COVID-19 pandemic and travail of federalism

The onset of COVID-19 and how the federal and state governments have elected to handle the crisis have again thrown up some contradictions in the convoluted federal arrangement, which the country operates.

Once again, the need to spell out clearly and tinker with the Exclusive List of the 1999 Constitution has become imperative. While governors of one section of the country issued a statement in which they practically rejected a lockdown of the northern states, the Federal Government apparently without consulting the state governors, ordered a lockdown of Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

Relying on the rather antiquated Quarantine Act the president seized the power structure within a state without recourse to the National Assembly. It is our considered view that the president ought to have relied on public order and public security provision (Chapter 1 Section 11) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic 1999 which states that “the National Assembly may make laws for the Federation or any part thereof with respect to the maintenance and securing public safety and public order.”  

As part of the federalist principles, governors of the Southwest, Nigeria have proclaimed a lockdown of the six states in their region to arrest the incidence of increased infections. In the Southsouth, Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State arrested passengers and crew of a jet that landed in Port Harcourt despite the lockdown announced by the state government. A seesaw of sorts is currently raging between the federal and the same Rivers State governments after the latter arrested some officials of ExxonMobil for contravening the lockdown order in the state.

In a true federal state, the national government can only intervene on local issues with the express permission of the legislature. This newspaper had earlier commented on the initial reaction of the governor and executive complacency from Abuja, specifically for failing to collaborate with Port Harcourt on the emergency flights from Lagos at this time.        
 
Whether by design or default, the nation is moving in practical terms towards a true federal state but without a formal declaration of the limits of powers granted to the different levels of government. This is a potential time bomb that could lead to avoidable crashes. It is against this background that we have repeatedly advised the President to honour the campaign promise of the All Progressives Congress (APC) to put the machinery of restructuring the country in motion. Why has the APC-led government arrogantly reneged on its promise? A political and economic reconfiguration of the country in which power will devolve to the states or regions is imperative at this time of our history.

In a restructured Nigeria, states will be expected to explore the natural and human resources within their domain and pay taxes to the Federal Government. The Federal Government will concentrate on defence, currency and foreign relations. The realities on the ground make this an urgent task for the government. COVID-19 pandemic is a threat to humanity. It ought to be dealt with decisively to save lives and prevent a total breakdown of the economy. Although the nation started slowly in its response to the scourge, some states have taken the lead in halting the menace.

Lagos State is to be commended for its initiatives and the sophisticated way it updates on the rate of infections, indexing, prevention of community infections and awareness creation. The same cannot be said of some states. It took the president almost three months into the outbreak in Nigeria before he agreed to address the nation. It is our view that the state governors ought to have been carried along before the presidential proclamation. Ogun State government subtly protested by tinkering with the effective date of the lockdown owing to local factors. It is our view too that the president ought to have relied on emergency powers granted him in the 1999 Constitution to back the action – instead of the ancient Quarantine Act. 

Meanwhile, the Federal Government has been rather contradictory in its actions on the pandemic. A clear example was in the burial rites accorded the late Chief of Staff to the president Mallam Abba Kyari where all codes on engagement in the era of COVID-19 were broken. No social distancing was observed by the huge crowd that witnessed the burial in Gudu Cemetery Abuja.

The Minister of Information had at the outset declared that bodies of COVID-19 victims would be disposed of by the government because of the possibility of infections. Yet, the body was flown from Lagos to Abuja from a private facility for burial. We are also curious about why President Muhammadu Buhari and so many governors have chosen not to wear the protective masks. Specifically, when the European delegation visited the presidential villa, Abuja and made the very significant and supportive donation to fight COVID-19, everyone except the president had a mask on. Is the president telling the nation that he is invincible? Or is there a medical condition that prevents him from donning a mask? He should please lead by example. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.  

All hands must, therefore, be on deck to combat COVID-19. This is not the time for grandstanding. It is a time for action and taking decisive steps to stem the gale of deadly infections. The Federal Government should work in tandem with the states not in a master-servant relationship but as partners in development and progress. Testing centres should be available in all the states of the federation. We may be in for a long haul, judging from the analysis provided by scientists. Shutting down the country and restricting movements is the surest way of curtailing a spread of the disease for which there is no known cure yet.  

Governments at different levels should inject funds and palliatives into the lives of hapless citizens who have had the short end of the stick by the lockdown. It is not enough to ask people to stay home. The people must feed. The current cash transfer process by the Federal Government is so lopsided that questions are being asked whether there are two countries in Nigeria. If by next month (May) the lockdown is extended, there is likely to be a revolt from the people. Hunger is real. COVID-19 is real. With money in their hands and food in their stomachs, the nation can withstand the fight against the dreaded virus. It is only a co-operation between the governments that can ensure this. Let’s not get this twisted, this lockdown time beckons on the authorities in Abuja to unlock the benefits that federalism can offer the nation.

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