The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the extent of political distancing between the government and the people of Nigeria.
The government is so detached that during a nationwide emergency, it is still trying to figure out who the Nigerians really are.
Facing a once-in-a-generation health crisis, Nigeria cannot distribute cash and food assistance to its needy citizens because it does not know them, and has never bothered to really get close to them.
The citizens are just faceless humans roaming the streets, who cannot be identified by important metrics needed for running a modern society just as parents would be able to give biographic data about their children in an emergency.
Disorganised and messy distribution of food on the streets, with videos showing citizens rushing to grab food from vendors, unconcerned by social distancing rules, has been common.
Stampede for public assistance is not where Nigeria should be in 2020.
We should have matured to the level of delivering services in a planned and organised way, 60 years after independence and 100 years after becoming a nation.
In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, one cannot even guess which is Nigeria’s greatest challenge.
While nations were doing great things, Nigeria fumbled like a lazy and untrained performer
Is it the chaotic food-cash distribution, contract tracing, social distancing, students doing nothing at home, falling oil prices or a weak naira?
While all are real challenges, the far more important one is the underlying – the absence of data to the government to make good decisions.
The government of Nigeria knows it has about 200 million citizens and that is about it – it does not know many of them individually and to the detail.
The absence of data is portraying Nigeria as an adult that is still crawling, the leader of the black race that is still behind.
The information continuum dictates that there is a progression towards effective decision-making.
The lowest of that continuum is data, without which there is no information. With information comes knowledge, the prerequisite for wisdom and sound decisions. That is called the DIKW model, a time-tested method used in business and government all around the world. Just not in Nigeria.
Wisdom is about knowing the right things to do and applying sound judgement.
One of the areas in which Nigerians have lost confidence in their government is the quality of insight in public policy and administration. And the reason is that the government is often acting on impulse rather than knowledge.
Last year, I wrote about how data science is an urgent national asset, lamenting: “Ours is a country where the government does not know every citizen and cannot directly and privately communicate with them. Millions of Nigerians cannot be reached where they live, except through the mass media. In many homes, letters cannot be delivered. In fact, millions of Nigerians live in neighborhoods where roads and other public infrastructure do not exist.”
At the time of writing, I did not realize that a deadly virus was lurking. Today, we are ambushed by an emergency that requires identifying vulnerable citizens, and rushing help to them. But the government is groping in darkness. Without a database, it relies on politicians and other inefficient organs to distribute food and money to those deemed needy by human algorithms.
The government enforced lockdowns in various parts of the country by calculations not based on reliable data and the necessary logistics to manage it. It wanted to provide help without being able to target every Nigerian by details such as incomes and locations. It just could not be done at the last minute for 200 million people.
Even the citizens had to wade in, suggesting various solutions, such as the BVNs, voters’ cards and the national identity card. It points to a country that is inefficiently run.
The preparation for a modern Nigeria has been lacking, and the price is being paid before us all.
The availability of data is the bedrock of an efficient system. Data leads to wisdom, and the absence thereof is tantamount to darkness and confusion.
At a time when universities, non-governmental organisations and even newspapers can develop and share an amazing array of information with just lean resources, a nation as rich and resourced as Nigeria cannot present dashboards to track cases and drive action – handling public health emergency with naivety
While nations were doing great things, Nigeria fumbled like a lazy and untrained performer.
Around the world, governments deployed data visualisation about Covid-19 activities, trends, models and advisory.
Data interpretation and visualisation have been used, even by local governments, in America, Asia and Europe to keep the public at ease, informed and advised.
Citizens received on-demand critical information about hospital capacity, infection peaks, death demographics, city-mapper responses, cluster analysis, rate of spread and the like.
At a time when universities, non-governmental organisations and even newspapers can develop and share an amazing array of information with just lean resources, a nation as rich and resourced as Nigeria cannot present dashboards to track cases and drive action – handling public health emergency with naivety.
Data dumbness clobbers Nigeria in critical areas as it gropes with coronavirus.
One of the best practices by public health professionals is tracing and isolation in a pandemic.
The government has been unable to sustain contact tracing.
State officials have done a marvelous job, but how can they be effective when all they can rely on are phone numbers?
Besides, the government has found it difficult to determine who it should give financial support to because there is no reliable national database to determine and verify those who are most at risk and in need urgent assistance.
It characterised Nigeria as backward among nations.
While banks and wealthy individuals have generously donated billions of naira to fund social assistance, the public confidence that the money is being spent wisely is low.
At the end of the day, the government will not be able to provide a convincing and transparent data about its efforts.
From reports, cash and food distribution has been cornered by corrupt officials while 85 per cent of those allocations are going to only a section of the country, to the annoyance of the needy in the other parts.
By not running our affairs with transparency that comes through information, resource distribution became unmanaged and corruption thrives further.
In a report, the senator representing Borno State, Mr. Muhammed Ndume, has accused the federal relief committee on COVID-19 of fraud and called for the disbandment of the committee.
At the end of the day, the government will not be able to provide a convincing and transparent data about its efforts
If a senator can have such misgivings, could the government expect the public to have trust?
In the UK, US, Australia and most well-run states, coronavirus support was approved and accessible to citizens according to incontrovertible public data.
If you are qualified for support, you know; and if you failed to get assistance, you can appeal. In Nigeria, many citizens are lost and never found.
The crisis is worsened because the government cannot make projections.
Impulse becomes the only available option to determine when to end the lockdown.
Decisions that should be based on accurate data about testing, hospitalisations, infections or infection peaks are lacking.
Going by WHO data, Nigeria has tested fewer than 11,000 citizens by April 28, representing 0.005 per cent of the population.
The government is acting without wisdom, endangering the life of citizens through trial and error approaches.
Data always matters, but it even matters more in the space of public health.
The response of the government can be quicker and more effective if it is based on reliable information.
And it is not, from what we see.
The government has forever needed to set up an army of researchers, data scientists and data analysts to start placing Nigeria’s most dire needs under the microscope and delivering information that administrators need for policies.
The current effort is far too little and archaic.
The quality of data coming from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the custodian of national information, is poor.
Nothing can be more unworthy of Nigeria’s expected ambition than their work.
As with most governmental bodies, the NBS is displaying a spectacular character of antiquity.
Its website resembles outdated paper data from the 1950s era of public statistics.
It is an organisation that is deep in slumber.
As I write, the website of the NBS does not have any data or visualisation related to coronavirus.
It still reports food and fuel prices, unemployment and population, even when these numbers are outdated, incorrect and irrelevant due to the current lockdown.
The time has come for a national data repository to deliver a detailed national demographic information across the states in Nigeria.
No one can deny that we need to know more about jobs, occupations, incomes, locations and assets owned by Nigerians.
As I write, the website of the NBS does not have any data or visualisation related to coronavirus
Our public planners and policy makers need information to review the past, test the present and plan the future.
Nigeria can invest in information science and reap great benefits, or continue to grope in this darkness of ignorance without harnessing the opportunities being opened up by technology.
Why does it matter that we gather and intelligently use information about ourselves?
Data is becoming the engine of a modern and efficient society, where predictions can be made, precision can be achieved and development can be experienced.
It will transform the way government is run and drive innovation and the creation of wealth.
Data can now be applied to make use of itself in the form of artificial intelligence and automation.
Using it, government will know exactly how to respond to a pandemic or other public emergency.
Data thinking must become the default national attitude if Nigeria will take an easy road to becoming a modern society.
Our success will not happen without embracing information science with a sense of urgency. Enough of data and political distancing.