Highlights from Reuters coverage of Nigeria over the last seven days
In this week’s round-up: COVID-19 kills the president’s chief of staff, lockdowns extended by two weeks, urban poor endure hunger amid restrictions, and IMF predicts recession in sub-Saharan Africa.
- President Muhammadu Buhari’s chief of staff became Nigeria’s most high profile COVID-19 victim. Abba Kyari died on Friday, the presidency said. The top official aide to the 77-year-old president was one of the most powerful men in the country. Kyari, who acted as the gatekeeper to President Buhari, travelled to Germany in early March with a delegation of other Nigerian officials for meetings with Siemens AG. He attended meetings with senior government officials upon his return to Nigeria. Reuters reported on 24 March that Kyari had contracted the highly infectious disease.
- President Buhari announced that lockdowns in Lagos, Abuja and Ogun states would be extended for an additional 14 days to combat the new coronavirus. He announced the move in an address to the nation that acknowledged the sacrifices of the country’s poor. Initial 14-day lockdowns in the three areas began on 30 March. Buhari said it was crucial to extend the lockdown due to an “alarming” increase in positive cases in a number of states. “It is a matter of life and death,” Buhari said of the nation’s response. “The repercussions of any premature end to the lockdown action are unimaginable.” Later in the week, the northern economic powerhouse state of Kano also announced that it would impose a seven-day lockdown. Nigeria, with 200 million people, is Africa’s most populous nation. Some 20 million reside in the megacity of Lagos alone. Health experts have raised the alarm over the impact of any spread in the virus, warning that the country’s unprepared and underfunded healthcare system could quickly become overwhelmed. But the economic impact on the millions of Nigerians who rely on daily wages, particularly in Lagos, has hit residents hard. The shutdown exempts only critical workers, including those selling food, water and medicine, but has left many without money to buy food and other essentials. Videos have circulated on social media showing armed robberies, fires and small riots in some Lagos neighbourhoods. The Lagos state government has been distributing food packages to 200,000 of the state’s most vulnerable households and plans to double the aid.
- In his televised address, President Buhari said the federal government, which has also been distributing cash and food, would add 1 million households to its social welfare programme aimed at Nigeria’s poorest people. It is currently targeting 2.6 million. He also said the government would develop a comprehensive policy to bring its economy through the crisis, and set up a task force to minimise the impact of lockdowns on farmers and the agricultural sector. Meanwhile, we reported on the extent to which hunger and anger are building in Lagos and other major African cities with little or no social safety net to protect the poor from the economic fallout of the pandemic. The World Food Programme says at least 20% of Africa’s 1.2 billion people are already undernourished — the highest percentage in the world. The combination of widespread poverty, reliance on imported food and price spikes due to the epidemic could prove deadly if African governments don’t act quickly, it says. Under restrictions in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, millions who once lived on daily wages are running out of food. Many work as traders, labourers or craftsmen in the informal sector, which accounts for 85% of employment across the continent, and must now stay home with no savings as a buffer. In Lagos, three out of seven of its 20 million residents can’t always get enough food under normal circumstances, according to the Lagos Food Bank Initiative, a nonprofit. The lockdown has thrown millions more into need. Food prices spiked as residents raced to stock up. Imported rice rose 11% and the price of gari, a staple made from cassava, nearly doubled, said Lagos-based risk consultancy SBM Intelligence.
- The police said they would deploy additional units to Lagos and Ogun to tackle unrest and crime stemming directly from the lockdowns. A police spokesman said intelligence, operational and tactical units would respond to activity by “hoodlums and street urchins” on the border between the two states. At the time of publication, we reported that police had arrested 191 suspects in Lagos and Ogun, which along with the capital territory of Abuja are under a federally ordered lockdown that began on 30 March. They also netted 15 locally-made guns, 52 live cartridges and 42 cutlasses and axes. The spokesman said the inspector general of police had ordered police commissioners nationwide to take steps “to effectively tackle all emerging crimes associated with the COVID-19 lockdown”. “They are also to intensify patrols around residential areas, markets, shopping malls and all critical national infrastructures in their jurisdictions,” he said.
- Still on the subject of security, we reported that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC)Nigerian accused security forces of killing 18 people in two weeks while enforcing lockdowns. The NHRC, an independent body, said in a statement that there had been “eight documented incidents of extrajudicial killings leading to 18 deaths” between 30 March and 13 April. It said the killings were carried out by the Nigerian Correctional Service, the police force and army. In response, a spokesman for the Nigerian Correctional Service said four inmates had died after violence broke out and left a number of prisoners and staff hospitalised. The rights commission report alleged eight deaths. The Nigeria Police Force and the Nigerian Army did not respond to phone calls seeking comment on the NHRC statement.
