By Azu Ishiekwene
GLOBAL response to the outbreak of the coronavirus in Africa has been remarkable, especially following fears that should the virus take hold, its impact on the continent could be catastrophic. Twenty of the 80 beneficiaries of the $50billion announced as emergency financing facility by the International Monetary Fund, IMF, are in Africa.
The charity map also shows that the World Bank, the European Union, EU; the African Development Bank, AfDB; some members of the G7, development agencies and the private sector have not been left out. A brief country tour might help bring the picture home. Zimbabwe, which was already on its knees before the outbreak of COVID-19, got €68.4million from the EU; $5million from the World Bank; $3million from the US; and $15.3 from Japan.
Three countries in the horn of Africa – Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti – which had barely recovered from the devastation brought on by a plague of locusts, got a special COVID-19 package of €64million from the EU, apart from €105million earlier provided to tackle the plague. Egypt, Kenya and South Africa, also badly hit by the virus, have received lifelines as well.
And Nigeria, the continent’s most populous, has been right up there on the league table of COVID-19 package recipients. Within weeks of announcement of the index case on February 27, the EU announced a donation of $54m to the Nigerian government in a widely publicised ceremony, which drew favourable comments from Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari.
The EU’s gesture was followed by a donation of 50 ventilators by the UN and personal protective equipment valued at $2m to the government. The German government donated €26m; the US government, through the United States Agency for International Development, USAID, weighed in with “new funding for Nigeria for prevention and mitigation of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, that has reached $21.4m”; while the Chinese Chamber of Commerce announced a donation of N48million. On its part, the private sector in Nigeria has raised an estimated N27billion as of June, while the government recently announced plans to withdraw $150million from the Sovereign Wealth Fund to fight the virus, which as of now has infected over 20,000 people and claimed about 500 lives.
The world is in tears but the eyes shedding the bitter tears can still see and the grieving hearts are asking questions. Why is all the money going to government – or to put it bluntly, to the ruling party – and what has government, so far, done with the billions of cash received in the name of the poor and vulnerable populations? Sierra Leone is answering the question in a familiar language. The government received about $8million from the World Bank as relief package for COVID-19, but the ruling party of President Julius Maada Bio is treating virus palliative like early Christmas gift from his family to desperate citizens.
While the virus is taking its toll on the congested capital of Freetown and other urban areas just emerging from the devastating floods of mid-2019, the President’s wife is busy distributing palliatives mostly to those waving the flag of the ruling party. Relief distribution in that country has become so dangerously politicised and weaponised that the opposition, civil society and the media are compelled to ask if COVID-19 has party colours or if the virus knows only the residential addresses of opposition parties. It’s also a big problem in Nigeria. The trail of the palliatives is littered with complaints and bitterly imaginative skits by ordinary people who swear that they are being robbed.
A report by the Human Rights Watch quoted a Nigerian NGO, the Social and Economic Rights Accountability Project, SERAP, as saying on April 4, “We are seriously concerned that millions of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable have not benefited from the announced palliatives, donations, reported cash payments, cash transfers and other benefits.” The government did not respond.
In a country where ethnic tensions are fraught, the government is already being accused of using palliatives as yet another weapon of marginalisation. A number of communities in the South East controlled by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, have complained openly of neglect in the distribution of relief materials at the height of the five-week lockdown between March and May, for example.
Similar complaints resonated in Lagos and Kano – two of the most densely populated urban areas, where ruling party chieftains were also accused of hijacking relief materials or using them to feather their political nests. Were it not for the seriousness of the matter, it could pass for a hilarious tale of thieves robbing thieves. Trust, an increasingly scarce commodity between government and citizens in the pre-COVID-19 period, has become even scarcer.
Clean hands, guilty hearts
A very inconvenient question is, where is the money going? Donors cannot, like Pontus Pilate, be content that they have done their bit. They cannot wash off their hands when the guilt in their heart is in plain sight and the fate of forlorn beneficiaries is getting worse. It’s a sad but true story that in a number of African countries, including Nigeria, governments having repeatedly failed to use donor or recovered funds for the benefit of their citizens, can hardly be trusted to use the virus packages well.
In Nigeria, for example, what is to stop crooks who diverted 200 tonnes of dates worth N20million donated to Nigeria by Saudi Arabia for Internally Displaced Persons from swindling billions of coronavirus palliatives? Or who is to say it won’t happen again in Sierra Leone, where top officials of the Health Ministry misappropriated $500,000 in donor funds from vaccine provider, GAVI Alliance?
Early concerns about the corona palliatives suggest it might not be different this time. In Uganda, members of parliament allocated $2.6million to themselves to “fight” coronavirus in their constituency – an appropriation that is as good as free lunch. What or who is to restrain governments anyway when ruling parties have overwhelming control of parliament, civil society is largely alienated and the media are on a shoestring budget?
I’m not suggesting for a minute that misuse of palliatives is a wholly African disease; the shameless cornering of the first tranche of the stimulus package in the US even by fat cat corporates in that country is a cautionary tale. All I’m saying is that if the billions being poured into Africa is to have any meaningful impact, donors must find inclusive structures that take into account opposition parties, civil society and the media.
Recipients must be held to account. It’s not the only way – but it’s one sure way to ensure greater transparency by all parties. The current packages – all of them almost exclusively bearing the names of ruling governments – are a recipe for scandal. The packages, as currently structured by donors, would only give charity a bad name.
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