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Vaccine for Nigerians? Let them eat faith

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Azubuike Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of Nigeria’s national daily newspaper, LEADERSHIP, based in Abuja.

Nigeria does not know whether it is losing or winning the war on Covid-19. It’s a game of convenient guesstimates. Yet, poorly collated infection figures are turning into names and names into friends and relatives dying or struggling to stay alive. In this context, the video of Ebele Obiano, wife of Anambra state governor Willie Obiano, getting her vaccine jab in the US, is in very poor taste.

Whether or not Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrongly attributed the words to Marie Antoinette in “Confessions”, Nigeria is happy to supply a modern-day princess who has earned the title of Her Royal Spite-tress without controversy. 

And unlike Antoinette, reputed to have tossed the infamous one-liner, “Let them eat cake” from her window while the poor in France were dying of hunger, her Nigerian cousin travelled thousands of kilometres to find her groove.  

Ebele Obiano is the wife of Willie Obiano, governor of one of Nigeria’s five south-eastern states that bear a long list of grievances against the federal government.  

Let’s be clear. Anambra is not one of the basket cases in the south-east, even though it has a wretched reputation for nasty politics. In the past seven years, governor Obiano, building on the solid work of his predecessor, the notoriously “stingy” Peter Obi, has managed to raise the performance of the state in competitive public examination and agriculture. 

But in less than two years, a second episode of extravagant indiscretion by the governor’s wife now casts a long shadow over the legacy of the state’s first family.

The commissioned and published video of the governor’s wife sitting in the “owner’s corner” of her Jeep and receiving the Covid-19 vaccine in the US, while Covid-19 deaths are spiking back home, makes Marie Antoinette look like a saint.

Ebele Obiano took care to ensure her jab was not just medical tourism at its ludicrous best. It was also a calculated fashion statement. There she was, ensconced in her 4X4, in brown pants and a black sequined blouse, with a reporter on hand to capture the historic event for posterity. It was a true Nollywood moment.  

As the camera was recording in faraway Houston, Texas, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) was reporting more coronavirus infections back home and fatalities were climbing. 

You would think the wife of a public official who truly has the interests of her people at heart – but can do nothing to improve their safety – would, at least, do nothing to compound their misery. 

Nigerian officials always manage to squeeze themselves onto notoriety’s reserved list. In October, thousands of angry people broke into warehouses across the country to help themselves to food that could have been distributed during the government-imposed lockdown but was instead left to rot, while huge supplies were diverted or weaponised for political purposes. 

Anambra, where Ebele Obiano’s husband is governor, was one of the states worst hit by the “palliatives riots”. Around two thousand protesters broke into a warehouse in the state capital and helped themselves to bread, noodles, grains and whatever else they could find. 

If there was a vaccine strongroom anywhere in the country today, after watching the video of Ebele Obiano’s designer vaccination, distraught citizens might be obliged to ask themselves why they shouldn’t breach the storage. 

Ebele Obiano is not a stranger to controversy. She was once spotted wearing a pair of crystal-studded Gucci glasses estimated by some to be worth $2,755, or the equivalent of three years’ minimum wage in the country. 

To be fair, the governor’s wife was wearing something much plainer than Gucci – and perhaps cheaper – on the day she got the vaccination in Houston.  

But Gucci or fluffy, it’s difficult for her to see, from her high horse, what the people who elected her husband to office are seeing. It’s difficult for her to see that they need clean water (unavailable to the majority) to sanitise; that they need clear safety guidelines, and possibly face mask mandates; that they need more testing and information about signs to look out for in case of infection; and that they need to know where to find help, when necessary. 

It’s stunning beyond belief that for all her elegance and the trouble of travelling more than 16,000km to be on record as the first wife of a public officer in the world to be vaccinated against Covid-19, she still couldn’t make out the type of vaccine she was getting: whether it was Moderna, or, as she called it, “Madonna”. 

It’s not funny. And as the tape rolled and she fielded questions from the one-man crew, she wore her heart on sleeve, saying, “when there’s a war, you do not stop because of bullets catching you… or refuse to go to war. You have to go, you have to fight, you have to survive…” 

That’s so easy to say, especially when you’re fighting the war thousands of miles away from home turf, in a place where you can have the best of what money can buy and at the expense of the public treasury. But she was not done yet. 

She invoked God’s name half a dozen times for the protection of citizens back home, but knowing the lengths to which she travelled to get the jab, it was obvious she did not believe in God deeply enough to protect her from catching the virus back home. 

In the legend of that old trade, snake oil was always good enough for the buyer, but never so effective for the seller. 

Ebele Obiano might reply that it’s not her job to provide more testing kits, mandate face masks or provide vaccines. If the Nigerian government, so famous for putting the cart before the horse, is already talking about “ramping up oxygen production centres” when it is not even sure how many people are being tested daily, much less how many are infected or dying, why should the wife of a provincial governor be excoriated for looking after herself?  

Nigeria does not know whether it is losing or winning the war on Covid-19. It’s a game of convenient guesstimates. Yet, poorly collated infection figures are turning into names and names into friends and relatives dying or struggling to stay alive. The NCDC, which showed so much promise early on, is almost now overwhelmed by poor execution and a lack of staying power – that ancient Nigerian disease.  

The governor’s wife may have arranged a designer Covid-19 vaccination – even hinting in the video that her husband could be next on the Houston vax train – but she’s not the only public figure who has provided this shameless public entertainment.  

Former vice president Atiku Abubakar, one of the most prominent faces on the presidential campaign circuit, also got his jab, this time in Dubai. The man who was once a heartbeat away from the presidency lavishly distributed photos of himself getting the jab long before Ebele Obiano boarded her flight to Houston.  

Abubakar may argue that he is now a private citizen and can therefore spend his money the way he likes. That’s true. But if his roadmap to make Nigeria great again includes a prominent chapter on how to perpetuate medical tourism, then we’re back to square one. 

I’m sure there are hundreds of people – including public and private citizens – all over the world paying to get the jab and getting it quietly through different means, because they can afford it and cannot wait in line.  

As vaccines roll out, the differences between rich and poor countries are showing, just as the distinctions between rich and poor citizens of the same countries are in stark evidence. Perhaps that’s inevitable. But to make that distinction the new face of medical tourism and to share the videos of such designer encounters with a desperate, hurting world, is insensitive. Period. 

I understand Ebele Obiano said she did it to dispel the prevalent notion in some circles back home that vaccination is evil. Well, unless she is taking the jab for the six million people in her state, the effect of her good intention is to say to the public, “Let them eat faith.” DM

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