Well before the coronavirus emerged, a large majority of Nigerians felt their country was “going in the wrong direction.” Polling shows Nigerians feel the government has struggled to improve the living standards of the poor and is managing the economy badly. Today, while the public health response to head off the pandemic dominates attention, calls from prominent members of Nigerian civil society have renewed debates over wider questions of economic, social, and political reform. In this article, members of the Nigeria Working Group on Peacebuilding and Governance express both their hopes and concerns—in the context of the coronavirus—for Africa’s most populous country.

Kado Market, Abuja Nigeria, Feb. 13, 2019
Kado Market, Abuja Nigeria, Feb. 13, 2019. (Nwakalor Kenechukwu/The New York Times)

For Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim, the question on the mind of many Nigerians is clear: “Should I remain indoors and die of hunger or go out to look for food, and maybe die of COVID-19?” With the median age in Nigeria just 18, Ibrahim notes that “the most important contemporary problem for Nigeria is the lack of opportunity for the youth. We have developed a huge youth bulge. This is happening at a time in which formal opportunities for employment are declining, and most industries have closed down. Having a job has become a minority experience for Nigerians and opportunities only exist in the informal sector.”

Moreover, as Dr. Chris Kwaja argues, “In light of the massive fall in the price of oil, an economic crisis stares the Nigerian economy in the face.” The Nigerian state is heavily dependent on oil production, so “lower oil receipts risk less government investment in social services, and a greater burden on households.” While Ibrahim argues that “the future looks bleak for the majority,” Kwaja sees the crisis as an opportunity for the country to reform its economic model. “The future economy should be one that is anchored on inclusive growth, which recognizes the place of the informal sector as a key center for economic activity,” he argues. Now, he says, is a moment to “diversify and reposition the Nigerian economy to be more productive for its ordinary citizens.”

A Time to Reinvent Governance

Beyond the economy, Ibrahim proposes that the coronavirus is much more than a public health emergency: It is a test of the whole architecture of governance. He concludes, “We must govern ourselves out of the crisis. We could take another approach [and see] this crisis as leading us to build a more inclusive society in which the interests of all are what determine public policy choices.”

For both Ibrahim and Kwaja, thinking about how Nigeria’s rural-urban divide should affect governance is essential. Kwaja notes that Nigeria has the most populous city in Africa, Lagos, exemplifying a “concentration of resources in the cities, while the rural areas languish in abject poverty,” or as Ibrahim puts it more bluntly, “obscene wealth for a vocal, crass minority.” Kwaja explains that the response to the coronavirus to date has only further exposed deeply entrenched inequalities in the population, both between rich and poor and urban and rural. The response risks further exacerbating those divides, particularly as health facilities are concentrated in urban centers. “If there is a huge disruption in the lives and livelihoods of people, but rural concerns are ignored, distress, hunger, and poverty will be heightened,” he says.

The Role of and for Faith, Empathy, and Compassion

Millions of Nigerians are adherents of Christianity or Islam. As some protest restrictions on congregational prayers, the president-general of the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), Sultan of Sokoto Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, reminds believers that Prophet Mohammed himself had advocated for the contemporary version of social distancing during times of disease, “leaving the town and hiding on mountains and in caves, [suspending] congregational prayers and Jumu’ah (Friday) prayers, temporarily.” Further, the sultan notes that Muslims have a religious duty to prevent the spread of disease.

While much of the rhetoric about the coronavirus has been divisive, Roman Catholic Cardinal John Onaiyekan said that now is a time for unity.

While much of the rhetoric about the coronavirus has been divisive, Roman Catholic Cardinal John Onaiyekan said that now is a time for unity. The Cardinal argues: “There is no example of our unity in need as we now have under coronavirus. It is clear now that the whole of humanity is one. There is no distinction between Christians, Muslims or Buddhists, Africans and Europeans, black and white.”

Ibrahim asks the Nigerian authorities to demonstrate “a clear sense of direction in these trying times.” Specifically calling on Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim asks “the president to show empathy and compassion to the people affected in different ways by the disease, and even more importantly, to help in managing fear of the disease.” He adds: “The president needs to reassure citizens that governance has not stopped,” in spite of the crisis.

His Eminence Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, Sultan of Sokoto, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim and Dr. Chris Kwaja are members of the Nigeria Working Group on Peacebuilding and Governance, a joint initiative of the United States Institute of Peace and senior leaders from Nigerian civil society representing a diverse range of professional and personal backgrounds. The Working Group members work together to promote good governance practices that strengthen the foundations of peace and security for all Nigerians.

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