… Soludo article dismisses government’s “panicky”, copy-cat approach to containment
… Says lockdowns could be economically devastating and are unsustainable over time
… Awka Times investigation reveals community behaviors in breach of lockdown rules
… ANSG tweaks lockdown policy but Soludo tells Awka Times he is not linking it to his article
By Chudi Okoye
It amounted to a remarkable display of intellectual gumption, taking a position seemingly at odds with the prevailing instinct of an administration to which his political fortune might be tied. Amid the ongoing debate about the validity and viability of lockdown as a coronavirus containment strategy, a likely contender in the next gubernatorial election in Anambra State, Prof. Chukwuma Soludo, has come out with a lacerating critique of lockdown which is at the core of the Anambra State government’s organizing philosophy for coronavirus containment. According to Prof. Soludo, who is currently Chairman of Anambra Vision 2070 Committee, a planning group set up by the Anambra State government, the widespread strategy of lockdowns and social distancing currently being implemented in Anambra State, Nigeria at large and elsewhere in Africa is unsustainable and could trigger a devastating outcome of “economic pandemic”.
In a widely-circulated position paper articulating what he called his “personal” views, the former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) starts off with an olive branch arguing that “no one can blame African policymakers for the initial panicky copy and paste response” they adopted in combating the coronavirus scourge. Such response, as Soludo describes it, consists largely in copying without much thought the “coterie of defensive measures” adopted by Western countries, including border closures, lockdowns, social distancing policies, and an assortment of welfare interventions implemented alongside healthcare measures such as setting up testing and isolation centres. Prof. Soludo recognizes the logic of such measures in the midst of the coronavirus exigency. “No public officer”, he says, “wanted to be blamed for doing nothing or not doing what others were doing.”
But Soludo wonders whether merely copying the Western model is “the right approach for Africa”. He argues that Africa has “two unsavoury options” in dealing with the coronavirus menace. According to him, Africa could simply maintain “the conventional template including lockdowns” copied from Western countries, or it could seek “heterodox (creative local) approaches without lockdowns”.
Prof. Soludo rejects the first option, arguing that “a strategy that includes lockdowns/border closure is the worse of the two options, given our social and economic realities.” He says that “lockdowns in Africa suffer time-inconsistency problem without a credible exit strategy; is unaffordable and could potentially worsen the twin pandemic—health and economic—in Africa.” He warns that imposing lockdowns in the current circumstance amounts to adopting a “suicidal… waiting game” involving an indeterminate period of uncertainties which could prove devastating and “near impossible in much of Africa.”
State And Federal Lockdown
Although Prof. Chukwuma Soludo locates his analysis at the continental African level, his intervention, whether or not intended, amounts to a searing critique of the coronavirus containment measures currently being implemented by states and the federal government in Nigeria. Soludo is a member of the All People’s Grand Alliance (APGA), the current governing party in Anambra State. He is also a member of the Economic Advisory Council set up in September 2019 to advise the Nigerian president, Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, on a range domestic and global economic issues.
Soludo’s strategic access to both the state and federal governments makes his intervention all the more poignant.
▲Prof. C. Soludo, critic of lockdown policy
The federal government and subnational authorities in Nigeria have implemented a panoply of prohibitive measures including stay-at-home or lockdown policies which constitute the core of their coronavirus containment strategy.
In Anambra State, the government has introduced successive waves of social distancing policy, advising citizens to stay at home. Initially, the state adopted a more laissez-faire approach, proposing rather than imposing social distancing measures. However, as more cases of coronavirus infection were reported elsewhere in Nigeria, the state government imposed more stringent measures, closing down schools and subsequently offices and markets. And then, earlier in April after a fretful Anambra reported its first coronavirus case, the state government shut down the state’s boundaries and embarked on a stricter enforcement of its social restriction policy.
The state government adopted measures to allow passage only for essential services and haulage trucks bearing essential commodities. All non-essential movements were prohibited, and even persons granted freedom of movement must wear masks made with approved materials, the government insisted. The restrictive measures would remain in force even after the Anambra State governor, Willie Obiano, in a statement issued on 22 April, announced that the Index Case in Anambra had been tested and re-tested and, repeatedly found negative, had been discharged.
