RAFIU ADENIRAN LAWAL
As the new decade began, no one would have thought or expected that there would be a time when the entire world would come to a halt. COVID-19 as popularly called is currently dealing a huge blow on human relationships and threatening global peace and security. The World Health Organization (WHO) has described coronavirus as “a large family of viruses that are known to cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)”. This is a new disease that has not been previously identified in humans until it appeared in Wuhan, China in 2019 and has now travelled across all continents of the world infecting over 900,000 people and has currently killed over 40,000 people globally including children, young men, women and the elderly.
While it is popularly perceived that the majority of the victims of COVID-19 are the aged and sick people with relatively weak immune systems, there is strong evidence proving that young men and women are also affected directly and indirectly and some have paid the unfortunate price with death. According to a news report from the United States, about 1 in 5 people hospitalized for COVID-19 infection are between 20- to 44-year-old, and also similarly a recent analysis by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that more than 1 in 8 of the young people was admitted to intensive care. Another myth about the disease that spread quickly was that Africans living on the continent are immune as the virus cannot survive in hot climatic regions. Recent realities from many of these African countries have proven otherwise and shown clearly that no country and individual irrespective of status is immune to the virus. For example, in Nigeria, as at 4th April 2020, over 180 people have been infected with the virus and 2 deaths have already been recorded.
As part of measures aimed at tackling this pandemic, the federal government of Nigeria announced the partial closure of the nation’s sea, land, and air border. It has shut down all schooling systems and also recently announced a ’14-day stay at home order’ to all citizens premised on the Quarantine Act of 2004 and in compliance with relevant elements of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. As a result, States like Lagos, Ogun and Federal Capital City- Abuja have ordered restrictions on all movement and banned business operations of all kinds except for those in charge of essential services.
With all sense of responsibility, the government of Nigeria has not demonstrated or shown a conflict-sensitive approach to confronting COVID-19. The trends of national responses thus far have shown that the positive and negative impact of government interventions especially on young people was not seriously considered. Nigeria has a population of over 180 million people and about 65% are youth. For young people aged 15 to 35, 55.4% of them are without work and have no meaningful source of livelihood.
Majority of Nigerians still live on less than $1 daily and rely on everyday transactions to survive. Restricting movements and closing all businesses without providing complementary socio-economic support and palliatives to all those affected shows government level of insensitivity and this would likely reduce the full compliance of the ‘stay at home order’. The consequent effect of this inconsideration is that the plight of young people is worsened with the scourge of hunger which is partly responsible for the recent occurrence of burglary of stores and homes, increase in violent attacks by hungry Nigerians on fellow citizens and other petty crimes in an attempt to dispose people of food items to eat and survive. Enforcing total lock-down without complementary socio-economic palliatives as we are seeing will lead to an increasing rate of criminality and violence especially among young people as they cannot remain indoor for a long period without food, water and electricity.
What is of great concern also is the vulnerability of young people in correctional homes formerly called prisons across the country. Nigeria currently has about 75, 000 prisoners with 50 % of these inhabitants under the age of 30 years living in grossly congested detention facilities. For example, at the Agodi Prisons in Ibadan, Oyo State, Southwestern part of Nigeria, about 1, 500 inmates are currently living under deplorable conditions in a facility originally built to accommodate less than 300 inmates. We fear that if the virus finds its way into these correctional homes, the nation might be heading to a national health disaster and the fight against COVID-19 would be totally out of control. In a recent interview by the Minister of Interior in Nigeria, Ogbeni Rauf Aregbesola, he noted that there are ongoing efforts by the government to decongest these correctional homes, this should be the first step and is not enough, we need to also revisit the deplorable conditions under which offenders are kept.
COVID-19 is also greatly altering the trajectory of local peacebuilding efforts in Nigeria. As for Building Blocks for Peace Foundation, a youth NGO mobilizing and empowering young people on conflict prevention and peacebuilding across Nigeria, all peacebuilding programs especially face to face activities such as peace education outreaches in schools, annual Youth4Peace workshop and advocacy visits to stakeholders in the peace and security sector scheduled for March, April and May have all been cancelled. Staff and volunteers of the organization have been asked to stay away from the office in compliance with the physical and social distancing guidelines announced by the government. Currently, various youth peace organizations are closely monitoring daily developments to ascertain the possibility of other activities and programs scheduled for the second quarter of 2020 and if no serious improvement, then the possibility of implementing the 2020 annual action plan is greatly in doubt. Building Blocks for Peace Foundation has also had to forfeit partial part payments made for logistics and program items for activities scheduled for March and April 2020 and there are also indications that expected financial support and partnership may not be forthcoming immediately after the pandemic as most private foundations and corporations who support various local peacebuilding effort are also faced with huge losses at the moment.
