COVID-19, leadership and Nasir El-Rufai example

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By Emmanuel Ado

The United States of America according to the predictions of public health experts could suffer more than 200,000 deaths, from the 126.5 million people that are expected to contract the deadly corona virus,due to President Donald Trump’s abysmal failure to provide leadership. The consensus amongst most experts is that had Trump acted decisively and provided the much needed leadership, the world-wide crisis triggered by the virus could have largely been contained. Clearly from day one , the tragedy wasn’t Trump being late in taking actions, but that has continued to mislead those who look up to him for direction, the result is what Ed Pilkington and Tom McCarthy of New York Times in their article “The missing six weeks: how Trump failed the biggest test of his life”: described as “a fiasco of incredible proportions”. These errors of judgement – underrating the hazards and refusal to act by Trump that has made America and indeed the world unsafe.

But Pilkington and McCarthy who believe Trump lost it in the “missing six weeks” are being over generous to him, because the seed of the present disaster that the world is presently reaping, was actually sowed in 2018 when the pandemic unit of of the National Security Council,the body charged with preparing America against health emergencies was disbanded by Trump,on the grounds that it didn’t make economic sense to have full a complement of staff that wasn’t “working everyday”. In reaction to the Ebola crisis, Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser had established the Global Health Security and Biodefense unit,that was charged with ensuring America’s pandemic preparedness. Considering America’s broad definition of security,the unit was logically domiciled under the National Security Council (NSC) — a forum of White House personnel that advises the president on national security and foreign policy matters. It is also the light in which the failure to detect, to the get test kits and protective gear for medical personnel should be seen. And having lost the initiative, America and the world was a sitting duck for the disaster that has eventually happened.

The United States considers biological warfare as the next major threat that any of its many enemies can throw at it, which explains why it took the extreme precaution of “planting” a considerable number of public health officials in Wuhan province of China, which ironically turned out to be the epic center of the coronavirus, until Trump whose lack of basic understanding of governance drastically reduced the personnel at the Beijing office of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). By 2017 when Trump took over, the office was approximately a 47 number team, which he eventually reduced to just 14 staffers. Those sacrificed on the alter of Trump’s ego included renowned science experts, epidemiologists and experienced health professionals, leading to what Micah Zenko described as the “worst intelligence failure in US history”. Most unfortunately whatever hope that Trump would pull back from his path of destruction was further dashed when he fired Tom Bossert, the homeland security adviser, whose crime according to the Washington Post was working “for a comprehensive biodefense strategy against pandemics and biological attacks”. The crisis would still have been mitigated if only Trump had swallowed his pride and listened to the reports by the remaining “plants” from early January that China was covering up the magnitude of the coronavirus outbreak.

Unlike Tump, but more like Andrew Cuomo,the embattled Governor of New York State, Nasir El-Rufai the cerebral Governor of Kaduna State showed that leadership is about acting promptly and decisively to protect the people of his State. Also unlike Trump, no one can accuse El-Rufai of “unprecedented indifference”, because El-Rufai showed by words and actions that there was a crisis. He wasted no time taking the appropriate steps, expected of any effective leader. El-Rufai, from the outset communicated “facts, laid out plans and lifted morale”, all of which he has continued to do. While most other governors, except Sanwo-Olu of Lagos State were still groping in the dark, unsure of of how to confront the challenges ahead El-Rufai had pointed the way forward,because he understood the enormity of the problem, especially the various dimensions of the crisis,especially the adverse impact of the pandemic on the economy. Ever forward looking , El-Rufai wasted no time engaging with the federal monetary and fiscal authorities to proffer suggestions that will help reduce the impact of the economic shocks on Nigeria and reportedly counseled shutting down the country.

