OPINION: Leadership in times of COVID-19 by Seye Eyitayo
Editor's note: Public affairs commentator, Seye Eyitayo, writes on the COVID-19 global pandemic with emphasis on how the crisis is a test of leadership in Nigeria and beyond.
It has often been said that leaders are born in times of crisis. This is because, in times of trouble, people want to look to someone for direction. When such leadership is missing, chaos ensues.
As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the world, the proof of leadership is tested at the local and international levels. Persons who follow the news would have seen examples of countries that have acted proactively in this time of distress, and those who have been needlessly reactive.
In Nigeria, we have seen a nation that has gone from lethargy - closing its borders two weeks too late - to sudden wakefulness and then to trying to catch up with a virus that sneaked in "whilst men were sleeping."
But this piece is not about the federal government's delayed response to danger. As has been noted in some quarters, we are walking in "uncharted territory." The Nigerian government can be forgiven for its initial reluctance to shut its doors to the world until March 23, 2020. But, what has been happening within its borders since it eventually took that step?
Lagos has so far proved to be the epicentre of the pandemic in Nigeria. As at the last count, there have been 283 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Lagos. Many have praised the governor of Lagos state, Babajide Sanwo-Olu for rising to the call of leadership. Indeed, Sanwo-Olu has performed a lot better than his critics would have ever expected.
He has been seen everywhere, talking, talking, and talking. He has been saying all the right things, preaching the right messages, obeying instructions. Yet, after three weeks of lockdown, of the state, the numbers of COVID-19 positive cases continue to grow and with it, the rate of crime and hunger.
When we objectively evaluate the actions of Sanwo-Olu, we will discover that there has been a lot of huffing and puffing and grandiose posturing and little work. First, there was a wholesale importation of the lockdown process. Lagosians were simply told to stay at home with a promise of palliatives to come.
Schools closed, some in the middle of sitting exams which meant that parents would not pay outstanding fees, which also meant that many teachers in private schools would receive either half a month's salary or none at all. But when the Lagos state government made provision for palliatives, the plan was that it would go to the "poorest of the poor." Alas, the retinue of "blessings" that followed the distribution of palliatives in Lagos state only served to buttress the fact that good intentions are never enough. Whole LCDAs got packages that cannot feed a family of four for an entire day. There were also allegations of party affiliations being the basis for distribution.
Some have tried to excuse this ineptitude by the Lagos state government. They claim that it is those who were asked to share the palliatives that are bad at their job. But when a leader puts people who have zero understanding of project management in charge of a project, who should get the blame? It must be said that Babajide Sanwo-Olu demonstrated that implementation of plans is beyond him.
The Lagos state government also tells us that they are supporting both citizens and health workers at this time. In one video, the governor is even shown celebrating Easter with them. But it seems that this 'support' is at best reserved for a chosen few. Although Governor Sanwo-Olu claims that about 18,000 persons have benefited from free health care, the reports from public hospitals show that people are still being asked to pay for PPEs, hand gloves and even detergent before getting treatment.
And what about the aberration where contact tracing is not done on people who actually tested positive for COVID-19, but task force officials are going from "house to house" asking people if they have coronavirus symptoms. This would sound like a good initiative until you realise that Kano has now reported that two members of their task force have tested positive for COVID-19. How do we know that the people going around in Lagos are not carriers of the virus and are not spreading it as they go?
Add to this the failed attempts at a lockdown. While some people stay at home, traffic has been reported on some streets of Lagos. While certain individuals are scapegoated, others are given a free pass to go from Germany to Lagos, to Kaduna to Kano. The fact remains that however nice the talk the Lagos state governor talking sounds, COVID-19 does not appear to be listening. When posterity looks back at this time, perhaps it would notice as many persons have seen already that leadership is not about saying the things people want to hear or doing something that people want you to do. It is about making tough decisions based on "logic and science" and may I add, data and economic indices.
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Like Seyi Makinde
Unlike his Lagos state counterpart, the governor of Oyo state took off on the seemingly shaky ground. The PDP unification rally which held in his state will be a footnote whenever his name is mentioned along with proactiveness in matters of COVID-19. This rally held, March 18, 2020, a full five days before the federal government saw it fit to close the country's borders, yet he should rightly get knocks for not showing the right kind of leadership.
Despite this initial setback, which the governor apologised for, Seyi Makinde has become a survivor in many respects. Not only has he survived the coronavirus disease, but he has also survived the tests of real leadership. At a time when his counterparts were importing wholesale solutions from countries with different economic realities from theirs, Makinde insisted that he will not enforce a total lockdown of economic activities in Oyo state.
Governor Seyi Makinde took the lead in propagating home-grown solutions to the coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria. He volunteered to donate his blood for local scientists to study in a quest to find indigenous answers. He openly spoke about his illness and recovery process, even mentioning how he used black seed oil and honey as immune boosters while he was recuperating.
He was one of the first governors to propose the use of masks instead of locking people in their houses. Research is showing that being out in the open air with proper social distancing slows down the spread of COVID-19. He is showing that we are not in a competition for how fast policies are implemented but how well. And that an analysis of the impact of implementation should take precedence.
Add to this the fact that Governor Makinde has moved to ramp up testing in Oyo state. As at the time of this writing, there is an ongoing drive-through/walk-through testing at Adamasingba Stadium aimed at getting 10,000 persons tested. An initial 2,000 will be tested in the next two weeks. After testing just 67 persons, four have been found to be positive. It should be noted that Makinde expanded the criteria by which persons are approved for testing. He has also said that the patterns they spot while testing will determine what their next course of action will be. Makinde has indeed displayed exceptional leadership at this time, proving right the biblical saying "Even if a righteous man falls seven times, he will rise."
Seyi Makinde has risen and is using data to make decisions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. He is using transparency and accountability as tools for governance and communicating what is being done by the Oyo state government as he leads the COVID-19 task force. He has held back from offering palliatives which will not get to the persons for whom it is meant by insisting on creating his own database of the "poorest of the poor" which he said has been double verified for accuracy. We are looking forward to seeing how he implements this, and if it is shoddily done, he will get harder knocks and be stripped of his "leadership-hood."
If leaders are indeed born in times of crisis, then we can say equivocally, that no matter how it turns out for Oyo state, they have chosen for themselves a governor who will lead from the front. A governor who believes that the buck stops at his table, and therefore is making the tough decisions that must be made in this era of COVID-19. If we are looking at results, we will say that the Lagos state's imported solutions are not working as well as Oyo state's.
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