COVID-19 war in Nigeria and the verve of inter-governmental cooperation (1), By Isaac N. Obasi

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Top: President Muhammadu Buhari; Down from left: Governors Babajide Sanwo-Olu, Yahaya Bello and Ben Ayade of Lagos, Kogi and Cross River states respectively

Federations all over the world (and there are not very many of them though), thrive on the verve of inter-governmental cooperation and collaboration. The Nigerian federation, despite its imperfect and wobbling nature, is not different. The verve of inter-governmental cooperation and collaboration is maintained through good inter-governmental relations management. Inter-governmental relations in a federal system could be on federal-state relations, federal-state-local relations, state-local relations, all at the vertical level of relationship. But the relationship could also be horizontal at the sub-national levels. It could for instance be state-state relations in the area of enforcing COVID-19-induced inter-state lockdown restrictions at the border of two states. Consequently, at no time is the verve of good inter-governmental relations management desperately needed, than in this life-threatening period of coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic emergency. Good inter-governmental relations management therefore cannot be over-emphasised in the fight to contain the community transmission of this devastating virus.

Many reasons inspired the choice of the title of this article, but chief among them is the hostile attitude of the Kogi State Government towards the officials of the Federal Ministry of Health and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). So far, the verve of inter-governmental cooperation and collaboration between the Kogi State Government and the Federal Government in the war against the ravaging COVID-19 is at the lowest ebb. Critics of Nigeria’s imperfect federal system (who blame the Federal Government  most of the time) are further disheartened to see some states pulling the Federal Government back in this fight against the COVID-19 war.

As we would all recall, following the recording of the index case in Nigeria through the Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos as port of entry, the first challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria, was first and foremost inter-governmental in nature. Since a pandemic requires every nation in the world to provide concerted and collective national policy response, no one expected the Lagos State government to face the COVID-19 challenge on behalf of Nigeria alone. Expectedly too, the Federal Government appreciated this fact very well and then responded with a very encouraging financial support to Lagos State. 

In a nationwide address on March 26, 2020, President Muhammadu Buhari announced his approval of the immediate release of N10bn grant to Lagos, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak in Nigeria. According to Mr. President, the grant would enable Lagos Sate increase its capacity to control and contain the outbreak, while also supporting other States with capacity building. Furthermore, the president approved the immediate release of N5bn special intervention fund to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to equip, expand and provide personnel to its facilities and laboratories across the country. (see: https://statehouse.gov.ng/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Presidential-Update-on-Covid-19-Response-March-26-2020.pdf.pdf). 

Since health issue is in the concurrent list of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), both the federal and state governments are expected to cooperate and collaborate in tackling any serious health problem that arises in any state of the federation. Fortunately enough, the Federal Government (through the NCDC) has been providing the necessary leadership and support in the fight against the COVID-19 scourge. 

As at April 14, 2020, barely two months the COVID-19 arrived Nigeria, NCDC established capacity for COVID-19 testing in its National Reference and in 11 other molecular laboratories. But at the May 21, 2020 Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 National Briefing, the Minister of Health Dr. Esagie Ehanire, announced that there are 26 laboratories in 17 states of the federation. Without doubt my humble assessment is that the federal government is providing the needed leadership in the management of COVID-19 pandemic emergency. What is expected of state governments is a commensurate level of cooperation for effective containment of the spread of the virus. But how have some state governments cooperated with the federal government in this regard?   

Starting with Lagos State (the epicentre of the virus), the State government has been doing fairly well in this regard. Ever since this experiment in inter-governmental relations management of COVID-19 began in Lagos, the two sides have collaborated and cooperated very well. We have not heard of overt conflict or reported cases of intrigues and squabbles. If there has been any, it has not taken the centre stage as to obstruct the effective management of COVID-19 emergency operation. Even at the level of inter-agency collaboration, we have not heard frictions that should attract serious media attention. It appears professionals are fully in control and that politics has been given a back stage. This is how it should be. Perhaps the Ebola experience, where both sides cooperated excellently well, has helped to bring about what we can describe as cordial, cooperative and collaborative inter-governmental relations management between the federal government and Lagos State Government in the COVID-19 emergency operation. 

The efforts of the Federal Government towards effective collaboration with some states have witnessed a mixed bag of success and disappointment. For example, at the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 Press Briefing held on May 7, 2020, the Minister of Health, Dr. Esagie Ehanire disclosed that a team of the Federal Ministry of Health left for Kogi State to ensure that the State has adequate testing capacity. The team, he said, would also advocate for the engagement of traditional rulers and community leaders in surveillance efforts on COVID-19 pandemic in the state. The minister equally revealed that a similar team would depart Abuja for Cross River State. But what was the outcome of these visits?

Engagement with Kogi State has been proving problematic, while that with Cross River State progressed from being initially problematic to being very constructive and encouragingly engaging. As we all know, these two states have not reported any case of COVID-19 infection, which ordinarily should excite Nigerians for after all, no one wants to record COVID-19 infection for the sake of it or just for the sake of appearing on States’ League table of COVID-19 infections. However, there has been serious doubt about the infection-free record by the two states, especially given the initial hostile attitude of their governors. We shall examine these further in part 2 of this article by God’s special grace on Wednesday, May 27, 2020.

Prof. Obasi, a public policy expert (& former columnist in the Daily Trust, Abuja, March 2003 to October 2006, & Daily Champion, Lagos, April 2005 to December 2008), is of the Department of Public Administration, University of Abuja. Email: nnamdizik@gmail.com      


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