As Africa’s most populous democracy and largest economy, Nigeria’s ability to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus within its own borders has broader implications for the entire continent. Meanwhile, the virus threatens to exacerbate the country’s existing security challenges, which in turn make an effective pandemic response more difficult. In this #COVIDandConflict video, our Oge Onubogu looks at how the Nigerian government has addressed the virus and what potential takeaways the response to COVID-19 could have for tackling the country’s epidemic of violence.
Hi, I’m Oge Onubogu, senior program officer for Nigeria at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where we are closely monitoring the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on peace and conflict dynamics around the world, including in Nigeria. I received some questions on social media on how the coronavirus might affect the situation in Nigeria.
As Africa’s most populous country, largest economy, and biggest democracy, Nigeria is considered a bellwether for the continent, and an anchor state for stability in west and central Africa. The effects of the pandemic in Nigeria could reverberate across the continent.
How has the Nigerian government responded to COVID-19?
When the first case of the coronavirus was confirmed in Nigeria, in late February, the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) and several state governors demonstrated ways to reduce the effects of the virus by acting quickly on the first signs of danger and keeping the public widely informed. The federal and state governments also introduced physical distancing and interstate lockdown measures; however, the current outbreak of the virus in Kano state highlights how the governance capacity of authorities to detect and control the spread of the virus varies across the subnational level.
Nigeria’s response to COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the importance of state-level governance. Thirty-five of Nigeria’s thirty-six states have now recorded cases of COVID-19.
With approximately forty percent of Nigerians living below the poverty line, the pandemic has affected many livelihoods. Although the government has put in place some measures to help poor communities, few feel they can rely on the state, and many communities are finding innovative ways to support each other.
Despite the increasing number of COVID-19 cases, some states are relaxing the lockdown measures. The NCDC has proactively driven the national response, but there have been significant gaps, especially in testing and reporting. Testing capacity in Nigeria has been increasing, but it remains limited by personnel and logistical constraints, particularly in rural and insecure areas.
How has the coronavirus impacted the security sector?
Years of mismanagement and corruption has weakened the capacity of Nigeria’s security services to protect citizens and effectively perform the role of frontline service providers. Reports from the Nigerian Human Rights Commission document cases of extrajudicial killings carried out by security services while enforcing the lockdown. However, several state governments, particularly Lagos and Ogun, have shown that using awareness campaigns rather than deploying police on the streets can result in a better coordinated response.
Nigeria is also tackling multiple conflict and insecurity challenges, all of which threaten to make the impact of COVID-19 especially devastating. Areas in Northern Nigeria already affected by the violent conflicts are particularly vulnerable. Boko Haram has stepped up its attacks as the number of cases in Borno state grows. These attacks combined with other battles between farmers and herders and increasing banditry in the northwest have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Today, Nigeria has one of the highest numbers of internally displaced people in the world. The lockdown measures are increasing the demand for food in IDP camps, and the conditions in these camps make it challenging, if not impossible, for people to protect themselves from the virus.
How can Nigeria seize this moment to make progress toward peace?
Nigerian leaders can make progress towards peace by applying some of their own lessons from their early response to the coronavirus. They should take proactive action at the first sign of danger, keep the public widely informed, and build constructive, sustained, and apolitical responses with communities. This is what it takes to build peace.
Nigeria’s wealthy elites have been more responsive to the coronavirus because it puts them more personally at risk. However, they can also apply the same philanthropic support that they have shown to COVID-19 towards resolving some of Nigeria’s deadliest conflicts, because like any epidemic, violence ultimately threatens everyone in any society.
Nigeria’s response to the pandemic has renewed citizen debates over wider questions of governance and accountability. The common national desire to end the pandemic provides a shared opportunity for the government and citizens to rebuild the social contract and work together to combat the virus. Citizen trust in government is not only important for the current fight against COVID-19, but also for Nigeria’s longer-term democratic progress and peaceful development.