Highlights from Reuters coverage of Nigeria over the last seven days
In this week’s round-up: governors move to ban interstate travel, food security crisis looms, probe into Kano deaths, COVID-19 kills Borno aid worker, and central bank levies $3.9 bn on banks to support naira.
- The governors of Nigeria’s 36 states agreed to ban interstate movement for two weeks in an effort to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, a joint statement said. Lagos and Ogun states, as well as Nigerian capital Abuja, are already under federally imposed lockdowns, while various states have instigated their own containment measures. “Governors unanimously agreed to the implementation of an interstate lockdown in the country over the next two weeks to mitigate the spread of the virus from state to state,” the Nigeria Governors’ Forum said in a statement. Only essential services will be permitted, the statement added without providing further detail. Only President Muhammadu Buhari can impose a total cessation of interstate movement. However, individual states can block entry points. States including Akwa Ibom, Cross Rivers, Ebonyi, and Abia have already used barriers to stop people entering their states. In another story, we reported on the contents of a letter seen by Reuters that showed Nigerian state governors have asked the president to approve the compulsory use of face masks in public.
- And, still on moves made at a state level, northern governors agreed to close disputed Islamic schools which house millions of men and boys across the region due to concerns over the new coronavirus, the group said in a statement. The governors said the risk to children from the virus prompted this week’s decision to close the schools, and children would be evacuated to their parents or states of origin. Orphans would be taken care of by the state government where they are located. Islamic schools, known within Nigeria as almajiris, fill a gap left by state educational institutions. State schools are so overcrowded they cannot accommodate a booming population in northern Nigeria, which is predominately Muslim. Fewer than half of children in the region attend government primary schools, according to the latest official figures, from 2015. Many families live on less than $2 a day and have few other options besides the almajiris. The Islamic schools enrol an estimated 10 million students, according to Nigerian human rights organisation the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC). But the schools have for years been dogged by accusations that some force children to beg on the streets, and late last year, raids at several schools uncovered horrific abuse.
- An aid worker died in Nigeria’s northeast after catching the new coronavirus, his employer Médecins Sans Frontières said, raising fears that the infection has found a foothold in the troubled region. The government and aid groups were trying to trace anyone who had come into contact with the man before he died, the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Nigeria, Edward Kallon, said. The case was the first confirmed in Borno, a state at the epicentre of a decade-long Islamist insurgency that has killed thousands and forced an estimated 1.7 million to flee, many into crowded displacement camps. Borno borders Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control said late on Sunday it had recorded 627 cases of the novel coronavirus across the country. Up to now, the bulk of cases have been reported in the commercial capital Lagos, on the coast more than 1,500 km (900 miles) away from Borno’s main city Maiduguri. The United Nations said the aid worker was a nurse who had not travelled outside the state. “Our dear colleague died on 18 April in Maiduguri, and post mortem test results indicated that they were positive for COVID-19,” MSF said in a statement, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus. Kallon said aid groups were setting up quarantine facilities, installing hand-washing stations and distributing soap and chlorinated solution. “It is essential for the most vulnerable to continue receiving humanitarian aid, including water and soap or substitute solutions,” he added.
- Nigeria is investigating a reported sharp rise in deaths in the northern commercial city of Kano to determine if it is related to the coronavirus outbreak, health officials said. Earlier in the week, the local Daily Trust newspaper reported what it called the “mysterious” recent deaths of around 150 people in Kano city. Sani Aliyu, who heads the country’s COVID-19 task force, said a government team was collating “verbal autopsies” to determine whether the deaths were linked to the epidemic. “We don’t have a true baseline when it comes to the number of deaths. It’s something we need to investigate quite closely,” he said during a briefing with the World Heath Organization. “It may not necessarily be COVID.” A week-long lockdown in Kano state, which was extended this week, had limited citizens’ access to clinics for other ailments, while the state’s coronavirus testing lab was closed after staff became infected with the virus, Aliyu said. He said the government was working with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control to disinfect the lab and reopen it.
