How the growing pandemic is threatening stability in Africa’s largest nation
Even though Nigeria still has a relatively low number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of this moment, the chaos that has gripped the country and the delight among some that the virus seems to have only effected the rich continue to show the distrust and disconnect between the nation’s elites and ordinary citizens. Africa’s largest nation has long been looked too as a prediction of what direction the continent is headed in terms of stability and public trust in government. There had been signs of hope with the peaceful transfer of power that occurred when opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari won the 2015 Nigerian presidential election. The outbreak of this global pandemic however, reminds everyone they still have a long way to go.
For starters, the government only spends 4.5% of the national budget on health, falling well short of the goal of 15% set nearly two decades ago by the African Union. Many of the nation’s rich and powerful still travel abroad to receive important medical care while the rest of the nation still must deal with an inadequate health system. Combating “medical tourism” was something Buhari pledged to do but it is something he himself has engaged in several times since being elected president. As the country began lock-downs earlier this month it has led to major suffering by the nation’s poorest and a sharp rise in crime in some areas. Nigerian police have long been viewed has corrupt and incompetent. The virus has only enhanced this view. People have resorted to forming their own armed neighborhood patrols to try and fight the rise in crime during the lock-down. The military has shown its continued problems also. Independent human rights observers have reported that Nigerian security forces have killed several people over the past few weeks while enforcing the lock-downs. The military, which ruled the country for many years is still one of if not the most powerful institutions in the country. While things have improved since civilian rule was re-instituted in 1999, they have come under criticism and for their continued participation in undemocratic actions such as repression against political opponents and activists as well as extrajudicial killings. They have also been met with criticism for failing to deal with the long term insurgency in the northern part of the country led by extremist groups such as Boko Haram as well as failing to adequately address Nigeria’s rampant kidnapping problem by organized crime groups. All these problems are in danger of getting worse under the lock-down. The security forces must improve if they end up dealing with more serious situation.
The President Muhammadu Buhari has been a polarizing and controversial figure for Nigeria. He himself was one of the former military rulers who led the country from 1983 to 1985. Ironically enough it was he who ended the last attempt at democracy with his 1983 coup. He claims to now be a committed democrat, but his presidency has been met with a mixed response. Buhari has long claimed to be a crusader against corruption which has been one of Nigeria’s biggest problems when it comes to achieving true democratic progress. His administrations actions at times however have led to accusations of hypocrisy. Critics say that his efforts usually only target perceived political opponents and that he turns his back on corruption from those seen as more loyal. Buhari has already taken actions in his presidency to undermine the separation of powers like side stepping the judiciary, dismissing judges and jailing critical journalists all in the name of national security. Could he use this pandemic crisis as an excuse to further erode democracy? A major crisis like this presents an opportunity.
Another problem the coronavirus highlights for Nigeria is the lack of progress that has been made in diversifying its economy. Nigeria primarily relies on oil as its main source of revenue. Although there have been some steps to diversify, corruption has largely stalled these efforts. The oil industry has been hit particularly hard worldwide during the pandemic. If oil prices continue to plunge it could lead to even greater suffering that the Nigerian government may be ill equipped to address. Many poor Nigerians rely on small informal business and without income during the lockdown many will and already have continue to risk defying stay at home orders to try and make a living rather than go hungry. This is cause for great concern at a time when social distancing is needed. Charities and food banks have tried to step up to help these lower income families where the government has failed to do so but they are quickly being overwhelmed. The government has taken some actions to release supplies and reserves of food but if the virus continues to spread it may not be enough for many who need relief right away.
This outbreak threatens Nigeria’s already fragile democracy and its weak infrastructure. A widespread pandemic like this could lead to an undoing of years of progress in the nation and the continent at large. More efforts are needed from the regional and international communities to prevent this. Nigeria the leading country on the continent in terms of size and economic power needs to set a better example and be a beacon of hope to Africa.
- Adebayo, B., & Busari, S. (2018, May 8). Nigeria’s President Buhari heads to UK for more medical treatments. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2018/05/08/africa/nigeria-buhari-medical-leave/index.html
- Coronavirus: Why some Nigerians are gloating about Covid-19. (2020, April 23). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-52372737
- Emoruwa, A. (2019, February 8). Nigeria’s democracy is fading away. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/nigeria-democracy-fading-190207144830804.html
- Kazeem, Y. (2020, April 24). Ordinary Nigerians are filling the country’s major social welfare gaps amid coronavirus. Retrieved from https://qz.com/africa/1843839/nigerias-coronavirus-lockdown-is-hitting-poor-families-hard/
- Nigerian citizen: I prefer to die from Covid-19 than hunger – CNN Video. (2020, April 21). Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2020/04/21/nigeria-africa-coronavirus-covid-19-lockdown-restrictions-livelihood-busari-lkl-intl-ldn-vpx.cnn/video/playlists/coronavirus-intl/
- Nigerian security forces killed 18 people during lockdowns: rights panel. (2020, April 16). Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-nigeria-security/nigerian-security-forces-killed-18-people-during-lockdowns-rights-panel-idUSKCN21Y272
- The Abuja Declaration: Ten Years On. (2016, April 7). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/healthsystems/publications/abuja_declaration/en/
- photo credit to Afolabi Sotunde REUTERS