▲Gov. Willie Obiano, architect of lockdown policy
The same cautious control has been imposed by the federal government. Although federal authorities were initially accused of being slow to respond to the menace, the federal government claims that it had started putting measures in place from the moment on 27 February 2020 when Nigeria confirmed its first case of coronavirus. Since then, federal authorities have been advising state governments to clamp down on movements as a way to curb coronavirus contagion. Federal institutions including schools and universities and the bureaucracy were shuttered. The federal government exercised emergency powers imposing lockdowns in Lagos and Ogun States, and the Abuja Federal Capital Territory, three areas with the earliest surge of reported cases. Subsequently, in mid-March the federal government banned entry for travelers arriving from 13 highly exposed countries. It followed this up shortly with a closure of all international airports in the country, initially for four weeks and then recently extending the closure for another two weeks.
Nigeria, at state and federal levels, is on precarious lockdown, and it is unclear when the imposition will be lifted.
Restriction Drives Restiveness
The imposition of lockdowns has proved a source of angst and restiveness amongst global communities. Such restiveness is evident even in advanced economies with established social welfare institutions where governments are making contingency payments to facilitate stay-at-home policies. In the United States, for instance, the government approved an initial US$2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, following this up with an additional US$484 billion relief for small businesses and hospitals. More relief provisions are in the pipeline.
In Europe, governments in the eurozone have voted on measures that could provide more than a half-trillion euros ($550 billion) for companies, workers and health systems to cushion the economic impact of the virus outbreak. Individual European governments like Germany are providing supplementary relief.
In the United Kingdom, the government announced £330 billion ($398 billion) of government-backed loans and guarantees, among other earmarks, to provide coronavirus relief.
These massive provisions provide the structural basis for the lockdown policies imposed by Western countries. But this is a template being copied by African governments, including the local authorities in Nigeria, which can ill-afford such levels of fiscal intervention. “[No] government in Africa can seriously pay for lockdowns,” Prof. Soludo argues, “[and without] government support, no more than 5% of Africa’s 1.3 billion people can possibly survive any prolonged lockdown on their own finances.”
In Africa with its subsistence economies and contingent earnings where, as Prof. Soludo reports, about 80% of the population lives “from hand to mouth on daily toil and hassle”, restiveness engendered by the continuing social restriction is intensifying.
As Soludo puts it:
“The millions of persons in the street who are struggling between life and death each day with numerous other challenges do not, and will never, understand why so much additional hardship is being foisted upon them because of the novel coronavirus. For most of them (wrongly though), it is an elite problem since, for them, the ‘hunger/other disease virus is more dangerous than corona virus’.”
A “complete lockdown”, he said, would be “almost impossible in our social settings. In most cases, the orders simply create opportunities for extortion for the security agencies: those who pay, move about! Attempts to force everyone into a lockdown for extended period may indeed be enforcing a hunger/stress-induced mass genocide. More people could, consequently, be dying out of hunger and other diseases than the actual Covid-19.”
It is an apocalyptic critique probably unexpected from someone so close to the governing authorities. But there is no questioning the validity of Soludo’s critique. Awka Times investigations in the local Awka area revealed aspects of the scenarios envisaged by Prof. Soludo.
Locked Down But Not Held Down
Soon after the Anambra State government began a more stringent enforcement of its social distancing and lockdown policies, Awka Times traversed the streets of the Anambra State capital, Awka, to observe the level of compliance with the rules and to take a pulse of public reaction. During mid-April, in the days following the announcement of total lockdown in the state, some notable precincts along Zik Avenue – the main street in Awka which is usually a bustle of economic and social activities – seemed deserted. Some of the banks, offices and shops that line the streets were open but sparsely populated or patronized.
There was light traffic everywhere, human and vehicular. Perhaps the most notable absences were the ubiquitous commuter tricycles, colloquially known as keke. The sparseness of these vehicles, the very symbol of economic mobility in Awka, offered the most potent metaphor of the effect of the lockdown at that initial phase.
At the central commercial hub, the popular and usually boisterous Eke Awka market, stalls were totally shuttered in the early days following the full lockdown. In fact, all local markets from Nkwo Amaenyi in the northeastern part of the state capital through Eke Awka in the southwestern precinct to the neighboring Amawbia town, were closed in the heady aftermath of the full lockdown. Some shop owners were seen forlornly straggling in the vicinity or seated by their storefronts ruing the inactivity and contemplating the coming losses. Even the irrepressible street hawkers selling edibles and vendibles were barely seen in their usual haunts around the local markets.
