By Jonathan Chimakonam

There is a popular saying that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Perhaps it would be a stretch to take this saying to apply in every circumstance. But the main point of such a saying is that teaching an old dog new tricks can be difficult or daunting – sometimes, exceptionally so. Can the stay-at-home internet-based governance work for the ageing Nigeria’s leadership team?

For most leaders in Nigeria, and the institutions that they control, the scenario is not so different from that of an old dog who is suddenly faced with the challenge of learning new tricks. From the President who is officially 77 years old to the senate president who is 61 years old, to the chief judge of Nigeria who is 68 years old and even down to the information minister who is 68 years old, there is no doubt that Nigeria’s leadership is dominated by geriatric or older politicians. With the current COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world and forcing lockdowns, the Nigerian government has cancelled executive meetings; senate sittings have also been suspended, and all meetings involving the highest level of decision-making have been temporarily suspended. Nigeria’s leadership at different levels have moved from their public offices to their private rooms in a bid to safeguard individuals from illness and death. The measure to suspend physical contact by the leadership became even more necessary when the (now late and former) Chief of Staff of Nigeria, Abba Kyari (another old-timer, whose real age is unknown) tested positive for COVID-19. In the same period, Nasir El Rufai, a 60 years old Kaduna State Governor and Governor Bala Mohammed of Bauchi State who is 61 years old, tested positive after contact with an index case. With the old-timers forced to lead the nation remotely through the internet and with limited staff contact, the question remains – can these old dogs learn some new tricks and adapt sufficiently to the new demands?

The answer to this question is not as straightforward as one would like. While I do not claim to know the level of digital literacy among all of Nigeria’s current old brigade, I can envision a few problems. The internet is relatively young and first emerged commercially when some of Nigeria’s current leaders were closer to, or above, 40 years old. While this is so, millennials, who form a bulk of the country’s population, grew up in the digital age. In an ironic twist, it is the older but generally digitally inexperienced leaders who are expected to govern the younger and more digitally literate populace – an activity that would also involve reaching out to the masses digitally. To go around this problem, I would think that most government leaders would employ IT experts to assist them in the execution of their duties. Stay-at-home governance would then be dependent on these technically adept employees. While the preceding tactic may work with such things as setting up online meetings, video conferencing, etc., providing a consistent online presence that would assure the public may be nearly impossible. This is especially so since some of these leaders would not express themselves by themselves, beyond standardised renderings facilitated by their digital handlers. Would the internet-callow old brigade not create a leadership gap in Nigeria?

No wonder, Nigeria’s social media space is agog in recent times with rumours and gossip due to lack of leadership presence and communication. For example, not enough by way of official communication is known about the status of all the government officials who travelled with the late Kyari to Germany and dozens more, including the ailing septuagenarian President, Muhammadu Buhari, who was believed to have had contact with Kyari within nine days after the latter returned from Germany. Unlike in the United Kingdom where regular updates, including a hospital bed video clip are provided on the health status of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who was also infected with the virus, there is very little information available in Nigeria on its public officials who are and those rumoured to be positive with the virus. What the ministry of information makes available is enshrouded in mystery and is, therefore, doubted by the public, and indeed, doubtful.

Some ten Chinese doctors have recently been flown in. There was an original announcement that they have come to help the country combat COVID-19. But questions about what ten doctors can contribute in a big country like Nigeria and whether Nigeria is in need of doctors in the first place, have led to suspicions in some quarters that the Chinese doctors were actually brought in to treat some government officials who may have been infected. In the early hours of Saturday, April 18th 2020, information began making waves in the social media that the Chief of Staff, Nigeria’s defacto President Abba Kyari has died of COVID-19 infection. Before noon, major news outlets carried an official report that he died in a private hospital in Lagos the previous day. But rumour soon emerged that he had died a week earlier in Cuba and the body was embalmed and flown back to Nigeria. In an atmosphere of bold lies from government sources, it is difficult to trust any information which the present Nigeria government puts out, and this is jackpot for rumour mongers. Yet, in a country, where much of what had been dismissed as false rumours in the recent times, somehow, turned out to be true, it has become difficult to dismiss information from the grapevine in today’s Nigeria. On the whole, there is a widespread suspicion that the remotely run government is struggling to remain effective. To make it worse, Nigerians in different media spaces continue to express doubt on the whereabouts of their president despite three national addresses so far.

