In Nigeria, my country of close to 200 million people, the COVID-19 lockdown began on March 30 in Lagos, Ogun and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). As with nations the world over we are following the advice of a scientifically-led national action plan to halt and then defeat the spread of the virus by staying at home to save lives.
With hindsight, it is clear there is no country anywhere on earth that was as ready as could now be hoped. But fortunately, since the election of 2015 – when for the first time in history power changed hands between an incumbent president and challenger at the ballot box – our now twice democratically elected administration has spent five years rebuilding governance after decades of political corruption under an effective one party state.
When President Buhari was first elected in April of that year, Nigeria and the world was reeling at the news that 276 mostly Christian schoolgirls had been kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The previous administration had done next to nothing to try to find them. The then president had even delayed for weeks before acknowledging they were missing.
We soon discovered why: tens of thousands of “ghost” soldiers on the military payroll. Many of those allegedly fighting at the front simply did not exist. The previous government claimed to be waging war against terrorists – but was in truth waging financial fraud against its own people and threatening their security through the corrupt theft of salaries of non-existent soldiers.
Today, the majority of the Chibok girls are now returned to their families. Boko Haram is fractured, desperate and in retreat. Our military is rebuilt, and previous partnerships with the British and American militaries that had seen those countries place defence equipment export bans upon previous Nigerian administrations are lifted.
In government, President Buhari has waged an effective war on corruption, with some 60 per cent of the general public personally experiencing its rapid decline – in testament to the administration’s zeal. And earlier this year some USD 300 million in funds looted under a previous regime was finally returned to Nigeria from banks in the US and the UK (Jersey Islands) and all of that money is being channeled into infrastructure financing.
In December 2017, the Federal Government signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Switzerland on the return and monitoring of the $322 million Abacha loot. This money is being used to fund the Social Investment Programmes, including the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) that began in December 2016. Under the CCT scheme the President had promised to assist one million poor and most vulnerable Nigerians with a monthly stipend of N5,000 each.
These funds are now being distributed directly to individual citizens mostly in need during the coronavirus pandemic and to allow for a three month moratorium on loan repayments by farmers and small businesses granted through government schemes.
Repatriated funds can also be used to boost our health spending – which was already expanding year-on-year for the last five years – for the purchase of test equipment, ventilators, masks and protective clothing.
This would simply not have happened under previous administrations – because all Nigerians know from our personal experiences of living under them that the levels of corruption, social strife and distrust in governance they created would have made that impossible.
The fact that it is today under a President who is a Muslim, his Vice, an evangelical Christian pastor, and their cabinet equally balanced between Christians and Muslims does not go unnoticed in Nigeria.
But it is less known externally – which is why individuals who supported previous, corrupt governments seek to use the cover of the coronavirus pandemic as their opportunity to wage a fake news war against the country at this time.
They insinuate to further their false claims that a President who writes for the Church Times and Christianity Today and enjoys a personal friendship with the Archbishop of Canterbury is anti-Christian, and that the same President who call for stronger trading alliances between Commonwealth nations and signs bilateral trade and military agreements with Britain is somehow anti Britain and the West.
They insinuate that Boko Haram’s terrorist attacks on Christians are somehow the government’s doing; that health spending is somehow declining – when it is in fact increasing after they pilfered the system for decades; and that it is this government that created corruption – when in fact the general public themselves make it clear that it is this twice-democratically elected administration that is finally addressing this stain on our governance and society.
To a large degree, many of those Nigerian names writing to conservatives in the UK and the US are just going round making money off the back of lies.
There is a difference between opinion and fact. Everyone is entitled to express the former, The latter can, of course, be questioned: but it does not then change that it is still a fact.
We can only imagine the untruths that would today be peddled to the Nigerian people and the world beyond our borders during this coronavirus pandemic had previous administrations – or those packed with their heirs – had been in charge. We can only give thanks to the wisdom of Nigerian voters that they are not.
When this worldwide health emergency is defeated, we must look to each other to rebuild the global economy – and look to strengthen partnerships that work. Nigeria is ready to take a more forthright role in the Commonwealth and global economic system as a whole. But today we can only do so because the very thing that allows us to fight the virus at all is a better government, which for the first time in Nigeria’s history is both truly representative of our country’s two great religions and shorn of the limitless corruption of our predecessors.
(Garba Shehu is Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity to the President)