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Ebola: Praise For President Jonathan By Sonala Olumhense

I join the praise of Nigeria ruler Goodluck Jonathan over the country’s handling of the Ebola virus. 


Last July, when news broke that the feared virus had arrived in Lagos, I feared that a significant proportion of Nigeria’s 160 million people could be wiped out. 

No life deserves to be lost unnecessarily, but Nigeria would go on to lose eight precious ones. 

Miraculously, however, the virus has been contained, at least for the moment, to the joy of Nigeria and the surprise of the world.  I congratulate Mr. Jonathan for this achievement. 

There are some people who say that Mr. Jonathan deserves none of the credit, but I do not share that view.  In a presidential system of government, it is the president’s game.

Following the infamous arrival of Patrick Sawyer at the Lagos airport on July 22, outgoing Health Minister Onyebuchi Chukwu described the collaboration between his Ministry and other Ministries and agencies; and with international organisations and the Lagos State government, to keep the virus from spreading.

Those measures included investigating all the passengers that Mr. Sawyer had come in contact with; placing all airports, seaports and land borders on red alert; and positioning health specialists at all entry points.

Active surveillance had been stepped up, he disclosed, all government tertiary health institutions equipped to handle all Ebola-related emergencies, and President Jonathan had set up an emergency operations centre which was being coordinated by the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control and an inter-ministerial committee.

I did not believe a word of what he said. 

As it would turn out, there was some substance in it.  Over the next few weeks, it emerged that the government, along with the government of Lagos State, had indeed unearthed significant resolve and a sense of responsibility. 

The rest of the world is currently studying Nigeria’s achievement.  BBC Science Editor David Shukman, reporting last week on how Nigeria arrived on the verge of the World Health Organization declaring it Ebola-free, describes how Nigeria turned what could have been a major disaster into a happy story.

Nobody knew who Sawyer was, or what was wrong with him, when he arrived in Lagos.  But once his diagnosis was established, Nigeria accomplished what—had the story been fiction—would have been laughed at by every editor and publisher.

“What followed was a text-book case of one of the guiding principles of disease control: identifying and tracking down everyone who might possibly have been in contact with the patient,” Shukman said. 

“An initial contact list of 281 people soon increased to a staggering 894 - each of them visited and checked repeatedly for signs of infection.

“But the sleuthing did not end there. Specialists then calculated how many people were living within a particular radius of the 894 people who were being monitored. This depended on the density of the housing in each particular area.

“The result was that officials and volunteers embarked on rounds of visits that would take them to an extraordinary 26,000 households.

“A key policy throughout this arduous process was to involve the communities and to encourage people to be as honest as possible about their movements and contacts. It obviously worked.”

Did it ever!  As a result, not only are poor Nigerians not being killed by the virus in their hundreds or thousands, the country is sharing its story—and good fortune—with the world, and providing the confidence that Ebola can be arrested. 

I am content to raise Mr. Jonathan’s hand in that regard.  His government provided direction, and deserves the applause. 

The question is: if Nigeria could do it with Ebola; if Nigeria could take what appeared to be a hopeless challenge and swiftly and decisively bring it under control, why does it flounder and fail in the face of the routine challenges and responsibilities of governance?

The answer: With Ebola, there was only one agenda: control it and cut it off.  There was no time to think and no time to develop parallel agendas and divisions.  All of Nigeria’s creativity and expertise, despite doctors being on strike in Lagos State at the time, was available.  Case closed.

Everyone knows this is the exception in Nigeria.  In normal Nigerian life, the default objective of the government is failure, not success; and restarts, not accomplishments.  Routinely evading the scrutiny of the law and of responsibility, the government deploys speeches and parallel agendas in place of performance.

In practice, the government implements two sets of rules: one for the governing elite and its friends, and the other for the people in whose name they take public office. 

Nigeria brought Ebola under control because in view of what was known about the horrors going on in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, there was no time to marshal that parallel agenda that sucks focus and funds.

Mr. Jonathan has made a success of the Ebola challenge so far, but what the experience has confirmed is that it is his inability to define a genuine and singular national agenda that has made his government the most corrupt and underachieving government in Nigeria’s history.

But he is not short of words. 

In February 2010, in his inaugural speech as Acting President, he said: “One of the cardinal commitments of this administration is our commitment to good governance, accountability and Transparency. We shall continue to pursue these policy objectives with all the seriousness they deserve. In particular, the war against corruption will be prosecuted more robustly.”

On May 6, 2010, as he took the oath of office following the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua, he reiterated his “total commitment to good governance, electoral reform and the fight against corruption…the pledges which we had made to improve the socio-economic situation which we face through improved access to electricity, water, education, health facilities and other social amenities would continue to be given the needed emphasis. The welfare of our teeming workers and the unemployed youths would also be accorded a new impetus.”

On September 18, 2010, declaring his candidature for the PDP presidential primaries, he said, “Let all the kidnappers, criminal elements, and miscreants that give us a bad name be ready for the fight that I shall give them. Let the ordinary Nigerian be assured that President Jonathan will have zero tolerance for corruption.”

More words: At his inauguration in May 2011, he characterized his leadership as “decidedly transformative,” and pledged to harness the creative energies of the people to “grow the economy, create jobs, and generate enduring happiness.”

“The bane of corruption shall be met by the overwhelming force of our collective determination, to rid our nation of this scourge. The fight against corruption is a war in which we must all enlist, so that the limited resources of this nation will be used for the growth of our commonwealth.”

Therein is your proof of how Nigeria has become hostage to double-talk and double-agendas.  Ebola is proof Nigeria can accomplish a lot—swiftly, quickly, decisively—unless it is compromised by those who have patented those doubles.

Next February, when Nigeria goes to the polls, that is what Mr. Jonathan and his party stand to pay grievously for. 

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Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense