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Tolu Ogunlesi: Nigeria vs. Ebola



A few days ago, a taxi driver in Glasgow, Scotland, struck up a conversation with me. When he tried and failed to guess where I was from (“Papua New Guinea” – of all places!), I helped him out. Nigeria, I said. Nigeria?, he queried. Isn’t that where Ebola is from?, he rubbed it in.

I got the point. Nigeria was again confirming that it is one of Africa’s most prominent nations, but often for all the wrong reasons. A decade ago it was “Yahoo-Yahoo” letters (which have now been stamped into global consciousness as the “Nigerian Letter.” Yesterday, it was Boko Haram, and now it has been joined by Ebola – a word whose fluidity of articulation belies the utter-ness of its deadliness.

It will take a long time to shake off the perception of Nigeria as a bastion of failed promise and underachievement. It will certainly take a lot more than multimillion dollar PR contracts, necessary as they might be.

But that should not be an excuse for not starting the journey somewhere. Perhaps, for a moment, we should even be considering forgetting about the rest of the world and focusing instead on inspiring Nigerian confidence in Nigeria.

That’s no doubt a task for our leadership, at all levels, but most importantly, right there at the top – from President Goodluck Jonathan.

The current Ebola crisis offers an opportunity for Nigeria’s warring partisans to unite.

It’s starting to get tiring, this constant and increasingly meaningless – and ultimately unhelpful – antagonism between the ruling and opposition parties. If exchanging longwinded rejoinders daily could save a country, Nigeria would not be where it is today; trapped at the mercy of Boko Haram and Ebola.

Ebola is a serious threat; in terms of both its direct impact on human survival, and its reputational impact for the affected countries – cancelled flights, shut borders, nervous investors, etc.

If we deal with Ebola the way we have handled Boko Haram thus far, we are going to pay a devastating price.

While I do not want to be accused of trying to compare Ebola to Boko Haram (there’s no point in trying to compare), I think that there are important lessons to be learnt from the failings that manifested in the response to the abduction of the Chibok girls.

First, there was the fact that it took Mr. President more than two weeks to address his citizens. Second was the atmosphere of deep and mutual distrust between the Borno State Government and the Federal Government; a distrust that helped complicate the abduction scenario and diminish the chances of a speedy rescue.

Now, President Jonathan has to act like someone who regrets the handling of the Chibok abduction. And the Ebola scenario offers an opportunity to demonstrate that lessons have been learnt.

If I were one of his handlers, I would insist on him addressing the nation as soon as possible on the Ebola threat. A direct, heartfelt speech, outlining concrete steps being put in place to check the threat and protect the country.

For powerful symbolic effect, I would have Mr. President make that address from Lagos – which appears to be the state most at risk at the moment – and alongside Governor Babatunde Fashola. It would send a strong and inspiring message that bitter partisanship – the kind that has dogged all attempts to deal with Boko Haram -is no longer welcome in the corridors of government.

In that speech, I would ask the President to announce a special presidential grant to Lagos State to support the efforts to check the onslaught of the Ebola virus. The grant money could go towards equipping the facility that the Lagos Government has now reportedly designated as an Ebola management facility.

The ideal speech would not be one of those usual cliché-filled ones. We don’t want to hear an argument about how Ebola is not limited to Nigeria alone. We don’t want vague assurances that the government is “on top of the situation.” We want more than a plea to the “international community” to assist us “fight this dastardly scourge.” We want honesty, sincerity – and concreteness. perhaps the President could also try to convince all those faceless groups that have been inundating us with campaign adverts on his behalf to spend some of that money and energy on Ebola enlightenment. Some of those Jonathan-Sambo billboards that now dot the landscape across the country could be of great service to the fight against Ebola.

Coordination of government action at all levels is critical. Direct presidential leadership is sorely needed (this is a point I tried to make last week) – it is one thing that has been conspicuously and tragically missing in the four years of this government.

I know we like to make fun of the President’s penchant for multiplying often meaningless presidential committees, but in the case of Ebola, I think that that is just what we need, at the very least – a committee that assembles all the most important stakeholders – health bureaucrats, NEMA, NSA, state governments, the international community, etc – under a presidential mandate to stop the Ebola virus on its track fast.

And this spirit of collaboration would need to be extended to the regional level. With Boko Haram, we’ve been treated to stories of how Cameroon failed to offer significant levels of support to Nigeria, allowing the insurgents to gain a foothold in the mountain ranges of Cameroon. It has been suggested that Boko Haram would not be this resurgent had Cameroon played a more active role last year when the drafting of Nigerian troops (associated with the state of emergency) led to the sect taking refuge in the mountains of Cameroon.

Therein lies a lesson. At the ECOWAS level, an Ebola containment strategy is required. We should not be waiting for France to summon African leaders to an “Ebola Summit.” Nigeria should be the one summoning the rest of West Africa to Abuja. Nigeria needs to assert itself as regional superpower, and take the lead in the efforts to ensure that all concerned governments unite against this threat.

It is a tragedy that doctors in public hospitals are on strike at a time like this. The Nigerian Medical Association should seriously consider calling a ceasefire in its face-off with the Federal Government. This should of course be accompanied by direct presidential intervention in the industrial action.

As citizens, we have important roles to play. This is not the time to start peddling miracle cures (“Ebola Anointing”, etc) or advancing arguments that might work to dissuade people from seeking proper medical attention. If we must insist on displaying religious faith then let it be done in tandem with best medical practices.

Any faith or traditional healer who believes they’ve got the cure for Ebola would make the gods/God happy by being sensible. Perhaps, the government should consider setting up a body to admit and manage all claims of cures/healings, and make it mandatory for all self-professed healers and miracle workers to formally notify it before they go to town with their claims.

The most populous cities in Liberia and Sierra Leone – capitals Monrovia and Freetown respectively – have got about one million persons; Guinea has about two million in Conakry. Those three cities in total have only about a quarter of the population of Lagos. If Ebola has wreaked that much havoc – as reported – in those countries, just imagine what it would do in Nigeria, if we allow our usual tardiness to dictate our response.


Article written by Tolu Ogunlesi, On twitter @toluogunlesi and Culled from his PUNCH Newspaper.


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