Some perishable goods sellers lamented the fact that their products would be wasted before the two weeks of lockdown imposed by government would be over. This was mid-April: they were not to know it then but government would later extend the lockdown. Some other shop owners who spoke to Awka Times wondered how they could feed their families without business income or government subsidy.
In the days since total lockdown was announced, the state government in Anambra has been tweaking the policy – but mostly around the edges. All around Awka and beyond, government and public offices remain closed. The only exceptions are the ‘essential’ services: police, other security agencies, medical establishments, media houses etc. Banks are open but with skeletal staff. Drugstores and foodstuff markets are officially permitted to open but only on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Despite the official stance, Awka Times observed that in many parts of Awka, since after the initial stricture of total lockdown, non-essential trade is slowly returning. Days after the initial closure of the Awka markets, it was announced that all markets should be moved to some designated locations. Eke Awka main market food sellers were asked to remove to the old Awka stadium close to Igwebuike Grammar School. But this arrangement did not last long due to lack of security. Sellers who complied complained that their goods were stolen. One man was beaten close to death. Following complaints to the market chairman, food sellers were asked to return to their stalls but to open only on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Still, marketers have hardly complied with the limited reopening, Awka Times has observed. Markets are meant to open only of Tuesdays and Fridays, but from the Garki meat market in the northern fringe of Awka capital territory down to the central business district around Eke Awka and beyond to the southern tip of the town, shops are open once again and commerce is buzzing. All manner of trade is conducted at the various markets, even with law enforcement standing by. On 24 April when an Awka Times reporter set out to assess the situation, she noticed that human and vehicular traffic was heavy, surging almost at the pre-lockdown level with no observance of social distancing rules whatsoever. Our reporter noticed that many shops had been re-opened, brazenly displaying their goods – clothing, bags, shoes, hair products and accessories. In her enquiries, the reporter heard defiant remarks to the effect that “Coronavirus is not for Anambra State.”
In addition to marketers, artisans have continued to ply their trade, though with surreptitious caution, also in the belief that the coronavirus threat is exaggerated and did not compare with the risk of hunger and economic strangulation.
It would appear that the lockdown is now observed more in the breach in many areas of the Anambra State capital, especially in the informal sectors of the local economy. If the lockdown is being breached in the state capital under the watchful eyes of police and enforcement task force, one wonders about the level of compliance in the interior communities of Anambra State.
Awka Times did observe a level of compliance in certain parts of Awka town. In areas such as the usually busy Obi Okoli-Unizik Temporary Site junction, along the Awka-Enugu Expressway, at the Aroma junction and all around the government Secretariat, even at major parts of Zik Avenue, shops operate sparingly, more at dusk and into the night than in brazen daylight. Some shops are open but with door protectors in place, the timorous shop owners lingering in the background ready to attend to their prospects whilst looking out for security and law enforcement personnel. Some shop owners and service providers stay inside and take calls to offer their services, Awka Times gathered.
Awka Times also tried to monitor the enforcement of boundary closure which had been imposed by the government to facilitate contact tracing soon after the lone coronavirus case was announced in the state. At Anambra State’s northern boundary with Enugu State near Amansea, Awka Times observed a post of ramshackle barriers and spirited inspection of inter-state traffic. But while vehicular traffic was dutifully controlled at the barrier, humans crossing the boundary on foot were not accosted by officials. A whole new transport chain had emerged whereby vehicles shuttled commuters up to one side of the boundary, the passengers then simply crossed the boundary on foot to embark waiting shuttles on the other side. This was the simple workaround by the cross-boundary travelers, and it was happening right before boundary patrol officers.
The workaround and exigent improvisations prove what Prof. Soludo has alluded to: that total lockdown is impossible given the nature of African economies.
The question which Soludo tries to address, beyond the effectiveness of enforcing the lockdown, is whether total lockdown is even a theoretical necessity in the fight to curb coronavirus contagion. He answers this question in the negative and proceeds to offer an alternative solution which he says would help to contain the spread of the virus without the economic strangulation resulting from total lockdown.
