Money, COVID-419 and pandemic corruption, by Taju Tijani

There is nothing better than the smell of money. It is one of life’s greatest enablers. In Nigeria, we go after money with all the vim and vinegar we can muster. You need it. I need it. Everybody needs it. We work hard to get it. When we get it, we accumulate it. We then deploy it to life’s many comforts. In Nigeria, money is a peculiar mess of its own. We worship money. We kill for money. We have ritual money. We have blood money. We exalt those who have money. In the same vein, we despise those who have no money. Money talks but it depends on the speaker.

Nigeria is a nation of binary description. It is the giant of Africa and at the same time the poverty capital of the world. The oxymoronic nature of our social and economic condition is baffling. How could great wealth in the hands of industrialists, businessmen, politicians and ex-generals sit side by side with great poverty? This is a scar across our collective soul. But who cares? There is no clearer articulation of our poverty than the inability of our government to pay a minimum of N18,000 per month to Nigerian workers. Just 37 pounds a month!!! Help!!!

Then comes corona virus pandemic with the villainous COVID-19 as it trudges heroically across nations and asserting its homicidal overreach from China to Zimbabwe. COVID-19 greatest marker is death. Yes, death through the lungs. Italy, Spain and US, as I write, suffer heaviest casualties. These countries are daily drowned in seas of tears as the world watch mournfully at a virus that has infected palaces, seat of power and brought the world to a standstill. The world watches at a levelling virus that does not discriminate between a king, priest, politician, billionaire or pauper. To Covid-19, man is the cannon fodder!
As COVID-19 pandemic finds its way into Nigeria, something happened. Something snapped in the callused hearts of our billionaires, lawmakers, politicians, moneybags and banks. Almost instantly, there was a sense of patriotic destiny as they threw their financial resources into a national emergency of the cruelest kind. A nation that is known as the poverty capital of the world roared into a philanthropic euphoria that had never happened before in our history. The gesture of kindness to assist the government and Covid-19 victims morphed into an intensely strong, poetic and salutary experience.

From the churches to the great and the good, billions of naira was thrown into the bitter race to beat COVID-19 pandemic from spreading in Nigeria. The federal government bankrupted its treasury and rushed out billions of naira to use as palliatives against the hunger inducing stay-at-home policy draining millions of Nigerians. From the dawn of our civilisation, poorer Nigerians have always been treated as naïve and dumb people. They in turn always make the silliest of assumption about the good of government in power.
Right across the world, state-imposed lockdowns have necessitated social solidarity policies that were previously unthinkable. Rescue programmes vary greatly in terms of social protection measures, cash assistance but there is no alternative to governments stepping in to secure the livelihoods of millions of people.

However, the COVID-19 financial palliative that was meant to lift the suffering of the poorer Nigerians turned into COVID-419. Instantly the shit and the mess of how money was distributed became a fairy tale of another pandemic corruption.
First, there was sectional bigotry from the dirty mouth of Madam Sadiya Umar Farouq, Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, when she said that “there are no poor in the South”. Hausa/Fulani alliances and the way they put out messages can sometimes be provocative. This is a statement of an alarmingly ambitious and insensitive woman.
Secondly, question has been raised about the manner of distribution of N20,000 to over 2.6 million Nigerians within 10 days. Such speed of distributions is unprecedented even in an advanced technological America and Europe. Meanwhile, the so called distribution of Federal Government palliatives have not created desired meaningful impact on the livelihoods of the targeted poor masses hence the irruption into protests and head on collision with the lock down order.

Thirdly, the intended beneficiaries which are the poorest of the poor have not been captured in the palliative distribution. Most of the people who received the payment of Conditional Cash Transfer and other relief materials are not the vulnerable poor Nigerians. There was no transparency and accountability in the distribution of the relief packages hence most of the stimulus ended up in wrong hands.
Further, the elites behind the distribution of the money were able to manipulate the system due to inaccurate statistical database of the real poor Nigerians and in the process enrich themselves and their families. Without sounding like an alarmist, how billion of naira was shared within days without reaching majority of the intended beneficiaries is still a mystery to many rational thinking Nigerians.

What modality was used in the selection of the poor and vulnerable Nigerians in the Social Register? Although, Madam Sadiya Umar Farouq, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development, stated that Community Base Target was used to identify the poor Nigerians. How? Simply, community leaders were asked to identify poor families in various communities. Here, common sense will dictate that the community leaders can easily shortlist ghost names and even include their family members, friends, cronies into the social register thereby denying the less privileged Nigerians the opportunity to benefit. Regrettably, that crude method cannot guarantee nor generate reliable and accurate database of poor Nigerians.

Speaking at Abuja briefing of the presidential task force, Farouq said that her ministry had 11,045,537 individuals in 35 states, 453 local governments, 4,946 wards, 47,698 communities and 2,644,495 on the National Social Register receiving the monthly stipend of N5, 000 since 2016 and that about 2.6 million households have been captured under the Conditional Cash Transfer payment for assistance under the government-ruled corona virus lockdown. Who are the recipients? What method was used by the Federal Government to generate names in the discredited Social Register? Scientifically, manually or digitally?
What is unravelling here is a peculiar Nigerian hubris of embracing stealing at the slightest opportunity. The disbursement of palliative measure to cushion the effect of COVID-19 lock down has been domesticated into an emblematic corruption, that social nuisance that continues to package us into a society of thieves. Ahmed Lawan, President of the Senate, in a tone of disappointment with the disbursement of the palliative, has articulated his own opaque vision of joint cooperation with Madam Farouq.

I am worried. Nigerians should be worried. Allowing the leprous hands of Senators into any palliative fund is like allowing Dracula to be the manager of a blood bank. These are assembly members who speedily voted a whooping N37 billion to renovate their hollowed chamber without any regard for the Nigerians who exist in hidden worlds of decay, diseases, unemployment, poverty, hunger and early death.
COVID-19 stay-at-home policy has toughened and impoverished Nigerians into resignation. COVID-419 has brought out their hidden disenchantment. It is a more malevolent and deadlier virus than its generic variant COVID-19. Pandemic corruption in Nigeria has imprisoned millions and sent more millions into early graves.

No amount of hand washing or sanitiser could wash off the lingering stench of corruption among our elites as we have seen in the ongoing disbursement of hardship palliatives meant for the vulnerable and poor Nigerians. If the coronavirus pandemic is revealing anything of lasting human significance, surely it must be the necessity of transparency and fairness in the way we share federal palliatives/wealth among the poorer Nigerians without turning the whole process into another COVID-419 which further fuels our pandemic corruption.

I am envisioning that the crisis will serve as an inflection point that could potentially kick-start a more just, equitable and fairer Nigeria of equal opportunities. Happy Easter Monday to my readers.

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