Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Apr 10, 2020
As the government begins to shut down its cities to flatten the Covid-19 infection curve, here’s what Nigeria can do to cater to its poor.
Nigeria must not forget its poor in the Covid-19 world

It is 7:00 AM on the eve of the proposed shutdown of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, I chose to work from my daughter’s room instead of my study because she gets the best view of the hills in the horizon and the flowers in the backyard. But she also has a view of an under-construction residential estate. The site is already abuzz with workers. The  ‘mama-put’ (a street-side eatery) is set up and already serving meals. This sight got me thinking of the fate of Nigeria’s poor during the shutdown. How many will succumb to hunger in this period, even before the virus completes its rounds?

Nigeria is a desperately poor country, with about 48 percent of the population (or 96 million people) living in extreme poverty. The poverty benchmark income of N700 (US$1.90) per day supports not just an individual but, typically, a family. That amount does not buy a lot. Add unemployment to the morass. There are few challenges worse than waking up in the morning with no place to go. This is the reality of about three out of 10 Nigerians who are willing and ready to work but can’t find a job. As bad as that sounds, it does not include the under-employed or those in disguised unemployment. Nigerians are suffering, with anecdotal evidence showing that most Nigerians are two or three paychecks away from destitution.

The Nigerian economy may not be able to resolve these challenges. The government’s plan to spend N8.15 trillion (US$22.3bn) in 2020 is now significantly challenged. The revenue calculations anticipated that a barrel of oil would sell for US$57;  it is currently around US$25 and dropping. The government hoped to sell 2.18 million barrels of crude oil per day when the country has produced only an average of 1.7 million bpd for the last few years. Even the best-case economic scenario anticipated that Nigeria would borrow about N1.6 trillion (US$4.2bn) to meet its revenue shortfall. Sadly, there are not a lot of people eager to write a cheque to Nigeria.

The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened Nigeria’s precarious situation. The UN Development Programme estimates that about half of all the jobs in Africa will be lost to the pandemic. For Nigeria, this is going to be a double-whammy as oil prices continue to decline, and the country will be forced to devalue its currency. The country may not get any upside from the devaluation as it does not produce much of what it consumes. Nigeria’s GDP growth can be expected to significantly decline from the already low estimates of 2.1 percent.

The weight of these realities was apparent as President Muhammadu Buhari announced the shutdown of two states (Lagos and Ogun) and the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja) in a bid to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic. He must have realised that the shutdown is almost a death sentence for many of Nigeria’s daily wage workers, like the ones working at the construction site near my house. It is unlikely they have much financial savings or the ability to stockpile any food. It is no different for the women in the villages who have to sell, say, peppers from their farms to buy rice? What happens when the village market is shut down? What is the fate of the millions of Nigerians who have been trying to stretch their N700 even before the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic? The government can’t just shut down the cities and walk away.

The logical option is for the government to provide some relief or essential commodities to the vulnerable. While this makes sense, there are many inherent implementation challenges. For instance, can a government that can’t fund its budget unlock sufficient funds for such a programme? Without data, how would the government identify the right beneficiaries in so short a time? What systems and processes should be put in place to prevent elite capture of such a palliative programme?

Private sector, technology are key

The organised private sector and many well-meaning Nigerians can help address the financial challenges. This group has shown a strong willingness to contribute resources to support the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, the Nigeria Economic Summit Group recently appointed Airtel’s Chief Executive Officer Segun Ogunsanya to coordinate private sector donations. Segun is a capable and well-respected professional and there is little doubt that he can raise the support. More importantly, he is the head of a big franchise that he can’t afford to taint with any allegations of graft or abuse. This should give the rest of the private sector the confidence to step in and help plug the government’s resource gaps.

While it is true that the circulation of Nigeria’s National Identity Card is not universal enough for it to be relied upon at this time, there are other means of identifying the poor and vulnerable in our midst. For instance, the government can mine mobile usage data to identify the poor and needy. The beneficiaries can receive vouchers that entitle them to food items. The government can obtain assistance from various consulting firms to create a logistics or supply chain protocol to get the food items close enough to the beneficiaries.

The use of technology to create and deliver this solution should leave a transactions trail that can be audited. Such an audit should minimise abuse, especially if the audit firm is appropriately incentivised to seek out any evidence of misuse. It is imperative to ensure that such incentives do not create unintended consequences that may impact programme effectiveness. Nigeria has some experience or history with a similar programme. As agriculture minister, Akinwunmi Adesina (currently president of the Africa Development Bank) implemented a programme that used mobile phones to deliver fertiliser vouchers to farmers throughout the country, thereby cutting out the middlemen and breaking up the fertiliser cartel. A variant of his programme can be quickly developed and implemented to enable the government to deploy a palliative programme that caters to the needs of the poor and vulnerable. Nigeria’s poor need the help, especially in this time of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Shutting down the country without adequately providing for the vulnerable is, at best, another erroneous elitist programme, and at worst, insensitive. Such an unplanned shutdown could lead to more deaths from hunger than from the Covid-19 pandemic. The desire of the construction workers behind my house is to make a decent living to take care of their responsibilities. If their concerns are not properly considered, a well-intended social distancing programme could inadvertently trigger social dissent that could quickly spiral out of control.

Leadership must rise to the occasion

Nigeria’s federal governance structure and leadership layers should be adequate to deliver an orderly response to the Covid-19 pandemic. With 36 governors and a minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Buhari should be able to create a structure to respond effectively in all states. Similarly, every state has a minister in the Federal Executive Council. These ministers should be deployed to their states to support efforts for the establishment of coordinated and national-wide Covid-19 situation rooms and response centres.

Additionally, there are 109 senators and 360 members of the Federal House of Representatives who together represent every nook and cranny of this country. Each state has its own House of Assembly with elected members from the various constituencies. At the local or grassroot level, there are elected chairpersons of the local government areas and officials at the ward levels. Similarly, there are traditional rulers, district heads, village heads and ward heads. This leadership structure is enough to ensure an optimum response strategy.

All the work by this leadership structure should be voluntary and free during this national emergency. The audit team should be empowered to audit this structure to ensure that welfare items get to the poor. This could be the beginning of a process to sanitise Nigeria’s politics and ensure that the political representatives do indeed represent the people. It is terrible to be poor, especially in a world shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic, but the Nigerian government still has a few cards it can play to alleviate the challenges of the vulnerable.

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Patrick O. Okigbo

Patrick O. Okigbo

Patrick O. Okigbo III is the Founder and Principal Partner at Nextier - a leading public policy advisory firm and think tank with a focus ...

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