Nigeria: Leadership vacuum at a time of COVID-19

Nigeria: Leadership vacuum at a time of COVID-19
March 26
12:58 2020


In a scathing editorial on the Guardian Newspaper of Monday, 23rd March 2020, the respected medium called out President Muhammadu Buahri’s “worrisome disposition” in the face of the deadly global pandemic which continues to leave its trail across nations and continents. If that very thoughtful and timely editorial was meant to jolt Mr. President from his slumber as I had thought, the contrary proves the case today. If anything, things have deteriorated between then and now, as a certain opacity appears to cloud the activities of Aso Rock while not a single Nigerian (especially for those of us far from the corridors of power), can vouch for the presence of the president in the country as at the time of this writing.

If the recent developments have taught us anything, it is that President Muhammadu Buhai was never suited to superintend over the affairs of a complex country like ours — not in 2015 and certainly not now. And the facts bear one out.

The chief reason why many Nigerians in 2015 voted for Muhammadu Buhai as against the then incumbent Goodluck Jonathan was that he cut the impression of a “no-nonsence” character and according to them, that character trait (which by the way has been shown to be overrated), sufficed as the missing leak in the Nigerian leadership quagmire. Other qualities such as a vaunted ascetic lifestyle, repugnance for graft, warts and all, were also thrown into the mix to delude a beleaguered citizenry. It worked. But with huge costs against Nigeria and Nigerians today. While some of us warned, and cried hoarse that there was nothing of the man that suggested he has the intellectual stamina for 21st century leadership, many had dismissed us as ethnic irridentists and good-for-nothing-bigots. Today, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost.


Writing on Leadership in his pampheleteer, The Trouble With Nigeria(1983) Chinua Achebe deconstructed “no-nonsenseness” as a leadership quality thus:

“…A leader’s no-nonsence reputation might induce a favourable climate but in order to effect a lasting change it must be followed up with a radical programme of social and economic re-organization or at least a well conceived and consistent agenda of reform which Nigeria stood, and stands in dire need of“. He couldn’t have been more right.

President Muhammadu Buahri’s over-banked “no-nonsenseness” on the peg of which millions of Nigerians filed out to vote for him in 2015, has proven to be a ruse. The archetypal wool over the eyes. Not even the controversial re-election last year has helped matters. And understandably so; as we do not learn to be left-handed in the evening of our lives.


Times without number, Muhammadu Buhari has failed to rise up to the demands of leadership especially at critical  junctures of our history under his watch, such as now. Whereas all over the world, presidents and heads of states have continued to be visible on TV, feeling the pulse of the Nation and assuring the people of government’s commitment in practical terms towards containing the spread of the deadly Covid-19 virus, inclusive of guarantees of social palliatives ranging from necessaries and medicals as seen with Prime Minister Nerandra Mordi in India, Donald Trump in the United States, Justin Trudeau in Canada and elsewhere, Nigerians continue to contend with an absentee-president; a presidency in hiatus so much so that media hawks have began to spread rumours of his state of critical ‘unwellness’.

Some 48 hours or more, after it was widely reported that the Chief of Staff to the president, Abba Kyari  had contracted the virus, there is yet no official presser from the presidency corroborating the reportage. To the contrary, we’re told by the image makers of the president that Aso Rock would be going on “partial lockdown”; an approach that has not been adopted by any state battling the pandemic. At least not to my knowledge. At a time when every information pertaining to the person of the president and his overall management of the situation was key, the government under Buhari’s watch has unwittingly outsourced that auspicious role to closet propagandists and wannabe bloggers, hence the flying rumours all over the place.

