In Nigeria, as elsewhere in Africa (and the world, for that matter), there is often a large disconnect between what the federal government says in its press statements and what actually happens at the local level. Most observers comment on developments in the Lagos-Ibadan corridor, Abuja, Kano, Kaduna, and Port Harcourt, not least because they are media centers and the most developed parts of the country.
It is difficult to know the views of people outside of these areas. Yet they make up the majority of the population in Nigeria. Chief B.O. Ereku provides a perspective from Yenagoa, the capital of Bayelsa state, a major oil producer. (Bayelsa may be familiar as the home state of former President Goodluck Jonathan.) Though a state capital, Yenagoa is best-described as a large town, with little infrastructure, a lack of development, and close ties with surrounding villages.
In a recent editorial, Ereku argued that the COVID-19 pandemic showed how "grossly inadequate" all levels of government were at addressing the needs of rural people. For example, the federal government touted its provision of food relief to Bayelsa, but the amount provided was far too small to meet the need. The state government, for its part, set up a task force to procure face masks, hand sanitizers, and establish testing centers. But all three are non-existent in Yenagoa, according to Ereku. As for local governments, they are simply not present. COVID-19, Ereku implies, has highlighted popular cynicism about government at all levels.
There is skepticism about how widespread the disease really is. People question whether there needs to be local government, in theory the branch closest to the people. The belief is widespread that federal and state politicians and officials are lining their pockets with funds intended for relief or to fight the disease. They treat with derision "white man" recommendations for social distancing and hand washing with running water; nobody in Yenagoa has running water except for the few that are wealthy. However, Ereku says, there is delight that the rich can no longer practice "medical tourism," going abroad for medical treatment and thereby wasting precious foreign exchange.
Ereku publishes a local newspaper, Atlantic Express. He once worked as an information officer for the World Health Organization. In a huge country such as Nigeria, it is unwise to over-generalize based on local media in one state. Chief Ereku provides insight into how some local people in one place are responding to COVID-19 and, especially, how the federal, state and local governments are perceived.
The alienation of many Nigerians from their government is an old song. There is the bromide that Nigeria is still a colonial state: British exploiters have merely been replaced by Nigerian ones. Ereku’s editorial indicates that, in Yenagoa, at least, COVID-19 has probably made the sense of alienation worse. Even though there is such profound discontent, it is unlikely that it will translate into political action.