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COVID-19 Palliative and its controversies: Interrogating the looting spree dimension

By Onyedika Agbedo, Ijeoma Thomas-Odia, Maria Diamond, Ogechi Eze, Adetayo Adeowo, Joshua Akade (Lagos), Lawrence Njoku (Enugu), Anietie Akpan (Calabar), Ayodele Afolabi (Ado Ekiti), Charles Ogugbuaja (Owerri) and Oluwaseun Akingboye (Akure)
31 October 2020   |   4:26 am
On October 8, this year, the youth of the country began a protest with the hashtag #ENDSARS. It was aimed at curbing police brutality, which was encapsulated in a five-point demand to wit: Immediate release of all arrested protesters; justice for all deceased victims....

Residents of Gwagwalada, looting COVID-19 paliatives from the warehouse in Abuja. PHOTO: PHILIP OJISUA

On October 8, this year, the youth of the country began a protest with the hashtag #ENDSARS. It was aimed at curbing police brutality, which was encapsulated in a five-point demand to wit: Immediate release of all arrested protesters; justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensations for their families; setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reported police misconduct within a period of 10 days; carrying out psychological evaluation and retaining of all disbanded SARS operatives before they can be deployed, which should be verified by an independent body and increasing the salary of policemen and adequately compensating them for protecting the lives and property of citizens.

The Federal Government quickly acceded to the protesters’ demands but they remained on the streets; they did not believe that government would indeed implement those demands given past experiences. That gave hoodlums the opportunity to infiltrate their ranks and the rest, as they say, is history.

However, one thing that came out from the violence that ensued was that despite the fact the country has flattened the curve of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the economy fully reopened, some of the palliatives meant to cushion the sufferings of the masses at the peak of the pandemic, when the economy was practically shutdown, were yet to reach the intended beneficiaries. Some states still stacked them in their warehouses, and some politicians in their homes, until hoodlums broke into them and carted away whatever they could.

Meanwhile, while the pandemic raged, many Nigerians lamented that the palliative government promised to provide did either not get to them or was too small to assuage their sufferings. As a result, the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development under the headship of Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouq came under severe media attacks during the period

“There was nothing like palliative for the poor; it was meant for the rich. They are the people that brought the disease to Nigeria, now they want us to suffer. The so-called food they claimed they shared did not get to the poor and downtrodden.

“The food was shared to party members and we didn’t get because we are not members of the party. You journalists know the truth. During the period, the chairman of our street called one Saturday morning to show us the so-called food that was to be shared. It was one DeRica of rice, one DeRica of beans, one sachet of tomato paste for a street with about 80 houses.

“The chairman told us that only three of the palliative bags were sent to the Community Development Association (CDA) that comprises eight streets with over 500 houses. When they want to share electricity bills, they come to our doorsteps but when they want to share food to the masses, they will not deploy that same system,” said Patrick Obayan, a septuagenarian in Isuti-Egan, Igando, in Ikotun-Igando Local Council Development Area of Lagos State, then told The Guardian.

A lot of Lagosians shared his sentiment. So, it was not too surprising to many observers that the looting ‘operation’ began in Lagos on Thursday, October 22. They knew where whatever remained of the palliative was kept. The hoodlums who began the looting reportedly set a bonfire at a junction not far from the warehouse located on Benster Crescent in Mazamaza area of the state, gained entrance into the warehouse and took what they felt they deserved before inviting residents in the area to come and partake in the looting.

As the Lagos State government made efforts to convince residents that the items were not hoarded, saying, “the distribution was ongoing but had to be halted due to protests before the invasion of the warehouse”, a similar scenario played out in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja; Osun, Taraba, Kwara, Kaduna, Adamawa, Plateau and Cross Rivers states, among others. In some states, there were reports of hoodlums combing communities in search of COVID-19 palliative warehouses so they could ransack them.

Amid the looting spree, many Nigerians hauled insults on the state governors for depriving the masses what was meant for them. Even President Muhammadu Buhari’s daughter, Zahra Buhari-Indimi, was part of the rage.

“Now that people confirmed that Buhari distributed enough palliatives nationwide, it is clear Buhari is not our problem,” she posted on her Instagram page.

But the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF) in a statement last Monday debunked the allegation that state governors hoarded relief materials that were to be distributed to Nigerians during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The statement signed by its Head of Media and Public Affairs, Abudulrazaque Bello-Barkindo, described the allegation as “inaccurate, entirely erroneous and also mischievous.”