If the official cases Nigeria grapple with at this time appear to be rather marginal, the latest available report by Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control confirms that this is as a result of our very limited testing capacity. For instance, as of 22nd March, only 152 persons had been tested. A far cry from South Africa’s over 15, 500 tests despite recording its index case a week later than Nigeria. And you would think the President would have addressed the Nation on the remote and immediate factors responsible for this deficit for a virus that is said to have a prolonged incubation period before its victim(s) exhibit the symptoms. But like criminals, mum is the word. There is also the matter of little or no ventilators throughout the country to manage the situation, especially at its most debilitating stages. Some have put the numbers of ventilators in the country to be in the region of 500 or less. Yet as of today, there is no coherence response from the government on steps being taken to checkmate the situation in the event we end up with an exponential spread. Instead Nigerians are being urged to pray that God take this ‘cup of suffering’ from us.

While it may be suggested that the Federal Ministry of Health in collaboration with the NCDC have been doing a great job of the situation thus far, that does not compensate for the cloud of conspiratorial silence that has overtaken the seat of power. Or should we fear the worst already as many persons have began to surmise?


Away from that, those who have argued that the president need not be visibly involved in the management of this situation, miss two things. They fail to appreciate that Nigerians as a collective, voted for the president and not a Minister of Health or a Chike Ihekweazu of some sorts and that under section 14(2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the security and welfare of the citizens remain the primary responsibility of the president so long as the Social Contract around which a democratic system is built, remain. Secondly, shorn of being the Commander-in-Chief with the rare honours of laying wreaths at very auspicious state function, he is also the Comforter-in-Chief. Unfortunately, the events of today prove that Muhammadu Buhari has performed woefully on both counts. What a tragedy!

I see many Nigerians jubilating over the misfortune of members of our political class who so far have fallen victim to the deadly virus on the ostensible reason that our dilapidated state of health infrastructure and overall state of mis-governance is wrought by their years of incompetence and mind-bogglling corruption. While I do not share the view that victims of ill-health be mocked especially at a time of national health emergency, you may not blame the average Nigerian who have been at the receiving end of years of governmental neglect and are today condemned to living in abject poverty.

When the citizenry of a state lose their innate human nature of empathy and compassion that defines our collective humanity, then the leadership of that nation must embark on a serious introspection as such an atmosphere, sets the stage for the toppling of governments as we saw with the French, in the Revolution, and even recently, the Arab Spring that reverberated across the Arab nation.

Unarguably, at no time in the history of Nigeria has her political and ruling class come under the weight of their own irresponsibility as now. Whereas the Nigerian politician had somehow found it a norm to fly out of the country to treat a headache, or nurse a simple stomach upset in well equipped hospitals built by other responsible governments and manned by qualified and motivated medical staff,  he does not have the luxury this time. And that is why we learn that the Chief of Staff to the president is currently receiving treatment at the dilapidated Gwagwalada health facility with other infected Nigerians, or has he been flown to Lagos or even out of Nigeria as rumoured?


Whatever the case, the events of now must serve to teach the Nigerian politician a bitter lesson that sheer incompetence can come back to hurt someday in a way there would be no where to run to, such as now. If that lesson somehow is not imbibed now, then Nigeria may never remain the same again.

For we the citizenry, this is not a time for gloating and celebrating the misfortune of our leaders. I watched a comedy skit few hours ago suggesting that Nigerians burst into an orgy of laughter and celebration when it was confirmed that president Muhammadu Buhari contracted the virus according to the fictive script. While this may be a joke, as Nigerians are won’t to make out of anything, it is one that I thought was taken too far.


Instead, the president’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic so far, and his well documented history of incompetence such that many people have argued he knows not what is happening around him, should teach us how better to exercise that very solemn duty of our citizenship, at periodic elections as at the end of the day we rise and fall with our choice of leadership. Just as a commentator rightly pointed out, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the world what it means to enthrone good leadership. And I couldn’t agree less.

All said and done, it is my prayer that our world at large, and Nigeria in particular would survive this very sad episode of human terror and rise back to its towering height. What is more, the history of the world is one of collective human action through moments of adversity, and this will not be an exception.


Raymond Nkannebe, Legal practitioner and public interest commentator, writes from Lagos. Comments and reactions to [email protected] He tweets @RayNkah


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