Before rolling out successive measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 , El-Rufai had also systematically rolled out measures to help address the coronavirus induced economic crisis. In reaction to the Report of Economic Crisis Response Committee which he had empaneled, the Kaduna State Government adopted very stringent measures to manage the unexpected economic consequences unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic. First, it swiftly introduced belt-tightening measures to depress its recurrent costs and cope with the anticipated steep decline in revenues. It also prioritised its capital projects to preserve the investments required for future growth and development. Part of the report reads: “ The government considered the revenue implications attached to the various scenarios the committee examined, especially the falling price of crude oil amidst depressed demand for the commodity worldwide and the shocks to normal economic flows and supply chains by shutdowns that have been imposed as part of a worldwide emergency public health measures.” The report “also noted the persisting global uncertainty as to how and when the coronavirus pandemic will be effectively contained. With some of the world’s largest economies on lock-down, there is significant uncertainty about what this portends for Nigeria and Kaduna State over the short and medium term”.

The Kaduna State report was spot on forseeing that should “these unfavourable conditions” persist, Nigeria may witness its worst economic crisis in its entire history. It is interesting that though the price of crude oil was 30 dollars at the time the report was issued, but El-Rufai in his characteristic manner envisaged the possibility of the price falling to 20 dollars- and that obviously is his preferred number for planning. According to the report “the various scenarios reviewed indicated that Kaduna State’s gross annual revenues could fall by as much as N17bn if crude oil prices remain around $30 a barrel…..and by as much as N24bn in 2020 if crude prices fall to $20 per barrel”. The report went on to stress that “either of these scenarios will imperil the discharge of obligations to personnel, pensioners and running of the government. Capital projects implementation will be severely curtailed if either of the two oil price scenarios persist except fiscal and monetary policy realism is adopted by the Federal Government”.

El-Rufai deserves commendation for not only calling attention to the looming coronavirus induced economic crisis like he did in 2015 when he sounded the recession alarm and drastically reduced the number of political appointees, but more importantly for going beyond proffering suggestions, to leading the way in the implementation of the necessary hard economic pills that are urgently required.
According to the report “it is a matter of urgency for a sub-national government like Kaduna State to seriously consider and adopt measures to manage an extremely dangerous socio-economic situation” especially because the state like the others depends basically on “transfers from the Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC) and its own internally-generated revenue (IGR). With crude oil prices falling, FAAC will certainly shrink considerably in the near-term. Business slowdowns and the severity of the resulting economic contraction may significantly limit IGR as well”. Thankfully the federal government has woken up to this reality.

The outcome of the report was the decision “that Kaduna State will prioritise its capital projects, especially in the health, education and infrastructure sectors, and uphold social safeguards like preserving the minimum monthly pension of N30,000”. And that to remain “afloat”, it would aggressively cut “costs of governance and expand revenue sources such as the presumptive taxes on informal businesses, land use charges in major urban areas and imposition of development levy payable by every adult in the State, as contained in the State Tax Code”. I am not aware of any state in Nigeria, including those governed by economists or bankers that have taken these proactive steps. I however stand corrected!

El-Rufai knew very early in the day, that key to tackling the coronavirus crisis was curbing the exposure of people to the deadly disease, if Nigeria would be in any position to survive the rampaging pandemic. Leading by example, on 17th March, 2020 the kaduna State Government indefinitely postponed the annual Kaduna State Investment Summit – KadInvest 5.0. Canceling Kadinvest 5.0, his baby which has attracted over one billion dollars investments into the state, sent a clear message of the seriousness of the situation to government officials and investors. El-Rufai equally sent words across to the Vanguard newspaper to explore the possibility of postponing its 2019 awards,of which he(El-Rufai) was to be conferred the Governor of the Year 2019, earlier fixed for 20th March,2020. He further went on to announce the restriction of large gatherings of every nature- especially social events and religious services,as part of the measures to protect kaduna State residents from the virus and if perchance there were incidences of contacts to slow down the spread of the coronavirus disease. From the outset,the Kaduna State Government strategy was hinged on prevention (everything possible to reduce the chance of the disease taking root and spreading in the state) because without these mitigation efforts, especially the social distancing and lockdown Nigeria would have a real crisis on her hands.

