By Lasisi Olagunju
PATIENTS are afraid of contracting the disease from doctors; doctors are afraid of getting infected by patients. It is a perfect medical standoff certain to breed a disaster. How does a country handle this? Yet, it is a war foretold but our cripple ignored the clear warnings.
Coronavirus is not a homegrown disease. It was bred abroad but our government refused to close the door when it should. Through our open-door stupidity, high-profile persons in government and politics came home positive without the wisdom of doing the right thing. The Villa in Abuja is the number one culprit here.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s Chief of Staff, Mallam Abba Kyari, was educated at some of the best universities in the world. He was in Warwick; he was in Cambridge; he was in Harvard; he was also at the Institute of Management in Lausanne, Switzerland. Yet, all the Grade A certificates, plus his great years in legal practice, in journalism and banking and public administration did not tell him coronavirus was real – potently infectious, and deadly. He casually rubbed his body against everybody that mattered in Nigeria after jutting out same busy body in his love for virus-infested Germany and Egypt. He came back home, became sick, did no self-isolation and did no test until his body demanded it.
From global experiences, we can see that everyone is a potential victim of this virus. None of us is safe, especially with the elite treating themselves and leaving the street diseased. They forget that the untreated will soon reinfect the cured. As we discuss this, let no one gloat over Kyari’s challenges. God will give him and all infected persons back their health. But the president’s man did not do what people of knowledge do in desperate contagion situations. And he cannot claim not knowing what is right. We know he wrote angry first-person-pronoun memos ordering all Senators and Reps with recent travel histories to step out, go for tests and self-isolate. Ironically, he also belonged in that category but he didn’t write to himself. He was convinced that his status deserved a generous discount from coronavirus. When you are strong, you would know. He knew the currency of his powers; those who have read him and the pathways of his influence know it too.
“Kyari is the gatekeeper to the president who had ordered that all cabinet requests come through Kyari to him. Kyari also oversees the movement of paper into and out of the president’s office and the president’s schedule. He attends virtually all of the president’s meetings, photo-ops, and press briefings. The president frequently uses him to deliver bad news. Kyari is regularly in personal touch with virtually everybody at the top of Nigeria’s political and economic establishment. He has been reported to have regular, even hourly, contact with the president, whose office is near at hand. Hence, his illness has significant implications for the functioning of Nigeria’s weak but over-centralized federal government.” That is an unnerving analysis of our dire presidential situation wrapped in diplomatic finesse by ex-US Ambassador to Nigeria, Mr. John Campbell, author of ‘Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink.’
Imagine having the president, his deputy, his ministers, all state governors with their commissioners, and the aides of everybody simultaneously infected with COVID-19. What do you think would happen to Nigeria as we have it? That is why there were choking gasps and farts of fear across Government Houses and Abuja when the Kyari news broke. He was (and still is) the central referee in Nigeria’s unending game of balls. Every player, big and small, has touched his nimble toes and fingers one way or the other. Back and forth, files from ministries and other agencies to the president pass through his office. If governors and ex-governors, ministers and Generals, serving and retired, are in voluntary or compulsory quarantine today, a big credit should go to the indiscretion of the ex-visitor to Germany and Egypt. He has been very large enough to occupy every space of consequence and to potentially infect it. The tragic consequences of the infection news should, for once, convince all of us, cynics, that the big man of the Villa is indeed big in powers, and borderless in risk and in danger. But is his handling of this case different from the ways of other street leaders and their gangs who won’t believe there is an epidemiological war going on? And such low and high hordes are everywhere, in northern and southern streets and under-bridges, in palaces and universities. I have examples.
A huge mass of fully charged young men chanted in Hausa: “Mallam yashe babu corona” – meaning: Mallam (their Arabic teacher) has said there is no coronavirus. These northern Nigeria boys were happy and indignant in their rejection of a general truth. Their video is trending as a testament to their stupidity and the ignorance of their teachers. A child has refused to be wise, yet his mother prays for the child to live. Who will help tell the poor woman, quietly, that nothing kills faster than idiocy. In Ilorin, a professor told the media that Muslims have natural “potent immune system against coronavirus.” He was insistent and self-convinced that precautions were not necessary — and he is a professor! In Lagos, market men and women grumbled loudly that closing their markets would bankrupt and kill them. They are still grumbling. I warned an old secondary school classmate against visiting people and being visited. She laughed and told me she was speaking with me from Ogunpa market in Ibadan, ‘tí a nfi ara nu’ra’(rubbing her body against other buyers and sellers). If you people close our markets, you will kill people, she warned.
The Ibadan woman was certain that containment of gatherings was an unnecessary overreaction of the elite to the pandemic. She has a soul-mate in another woman at Oja Oba Market, Abule Egba, Lagos. To this vegetable seller, coronavirus is an ‘audio’ danger, distant, offshore, even unreal. She told the Nigerian Tribune: “I don’t really understand this koro (coronavirus). All I was told is that a lot of people have died abroad as a result of the virus. But I am yet to see or hear of anyone dying here in Lagos. So, why should I be scared?” It didn’t occur to her that she could be the first to succumb to the almighty virus in that city.
Yet, we mustn’t mock and abuse these women – as if we are better than they– and excuse big men like Kyari who casually brought the virus home. These women speak to the odious air they are forced to breathe. What they profess is the noxious standard we set. Smell those you have as models and mentors. Did you watch that ex-governor senator who removed his face mask so he could freely sneeze a billion germs and viruses into the gaping mouths of the Senate chambers? Did you see the immediate reaction of his colleagues? They looked at him in horror – and laughed. He obviously did not believe in the reasons for the mask. You can take a man out of a cavern, but can you take the dankness out of him? We are lucky this senator did not accompany the Chief of Staff to Germany or Egypt, or to Kogi and to other places he trod, including the Villa’s Jumat Mosque. If he did, all the 109 senatorial districts (including yours) would, by now, be making frantic sacrifices to COVID-19, the implacable god from China.
If we look hard enough, we will see good in every bad. With the unfurling contagion have come new lessons in how to be rid of the unwanted and be safe. We now know that “ATM machines carry more germs than toilet door handles.” We now understand how to fumigate a whole country and get rid of viruses with their unpleasant, sit-tight virulence. A lady sharing our presidential powers eerily described what struck the Villa as the “earth cleansing itself and its inhabitants.” She stopped short of describing life as ‘a boomerang’ but she mentioned Karma, the recompense divinity. That is more than enough, for now, in our plate. To cleanse is to rid a body of what is toxic and killing. The reported fumigation of Aso Rock should, therefore, be seen as a symbolic demonstration of God’s plan for Nigeria. We may yet thank Kyari (and Atiku Abubakar’s sick son) for exploding the whispers of the contagious danger. The current realities, and reactions, will give us a new Nigeria.
That turning-point moment when markets are over is always lost on absent leaders. When information minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, threatened last week that the Federal Government would move against violators of the regime’s no-gathering orders, I laughed. Abuja is still living in pre-COVID-19 Nigeria. The Nigerian genie appears out of the bottle. The governors have stepped into the frontline abandoned by the commander-in-chief. They broadcast, brief and give directions and directives and the people obey – and thank them. The people have realised that they could run their lives without a president – even without Nigeria. Everyone has run back ‘home’ from the dangers of the outside called Nigeria. The governors have seen that a restructured Nigeria with its true federalism content is possible. They now talk competently about closing their ‘borders’, and about protecting and saving their people. They speak with unrestrained authority on their states while Abuja melts away into a night of supine incompetence. From the crematorium of this virus, a new Nigeria must come.
Abba Kyari and his COVID-19
By Lasisi Olagunju