It added: “The erroneous impression in the public domain that these palliatives were hoarded is not just inaccurate, entirely erroneous and untrue but also mischievous to say the least. For the avoidance of doubt, some of the palliatives had the CACOVID stamp embossed on them, meaning that their source is unambiguous.

“As we know, CACOVID operations are mainly domiciled in Lagos, being the headquarters of most of the public-spirited organisations, corporate bodies and individuals that came together to form the Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID).

“Until mid-October, when the NGF had its last meeting, up to 10 states had not participated in the flag-off ceremonies for the distribution of palliatives in their states. This was because the items meant for distribution in these states had not been completely received from CACOVID. Some other states that still had palliatives in their warehouses chose to keep a strategic reserve ahead of a projected second wave of COVID-19.

“As of a couple of weeks ago, some states were still receiving palliatives from the Federal Government through the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management and Social Development. The NGF wishes to state categorically that no state has been involved in or has hoarded any palliatives.”

On its part, the Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID), last Wednesday, sued for calm and enjoined Nigerians to desist from destroying public and private properties as well as looting of warehouses where palliative items are stored to aid the peaceful and fair distribution of the items to the most vulnerable in the society.

The Coalition acknowledged that although the palliative drive commenced in April, the first set of deliveries to the state governments could not start until June.
“However, as of October 2020, a sizable portion of the items had been delivered but yet to be distributed by the governors.  Although various states and the FCT had commenced flag-off of the distribution of the food items since early August, some could not conclude the distribution as they were yet to receive complete delivery of the items allotted to them,” the Coalition explained.

Despite these explanations, many Nigerians still maintain that the governors have questions to answer. The Executive Director, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), Mr. Adetokunbo Mumuni, told The Guardian that the masses looted the warehouses because they felt that government had not dealt with them fairly with the palliatives.

He said: “The palliatives are meant for the people and they must be given to people equitably and effectively. I think what people see in government is a failure of leadership and that is why they have also responded in a cavalier manner, because if you want people to behave properly, you also have to deal with them properly.

“Why will you store palliative and fail to distribute it until the people now discover that what belongs to them is being kept from them. That is why you can see people resorting other means. Nothing can justify lawlessness but the truth of the matter is that when we exercise governmental powers, we must exercise it with responsibility, fairness and equity. But they decided to deal with the Nigerian people in a cavalier manner and that explains why people are acting cavalierly.”

A lecturer at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, Kingsley Chukwuma, who admitted that it was difficult to conclude whether the actions of the hoodlums were right or wrong, noted that “the masses are poor, hungry and angry and it is common knowledge that an angry man is a senseless man.”

He questioned the failure of the state governments to distribute the items to the masses when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak.
“It is corruption to hoard those items if they actually belonged to the poor masses. Why were they not given to them? It seems like those in authority already had looted the items in a sense and the masses are now re-looting them.

“The people who hoarded these items have come up to try to defend themselves. They said the items were received in September or August; this is October. This defence doesn’t sound right. Why? Because the food items in question like garri and rice are perishable items. There was no need to store them. Ironically, many of those who looted the palliatives have come up to say that they were already losing their freshness or have totally spoilt. This goes a long way to show that the items were kept for long,” he said.

Okwudili Madu, on his part, said: “It is important to note that if the appropriate bodies had done justice to the distribution of the palliatives, they would not have been looted.”

A poet, Abdulhameed Safiu, also observed that although looting the palliatives from the warehouses was wrong, the rate of unemployment, hunger and the rapid increase in the prices of food items makes the action understandable.

He said: “So many people lost their jobs due to the pandemic and many had their salaries and business income cut down. As humans, we all cannot think, act and endure the same way.

“The government was wrong to have kept the palliatives for too long. They said most of the palliatives were received recently. Who knows if that was true or not?”

A teacher, Mrs. Ikeoluwa Obawa, also said: “I wish I live around those places where the palliatives were supposedly looted; I would have definitely been a part of the looting. Did they say looting? No! It was actually taking what belongs to them as opposed to the government’s choice of word. The word loot means ‘private property taken from an enemy in war’.