During this period, majority of peacebuilding interventions have shifted online as a result of the risks associated with physical activities but unfortunately, the majority of the vulnerable target groups during this pandemic are not online and do not have access to the internet. Market men and women, internally displaced people and prisoners lack access to the needed information and awareness that is ongoing on the internet and this may make the spread of COVID-19 easy among these categories of people.
While we commend our traditional, community and religious leaders in Nigeria who are helping to disseminate the needed information to people living in the grassroots, their initiatives must be supported and scaled up. At the moment, they are ensuring that no social, religious or political gathering takes place and that the physical and social distancing rules are complied with strictly within their communities and this is greatly helping the fight against COVID-19. We have also seen great support from the private sector and individual philanthropists who have made huge donations worth billions of naira to support the government in providing some kind of relief packages for the elderly, the youth must benefit from these relief materials too. We sincerely hope that these monies are used judiciously for the purposes for which it was donated and that there are strict measures for ensuring accountability and transparency.
The fight against COVID-19 needs multilateral and international cooperation and everyone must support it wholeheartedly. Existing diplomatic missions in Nigeria need to review and step up their response strategies as majorities are currently occupied with evacuating their citizens out of vulnerable states and practically neglecting the conditions of the host nation. The UN system in Nigeria is living up to expectations and providing a coordinated effort in terms of awareness-raising, education, technical guidance and needed financial assistance to support the fight against COVID-19.
While we appreciate the efforts of the security agencies particularly the Nigerian Army and Police in ensuring that citizens abide by the ‘stay at home order’ issued by the government and maintain law and order, it would be unpatriotic, inhumane and largely a disservice to the nation if young people’s plight are worsened by their action and inaction. Young people must be protected at all times and we won’t tolerate any form of violence or infliction of physical injury by weapons or any other object on any Nigerian by security officers in a bid to maintain peace and order.
As it has been highlighted by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250, the great potential of youth to sustainable peace and development, young people, therefore, have a critical role to play if Nigeria will overcome the current menace. We must increase our support for community preventive and response initiatives without compromising personal and public safety. We must strictly maintain the physical and social distancing principles and abide by all safety guidelines released by appropriate health authorities such as the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and government ministries.
Just like Ebola, the fight against Coronavirus will soon be over. One of the lessons from the current pandemic is the need to revitalize the Nigerian health sector. We hope our leaders won’t forget this lesson to urgently rejig our health systems, build preventive measures, invest heavily in disaster risk reduction for effective responses and not wait for another outbreak before they start running helter-skelter. The government should show commitment to ensuring that budgetary allocation to the health sector is not less than 15% as agreed at the Abuja Declaration.
About the Author
Rafiu is the Founder and Executive Director of Building Blocks for Peace Foundation, an organization building the resilience of people against violent philosophies and promoting sustainable peace in Nigeria. He is also the convener of the Nigeria Youth 4 Peace Initiative (NYPI), a movement of young people advocating and promoting peace in Nigeria. Through his leadership, over ten thousand youth have been empowered on conflict prevention and peacebuilding through capacity building training, workshops, and community sensitization. Rafiu is a passionate peace advocate with over four years’ experience on youth, peace and security and currently sits on the International Steering Group of the United Network of Young Peacebuilders (UNOY) as the regional representative for West and Central Africa. He is a member of the working group on Youth, Peace and Security and Regional Intergovernmental Organizations (RIGO) coordinated by the Global Partnership of Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) and ‘Locally led Peacebuilding’ coordinated by Alliance for Peacebuilding. He is a teacher, social commentator, as well as a researcher with a few publications to his credit, such as, ‘An Assessment of Hausa/ Yoruba Conflict and Peacebuilding Initiatives in Mile 12 Market 1999-2014’. Rafiu holds a master’s degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria