It wasn’t until Sunday, March 29, when President Muhammadu Buhari announced a 14-day lockdown in three major cities – Lagos, FCT and Ogun state – to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in Nigeria, that the urgency of the situation became apparent to many. Before then, from conversations with people whose world did not revolve around the Internet, I gathered that many considered the virus to be a hoax; a money-siphoning scheme set up by some ministries. There was no virus, some said, and if there truly was, they concluded it was an affliction of the rich.
Following the announcement, some state governments gave a lockdown order in their respective states. Security agents were deployed to different locations to enforce it. In the process of carrying out their duties, however, the police and the army have resorted to violence. In no time, videos of Nigerian police brutality joined the roll of videos surfacing from other countries like India and Uganda.
On Thursday April 2, Joseph Pessu was on his way to buy drugs for his pregnant wife when he was shot by a soldier. Two naval personnel in the area were consequently attacked by an angry mob. The Delta State Government, the Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo, and citizens across the country have called for justice. The case was one of the first incidents that raised concern about the security situation during the lockdown. The following day, a video of two soldiers threatening to rape the women in the state surfaced on social media.
Being able to observe social distancing is a privilege; many people cannot afford to stock up on foodstuff and other necessities in a country where 48% of its population (96 million) are living in extreme poverty. Tensions are getting high and people are becoming agitated about what’s coming. Everyone is affected by this lockdown, though the brunt of the impact falls on those who make their daily income selling in traffic, small sole proprietors who do not deal in items considered ‘essential’, those who loiter under bridges, storekeepers, beggars, cleaners, pickpockets, big and small businesses in the informal sector, danfo drivers and Okada riders, louts whose major occupation is to extort them and rely on bustling turnover of activities in the metropolis, the dependents of aforementioned groups.
The extremely poor among us rarely interact with the wealthy. Apart from public places, such as in traffic or petrol stations, the most interaction they have is being employed as domestic workers. With the lockdown, not much contact is happening with the rich.
When people talk about the poor eating the rich, perhaps what they mean is the poor eating those with the appearance of wealth. In a country with multidimensional poverty, being ‘rich’ sometimes entails having a decent apartment, a job, and a four-wheeled machine – irrespective of the model. The poor barely getting by and the middle-class, who are one illness away from poverty, are the ones the extremely poor see everyday. Sometimes they live in the same neighbourhood. They will bear the impact of this siege.
And already we are seeing this happen. Granted, crime is a prominent feature of life in cities but there’s been a spike in rates of armed robberies, rape and looting in Ogun and Lagos since the lockdown. Following the series of evictions in the past few years from Bar Beach, Otodo Gbame, Tarkwa Bay and other waterfront communities, there has been an increase in homelessness and crime rate in Lagos. Hunger and desperation is bringing out the beast in many during this period. Hardcore criminals and cultists are also using this lockdown as an opportunity to wreak havoc in communities.
On Saturday April 11, the hashtag #OgunUnrest started trending on twitter. Several accounts of neighbourhood robbery have been reported. There were images and videos of agitation and bleeding bodies of robbers that were apprehended.
‘Some of them are as young as 17’, says a tweet. ‘Ogun state is currently battling two Viruses: Corona and Armed Robbery’, says another.
In a video, the locals are seen sharpening their cutlasses and holding local guns to defend themselves. There is violence from fellow citizens, violence from security agents. People are out on the streets burning tires, a message to the robbers that they are awake and prepared to fight back.
These are mostly challenges of the poor. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the profound level of inequality and poverty among Nigerians. Perhaps the most significant manifestation of this is in the differing levels of sustainability the lockdown holds for different Nigerian classes. The vice president Prof. Osinbajo has weighed in on the economic and domestic impact of the lockdown saying that ‘Many of our people work for their daily wage… So we have to think in terms of how we can ensure that we’re able to give them some succor during the period when they’re not able to work.’
At 7pm on Monday April 13, the President addressed the country on TV, announcing a two-week extension of the lockdown in FCT, Lagos and Ogun with continued minimised movement across the country.
Other countries all over the world are struggling with the pandemic but also managing to design context-suited solutions and providing palliatives to their vulnerable communities. Of course, Nigeria is nowhere as developed as such countries; years of mismanagement of funds by politicians have sunk the nation deeper into lack and poverty.
A complete overhaul of institutions is required. However, in a time such as this, when lasting structural changes and reforms cannot be quickly effected, we must be swift to adopt other measures to curb the growing fear and insecurity during this period. The NCDC has argued for a replacement of ‘social distancing’ with ‘physical distancing’. Private citizens have organised drives to provide food for residents of some areas in Lagos. But these solutions and efforts are nowhere near enough. Now more than ever, Nigeria has to address specific variations of how the pandemic will affect the health, economy and security of its citizens.
The Nigerian dream today is to be able to provide for oneself and family, go on exotic vacations or move out of the country altogether. But in times like this, we’re reminded that governance affects us all. Not only are we collectively navigating a strange time during this pandemic, we are also forced to ask: What’s to come? Who are we leaving behind in a bid to fight this virus?
The COVID-19 pandemic is not the only pandemic on our hands. Besides insecurity, Nigeria has also been fighting Lassa fever which has killed 188 people since the start of the year. We cannot afford to lose more lives to corollaries of COVID-19 due to increased poverty, social unrest and police brutality.