A fortnight ago, a public health alarm went off in Bayelsa state in Nigeria’s south-south zone. A number of people had gone down with a strange illness that health authorities later would say was caused by an unheard of virus called monkeypox. A week later, 10 other states across the country had reported cases of monkeypox. Luckily, no deaths were reported all round. But as expected, federal health authorities responded promptly to the alarm, and the Senate’s health committee summoned the health minister to explain what was happening and how prepared was the nation to handle an epidemic should one occur.
Coinciding with the time the alarm was raised, the Nigerian military was carrying out security exercises in parts of the south-east, south-south and south-west. These exercises were complemented by medical outreaches which the military regarded as its corporate social responsibility. This public health campaign is as old as the military and is largely welcome by the public.
However, the difference this year is the timing of the security exercises that come with different code names such ‘Operation python dance’ and ‘Operation Crocodile smile’. The military chose to conduct them at the same time as the security forces were cracking down on IPOB, an infantle secessionist movement in the south-east.Opposition party leaders condemned the exercises as a virtual military blockade of the region by the APC federal government which had in September labelled IPOB a terror group and subsequuently proscribed it.
The military’s medical outreach provided the PDP opposition in the region with more ammunition in its political face off with the ruling APC at the centre in Abuja. In the lead was governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, who alleged that the military was infecting school children with the monkeypox virus as part of the federal government’s plot to depopulate the entire south of the country. He asked his commisioner of information and comunication Mr. Emma Okah to put out a statement “RSG did not authorize the military to inoculate school children” on state radio and TV as well as social media.The statement added that Rivers government “did not authorize the Nigerian Army or indeed any other body or person to enter into school premises to administer forced medication or vaccination on any child in any school… Inoculation is personal and consent of the Rivers State Government and parents must first be sought and obtained before it can be administered on any school child in a school premises”.
We admit that this country needs a strong opposition for our democracy to grow; a one party government, no matter its vaunted demcratic credentials, is inimical to building a truly demcoratic tradition and culture. However, for the opposition to gain legtimacy it must purge itself of the ‘bring-down syndrome’ -something that the PDP or some its leaders are incapable of doing. We find it abhorent that the party’s governor in Rivers chose to play ‘dirty politic’ with a national health challenge like the monkeypox virus. It was more distasteful when he told a blatant lie that the vaccination was already happening in his state whereas it had not. It is unforttunate that Wike chose to bring a purely national issue into his personal fight with his immediate predecessor, Rotimi Amaechi, now a minister in the APC federal governement.
If his goal was to discredit the military and, therefore, President Muhammadu Buhari who used the PDP’s massive political applecart to win the 2015 presidential election, Wike succeeded only in part; even that was ephemeral. His false alarm spread like a bush fire in the south-south and south-east. Schools hurriedly shut down as parents rushed back to collect their children and wards. However, it was only pyrrhic victory. The lie was soon discovered and dismissed just as Wike’s public image lay in tatters. However, the military must take a warning from this experience: never take anything for granted, no matter how well intentioned. They must learn to communicate well with the target communities in the exercise of their corporate social responsibility.