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Political space withers as COVID -19 ravages

By Onyedika Agbedo
28 March 2020   |   3:10 am
A month after the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) announced the first index case of COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s political arena

A month after the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) announced the first index case of COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s political arena, like every other sector, has changed dramatically.

Expectedly, the attention of government at all levels in the country has been focused on how to contain the pandemic. Of the 65 confirmed cases in the country as at yesterday, there are reportedly three politicians serving in different capacities.

At the top of the list is the Chief of Staff to the President, Abba Kyari, who was in Germany and the United Kingdom from 8th to 12th of March. He arrived Abuja on the 13th and tested positive to the virus last Tuesday. Bauchi State Governor, Bala Mohammed, has also tested positive for the virus after coming in contact with Mohammed Abubakar, the son of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who returned to the country on March 17 after some business engagements in France and Switzerland. Last Wednesday, the Edo State government announced that the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Frank Okiye, has tested positive for COVID-19.

“The index case of coronavirus in Edo State is the Speaker of Edo State House of Assembly, Rt. Hon. Frank Okiye. He travelled to the United Kingdom; he came back and went into self-isolation. He sent his sample for testing and it came out positive,” said the deputy governor, Philip Shaibu, at a press conference in Benin City, the state capital.

There was also a rumour that some senators who recently returned to the country from foreign trips tested positive for the virus, but the Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Ibrahim Oloriegbe, quickly dispelled it. But against the backdrop of recent meetings in Abuja that involved a large number of government officials, many public servants have reportedly sent in their samples for testing and the results are being awaited.

Nevertheless, there is no gainsaying the fact that the spread of the virus in the country has taken its taking tolls on political activities and to some extent governance. And here are the indications:

Aso Rock On Partial Lockdown
Last Wednesday, the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity addressed State House Correspondents on the state of affairs at the Presidential Villa wherein he explained that the place was on a partial lockdown like the rest of the country. A day before the press briefing, the Presidency had announced that it would scale down the number of media organisations permitted to cover its activities. It had explained that the action was meant to trim the number of persons who visit the villa daily in line with the need for social distancing. Elucidating further during the briefing, Adesina said: “Well, things are a bit on a low key; it doesn’t mean that the State House is shut down. It’s just that things are a bit on the low key just like the rest of the country. The rest of the country is also on a low key; there is a partial lockdown in most parts of the country. So, what is happening at the State House can also be called a partial lockdown but not a complete lockdown.”

FG Suspends FEC Meetings Indefinitely
Last Monday, the Federal Government announced the indefinite suspension of the weekly Federal Executive Council (FEC) meetings. Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on the Coronavirus and the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, disclosed the decision to suspend the meeting while giving update on the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures being taken to contain it.

Section 148 (2) of the 1999 constitution provides that the President shall hold regular meetings with the vice president and all the ministers of the government of the federation for the purposes of determining domestic and foreign policies of the government, to coordinate the activities of the President, Vice President and ministers and lastly, to advise the President on policies and governmental affairs. It had been the practice for the FEC to meet weekly since the restoration of democracy in 1999. With the FEC venue currently under lock and key, the question is: How the Federal Government would make some far-reaching decisions having suspended the FEC sine die due to the pandemic? Or would the country run a one-man show from now onwards? Spokesman of the president, Adesina, thinks there is no cause for alarm.

“The council was suspended because of the size. You have over 50 people seated in the council chambers whenever the meeting holds and that is not advisable at a time like this. But if there would be a very important decision to be taken, you can always summon the relevant people, three, four or five and hold a small meeting and arrive at a decision. It does not mean that one man is going to be taking all the decisions. Of course yes there are executive decisions but the ones that must pass through consultations of which must have a buy-in of the FEC can always be discussed at a smaller meeting.” Nigerians will be keen to observe how this arrangement works out in the coming days.

