will strengthen efforts at preventing the virus”. This point will be more crucial in the two weeks ahead as the ‘window phase’ closes and the reality of a possible confrontation with larger number of infected persons cannot be ruled out.
The second and even more powerful point is what can shield NCDC against charges of corruption should a systematic appraisal uncover deliberate illiberalism? The most current and most widely used definition of corruption covers illiberalism. Of course, such an appraisal would have to go beyond NCDC given the numerous references and innuendoes to corruption in the narratives of COVID-19 in Nigeria, starting with CITAD’s empirically incontestable datum. If it would not be NCDC alone, then there is a case for something like “Amplifying Popular Narratives of COVID-19 in Nigeria With Particular Reference to Corruption”. That would tie together the points of convergence and divergence in the conversation that has so far been limited to CITAD and the NCDC but which could soon become an all-involving but a belated conversation should, God forbid, the management of COVID go awry.