Soludo Solution and ANSG ‘Response’
Prof. Soludo begins his articulation of solutions with a definitive suggestion, namely that “African countries should urgently dismantle the border closures as well as the stay at home/lockdown orders.” He says that he “strongly support[s] the re-opening of all of Africa urgently” on the ground that “Africa cannot afford lockdowns that [are proving] ineffective anyway.”
Prof. Chukwuma Soludo’s proposal of an immediate rescindment of government lockdown policy places him somewhat at variance with some other more cautious policy interlocutors. Among these is Mr. Osita Chidoka, a former Minister of Aviation in Nigeria who contested in the 2017 Anambra State governorship election against the successfully re-elected incumbent, governor Willie Obiano.
During a recent conference call to discuss responses to the threat of Covid-19 in the South East of Nigeria, Mr. Chidoka disclosed that he had discussed the issue of lockdown with Soludo and was glad that the professor had synthesized his thoughts into a circulated presentation. Chidoka agreed that the closure of Anambra state boundaries was problematic, especially given the dependence of the state on food imports from other states. He gave the example of yam imported from Benue and Taraba states.
▲Osita Chidoka: advocate of ‘restart without spreading’
Chidoka also agreed that the lockdown was not necessary, but said that we are where we are. He said he had learned from Dr. Anthony Fauci – the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a lead member of the Trump Administration’s Coronavirus Task Force – that we don’t fully understand the virus and therefore that no solution should be rashly discounted. He said the lockdown was not the solution but a solution, and that “we should be tentative in our views”. Chidoka said that the issue of lockdown is as important as that of how to deal with “1m infected people” should there be a surge with a rash reopening. He advocated what he called “restart without spreading”, which is a more cautious reopening strategy informed by extensive testing results.
Besides his forceful intervention on the issue of lockdowns, Prof. Soludo offers other ideas to deal with the coronavirus threat including: concerted exploration of local medicinal cures for Covid-19; use of the crises to drive new economic opportunity such as local production of face masks, hand sanitizers, gloves etc.; and longer-term fiscal reform and restructuring of African economies. “Every shock or pandemic presents opportunities,” Soludo says, arguing that we should seek to “exploit the global opportunities offered by the [present] crises.”
Awka Times noticed that after Prof. Soludo’s widely publicized intervention, the Anambra State governor, Willie Obiano, on Saturday 25 April, issued a statement ostensibly intended to provide updates on his administration’s coronavirus strategy. The statement came rapidly after a similar update the governor had given on Wednesday 22 April. It was the shortest interval so far in the governor’s intermittent updates, occurring at a time that Soludo’s statement was making the rounds in mainstream and social media, including government-owned media outlets. In his latest update, Obiano said his administration was motivated to “make few adjustments to our strategy against the pandemic,” including the following:
- Food markets including restaurants and bars could reopen immediately for normal business.
- Movement within Anambra State has now been reopened.
- Churches could reopen but worshippers must comply with the standard protocols of Covid-19.
- Major markets could be officially reopened after review meeting with market leaders on 27 April 2020.
- State boundaries however are to remain closed, and all preventive protocols including wearing face masks and sanitization remain in place.
It isn’t clear the extent to which Soludo’s intervention informed the Anambra State government’s policy recalibration. It is remarkable that the policy change came in the swirl of an extensive circulation of his article, unusually only days after an update had been given by Governor Obiano.
So is there a nexus between Prof. Soludo’s intervention and the Anambra State government’s policy change? Awka Times put the question to Prof. Soludo himself. As might be expected, the professor demurred, only offering the following unpresuming response to Awka Times:
“I don’t personally make any connection between my article and what any government does. I have publicly shared my thoughts as a public intellectual; what policy makers make of it is up to them.”
Whatever the impulse behind the sudden policy change by the government of Anambra State, whether it was the felicitous results from testing or the restiveness and pragmatic breach of the government’s lockdown policy, the change also coincided with a forceful intervention by a strategic ally of the government, someone probably planning a pitch to succeed the incumbent governor. If policy development around the coronavirus menace becomes an issue in the upcoming governorship election, it could not hurt Prof. Chukwuma Charles Soludo that he seems to have influenced government thinking to alleviate the strictures of a government policy with a perilous impact on the population.♦
■ The field observations used to develop parts of this report were provided by Awka Times editor, Emeka Ral and reporter, Stella Nzekwe, with contributions from guest writer, Ndu Chris Nwannah and reporter Ella Okonkwo.