Covid-19: The litmus test for leaders

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In the beginning, it was like a sad but amusing story from a land at the other end of the world. People were dying in China due to an unknown ailment. It was not even known as coronavirus. Symptoms ranged from cold, nasty cough from itching throats, fever, severe headache to breathlessness. As with everything us – Nigerians, that is – the deaths in China’s little known town of Wuhan was quickly religionised.  Muslims were dragging it with Christians. Both claimed their brothers were being victimized there and so their avenging God came down on the Chinese with furious anger.

Then it crossed borders and became an international problem. Most of Europe and America were complacent at first. They boast of the best medical facilities and personnel on earth, after all. They were yet to see what could stretch their first-class medical system. Therefore all international engagements, including the Olympics to be hosted by Japan, would hold. Japan rates above most European nations in many aspects.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) looked at the happenings and said it was an epidemic, and like all epidemics, it would soon be contained. Life, and everything associated with it, would continue as normal. That normal is yet to be. The way the ailment, now identified as COVID-19, a virus, spread with the speed of a tornado started to cause fear in the minds of all. Panic set in.

WHO upgraded it to a pandemic. The word evokes a feeling of stampede, panic, holocaust. When it hit Iran, Trump, its traducer in chief, was cheeky. Bad leadership, he opined. Then it hit Europe, then America itself and so far it is leading the world in associated deaths of over a hundred thousand.

It crossed the seas and came to Africa, and Cairo, Egypt, recorded Africa’s first. It has come and jitters became our second skin. America and Europe, ever our benefactors, started “pitying” us. There will be a gale of deaths, they said. People would be dying on the streets, they cried. Nigeria and Africa will witness deaths on a scale never before witnessed, they shouted.

And we got our first case. An Italian, we were told, has come with it. A picture of an innocent man was plucked from the internet and was said to be the taxi driver who carried the Italian around but that he had absconded.

Our panic went up a notch. It rose to hysterical when we lost Malam Abba Kyari, the president’s Chief of Staff, to it. There was a metaphorical stampede to escape the looming holocaust. Work stopped, offices closed. Schools forced to vacate. Markets, places of worship padlocked. Gatherings banned. Lockdown declared. Then the deaths. Kano, which came later, shot ahead, just like in election results.

Amidst all this, a team of Chinese doctors, we were told, came to save us. But like the Ninjas – now you see them, now you don’t – they vanished into thin air.

Governors now took over to secure their people. A couple of them got infected by the virus but to the Glory of God, they all got cured. That gave a glimmer of hope even though it became apparent that the poor man may be hard hit. But due to lack of awareness and perhaps “them” and “us” mentality, many of the downtrodden labelled it “Abuja” or “big man’s” disease. When Malam Abba Kyari was infected, a welder in Potiskum told me he can hug the former chief of staff and come out unscathed. That was the extent to which some people went to. Some Muslims believed that “ablutions” which “we do five times a day” can prevent it. They forgot that people in Saudi Arabia and Iran also perform ablutions.

With this mindset among the average northern Muslim, northern governors have their jobs cut out for them. Surely they will cross paths with their people who think it is a fluke. Worse was that the whole north then had no testing centres. All samples had to be brought to Abuja and so it took days for results to come out.

It became a litmus test for governors. Some governors had to go to extremes, thereby pitting themselves against their people, market men and women and even the clergy. Some even unleashed security agents who harassed, intimidated and even arrested and fined their people.

In all these, one man stood calm in the midst of the entire storm, his mind in overdrive. Instead of panicking and waiting for salvation from overseas, he set himself ready to rescue his society. It is in times like these that the pretenders, those not ready, or cut out for it, either by nature, self or circumstances, are sieved from those endowed with the capacity and will to lead. The governor of Yobe State, Mai Mala Buni, aptly fits into the latter category. Honest and inspiring, Buni’s passion for service is unquenchable. His ability to communicate in simple terms and well thought-out decision-making skills are all indicators of his honed leadership qualities.

In her 2018 book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, Doris Kearns Goodwin, a presidential historian, biographer and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, profiled four US presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson – who led America through some of its most difficult times. In the book, Kearns Goodwin chronicled their extraordinary strength and leadership acumen.

Goodwin said, “They obviously come from really different backgrounds. Both Roosevelts come from a privileged, wealthy background, Abraham Lincoln endured enormous poverty, and LBJ experienced sporadic hard times. They’re different in temperament. But they do have certain kinds of what I call “family resemblances” in terms of leadership.

“They kept growing through loss and adversity. They had resilience. They eventually developed humility, even if they started without it. They knew how to talk to people with stories. They built teams of more strong-minded people who could disagree with them. They had the emotional intelligence to deal with those teams. Those words might not have been known then, but we know now. They somehow were able to connect to the people directly and control negative emotions. All these things shine a light on today, I think. And they all had an ambition that was larger than themselves, eventually. That’s the key thing”.

While the Yobe governor can fit into Goodwin’s description of the four great leaders, one can safely say Francis of Assisi, a 13th-century Catholic saint, had people like him in mind when he said, “Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

Like the mother-hen out to protect her brood however possible, Governor Buni cancelled all outside engagements and for two months did not venture out of his state save for a two-day visit to Abuja on the invitation of the president to discuss security matters concerning Yobe. That was the first necessary thing he did.

In times of adversity, the body language of the leader influences the attitude of the led. If Buni panicked, he did not show it for he neither inconvenienced the people with lockdowns and threats, nor did he shut down general activities.

Government offices, though for a certain category of staff, remained open. He went about doing the possible. All government projects went on and, within that period, at least 53 projects were completed and many others started. The state government also distributed palliatives to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable families in addition to other empowerment schemes in both cash and kind. While other governors distribute food items to families that may not feed an individual for three days, in Yobe, an average family got food items that can last at least a month.

Yet despite all these, without fanfare, he built no fewer than three isolation centres in the state, well equipped and even provided with ventilators. But perhaps what marked Yobe out and, for a long time, made it one of the states without a positive case, was the massive sensitization campaign against the disease that was embarked upon by the state committee on COVID-19 that the governor set up.

Then he did what at a time the world thought was impossible. He found a herbal medicine that is preventive as well as curative against COVID-19.

He silently called and charged Dr Muhammad Ibrahim Jawa, president of the African Traditional Medicine Practitioners of Nigeria, who had studied traditional medicine in India, China, many other African countries, and did his PhD specifically on African Traditional Medicine, to “research for a cure that would help Nigerians and humanity”. Buni facilitated  the research and when it was found, he wrote to the  health minister and requested that he do all the necessary tests that would validate the potency of the cure, or lack of it. After all the tests, the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 has given the green light and NAFDAC registration is being awaited. Soon the drug would, hopefully, flood the world and save humanity from this marauding virus.

Some Nigerian media outlets have already given him awards, one of which is The Politician of The Year. Well, that is well deserved, but if the western world will not be envious that we have beaten them to saving humanity, Times and Newsweek magazines ought to make him Man of The Year.

Lest I Forget

What is it with moon sighting that it is now threatening to further divide the already divided Nigerian Muslims?

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