Amid mounting panic and uncertainties over the ravages of COVID-19 worldwide, Nigerians are wracked by the double whammy of disabling fear over the scourge of the virus and bewildering COVID-19-inspired fraud by their government.
Nigerians on social media justifiably say their country’s most pressing burden now is how to deal with the heartrending transmogrification of COVID-19 to COVIK 4-1-9 there.
For those who need initiation, COVIK 4-1-9 is a jocular blend of Muhammadu Buhari’s pronunciational murder of COVID-19 (which he mispronounced as COVIK 1-9) and 419, the section of the (Southern Nigerian) Criminal Code that outlaws advanced fee fraud, but which now functions as shorthand for fraud and deception of all kinds
COVIK 4-1-9 is a particularly imaginative coinage because it encapsulates a merger of incompetence and fraud, which defines the current government’s response to the threats of the novel coronavirus—and, for that matter, everything else.
When the perils of COVID-19 were only just emerging and clearly moving in the direction of Nigeria, Buhari didn’t deem it appropriate to address the nation and to announce measures he was putting in place to stop or minimize the effects of the virus.
When almost all African leaders had addressed citizens of their nations in national broadcasts over COVID-19 and Buhari was still missing, there was panic about his state of being. Worse still, Nigeria became the butt of jokes on social media among other Africans.
In Ugandan Twittersphere, for instance, there was a “#BuhariChallenge.” The most viral tweet from the challenge came from a Kenyangi Bale, which goes: “I know Ugandans deserves [sic] better. But, our President, Museveni, has addressed this nation the 5th time in 2 weeks on the COVID-19 pandemic. You guys needs [sic] to visit Nigerian Twitter. They are looking for their president. He is nowhere to be found.”
Other African countries’ Twitter chatter satirizing Buhari’s puzzling silence amid the rising dread of the novel coronavirus soon spilled over to Nigerian Twittersphere and actuated an intensification of calls for Buhari to address the nation.
So Buhari’s handlers caused him to make a 23-second address to the nation during which he called COVID-19 COVIK 1-9. He only needed “4” to make it COVIK 4-1-9. The phonological similitude between 1-9 and 4-1-9 was not lost on Nigerians. And after a severely scathing mockery of the 23-second COVIK 1-9 webcast, Buhari’s social media aide by the name of Bashir Ahmad took it down from his Twitter page.
On March 29, 2020, Buhari was compelled to address the nation in a pre-recorded broadcast which, while admirable and praiseworthy in the policies and programs it outlined to confront COVID-19, nonetheless rendered itself vulnerable to charges of creating the basis for governmental fraud when it said it would feed school children who aren’t in school and observe social distancing while doing so.
Even the wildest stretch of fictional fantasy can’t imagine feeding school children who are out of school while maintaining physical and social distancing in the process.
The presidency attempted to delegitimize Professor Wole Soyinka’s fulmination against its national lockdown order by calling him a “fiction writer,” but not even Soyinka’s prodigious dramaturgical wizardry can conceive of feeding people in their absence while being physically and socially distant from them.
Consequent upon Buhari’s address, government also said it would embark on a program of “conditional cash transfers” to poor, vulnerable Nigerians to ease the hurt of the national lockdown order. But Nigeria doesn’t have a database to make this happen.
That’s why people suspect that most of the money will be stolen by government officials and some of it will be given to party loyalists and hangers-on of politicians in the ruling party. In fact, photos that have emerged of people who received the “cash transfers” from the minister of humanitarian affairs showed faces of well-fed, middle-class men and women who don’t fit the image of “poor” people.
Apologists of the regime insist that the government is deploying a World Bank database to identify poor Nigerians, although the government had consistently claimed in the past that the World Bank’s statistics on Nigeria were inaccurate.
For instance, on October 9, 2019, newspapers reported Buhari to have said, “Today, most of the statistics quoted about Nigeria are developed abroad by the World Bank, IMF and other foreign bodies. Some of the statistics we get relating to Nigeria are wild estimates and bear little relation to the facts on the ground.”
How can Buhari’s government rely on the same “wild estimates [that] bear little relation to the facts on the ground” to “transfer” cash to poor people?
Nonetheless, when the government enforces a national lockdown, which cripples the informal economy upon which a vast majority of Nigerians depend, more than 70 percent of the population is already vulnerable and in need of government’s help.
In any case, as the poverty capital of the world, most Nigerians, including people who are not party loyalists, need all the help they can get from government. For starters, the N37 billion budgeted to renovate the dysfunctional and utterly useless National Assembly Complex could be better used to secure the lives of Nigerians.
Lockdown amid hunger and lack of electricity and water is death sentence for most people. People can survive COVID-19, but no one can survive sustained starvation.
Another disturbing COVIK 4-1-9 phenomenon that may hurt the nation is the selectivity of the testing for COVID-19. Testing is still a privilege reserved for “big people.” It has become a status symbol. Plus, it doesn’t seem that government is giving a thought to the possibilities of false positives and false negatives. The BBC reported on March 30 that many Western nations have discovered that test kits from China are only 30 percent reliable.
Perhaps the most insidious COVIK 4-1-9 that no one seems to be talking about is that victims of COVID-19 are being used as a bargaining chip to get money from the federal government. The Benue index case, for instance, whom the state government identified by name against ethical guidelines, has been asymptomatic for weeks after testing positive, but has been kept in isolation in a dingy, unsanitary place. She is possibly the victim of a false positive, but she’s being kept in isolation anyway. Her request to be retested has been spurned.
Her relatives say she is kept in isolation against her wish, and was prevented from going back to London to her family when the airspace hadn’t closed, because the state government wants to use her as a bargaining chip to get federal money since the Lagos State government, which seems to be doing remarkably well so far, got N10 billion from the federal government to fight the novel coronavirus. In how many more places is this happening?
While other nations are working day and night to reverse the effects of COVID, Nigerian governments at all levels, except for Lagos State for now, see the virus as an opportunity to perpetrate chicanery. The only silver lining in the dark clouds is that if the tragedy of the leaders’ fraud unravels, they would have nowhere to run to. We are all in this together.
By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.