- Nigeria’s Rivers State quarantined 22 Exxon Mobil employees for violating an order introduced last month restricting movement into the state to curb the spread of the coronavirus, its governor said. River State’s capital Port Harcourt is the hub of the oil industry in Africa’s biggest producer of crude. “Security agencies arrested 22 staff of Exxon Mobil who came into the state from neighbouring Akwa Ibom State in violation of the extant executive order restricting movement into the state,” Governor Nyesom Wike said. “We do not know the coronavirus status of these individuals.” Wike said the workers were quarantined in line with relevant health protocols and will be charged in court. The state has recorded two cases of coronavirus so far. Exxon Mobil said in a statement it was working with the Rivers State government to resolve the matter.
- Attitudes to lockdowns have varied, with a particular contrast in the approaches taken in Lagos and the capital, Abuja. In the latter, the bored and the brave have taken over the city’s six-lane highways. Vehicles are mostly gone. In their place: hundreds of people doing group workouts with little concern for the highly infectious lung disease that has prompted social distancing measures around the world. “Since the lockdown, we are just at home doing nothing, no work, no food, nothing, nothing, so we decided to come and exercise our body instead of us sitting at home and just getting fat,” said Akinyemi Busayo, a trader, who was doing aerobics and other exercises in a group. Behind Busayo, dozens of people lined a footbridge spanning one of Abuja’s massive highways, doing sit-ups as a stream of runners jogged between them. The government has ordered people to remain indoors and isolate themselves unless they need essentials such as food, water or medical services. But enforcement has varied from the draconian — with security agents beating and arresting even health workers they found outside — to non-existent, as with the sportswear-clad crowds in Abuja. “For me I believe it is not yet here in this my vicinity,” said Agboola Sabinat, a student, referring to the novel coronavirus.
- There were grim predictions about what lies ahead. Coronavirus cases in Africa could shoot up from thousands now to 10 million within three to six months according to very provisional modelling, a regional World Health Organization (WHO) official said. But Michel Yao, head of emergency operations for WHO Africa, said that was a tentative projection which could change and noted worst-case predictions for the Ebola outbreak had not come true because people changed behaviour in time. “This is still to be fine-tuned,” he told a media teleconference. “It’s difficult to make a long-term estimation because the context changes too much and also public health measures when they are fully implemented, they can actually have an impact.” The world’s poorest continent has seen more than 17,000 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 disease and about 1,000 deaths so far — relatively little compared to some other regions. But there are fears that could balloon and overwhelm shaky health services.
- The IMF said Sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product is expected to contract 1.6% this year, compared 3.1% growth last year, as the pandemic wrecks the region’s economies. Various African governments have imposed lockdowns and curfews to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but the restrictions are putting pressure on most economies — some of which were already in recession. The IMF projected significant economic contractions in oil-exporting countries, with Nigeria’s GDP forecast to fall 3.4% this year after growing 2.2% in 2019. Angola’s economy was expected to remain in recession, contracting 1.4% in 2020. It also said in its World Economic Outlook that GDP was projected to fall sharply in South Africa, the continent’s most advanced economy. The country’s GDP is projected to contract 5.8% in 2020 from growth of 0.2% in 2019. South Africa entered a recession in the final quarter of last year as power cuts by state utility Eskom took a toll on the economy, while public finances were strained by bailouts to struggling state firms. The country imposed some of the toughest restrictions on the continent to contain the coronavirus, including a five-week lockdown to the end of April. With production and spending curtailed, the economic outlook was set to remain grim. The IMF and the World Bank — which has also projected a recession for sub-Saharan Africa in 2020 — are racing to provide emergency funds to African countries and others to combat the coronavirus and mitigate the impact of sweeping shutdowns aiming at curbing its spread.
- Nigeria’s finance minister said a debt relief agreement reached this week to help the world’s poorest countries deal with the coronavirus pandemic was a welcome first step but middle-income countries with debt challenges also needed urgent help. In remarks at Friday’s meeting of the World Bank’s Development Committee, Zainab Ahmed said most countries in sub-Saharan African were particularly vulnerable to the pandemic because high rates of self-employment meant social distancing could not be sustained for long. Ahmed, who also spoke on behalf of Angola and South Africa, supported a call by African leaders for $100 billion in aid for the continent to deal with the pandemic, with $44 billion earmarked for immediate debt relief. She welcomed an agreement by the Group of 20 major economies (G20) and the Paris Club of official creditors to suspend debt payments for the poorest countries through the end of the year, and urged the Bank and other multilateral institutions to explore ways of participating in the debt relief initiative.