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That apology by COVID-19 task force 

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PHOTO: AFP

The Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 the other day tendered an apology for its members’ indiscretion and poor handling of the burial of the Chief of Staff to the President, Abba Kyari, who died of coronavirus complications. This admission of guilt by the president’s men after a public discontent is symbolic and remarkable. But such a tragic error and all-too-familiar display of hypocrisy amid a nation in lockdown pains are unconscionable.

In ideal settings, the sanctity of standards and principles is the hallmark of true leadership. The principles, as anchored on core virtues, are the essence of leaders’ being and existence. It is, therefore, expected of real leaders to be virtuous, principled and consistent. The reasons are two-fold. First, ethics is central to social cohesion. Virtues like integrity, courage, diligence, empathy, commitment or sense of nationhood, among others, promote trust, cooperation, harmony and growth. Vices like dishonesty, cowardice, indolence, viciousness, disloyalty and self-centredness, among others, are behind mutual suspicion, lack of cooperation, disharmony, conflicts and mutual stagnation. Second, as the gold standard and role model for the citizenry, leaders cannot afford to be caught on the treacherous path. Their character and conduct must be good enough to become law unto others.

That explains why many pretenders to the throne of leadership are being shown the exit door for dishonourable conducts that are at odds with role modelling and social cohesion. There are also many that have voluntarily vacated their seats mainly on points of principle. That is what separates statesmen from politicians and leaders from rulers. Statesmen and genuine leaders are known for their standard of practice and consistency in principles. So, you don’t learn or imbibe all these while in office.

Nigerians have not seen much of this standard and consistency in character among the public officeholders. Sadly, the point at issue, spirit of error, lately repeated itself during President Muhammadu Buhari’s Chief of Staff’s burial in Abuja. Some days before Kyari died in Lagos, the President had in a national broadcast announced the lockdown of Abuja, Lagos and its contiguous state, Ogun, to underscore the severity of the public health emergency. It was a stay-at-home order that stagnates the nation’s economy and most difficult for a people who 80 per cent depend on daily earnings. But the daily death toll of 5000-plus globally offer very little choices.

Yet in utter disbelief, Nigerians behind the curtains watched on the television sets how the remains of Kyari were buried. It was in complete disregard of COVID-19 prevention directives and the National Centre for Disease Control’s (NCDC) laid down guidelines for dealing with COVID-19 corpses, titled: ‘‘Interim Guidelines for the Safe Management of a Dead Body.’’ To start with, Kyari’s treatment in Lagos private hospital instead of government-owned Gwagalada Isolation Centre in Abuja was a violation of extant rules. The airlift of his coronavirus-laden remains back to Abuja; hundreds of mourners that attended the funeral without social distancing; use of unprofessional undertakers that didn’t even know what they were dealing with; and failure of all attendees to self-isolate after the dismal outing, all violated the presidential orders and NCDC guidelines at a time when strict compliance was most cogent and being preached – even in a global context.

Curiously, among the attendees were cabinet ministers, members of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 and faces of the response team. We cannot but ask some salient questions here. Is it that the president’s men, led by the Secretary to the Federal Government (SGF), Boss Mustapha, were ignorant of the standard practices of COVID-19 pandemic? Was it that they didn’t believe in the threat or the containment measures as much as they daily preach them on national television? To what extent should we continue to trust their directives on this pandemic? What exactly made the case of Kyari different to warrant a state funeral despite uncalculated risk to the entire nation?

There are certainly more questions to ask. But what is as clear as the daylight is that ours is a country with two classes of citizenry, two systems and rules. All extant laws are there for the general masses but not for the lawmakers, political class and even the law enforcement agencies. George Orwell could not have described 2020 Nigeria better: ‘‘All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.’’ Most shocking and unacceptable is that recalcitrance still continues in the face of a deadly pandemic. After all, the late Kyari once issued the leadership of the National Assembly a memorandum expressing dissatisfaction that our globetrotting lawmakers were not subjecting selves to coronavirus scrutiny at the airports. In the main, the charade of Kyari’s burial was a demonstration of the historical impunity of the ruling clique, yet no lesson seems to have been learnt.

It is to be acknowledged that the SGF, Boss Mustapha has since apologised for the recklessness. The admission is symbolic in a country where public officeholders either do no wrong or easily dismiss howler as scaremongering. The apology was quite unlike the usual insults from the senior public information officers and reputation managers whose justification would have literally deemed Nigerians as stupid – for demanding propriety in public office. This SGF’s apology is therefore refreshingly different.

But remorse is not a sufficient appeasement for unforced errors and among those who should know better. It is also not enough for Aso Presidential Villa to ostracise Kyari’s sympathisers. Such crimes against public health emergencies have attendant punishments, though mild. The Quarantine Act of 1926 that was used to declare lockdown has penalty of N200 or six months of jail term. While this has not be repealed or amended, none of the officials should have been spared of trial to serve as deterrence. The expeditious though selective trial of the popular Nollywood actress, Funke Akindele and her husband by the Lagos State government says as much. Similar violations by the president’s men should not have been treated differently. They deserve the proverbial insecticide and not deodorants.

Above all, we hold the presidency accountable for the avoidable gaffe and disrespect for set standards and decorum. The breach of protocol was a monumental mistake and the impact of which we may not know yet. This is one more example of leadership failure. It is evidently neither safe nor wise to emulate Nigerians in high public office. And that is a sad commentary for the current leadership.

Indeed, the crowd at the funeral diminished the moral authority of those in the enclave of power to order the lockdown that is globally recognised as necessary to check the pandemic. Notwithstanding the letdown by our rulers, we as citizens cannot afford to follow their misconducts and moral bankruptcy. We hold it a duty to ourselves and to our country to continue in safe and hygienic practices, follow science-proven directives on social distancing, and support efforts towards eradicating the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic in our land. Only that way, we can at least show the grace that most of our public officeholders lack.


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