While timely and necessary, the measures to halt the spread of COVID-19 have had an enormous impact not only on our daily lives, but also on our democracies. In this series, we try to asses how democratic practice has been affected and how we can make our future democracies more resilient.
We spoke to Tosin Apiriola-Ajayi and Olaogun Michael Sunkanmi on the situation in Nigeria.
Watch the video of the interview:
or read the transcript here:
Caroline Vernaillen: Welcome to our interview series, as you know we have been tracking how democracy is impacted by the measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus around the world. Today, we are talking to two activists from Nigeria. I'm very happy to welcome Tosin Apiriola-Ajayi, who is the Executive Director of the Women Environment and Youth Development Initiative WOYODEV and Olaogun Michael Sunkanmi, who is a Policy Adviser Internationalism and Fellow at Canvassity Pan-African Youth Democracy. Welcome and thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us.
Olaogun Michael Sunkanmi: Thank you.
Caroline Vernaillen: Let's dive right in. So what is the situation like in Nigeria at the moment, maybe just as a general overview for our viewers?
Tosin Apiriola-Ajayi: Well for now, we are at the beginning of the easing of the total lock-down. Before, we have experienced a period of total lock-down of about five weeks, whereby citizens have been restricted from moving around. Well, it's been; the good, the bad and the ugly. We've seen how citizen engagement can actually be positive for the public, and how the need for government to have the right democratic dividends for citizens on ground and how it should think in preparation for emergencies or for the unknown. For now, people are getting to come out, not everyone. People are travelling from one place to another, but not in the totality, only in a precise area.
In Nigeria, the system, the economy of Nigeria we have is a situation where we have over 70% of the population in the informal sector, whereby they have to provide for their daily needs, so, during the lockdown, it’s not easy for a lot of people to do. We had messages of people clamoring and crying from home saying that "hunger will kill us before the coronavirus gets to us." The government took some measures whereby people would get some palliatives. Unfortunately, Nigeria is a country whereby in recent times we have not done census. We don't know the population or the number of people in the country. The census we have been using are just using projections from previous years. And a lot of people could not access the palliatives of the government. In some quarters where the palliatives got to, you know, the population is 200.000 people and only about 50.000 packages or so have been prepared with food. Fortunately, with the ease of the lockdown now, people are able to go about their daily business. At least to buy food for themselves. For now, I think it's getting better.
The numbers of cases we have in Nigeria are of today is increasing from one State to the other, but we are hoping and we believe Nigeria and African countries in general will be able to address the situation.
Caroline Vernaillen: I was wondering how does this impact your work as civil society? How does it... I imagine it makes it harder of course, but are you able to continue working? Have you had to adapt how you work?
Tosin Apiriola-Ajayi: Unfortunately, Nigeria is one of the countries that's a developing nation. As civil society actor, it has not been easy working, because where I am on lock-down, in my home I have restrictions. I have limited access to the internet. I have to travel from my home, let’s say about 50 kilometers, to make sure I have access to internet. It has not been easy. For this interview, we had to schedule it and come out of our homes, especially for me, I think I cannot speak in the same vein for Michael. This side of Nigeria, where there is little reception, for my home area, where I reside, we have limited access to the internet. So there have been restrictions to work. We have been advised to try to take our work online, but for how many? Given the internet access we have is not optimal. So working has not been easy, we've been exchanging views on having, maybe moving the office online or having access online has been challenging. But, I believe it is an eye opener for most of the nations to have the necessary governance tools on ground to make living easy for our populace.
Caroline Vernaillen: Olaogun Michael, you are a specialist in democracy and governance, could you tell us a little bit more on how this health crisis now has affected it? Has it had an impact on democracy in Nigeria, good or bad?
Olaogun Michael Sunkanmi: Thank you very much, it's nice to get this platform. Well you know as a young activist the point remains that you always love to move around. We always love to see things. We always love to engage with government institutions and elected representatives, but ever since the pandemic started, the movement... the restriction in movement of course has affected one or two things in terms of reaching out to government institutions, reaching out to the populace... And in fact even the civic protest. You know, in this part of the world we still understand the language of protest. So that has been affected by the measures.
But we are hoping that we will leverage the technology. Because this is an eye-opener to the new developments in the world and the global environment, that we in the developing countries, we need to engage with the global environment, the internet, the social media platforms,... in the demand for social justice and accountability. So we are working assiduously on this to ensure that the young activists in the country, most especially the younger generation are engaging with these platforms, use these platforms in engaging with the elected representatives and government institutions. Thank you.