INEC Suspends Regular Activities
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has suspended regular activities for 14 days in the first instance in its headquarters and across the nation. National Commissioner and Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Festus Okoye, who made the announcement on Monday, March 23, explained that it was in line with the government’s directive on preventive measures to curb the spread of COVID-19. Part of the activities suspended by the commission was the regular quarterly meetings with stakeholders including political parties, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), the media, security agencies and all other meetings, and monitoring the conventions, congresses, conferences or meetings of political parties.

The commission, last week, had also postponed indefinitely dates for the conduct of bye-elections for senatorial districts in Bayelsa, Imo and Plateau states as a result of the pandemic.

The affected districts in Bayelsa are Bayelsa Central and Bayelsa West which their seats in the Senate became vacant following the election of their former occupants, Diri Duoye and Lawrence Ewhrudjakpo, as governor and deputy governor of the state respectively. The seat for the Imo North District became vacant following the death of its senator, Benjamin Uwajumogu, ditto Plateau South District whose senator, Longjan Datong, passed on.

According to Okoye, the Commission had commenced preparations for the conduct of bye-elections to fill the vacancies after receiving notifications from the Senate but was compelled to take this step in recognition of the fact that all major activities in the electoral process involve a large gathering of people.

The implication is that individuals jostling for those seats on the platform of the various political parties would have to hold on for now.

National Assembly Adjourns For Two Weeks
The National Assembly adjourned plenary for two weeks last Tuesday to resume on April 7, 2020. Announcing the resolution after a closed-door session, the President of the Senate, Senator Ahmad Lawan, said lawmakers unanimously agreed that the National Assembly should adjourn plenary for 14 days as part of measures to contain the spread of the virus. The House of Representatives also reached a similar resolution that same day with the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, saying the lawmakers would only work on an economic stimulus bill to protect Nigerians and the economy against the impact of COVID-19. Lawan, on the other hand, said the Senate would reconvene to attend to matters of national importance, which require urgent legislative intervention within the period the National Assembly will be on recess. So, all issues that the National Assembly leadership considers ‘unimportant’ or of no benefit to the ongoing war against Coronavirus will remain in the cooler until situation normalises.

At the state level, the Anambra State House of Assembly has adjourned plenary indefinitely to avoid the spread of Coronavirus in the state. The Speaker, Uche Okafor, made the announcement last Wednesday while addressing journalists after an Executive Session, in Awka.

The Kebbi State House of Assembly also suspended some legislative activities last Wednesday as part of measures to safeguard the health of not only members and staff of the Assembly but also their families and the public at large. Reports said the lawmakers’ action followed a motion under matters of urgent public importance by the Chairman, House Committee on Health, Umar Altine-Suru representing Suru constituency.

With COVID-19 now in eight states of the federation as well as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Nigerians will not be surprised to see more state Houses of Assembly shutdown in the coming days.

APC, PDP Shut Down Offices
The Coronavirus pandemic forced the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the major opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to shut down their offices within the week. The National Chairman of the APC, Adams Oshiomhole, ordered staff of the Secretariat home last Monday to curtail spread of the virus. Oshiomhole, who addressed APC staff, said the closure would last for an initial two weeks period but could be extended indefinitely as situation warrants. He assured the staff that their salaries and allowances would be paid as and when due, even as he urged them to remain safe and apply all directives from government.

The Oyo state chapter of the party quickly toed the path of the national leadership last Wednesday as they also suspended all political activities throughout the state for an initial period of two weeks.

The PDP, on its part, shut down activities at its national secretariat and states offices across the country. The party, in a statement, also last Monday, by its National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, suspended all activities bordering on congresses, rallies and a large gathering of its members.

“This decision has become imperative in respect to the need for continuous social distancing and other health safety measures against the spread of COVID-19 in our country,” Ologbondiyan said.

It could be recalled that the party’s ward and state congresses were ongoing with the National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting scheduled for April 30, 2020, to approve the results before COVID-19 threw spanner in their works.

All in all, the COVID-19 pandemic has no doubt foisted a lull on the country’s political arena, which no one knows when it would be lifted.