- We reported on a looming food security crisis in sub-Saharan Africa due to disruption to supply chains as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Our story focused on rice. Millions of people in the region are at risk of not getting the food they need due to coronavirus disruptions, according to the United Nations and World Bank. While domestic crops and capacity go to waste, the imports the region relies on have also dried up as major suppliers, including India, Vietnam and Cambodia, have reduced or even banned rice exports to make sure their countries have enough food to cope with the pandemic. Meanwhile, scarcity has driven up prices of the main staple food beyond the reach of some people since lockdowns were announced in three states at the end of March to tame the spread of the virus. Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s largest rice-importing region, could be heading from a health crisis straight into a food security crisis, the World Bank warns. More widely, the United Nations says coronavirus disruptions could double the number of people globally without reliable access to nutritious food, to 265 million. “There is no question about it that there is an imminent problem of food insecurity, not only in Nigeria, but also in nations all over the world,” Nigeria’s Agriculture Minister Muhammed Sabo Nanono told Reuters. Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in recent years. But figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show it still imports at least a third of what it consumes. Across sub-Saharan Africa, countries rely on imports for roughly 40% of rice consumption. This puts these countries at particular risk. India, the world’s largest rice exporter, temporarily stopped new export agreements earlier this month, while lockdowns and supply chain disruptions in Pakistan, Vietnam and Cambodia have limited available exports. Since only 9% of global output is traded internationally, the curbs hit prices immediately, the USDA said. The price of a bag of imported rice rose by more than 7.5% in Abuja and Lagos between the third week of March and early April, according to SBM Intelligence, while bags of local rice became about 6%-8% more expensive.
- Nigeria’s central bank collected 1.4 trillion naira ($3.9 billion) from banks with excess cash holdings as part of measures to support the currency, banking sources told Reuters. The naira has been hitting new lows on the over-the-counter spot and black markets since last month after the central bank adjusted its official rate, implying a 15% devaluation, to absorb the impact of an oil price crash triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. The naira this week touched 420 per dollar on the black market for the first time since February 2017, 14% weaker than the official market rate. The currency was quoted at 386.33 naira on the spot market on Friday. On the non-deliverable forward market, one-year dollar/naira forwards crossed 500 naira per dollar this week. The central bank in January raised the cash reserve ratio (CRR) that banks must hold by 500 basis points to 27.5%, the first rise in four years to curb excess liquidity in the banking system, which it said was contributing to inflation. Bankers on Friday said the CRR debit was more than 27.5% and that it was not related to a penalty set for lenders that failed to meet a regulatory loan-to-deposit target. Banking credit totalled 260.17 billion naira at Friday’s open from 817.69 billion naira the previous session, central bank data showed. Banks have been awash with cash after the government on Wednesday released 780.9 billion naira to states under a March budget payment. Nigeria’s 28 commercial and merchant banks were affected by the higher debit. Zenith Bank had the highest amount parked at the central bank at 355.95 billion naira, followed by First Bank with 208.1 billion and United Bank for Africa with 204.75 billion. Standard Chartered Bank was charged 120.65 billion naira and Stanbic IBTC 143.97 billion. The central bank did not respond to request for comment. The bank uses cash reserve levies to mop up liquidity. It often re-injects the liquidity to stabilise markets. It was not immediately clear the reason for the levy, especially at a time when lenders are dealing with the fallout of the new coronavirus on Africa’s biggest economy. Money market rates spiked up to 35% on Friday following the debit, from just 2% the previous session.
- The International Monetary Fund on Friday said it would meet on April 28 to consider Nigeria’s request for $3.4 billion in emergency financing to combat the impact of the coronavirus. Sources told Reuters that setting a date to take the request before the board is a sign the proposal was slated for approval. Finance Minister Zainab Ahmed is seeking a total of $6.9 billion from the IMF and other multilateral lenders. The money would allow the government to address additional and urgent balance of payments needs, and to direct funds to priority health expenditures.
- President Muhammadu Buhari has asked the chief judge to free prison inmates who have been awaiting trial for six years or more to ease overcrowding as the novel coronavirus spreads, a spokesman said. A statement quoted Buhari as saying 42% of Nigeria’s 74,000 or so prisoners were awaiting trial. He urged Chief Judge Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad to reduce that number “since physical distancing and self-isolation in such conditions are practically impossible”. Buhari said inmates with no confirmed criminal cases against them, elderly prisoners and those who were terminally ill could be discharged. “Most of these custodial centres are presently housing inmates beyond their capacities and the overcrowded facilities pose a potent threat to the health of the inmates and the public in general in view of the present circumstances, hence the need for urgent steps to bring the situation under control,” he said.
- Gunmen killed 47 people in attacks on villages in the northwestern Nigerian state of Katsina in the early hours of last Saturday, local police said the following day. “Armed bandits”, some of whom wielded AK 47 guns, carried out the attacks, Katsina police said in a statement. Hundreds of people have been killed in the last year by criminal gangs carrying out robberies and kidnappings in northwest Nigeria. Such attacks have added to security challenges in Africa’s most populous country, which is already struggling to contain Islamist insurgencies in the northeast and communal violence over grazing rights in central states.
- And, finally, Nigeria’s annual inflation in March rose for a seventh straight month, the statistics office said on Tuesday, as border closures pushed prices higher. Inflation rose to 12.26% year on year, up from 12.20% in February and the highest inflation rate since April 2018, when it stood at 12.48%. Food inflation grew by 14.98% year on year, up from 14.90% in February, the figures showed.