by Reno Omokri
The manner in which Nigeria confronted and defeated the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) has exposed the challenge Nigeria faces in fulfilling her potential. Corruption, tribalism, religious bigotry and extremism are symptoms of the challenge we face. They are not the challenge. To understand and address the challenge Nigeria faces, we need to understand why we were able to defeat EVD.
From the first day in July 2014 when Patrick Sawyer introduced the virus to Nigeria, to the day when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the virus contained in Nigeria, what we saw was unity of purpose and action across the length and breadth of Nigeria. There was no finger pointing, no accusation or counter accusation. All of us, whether Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) or All Progressives Congress (APC), whether northerner or southerner, whether Christian or Muslim, whether male or female, united behind the singular objective of defeating EVD.
Being that the whole is greater than the sum of her parts, Nigeria’s unity of purpose in challenging EVD unleashed such power, such passion, such never before seen cooperation that the virus had no chance of wreaking the havoc it had wreaked in other nations. The Federal Ministry of Health set up a committee to work with the affected states. Now, the committee set up by a PDP-led federal government worked hand in glove with Lagos and Rivers States both of them governed by the opposition APC.
Information was shared and not withheld. Funds flowed freely from the federal government to these states. Daily briefings were held by Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu, the Minister of Health, who had to rely on and trust information provided him by APC commissioners for health in Lagos and Rivers States. At the executive level, almost all the governors in Nigeria along with their commissioners for health turned up for a meeting with President Goodluck Jonathan to address the challenge of EVD on August 13th, 2014. All parties were represented, including those who had previously refused to cooperate with the federal government on important issues such as the National Conference and intra party conferences.
Governors who were hitherto at loggerheads with the president became his new best friend for life on the issue of EVD. The air of cooperation and synergy at that meeting was so contagious that together, the president and the governors came up with the ‘Ebola Handshake’ that required no touching. One after the other, these executives took turns to use hand sanitizers on national television. A paper that has the perception of being opposition leaning even carried a caption that day saying: “President Jonathan watches governor Fashola of Lagos State as he sanitizes his hands.”
Was it therefore any wonder that on the 21st of September, 2014, WHO declared EVD “contained” in Nigeria? So profound was this achievement to the world that The New York Times had as its front page leading headline on October 1st, 2014 ‘Nigeria’s Action Seems to Contain Ebola Outbreak’. To put this in perspective, it may be necessary to remind my country men and women that October 1st is our Independence Day, but The New York Times considered our defeat of Ebola more newsworthy than that! Permit me to state that if there was ever any doubt about Nigeria’s independence as a nation fully in control of her destiny and not tied to the apron strings of Britain or any other nation in the Western Hemisphere, those doubts were put to rest with our conquest of EVD.
And as if to declare the above to be true, several papers, local and international, carried the headlines that the United States (having recorded its first case of the Ebola Virus Disease on September 28th) is sending medical experts to Nigeria to learn how to contain the scourge. To me, the moral of the story is that Nigeria can overcome her national challenges if Nigerians apply the template we used in defeating Ebola, which are-unity, cooperation and multi-partisanship. President Jonathan put it best when he delivered his homily at the interdenominational service to mark Nigeria’s 54th Independence Anniversary on Sunday, September 28, 2014.
He said: “The only thing is to appeal to all of us Nigerians to be united. If we are united, there is nothing we cannot conquer. Take the case of Ebola and this is a good example that all Nigerians must learn.
“When Sawyer brought Ebola to Nigeria, it was in Lagos that this incidence happened and in terms of politics, Lagos is an opposition party but the central government is the ruling party. From Lagos, Ebola moved to Rivers State and this is also an opposition party’s state. But because all Nigerians fought Ebola irrespective of political persuasion, irrespective of religion, or ethnicity, we defeated Ebola”.
Incidentally, as the president said those words, he was not reading from his prepared speech. He spoke extempore, he spoke from his heart. On May 27, 2014, I was featured on the back-page of THISDAY newspaper in a piece titled ‘From Battle Ground to Common Ground’ where I identified three ways of building unity. I said unity could be built amongst people who shared the same goals in which case they would be constituents. I also said unity could come amongst people who had a common enemy in which case they would be comrades. I had said and still maintain that the unity of comradeship only last as long as there was a common enemy (in this case, Ebola). I had then opined that the best type of unity is one founded on friendship.
As a pastor, I have read the Holy Bible and the Qur’an and both books talk about what happened to mankind in Babel. At Babel, all of humanity was united and spoke one language. This would have been a good thing except that the unity of humanity in Babel was a unity against God. But what is most instructive about Babel is God’s testimony about them. In Genesis 11:6 prophet Musa (as Moses is called in Islam) quoted God as saying “The people are united, and they all speak the same language. After this, nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them!” Since God spoke that word, every great nation has learnt the secret to greatness from that verse-unity.
In fact, the greatest nations have included the word ‘unity’ in their name-The United States of America, the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United Arab Emirates, etc. As Nigerians, let us learn from our experience with Ebola and move from the unity of comradeship to the unity of friends.
If we can learn to speak with one voice against Boko Haram, against corruption, against religious and ethnic clashes, we will defeat them as we defeated Ebola and the newspapers of the world will begin to carry reports on how the nations of the earth are sending experts to Nigeria to learn from us how to be a great nation. Already, we have comradeship. Let us not let this dissipate as the threat from Ebola ebbs. Rather, let us build on this and grow our unity to the unity of friendship.
When people read this, they may mistake my call for unity as a call for a one party state. Not so. We do not all have to agree to be united. But we do have to agree to disagree without being disagreeable for us to have the type of unity that leads to greatness. It is just like a choir or an orchestra. If everybody in the orchestra or choir sings in the same way, the music would not be engaging and elevating.
For a choir to move its audience, you must have the alto, the contralto, the tenor, the baritone, the base, the treble, the falsetto and the soprano. The concertmaster does not expect these varying voices to sing in one tone because that is impossible. What is expected is that they should sing in harmony. It is this harmony, this unity of purpose in blending their various voices in a complementary manner that creates the music that stirs the soul.
This is what we must do in Nigeria and by the grace of God we would use what some thought would destroy us (Ebola) as a catalyst to achieve the unity of purpose that will secure our place as one of the greatest nations on earth.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Reno Omokri, the Special Assistant to the President on New Media