Working with Governors of the North-West Zone, schools in the zone were ordered closed as part of the containment measures. On it’s part the Kaduna State Government was to order the immediate closure of all the campuses of the Kaduna State University (KASU), the Nuhu Bamalli Polytechnic, the College of Education and the Nursing and Midwifery for 30 days in the first instance. According to El-Rufai “because it’s logical to discourage large, high-risk gatherings”. Bars, restaurants, night clubs, public parks were next to be shut down,as the government consistently implemented measures that would contain the spread of the COVID-19. In taking these decisions El-Rufai ensured that there were no misguided assessments, that the message was consistent and that he was also very honest about why the government was taking them – the lack of personnel and the state of our medical facilities.Hear him:”Kaduna does not have the human resources and the health facilities to cope with this pandemic, should it spread through the towns and villages of our state. The struggles of countries with much better health systems should offer a sobering lesson to anyone who seeks to minimise or trivialise the clear and present danger that we face from coronavirus”,he declared in his state broadcast.

Since the outbreak of the crisis, the elected leadership of Kaduna State – the Governor and his Deputy have addressed the people at least five (5) times and in each of the broadcast they conveyed the situation report in a manner that the people would understand every action. To erase whatever doubts, in one of his broadcasts he made it abundantly clear that the government was factual and that it was “not scaremongering”. He continued “we are only observing our solemn obligation to let our people know the full facts, however unpleasant. It is much easier and cheaper to prevent this pandemic than to manage its spread and the illnesses and deaths it could inflict on our citizens.”

El- Rufai consequently went on to order a total lockdown of the state,in a move that took everyone by surprise. Hear him: “KDSG has invoked the Constitution, the Quarantine Act 1926 and the Public Health Law 1917 to declare Kaduna State a public health area and Covid-19 a dangerous infectious disease. A quarantine period has been imposed on Kaduna State, and it will become effective by midnight today. This compels everyone to stay at home and all businesses, places of worship, event centres, markets, shops and the like to close. Weddings and all social gatherings are also prohibited”.

Though El-Rufai in a twist of irony contacted the virus (the price of leadership),it is heartening that it hasn’t dampened his sense of duty and obligation to save Kaduna State people. El-Rufai in his self isolate (from where he continues to monitor development) must be proud of the tremendous work of his team, which has helped check the spread of the disease and that were it not for his leadership that Kaduna State, the third most populous state with a population of over 10 million people, would have experienced more cases. El- Rufai would also be delighted to see the turn around by the critics who had initially described his lockdown order as “too strict and over blown”, as far sighted.

El-Rufai before now has absolutely without doubt proven himself a leader of all seasons,but his hands on handling of this coronavirus crisis, his remarkable leadership skills, all which are rarely seen in one person has once again shot up his value- El-Rufai communicated with the people of Kaduna State from the very outset, introduced preemptive measures even when there were no cases, appealed to common purpose when he monitored compliance and imposed lockdown when the people refused to maintain the social-distancing instructions. The take away messages from El-Rufai’s actions are too numerous to mention, but the outstanding one;is that preparation wins the war. That the virus is no longer a distant threat and that the consequences are devastating. Others include that testing which some people keep clamoring for is not an option,as can be seen from the case of the State of Israel,which was forced to push back from it’s initial plan of testing everyone due to acute shortage of kits. Finally,that Nigeria’s best bet combating the pandemic remains total lockdown and social distancing. With less than 400 cases Taiwan offers us hope to mankind that lockdown works.

Moving forward,it’s now left to the people of Nigeria,not just Kaduna State to understand that lives depend on following government directives and playing their own role in the management of the crisis. Definitely these are trying times for everyone. They must understand that lockdown is for the safety of everyone.

Postscript: Unfortunately violators making mockery of the lockdown will not pay the price alone.


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