By Paschal Agbodike, PhD
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic which unleashed profound economic difficulties, various state governments in Nigeria have announced cuts in salaries and benefits of civil servants and political office holders. The alternative, according to their leaders, will be massive lay-off of workers. In Anambra State, however, the story is different. No one is contemplating either a reduction is salaries and benefits or a downsizing of the workforce. If anything, Anambra remains the first state to pay salaries a week before the end of every month. Ironically, the state receives, in comparative terms, modest sums from the federation allocation because the criteria for sharing national revenues like land mass hardly favour it. Internally generated revenue is still not what it should be. There is only one explanation for the state’s impressive performance: prudence. It is, therefore, not surprising that Kogi State, for instance, has been sending delegations to Awka to understudy Anambra’s financial management strategy.
It is not just in financial management that the state has displayed creativity. Take one aspect of its response to the coronavirus. Immediately schools and other educational institutions were closed in Nigeria as a vital component of the measure to combat the pandemic, Anambra State started what is called On Air Teaching. High school pupils now learn all subject not just online but also through radio and television broadcasts by the Anambra Broadcasting Service (ABS). At one of the early daily briefings of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, the Minister of State for Education, Chief Emeka Nwajiuba, not only commended the Anambra initiative, but advised other states to borrow a leaf from Anambra State.
Aware that the state TV signals may not be strong in every village in the state, the Anambra government is now working out an arrangement with privately owned stations to broadcast the on-air lectures. What is more, the government is in the process of acquiring a large number of transistor radios to give to indigent pupils who are mostly in hard-to reach places. The whole idea is to ensure that no child is left behind in education. Education is the greatest opportunity provider in today’s world.
The acute attention to education reflects in Anambra’s record. It does better than any other state in Nigeria in education. For instance, at the 2019 World Teachers day held on Saturday, October 5, at the Eagle Square in Abuja organized by the Nigeria Union of Teachers, the Federal Ministry of Education and The Presidency, Anambra State won four of the 24 prizes given to the country’s best teachers and schools. Most states didn’t get any, and none of the few which won received more than one prize; only Anambra State got as many as four! Out of the four vehicles donated by the Federal Government, Anambra alone collected two, leaving the other 35 states in Nigeria plus the Federal Capital territory of Abuja to share the remaining two!
On Tuesday, June 16, as I was watching the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 brief the nation on the fight to contain the pandemic, I was struck by the suggestion by the Minister of State for Education to states: start immediately to prepare schools for the return of their students, even though no one knows yet when the schools will reopen. The minister advised states to fumigate the schools and get facilities to enable both teachers and students to practise social distancing, among other steps. What the minister failed to tell the nation is that he was obviously influenced by the steps taken by Anambra State. As far back as April 30, Governor Willie Obiano directed teachers and non-academic staff members of all schools to resume work, though without their pupils. The reason was that teachers were needed to advise the government on steps to be taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in schools. Teachers’ input was needed to find out how to observe things like social distancing in congested classrooms and dormitories. Teachers’ input was also vital if there would be morning and afternoon shifts in every school.
My leadership of the special committee of the Anambra State House of Assembly on the containment of the coronavirus pandemic has been an eye opener in respect of the quality and thoroughness of public policy in the state. After touring almost all 63 major markets in the state and all border communities to observe at close quarters how the lockdown was being observed and its impact, we came to the conclusion, towards the end of April, that the markets should be reopened immediately to prevent mass hunger and poverty as well as possible social unrest. Unknown to us, Governor Obiano had come to the same conclusion.
At a meeting of the Anambra State task Force on COVID-19, the governor gently but firmly told some opposed to the easing of the lockdown: “We have managed our index case successfully in record time. We have traced all the contacts and tested them. All our protective care units, otherwise known as isolation centres, which can accommodate 600 persons simultaneously, are now empty. In conjunction with the World Health Organization and the European Union, we have trained 50 persons to manage any confirmed cases in accordance with the best global practices. Frankly, I see no reason to continue to subject our people to hardship. We must start to relax the lockdown. While our boundaries remain closed, wearing of face coverings in public will now be compulsory. There must be running water and soaps and hand sanitisers in every line in each market. There will be a COVID -19 Task Force in each market, and any market which fails to abide by the guidelines will be shut down with alacrity.”
A few minutes later when he announced the removal of the restrictions, there was massive rejoicing all over the state. The reopening of the markets brought back the economy in a state whose people are reputed to be natural traders and businessmen. The easing of the lockdown inspired some other states. It is truly amazing that a state whose people travel so extensively and have some of the largest open-air markets in West Africa which are always over-congested could record only 302 infections. The reason lies in that the state began the campaign against COVID-19 since January 28. If only other states had started so early, Nigeria would have had a better record.
Anambra, once again, displayed creative leadership when it launched a COVID-19 task force in each of the 326 wards in the state. People at the grassroots now report strangers and people with COVID-19 symptoms to the authorities. Other states should learn from it.
Anambra remains the Light of the Nation.
The Rt Hon Paschal Agbodike, PhD, is Deputy Speaker, Anambra State House of Assembly.