“First, the palliatives were not private property; they were COVID-19 relief materials for the same citizens who unlocked the warehouses and took what rightfully belonged to them. Second, the people who took the palliatives were not enemies; they were citizens, and from my point of view, the bravest in the history of this country. They didn’t go to the warehouses secretly, they went there and took their palliatives in the open. And finally, it was not a war situation; it was a peaceful protest by the youths of our country. So, who then tagged the act of taking what rightfully belongs to you loot? We have never gotten anything right in this country; even our use of language is absolutely wrong.”
This appears to be the popular opinion of Nigerians as the following reports from across the states show.

Ekiti Residents Looted Fertilizer Instead of Garri
IN Ekiti State, for instance, residents embarked on a looting spree of Federal Government’s silos located in Ado Ekiti on the night of Friday, October 23, 2020. They carted away fertilizers which they mistook as garri and maize preserved for planting while searching for CACOVID palliatives. Also attacked were the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) warehouses where materials stored as reliefs for flood victims were kept.

The residents, who defied a heavy downpour, boarded vehicles and motorcycles from far distances like Ijigbo, Ajilosun and Odo Ado Area of the metropolis to the location of the silos about 7.30pm to cart away the items.

Some residents, who spoke with The Guardian, blamed the looting on two factors. According to them, pervasive poverty pushed them to take the action, believing that whatever was kept in the warehouse by government was kept in trust for the people. They also cited the display of affluence by political office holders, saying it had been infuriating them.

However, some youths believe that government was being clever by half by saying that it had shared the palliatives. For instance, some youths under the auspices of Ekiti APC Youths Congress alleged that some COVID-19 palliatives were still being stored in the Government House, Ado Ekiti. They appealed to Governor Kayode Fayemi to release them to the people of the state. 
“Our clear position is that Ekiti State government must not keep food items in the Government House while the people are hungry,” they said.
But the state government has insisted that all COVID-19 palliatives in the state had been distributed.
A statement by the Commissioner for Information, Akin Omole, also warned that commodities looted from the silos were poisonous. 

“Ekiti State has no CACOVID palliative warehouse as all the palliatives have been distributed. The items being carted away are Single Super Phosphate fertilizer and NPK, which they have erroneously identified as garri. 
“The SEMA store has emergency supplies for disaster response e.g. flood, fire or any other emergencies. Some even made away with corns preserved for planting, with chemical pre-fermentation. All these items are poisonous and not fit for consumption. We appeal to our people not to consume these items because they can kill,” he said.

Soldiers Guard Suspected Palliative Stores In Imo
The Imo State government has beefed up security around warehouses where residents suspect that COVID-19 palliatives are stored. For instance, soldiers are guarding the Imo International Convention Centre (IICC) where the last set of palliatives were stored and shared.

So, as at the time of filing this report, there was no incident of breaking into and looting any palliative warehouse in the state. A resident in Owerri, who identified himself as Emeka, regretted that residents were yet uncover and access any palliative warehouse in the state.

“I do not know how Imo’s case is different from others. There is no palliative warehouse for us to go to and take the hoarded items. The military will not allow us. They are all over the places. We are hungry and we do not know why politicians are hoarding the palliatives meant for the poor,” Anyanwu lamented.

The state Secretary of the Imo Peoples Action for Democracy (IPAD), Chibundu Uchegbu, also condemned hoarding palliative items when the people were hungry.

“It is wrong and selfish on the side of those state governments that hoarded the palliatives meant for the people during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Meanwhile, Governor Hope Uzodimma has maintained that the state has shared all the palliative items given to the state through the local council chairmen and leaders in the various 647 autonomous communities of the state.

Why Hoodlums Set Ondo COVID-19
Palliatives Store On Fire 
UNLIKE other states where hoodlums broke into COVID-19 palliatives stores and looted them, hoodlums in Ondo State were disappointed when they foraged the state’s palliatives store situated near the High Court as they saw only few packs and bags of noodles, pasta, sugar and salt. 

It therefore became a survival of the fittest for them as they scrambled to grab what was available in the store. Disappointed and infuriated, they set the building ablaze. 

One of the looters, who pleaded anonymity, recounted that he got the information late, saying by the time he rushed to the scene, the items had been looted.

“People did not get the information on time. By the time we got there, they had distributed the few items among themselves. It was a real struggle; people did not actually get much items,” he said.

Another looter said: “Many people believe that the relief materials donated by individuals and corporate organisations were repackaged by the present administration as campaign items. 

