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Coronavirus and Institutional Decay

Ayo Olukotun

Emergencies bear resemblances to academic examinations in that they test the quality of acquired knowledge, as well as the preparation or lack of it, of the examinee. Unlike exams, which are scheduled, however, emergencies such as the running and ravaging COVID-19 epidemic are unscheduled, arbitrary, and tyrannical, in terms of scope, severity and duration. Obviously, no country, even the most sophisticated, can fully prepare for a health emergency on the scale of Coronavirus, about which the state of medical knowledge, at least at the outset, ranged from non-existent to rudimentary. For instance, even the World Health Organisation has reversed itself, at least on one occasion, concerning the ways and manner in which the virus is transmitted. What is not in doubt, however, is that, broadly speaking, capable states with strong and resilient institutions stand better chances of weathering the storm and returning faster to normalcy, than those with disheveled institutions performing sub-optimally. Leaving aside for the moment, the state of our much lamented health institutions, take a peep into the workings and the handicaps of the Police in the season of the current pandemic.

The Punch reported on Monday (May 18, 2020), the crucial resource gaps facing the police as it sought to undertake its assigned role of patrolling interstate borders, in keeping with Federal Government directive. According to the narrative, the Police is patrolling the interstate boundaries without the provision of face masks, gloves, hand sanitisers and a mandatory allowance to facilitate the assignment. Consequently, as was the case with medical personnel, some policemen, including a deputy commissioner of police had succumbed to the pandemic. Other observers have reported that most policemen go about their duties without adequate equipment including the wearing of facemasks. The problem would appear to have been mitigated by donations from civic organisations but it would have been nicer if the organisation could source its needs either from within or within the Presidential Task Force. Quite often, state officials have complained that the interstate lockdown was being subverted by Police and other security forces. It is conceivable that the illegal traffic has reached the level of an underhanded commercial transaction in which those crossing the borders pay a fee to the Police and other cognate security institutions in order to be allowed to cross. The other side of the coin, however, is that the Police were sent on the crucial assignment, without adequate or protective equipment; this, however, is not a justification for undermining a delicate health project in which the stakes are enormously high.

Equally baffling, even though not directly related to the pandemic, is the recent report that citizens in Sokoto State harassed by bandits are now employing (presumably for fees) Nigerien security personnel to protect them. In other words, what they fail to get from Nigerian security, they now purchase across the border, fortunately, Nigeria is not at war with its neighbor but one can imagine how distressful the scenario could become in the event of a tussle. At any rate, the report also underscores institutional decay in a season when the vitality of state institutions is required to win the war against the pandemic. Returning to the Police, its battles with shortages of diverse kinds have been legendary. These range from up to date ammunition to shortage of personnel, as well as consistent underfunding on such a scale that a police officer once admitted that they use bribes to make up for under-budgeting and shortage of facilities. There is nothing really new about this because, in November 2018, our President, Major Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) admitted that, ‘from Taraba to Sokoto, to the South-South, people don’t feel secure until they see the military’ (The Punch, Tuesday, November 27, 2018). Buhari’s statement was made on the of approval of a pay rise, it is not known, however, whether the pay rise, if it had been implemented, had translated to more effective performance.

All told, it would appear that the dire shortages frequently reported in the media have continued to handicap the Police, as well as other security institutions, in the performance of their duties with regards to the global pandemic. More crucially affected are our health institutions, where one of the experts, a former president of the Nigerian Academy of Science, Prof. Oyewale Tomori, has likened our responses to the COVID-19 emergency as, ‘making ammunition at the warfront’. That is another way of saying that we confront the emergency totally unprepared, in terms of the state of health infrastructure as well as institutions. That was why most health experts counseled at the onset of the crisis that our best bet is a preventive strategy, that does not test our health institutions to the very roots, as they are unlikely to stand up to such tests. Similarly, it was for the same reason that the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 panicked when it appeared that the emergency was moving to the stage of community transmission. Regrettably, the opportunities that we had to build and develop our health facilities were bungled.

Even as we speak, there are still threats of strikes from unions of medical personnel because of the failure to implement agreed improvements. Considering that several countries, including the United States, have openly advertised for doctors from Nigeria and elsewhere, it is not known how big the hemorrhage of medical personnel will be in the near future. To be sure, institutional decay which is another name for governance failure has been with us for quite a while now, featuring countless missed opportunities for remediation, even as new dimensions and variables deepened the decay. It is not confined to the security and health departments alone as there is hardly any institution that has not been affected by regression. The political elite continues to major in the thrills and excitements of political competition given that the urge to capture the spoils of office is irresistible, more so in an economically depressed terrain, where the proverbial national cake gets smaller and smaller. Regarding governance and a state building project which will revamp our prostrate institutions, they score very low, given that they merely skirt around the problem or side-step it for the glamour of winning and retaining power.

As many have recognized, every crisis contains within it, the seeds of opportunity for reset and rebuilding. It may be more demanding to rebuild institutions while the nation is grappling with multi-pronged challenges, especially in the health and economic domains symptomised by a subsisting pandemic, worsening poverty and unemployment figures hitting the roof. All is not lost however. We must struggle to make the small spaces and prospects for reforms count, even if for now, we cannot access the bigger terrain for change. Considering that the future of Nigeria, as indeed of any other country, will be determined by the health and firmity of key state institutions, the agenda to rebuild them must, against the odds, begin right away. Suggested practices would include, depoliticisation of these institutions in favour of a merit-based approach, yoking promotion to productivity more clearly, enunciating and implementing sanctions for untoward behaviour, aiming at best practices, and the last but not least, introducing a motivational framework which would undergird activities, as well as propel forward movement.

- Prof. Ayo Olukotun is the Oba (Dr.) Sikiru Adetona Chair of Governance, Department of Political Science, Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye.

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