By Bekeme Masade-Olowola
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is an unfolding global tragedy that has led to massive death tolls, damaged economies and caused disruptions to social order across the world. In Nigeria, while we may not yet have felt the full brunt of its effect on public health, we are already experiencing the pandemic’s assault on our economy.
It is an undeniable fact that Nigeria’s health system is weak and disorganised and cannot meet the need of its citizens even at normal times. It is, therefore, obvious that if the virus hits us with the same ferocity with which it has hit some western countries, the consequences will be too devastating for us to manage. As it is, we can only hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
It is, however, not all bad news. Just as they say, good times build confidence, but tough times build character. The COVID-19 pandemic has once again brought to the fore the enormous goodwill of Nigerians. Several individuals, corporate organisations and religious bodies have stepped up to contribute to the fight against this invisible enemy that has laid siege on our country. The call for support from a beleaguered government at both the federal and state levels has been met with a robust response by Nigerians from all walks of life. Billionaire business people, religious leaders, celebrities and even children alike, have all pledged laudable contributions ranging from billions to thousands of naira.
Donations have not been limited to cash. Some organisations have funded fully equipped medical facilities for the treatment of COVID-19 patients, while others have made their spaces available to be used as isolation centres in the event of a surge in cases. Some have also supplied vital medical materials and equipment including face masks, ventilators and ambulances.
In this difficult period, Nigerians have demonstrated their enormous capacity to unite in the face of an existential threat and it shows that despite their consistent criticism of their government, many Nigerians truly love their country. However, as Nigerians mobilise to give, they also want to know whom to send their donations to and how such will be utilised. For instance, in a stunning display of empathy and patriotism, Vera Akpan, a girl from Delta State wrote President Buhari Muhammadu a letter, requesting for how to donate her saving of N2,350 to the country in its fight against the coronavirus. The 8-year-old ended her letter with a very important question: “How do I send the money to the federal government?”
Vera Akpan’s question reflects the desire of many Nigerians for a structured system of collection and disbursement of all the donations being received by the federal government. Both the Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, have also added their voices to the demand for a coordinated collection of donations. While there have been donations to specific groups and state governments, which are being managed at those levels, the administration of funds donated to the federal government has largely been unstructured, creating confusion.
The government owes its citizens an explanation on critical issues surrounding these contributed funds. Authorities concerned, including the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Ministry of Finance, have a responsibility to declare exactly how much cash donation is currently in the federal government’s coffers and how the monies are being disbursed, along with clarity on who has primary authority to determine the use of funds and at whose instance, funds can be released.
To emphasise what should be done, we can borrow from what is being done in other countries to engender transparency in governments’ fight against the coronavirus. In Brazil, there exists a transparency portal that discloses specific federal spending related to combating COVID-19. The public can verify on a daily basis the budget and its execution by the federal government. The French government, in pursuit of online transparency, also created a portal for open supplier sourcing, which include a shortlist of suppliers and market analysis.
In Lithuania, the Ministry of Finance established a special fund for mitigating the consequences of COVID-19 in the country. All can donate to the special fund by e-transfer or by dialling short numbers, which means that monies contributed can be traced. In Panama, innovatively took traceability to a new level when the government converted National Identity Cards of citizens into debit cards in order to provide them with economic assistance to buy groceries, basic items and medicines.
In Nigeria, seeing as there is already a Treasury Single Account (TSA) in place which was recommended by the World Bank, which can easily be monitored and audited by relevant stakeholders, one wonders why the government would not robustly use this platform for centralised collection of contributions if transparency is what it is after. The TSA, since its introduction to the Nigerian economy in 2012 by the Goodluck Jonathan administration, and its ful implementation by the Muhammadu Buhari regime in 2015, has already saved the government several millions of dollars by blocking leakages and improving financial management.
It is commendable that the CBN has created a private sector led COVID-19 Relief Fund Account linked to the TSA. Donations can now be made into this account by individual and corporate organisations through multiple channels such as USSD, cards, internet banking, mobile banking, mobile money, electronic wallets, bank branches and agents. It is hoped that all other government agencies mobilising COVID-19 donations will toe the same line. At this stage, the government’s integrity will be greatly boosted if it can present a publicly available and accessible platform that would enable citizens easily track COVID-19 donations and disbursement.
Importantly, this crucial period in which we collectively face an existential threat is certainly not the time for squabbles between the executive and legislative arms of our government. We simply cannot afford any bureaucracy that would lock funds down in government coffers whilst huge needs remain unmet. In countries like Singapore, the fight against the virus is yielding good results because the people trust their government and readily comply with its directives. This is an opportunity for the Nigerian government to regain the trust of its people and engender buy-in into its strategy. Just as the pandemic has spurred Nigerians to exhibit tremendous goodwill, it should also stimulate the government to be open and accountable to its citizens. Setting up a team of trusted and capable people to manage all donations in an efficient and transparent manner is, therefore, a matter of national urgency.
Masade-Olowola is the Chief Executive of CSR-in-Action and a GRI Amsterdam Board Member