“This is one of the things that made the protesters very angry that they decided to set the building on fire. It was really painful that many of us didn’t get a pin from the store before it was set ablaze.”

However, some residents told The Guardian that some of the items were being sold in neighbourhood markets in Akure, the state capital. A source, who doesn’t want his name to be mentioned, disclosed that he went to NEPA Neighbourhood Market to buy Indomie noodles for his baby and bought CACOVID branded packs.

“I bought two packs of Indomie noodles from one of the market women selling there. I didn’t even notice it was a smuggled item until I took it home. It was my wife who noticed it,” he said.

State government officials and apologists of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), however, maintain that the government distributed all the palliative items it received.

The Youth Coordinator of Ibi Giga Ambassadors, Mr. Ayodele Oladimeji, said: “If you are wondering why you have not seen a video of Ondo State warehouse like other states, this is why our Governor, Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, is Talk and Do.

“The Ondo State government has given out over 95 per cent of the palliatives. What was left is largely sugar. The little stocks of Indomie noodles and macaroni left behind belonged to Olusegun Agagu University and four other MDAs. They couldn’t retrieve before the protest broke out. All the stocks of rice, garri and vegetable oil have been given out. The store is virtually empty.”

Special Adviser to the Governor on Agriculture and Agribusiness, Pastor Akin Olotu, further explained that many dignitaries witnessed the flag-off of the distribution on August 10, 2020.

“We commenced distribution to widows across the 18 local government, after which artisans followed through their apex body. We gave to okada riders, private school teachers, dateline rural communities, prostitutes, social workers, landlord and community associations, civil society organisations and NGOs. We gave to CAN, PFN, Muslim Welfare Board, junior staff of tertiary institutions, teachers, some churches, elders etc. We had to pause because of the state gubernatorial election. By the time the #ENDSARS protest broke out, we had given out over 95 per cent of the stock.

“I challenge members of the Fourth Estate of the Realm to interview any of the organisations and individuals listed above to carry out an independent finding on our claims,” he added.

How Rumours Fuelled Search For COVID-19 Palliative In Enugu
THE #EndSARS protests had gone on peacefully in Enugu State until Wednesday last week, when certain individuals began to vandalise and attack institutions belonging to government.

By the time the state government could garner enough reasons to impose a 24-hour curfew on three municipal council areas of Enugu North, Enugu East and Enugu South, two police officers, one in Abakpa and another in Emene, had been killed.

That same day, a branch of a first generation bank at Abakpa Nike was attacked.The next morning, the rampaging youths who wielded dangerous objects defied the curfew and returned to the streets to continue their looting and destruction of private and public properties. They destroyed more police stations among others. Having chased security officials into their stations, they had a free reign, setting some targets ablaze and extorting some residents who had to move out on emergency.

Not satisfied with the level of harm already done to the city, they returned to the streets on Friday to cause more harm and later in the day started spreading messages through the social media that COVID-19 palliatives meant for the state was stocked at Queens Secondary School, Enugu. They, therefore, planned to assemble at the school early to loot the items.

Despite efforts by the state government as well as the committee that handled the sharing of the palliative items to discourage them on the ground that the materials were distributed as early as August this year and that the allegation that they were hoarded at the school was false, the protesters did not budge. So, they assembled at the school axis as planned the next morning but met a detachment of soldiers drafted to protect the school, especially the boarding students who are all females. It was gathered that an attempt to force their way into the school resulted in exchange of fire.
While many sustained injuries while attempting to escape, two persons including a student of the Institute of Management and Technology (IMT), Enugu, Ejike Okeke, who was not part of the protesters, were allegedly hit by stray bullets in the confusion that erupted.
While Okeke, a year two Computer Science Student of the school was killed by the bullet that hit him at a nearby petrol station where he also worked as a pump attendant, the other resident, a driver attached to one of the Pentecostal churches in the area had his private parts shattered by the bullet.

Speaking on the incident, a resident, Goziem Obi insisted that the development was avoidable.
“You do not blame the protesters who had gone in search of the materials and on getting there discovered that soldiers have been used to cordon off the area. The presence of the soldiers is enough indication that government was hiding something because soldiers before now were not guarding that school. Why did it take the exchange of gunfire with the soldiers and for lives to be lost for government to start making denials that it never packed any palliative items there? It shows how insensitive our leaders have become,” he stated

On his part, a Civil Rights Concern official, Jude Nze, stressed that the looting spree witnessed in some states by the protesters could have been avoided if the government was sincere. He stated that it was sad that palliative items could be hoarded when many Nigerians were hungry, tasking the various governments to always put the interest of those who elected them before any other thing.