When Kyari tested positive to COVID-19, the government of Nigeria closed its borders. And then, there was a rumour that the President and his Chief of Staff had been secretly flown out of the country at midnight of the 26th March, 2020 for medical treatment.  The growing concern about the leadership gap in Nigeria intensified in the media and digital space as official government debunking of the rumours was slow to come. Worse still, President Buhari had not addressed the nation in the first few weeks of the pandemic despite a relentless call by the public. When he did, it was a short, recorded address, bereft of conviction, that the government was on top of the situation. The public noted with dismay that the President appeared to be unaware of how to pronounce the pandemic. His rendering of COVID-19 as Covik one-nine escalated the rumours on the social media that the leadership gap was beginning to become apparent. As if to make up for the failure of the first attempt, a second presidential address soon followed amidst rumours that the President was no longer in the country. It was a very reassuring speech no doubt, except that doubters and tech-savvy critics quickly produced analyses of the clip that claimed that it was a recorded speech relayed as a live address, and may not have been read by the president himself. In other words, they are suggesting that technology may have been used to produce the speech, which made it look like the image of the president on the tv screen was actually reading the speech. They also claimed that the studio looked nothing like any place in Aso Rock (Nigeria’s Presidential House). They claimed that no previous Nigerian president and even Mr Buhari himself had given a speech in a room like that. These are all speculations which may or may not be true. The point, however, is that the increasing lack of leadership presence in a time of lockdown has inflamed both fact-riots and tall tales. Even Mr Lai Muhammed, the loquacious minister of information, appears to have almost gone silent. Is the geriatric status of Nigeria’s leadership class a factor in the stay-at-home governance? The preceding question assumes that most older people do not have sufficient internet skills.

However, the above is a less pressing concern. The more pressing concern is the lack of preparedness and the lack of facilities needed to properly administer effective stay-at-home governance. Take, for instance, the judiciary. Most courts in Nigeria, including federal high courts, all operate analogue filing systems. Most of these courts do not have the facilities necessary to set-up online court sessions where judges can deliver judgements without contact with others. Most prison facilities that continually struggle with feeding and overcrowding do not have the resources to aid the courts in disseminating justice remotely beyond merely reprimanding the inmates. The legislature, a far more vibrant body, may find it easier to work remotely – in terms of hearing bills and voting on them – insofar as the wherewithal to entertain such an option is present.

But the efficiency of the internet service in Nigeria, especially when it comes to video and audio conferencing, has been a serious concern for some years. Some accuse the network providers of poor quality deliveries. Others blame the high number of subscriptions as a factor that overburden servers. There has never been an official explanation of why video and audio internet conference services are poor in Nigeria compared to other countries on the continent such as South Africa. The bit which the Nigerian Communications Commission could do over the years following constant complaints from consumers was to impose fines on the network providers for poor quality services. Now, in these unexpected, challenging times where internet services have suddenly become the only option for keeping Nigeria’s government running, the concern is not only the skill-set of Nigeria’s old leaders but the preparedness of the government and the efficiency of the services. So far, such wherewithal is not evident.

Even as far as delivering their mandate in rural communities is concerned, working from home rarely works for Nigerian politicians without some form of physical contact. Whereas the President can mete out orders remotely – as he has been doing for much of the last five years – the capacity for ministries and their employees (assuming these employees are digitally literate) to execute such orders remotely, is mostly absent. Again, the major culprits appear to be the historical lack of reliable technological capacity and the absence of required facilities. But even concluding on the preceding factors cannot rule out the possible lack of internet skills on the part of an ageing Nigeria’s leadership.

A few problems started emerging just two weeks into the stay-at-home-governance, which show how serious the leadership gap can be. For example, there is food crisis. The Nigerian economy has been described as comprising largely of the informal sector. Perhaps the truth of this is beginning to tell. Many Nigerian households are struggling to survive in places like Lagos and Abuja. This has led to an increase in criminality. Many neighbourhoods in Lagos are witnessing robberies and burglar crimes. Vehicles conveying staple food are being stopped and looted by irate crowds who should really be observing social distancing. The extension of the lockdown in some cities as announced by the president in his third national address has not been well-received.  A few pockets of protests, social media criticism and a spike in criminality have trailed the extension. Law and order is hanging by a thread in populated cities like Lagos, and there is talk in economic quarters that Nigeria might go into recession soon. All these are happening with no real sign anywhere that the government has any response to the challenges. These are some of the pointers that the stay-at-home-governance has created massive leadership gap in the country.

All in all, the Nigerian situation is not just a matter of old dogs having to learn new tricks. We cannot fault our leaders for being old. Indeed, most world leaders are closer to 60 years old than they are to 35, but some older individuals are more tech-savvy than certain other younger individuals. So, being digitally illiterate because they are old is no excuse. What sets Nigeria’s geriatric leaders apart from their more celebrated counterparts elsewhere in the world (besides the lack of facility and preparedness), are levels of technological education and consciousness for self-development. At the helm of affairs is a septuagenarian president without any form of tertiary education. The old dog, whose trainer has no training regime nor the facilities to execute said regime, would never learn any trick, whether new or old.

Dr Jonathan O. Chimakonam is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Philosophy, University of Pretoria, South Africa