COVID-19 war: Kogi State in focus, By Isaac N. Obasi

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Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi State

The hostile attitude adopted by the Kogi State Government towards the fight against the coronavirus (COVID-19) has become a terrible national embarrassment. This hostile attitude has a history that dates back to the inception of the national response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 

Historically speaking, the Kogi State Government particularly Governor Yahaya Bello has consistently rebuffed all national combined efforts directed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 by the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, Federal Ministry of Health (FMH), and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). This hostility reached its crescendo recently when the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 declared Kogi State a ‘high risk state’ which people should avoid visiting. And in a very combative reaction, the Kogi State Government accused the COVID-19 federal authorities of using the war against the virus as a self-enrichment project. 

This column had argued on occasions last year that 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, was at its lowest ebb. It was further argued that some states (in addition to Kogi) were pulling the Federal Government back in the national fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, in spite of the financial assistance given to all of them by the Federal Government. This lack of cooperation by some states persisted to the extent that the PTF on COVID-19 had on Monday, 1 February 2020 identified states that were failing to report data on COVID-19, to include Kogi, Yobe, Jigawa, Zamfara and Kebbi. 

In the case of Kogi State for example, the PTF accused it of refusing to acknowledge the existence of the COVID-19. And aside from that, the state refused to report testing results, and failed to establish isolation centres. If we also recall, Governor Yahaya Bello’s government refused NCDC officials entry into the state unless they quarantined for 14 days after arriving in the state. The condition made it impossible for the NCDC officials to carry out their legitimate public health duties in the state. 

Secondly, the governor himself refused and still refuses to wear face mask. Thirdly, the government denied COVID-19 related deaths of citizens in the state and claimed that they should be counted as deaths that occurred in FCT even while the sick people contacted the virus in Kogi. Fourthly, the governor himself again declared that COVID-19 vaccines were meant to kill all of us hence advised people against taking the jab.

Let the truth be told, these actions and inactions of the Kogi State Government pose a serious threat to public health to the citizens of the state in particular, and to Nigerians in general. Given the locational centrality of Kogi State (bordering a good number of states), the lives of many Nigerians who pass through the state on their journey between the Northern and Southern parts of the country, are exposed to danger. The fact that there is no testing going on in the state increases the health rick. 

In spite of the facts on the ground about Kogi State’s denial of COVID-19, the State’s Commissioner for Information and Communication, Mr. Kingsley Fanwo, accused the PTF on COVID-19 of trying to raise alarm in the state and drive investors away. He then claimed that the PTF attacked the state because of its stance that the COVID-19 pandemic should not be turned into a money-making venture to the detriment of Nigerians. 

According to the Commissioner, Kogi State was the first state to procure in thousands and distributed to all the councils, as well as the first to set up a team to combat the spread of the virus. Continuing, he said that the state “set up isolation centres with state-of-the-art equipment”, and that the state had “done sensitisation more than any other state”. He then falsely added: “so if we don’t believe that COVID-19 exists, we won’t be doing all we are doing to ensure it doesn’t ravage our state”. And concluding, he opined that “what we said and still saying is that COVID-19 is not worth all the marketing going on just for a few to make billions; that we do not have to suffer innocent Nigerians while a few smile to the banks”.

The commissioner has performed his public relations job well, but what he refused to tell us is why in spite of the existence of the “isolation centres with state-of-the-art equipment”, the government was not transparent enough to allow NCDC officials to carry out their duties in the state. Secondly, the commissioner did not tell us why the state refused to carry out COVID-19 tests or send results of tests (if any), to the NCDC. 

Thirdly, if the commissioner’s claims were to be correct, why would there be many condemnatory statements against his governor? For example, why would the Nigeria Governor’s Forum (NGF) through its chairman, Governor Kayode Fayemi issue a disclaimer to Governor Bello Yahaya’s unscientific claim that vaccines are meant to kill us in Nigeria? Again, if the Commissioner’s claims were to be true, why would there be a COVID-19 war of words between PTF and the State government? And more importantly, is the commissioner aware that some Nigerians, who were embarrassed by his governor’s false claims and inactions, had called on the Federal Government to sanction him? 

Elder statesman, Edwin Clark, in a news report by The Nation on Wednesday, 10 February 2021, while narrating his terrible experience with COVID-19, called on the Federal Government to sanction Governor Yahaya Bello over his claims that the pandemic was not real. He was to have said that the governor should be ashamed of himself and that “this is a man parading himself that he wants to be president of Nigeria. It’s all nonsense. Some of them feel because they are very close to Mr. President, they do anything” (See ‘Clark: My battle with COVID-19’, The Nation via Lastly, is the Commissioner aware that some Nigerians in and outside state, have this kind of harsh words for his governor?

Historically, Kogi State Government’s confrontation with the COVID-19 national response team (broadly comprising the PTF, FMH and NCDC), has been on since last year. The genesis is not a complicated narrative. It all started like a drama when notably states namely Cross River and Kogi were not have recorded any COVID-19 cases. It appeared as if that positive record represented a political mileage gained by the governors of the two states. Perhaps to keep their positive image intact, the two governors started to protect their records. Both of them also prevented the NCDC officials from visiting their states on the grounds that they would bring in the virus into their states. This sounded plausible particularly for Cross River State whose governor had taken proactive against COVID-19 based on his scientific and professional knowledge as a professor in a related field. But this could not be said of his Kogi State counterpart, who was simply grandstanding.  

Over time, officials of federal health authorities reached understanding with the Cross River State Government and both moved on from there with little hiccups here and there. However, the with Kogi State Government got bad and kept on degenerating. It was as if the federal authorities allowed the governor to have his way, and were no more concerned about state’s intransigence.  In actual fact, this column thought that the NCDC officials and indeed those of the PTF and Federal Ministry of Health were too soft on Kogi by taking cover under the fact that health is on the of the 1999 Constitution (as amended). Yet, the Federal Government was giving out funds to the states to help control the spread of the virus. 

But the soft treatment given to Kogi should not have been so for an issue that posed serious danger to public health. If the federal authorities had leveraged on their legitimate power of setting national health minimum standards, and also applied the carrot and stick policy to get states into line, Kogi state would have fallen into line earlier enough to avert arriving at this high risk appellation that it has now acquired. 

There are few lessons for effective inter-governmental relations management in the interest of public health. First, the federal health authorities should not be too soft in such similar situation in the future. Secondly, this softness in itself was a disservice to good and effective public health management in Nigeria. Thirdly and lastly, national health standards should always be enforced across the states regardless of how governors feel. Our public health management is too important to be sacrificed on the altar of palpable ignorance of so-called executive governors.     

Prof. Isaac N. Obasi of the University of Abuja, is a Visiting (Adjunct) Research Professor at the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, (ACAN), ICPC, Email: [email protected].