What We Took From Government’s Warehouse Belongs To Us, Say C’River Residents
It was like a revolution when some youths suspected to have been spurred on by some hard drugs about noon on October 23, this year, invaded the Cross River State government-owned uncompleted Fabrication Academy and carted away thousands of COVID-19 palliative items meant for people of the state.

Men, women, security personnel, young boys and girls scrambled over one another to get their own share of the spoil. Small bags of rice, cartons of Indomie noodles, garri and other items were carted away. Some people were seen carrying four bags with both hands and one bag with their teeth. Some loaded the items in their vehicles drove away.

“This is wickedness; it is our food, let us pack it. Why did the government not give us since?” screamed one of the looters as he made away with his loot.

In April, the state Governor, Ben Ayade, had at a warehouse near the Academy by CROSPIL announced the arrival of the palliative and made some ceremonial distribution. But after that, nothing again was done until residents in State Housing, Ekorinim, Ikot Ishie, Ikot Ansa and other parts of Calabar trooped in to loot the items.

The looting continued until about 6p.m. when information filtered in that a large stock of food items was at the State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) warehouse along Barracks road in the massive premises of the state newspaper corporation, Nigerian Chronicle. In droves, the people ran desperately to the place. In a jiffy, the warehouse was flung open and over 7, 000 people were on ground looting it. 

The SEMA warehouse is mainly for natural disaster relief materials and not for COVID-19 but for the looters, “food is food” irrespective of where it is stored so long it is in government premises. So, the place was stripped bare. Also, the building and cars like that of the Editor-in-Chief of Nigerian Chronicle were set ablaze. Unconfirmed sources also alleged that some persons were burnt in the wild inferno.

It was the same story at the warehouse in the Ministry of Works in Ekorinim, which over 10,000 persons were said to have looted. People were trampled upon; some were even dragged out unconscious. Others who could not succeed ambushed the successful ones and forced some out of their tight grips.
Shocked by the development, the state government immediately announced a 24-hour dusk-to-dusk curfew. Despite the curfew, hell was let loose in the state with over 40 government and private properties worth billions of naira looted and vandalized or in some cases burnt down.
One of the looters who pleaded anonymity said: “The government of the day is wicked. People are suffering and dying of hunger yet we have food rotting away in government warehouses. We are happy the soldiers and police did not stop us otherwise it would have been bloody. On Friday they even encouraged us to pack the food items but not to burn down anything. I was able to carry two bags of rice and some tin tomatoes and three cartoons of Indomie noodles. At least it will sustain my family and extended ones for some weeks.”

Speaking on why government did not distribute the palliatives in time, Governor Ayade, in a broadcast, said the state took delivery of the palliatives not too long ago.

He said: “On the issue of palliatives being kept in warehouses, every state will have palliatives in their warehouse.  Let me thank and acknowledge CACOVID for the massive supply of all these palliatives. Note that as you empty your stock, they restock. This keeps coming for Cross River State. Our last receipt was on October 12, just last week. We were also told clearly that they (CACOVID) wanted to do a press briefing when they are handing over the palliatives. So, there was a directive that this last stock Cross River got should not be shared until they come. The waybill is available and it has been released for all to see. It shows that the stock arrived on the 12th of October, 2020. Unfortunately by then, this tension had started building up and we were already waiting on them to come. I also want to recall that we do the distribution of palliatives in Cross River State in a sequence.

“We started with traditional rulers and churches, and then moved to local government via senatorial districts. We had done distributions in the northern senatorial district and in the central senatorial district. The next batch of distribution was to be for the southern senatorial district. So, the stock in question is for distribution in the southern senatorial district. As can be seen in a lot of videos on social media and Cross River Broadcasting Corporation, each time we distribute, we target widows, we target the aged, we target people who do not have money, people who cannot work. We target those who can fish no more because they are aged and do not have loved ones. 
“If you watch the videos of our distribution, it is systematic. It is through churches and churches target the vulnerable and so as a young man who is 18, 20, 25, remember that the food you are picking belongs to our aged parents, a widow somewhere.”