Caroline Vernaillen: Is there... you said now that activists have to take their work online, this is also what Tosin mentioned, is there an opportunity for the government to take part of their democratic institutions online? Are they making an effort to make it easier for citizens to participate in democracy from a distance? Are they already looking at digital tools?
Olaogun Michael Sunkanmi: Well yeah, even the political actors... let's say for example at the National Executive Council that has always been presided over by the President himself, in person, President Muhammadu Buhari, and of course at the sub-national... I mean the governors, now they are beginning to engage with the technology, in having the weekly meetings. At least in Nigeria, here the National Executive Council do hold meetings every Wednesday. But ever since the pandemic started in Nigeria they've been engaging the technology in having their meetings, their discussions and deliberations. So I'm hoping that the new developments will bring about a new reform in the policy space and the governance environment. Because, we may not be meeting, we don't know when the pandemic will end in the first place. So this is an opportunity for government institutions, elected representatives to engage technology in advancing governance and democracy in the country. So we are hoping that the
government actors will work on that and of course, the activists as well... Like a few days ago I had a meeting with some of my friends, we are beginning to launch an idea called Policy for Tech, or Tech for Policy rather. So we are hoping that Tech for Policy would be an avenue for electorates to begin to engage with the government in terms of pushing for policy options and other things like that. So we are working on that and we hope it's going to revolve things in the governance environment. Thank you!
Caroline Vernaillen: Great, thank you very much! I think those were about the the questions I had, is there anything else that you think is important, that people should know about, or that we might not have heard outside of Nigeria?
Tosin Apiriola-Ajayi: For me, I think Covid-19 has really been an eye opener for me, I don't want to use the word, “an eye opener” again for the citizenry, because we now know the reason why we should engage. It is not enough to be a citizen of a particular country. We should know what the governance is about, we should know what is going on. People now listen to the news as if they want to eat. It's about getting to know what is going on in my environment. It's about engaging. People are now able to really ask questions. If we have a particular national budget, what is the amount for health? What is the amount for education? So people are now asking questions. And people are now increasingly demanding for adequate governance, not just a sit and look... "Sit and look" has been the hallmark in the past, but things have changed. And the post-Covid, totally, I’m really hoping, right institutions will on ground and well-funded. Nigeria, as a country, is very swift in signing international treaties or conventions but domestication has been an issue. We have an agency that is saddled with the responsibility of taking into account or of addressing infectious disease control. How are we funding that institution, are we not diverting the funds to other things? So people are beginning to get eager to know what is going on in their society. And I think it is a good one for us.
Caroline Vernaillen: Yes, citizens are certainly paying more attention to to what is happening and there's an opportunity to hold governments accountable when more people are looking at what's going on. Michael is there anything you would like to mention?
Olaogun Michael Sunkanmi: Well yeah, thank you very much. The pandemic is not of course what is obtainable in Nigeria alone, it's a global occurrence and of course it's awakening the minds of leaders across the world into present realities, things they have been doing well and things they've not been doing well. In Nigeria, here we have a very weak health infrastructure and the present reality is pushing both the leaders and the led in doing things rightly within the health sector. Let's take for example the political office holders are good at going for health tourism abroad, but now everybody... we are all locked down in the country. Nobody can travel out, because the air spaces are shut down. So every one of us, now we are being affected in one way or the other. But importantly the elites are affected the most because they are the ones who have their children abroad, schooling abroad, who are traveling abroad, having businesses abroad and lots more like that. But the point remains that our consciousness has now been awakened, just as Tosin said, that everybody is now interested in the demand for accountability. So health is a basic need of all citizens and it is the constitutional responsibility of government to ensure that all these basic amenities are provided. So I am interested in asking what my constituency or the constituency allowance for budget in my state..., there are the monthly, the annual budgetary allocations for health funding. And people are now beginning to demand for increased funding in the health sector, because our health infrastructure is in a dilapidated state. So all of us need to continue to engage the governments. Now that reality is telling on us, we are beginning to engage fire brigade approaches in fixing the health sector, which ordinarily is not meant to be. But we hope the present occurrence will put the political office holders on their toes in doing better and better as we hope the pandemic will face off as quick as possible. Thank you.
Caroline Vernaillen: Yes thank you, I certainly hope so as well. Thank you very much for for taking the time to to talk to us and I hope you stay safe and healthy and you can continue your very important work. Thank you!