A Week in Nigeria: 28 March

Highlights from Reuters coverage of Nigeria over the last seven days

Lagos started to shut down this week as the megacity tries to stop the spread of coronavirus

In this week’s round-up: President Buhari’s top aide has coronavirus, army prepares for outbreak as Lagos begins to shut down, central bank holds main interest rate and 70 soldiers killed by Islamist insurgents.

  • President Muhammadu Buhari’s influential chief of staff tested positive for coronavirus this week, sources said. Abba Kyari, who is in his 70s, is an important figure in Buhari’s government and his illness could have ramifications for the running of the country. He is a trusted confidante of the 77-year-old president who has undisclosed medical ailments and spent five months in London for treatment in 2017. Kyari’s case was one of a growing number in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, with a state governor also testing positive and the Lagos state health commissioner warning that they were beginning to see the virus “spread in the community”. Previously, most cases were travellers who had recently returned from the United Kingdom or the United States. Kyari has a history of medical complications, including diabetes, and is the gatekeeper to the president. Many who wish to deal with Buhari must go through Kyari, including Nigeria’s top politicians and business owners. Matthew Page, an associate fellow with the Africa Programme at Chatham House, described Kyari as the “lynchpin” of the Buhari government. “This has the potential to further slow down decision-making within top tiers of Nigerian government,” he said. Kyari travelled to Germany in early March with a delegation of other Nigerian officials for meetings with engineering and industrial giant Siemens AG. It is unclear if Kyari, who three diplomats also said had tested positive for coronavirus, self-isolated upon his return to Nigeria. Germany has reported some 27,000 cases of coronavirus and 114 deaths from the pandemic. The governor of northern Bauchi state, Bala Mohammed, was also diagnosed with coronavirus and was in quarantine. This week Nigeria also registered its first death from the disease — a 67-year-old man with medical conditions who returned from the UK.
  • Authorities made preparations for an outbreak in Africa’s most populous country. The Nigerian Army is preparing to forcibly transfer the sick to hospital and enforce curbs on movement to try to shield the country from the coronavirus, and is leasing equipment for “possible mass burial”, according to an army memo.The memo from Army headquarters also outlines plans to protect government food storage from looters as Africa’s most populous nation braces for the illness to spread further in the country. “Following the rise and continuous spread in cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Nigeria, the (Chief of Army Staff) has deemed it necessary for all to take protective measures to ensure the safety of (army) personnel and their families,” the memo said. Several nations have activated armed forces to help combat it. South Africa deployed its army to enforce a 21-day lockdown that begins this week, and U.S. President Donald Trump activated the National Guard in New York, California and Washington. The U.S., French and Moroccan armies have set up field hospitals, and Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the army to carry out drills to increase its readiness.
  • Lagos, the largest city in sub-Saharan Africa with an estimated 20 million population, has been transformed at the start of a week-long shutdown of public life imposed as part of efforts to stem the spread of the highly infectious disease in Nigeria. The partial shutdown ordered by Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu applies to all non-essential shops — those not selling food, water or medicine — in the sprawling market megalopolis near Nigeria’s Atlantic Ocean coast. He also banned gatherings of over 25 people and told everyone to stay home with the majority of Nigeria’s confirmed cases surfacing in Lagos and the state’s health minister warning that the coronavirus is spreading. As the measures were rolled out, a Reuters team found that most residents were compliant but afraid — both of getting sick and of losing much-needed income. Sanwo-Olu has conceded that a 100% lockdown was not possible due to the large numbers of Lagos residents who could not afford to stockpile essentials. Nigeria’s Senate president said on Thursday authorities needed to help shield the poor from suffering the most on account of blanket closures. Sanwo-Olu on Friday announced that food packs would be distributed to help Lagos residents. The packs — whose contents would include rice, beans, bread, drinking water and vitamins — are intended to last for 14 days. He said they would initially be sent to 200,000 households but he hoped distribution would be ramped up. Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation warned that about half of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa still have a “narrowing” opportunity to curb the spread of coronavirus in the local population.
  • At the start of the week, we looked at the role played by churches in inflaming or curtailing an outbreak in Nigeria and, more broadly, across Africa. But part of the continent’s battle to stop the virus from taking hold could be fought in its churches. It has the highest number of Christians of any continent, 631 million people as of 2018, or 45% of the continent’s population, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. As worshippers trickled into services across the continent on Sunday morning, temperatures were taken, hands were sanitized and people sat apart. Attendance was well down in most churches monitored by Reuters across the continent, with many opting to stream services for the congregation to watch at home. But last Sunday, thousands of people in Nigeria’s capital Abuja flocked to the 100,000-capacity Dunamis Glory Dome, a squat, sprawling monolith. The service, which was live-streamed on YouTube, was in open defiance of a government ban on gatherings of 50 people or more. People stood side by side for hours, singing hymns and listening to the pastor, Paul Enenche, sermonise on the dangers of plagues. He acknowledged the ban on gatherings and the effects of coronavirus on Christianity everywhere. “In most parts of the world churches are closed completely, but that devil is a liar,” Enenche said. “Church is our only hope. God is our only hope.
  • The economic impact of the disease on Nigeria and other African countries continued to loom large, with the IMF warning that the spread of the coronavirus into sub-Saharan Africa will hit the region’s growth hard, with direct disruptions to people’s livelihoods, tighter financial conditions, reduced trade and investment and a steep drop in commodity prices. The pandemic has major ramifications for monetary policies. Nigeria’s one-year currency forward, which gives an indication of where the currency could trade in a year’s time, recorded its biggest fall in more than 10-years after the official naira exchange rate was devalued last week. Against that backdrop, and the unveiling of a stimulus package to bolster Africa’s biggest economy against the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the central bank’s monetary policy committee convened for its regular interest rate-setting meeting. The bank opted to hold its benchmark lending rate at 13.5%, as its governor said it would take time to assess measures already taken to support the economy. Godwin Emefiele said the bank’s monetary policy committee voted unanimously to retain the rate. The move bucks a global trend of monetary easing. Other African countries — including Ghana, Kenya and Congo — have cut their main lending rates in the last few days.
  • Two days after the central bank announced its decision to hold the main lending rate, it emerged that the central bank has suspended foreign exchange sales to retail currency traders to help protect the naira after the devaluation. “Until borders are opened, there is no way anyone can provide genuine travel documents we can rely on,” a senior bureau de change official said on Thursday, adding that some of the countries visited by Nigerians were in lockdown. “The implication is that the currency could weaken on the black market. If you stop the official source then the black market would thrive.” The naira came under pressure after oil prices fell following a disagreement between Russia and Saudi Arabia over a deeper production cut. The coronavirus outbreak has also hit global demand for oil.
  • The biggest news event that was unrelated to coronavirus concerned a battle between the military and Islamist insurgents. Around 70 Nigerian soldiers were killed in the militant ambush in northeastern state of Borno. They said the attackers used rocket-propelled grenades and other heavy weaponry in the attack in the village of Gorgi on Monday evening. Injured soldiers were brought to the capital city of Maiduguri, while the bodies of the dead were brought to Maimalari military hospital. It was not immediately clear who the attackers were. Militants from both the Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province groups are active in the region. Meanwhile, Boko Haram militants killed nearly 100 Chadian soldiers and wounded dozens more in what President Idriss Deby described as the deadliest attack ever on the country’s military. The soldiers were ambushed on Monday in the island village of Boma in the swampy Lake Chad zone in the west of the country, where the armies of Chad, Nigeria and Niger have been fighting the Islamist militants for years.