Blanket blackout, darkness, sweats and fatigue ruled and ruined the night before Tuesday, March 31, when life would grind to a halt and the curse, we, Abuja residents, feared most would be unleashed to drench and drown us. Blackout, because electricity supply had become so unreliable that both government and the governed had since passed a vote of no confidence on actors in the electricity value chain. But the situation had taken a free fall, as if the drivers of the sector had lifted their fingers off the steering, leaving the sector to wobble from commotion to commotion before it crashes and dismembers. So it was, as reports confirmed that some electricity generating companies had actually shut down their machines, mumbling inaudible reasons.
However, with coronavirus pandemic wave thick in the air, blackout took a second or third place on the hierarchy of our worries. I didn’t wake up in my library on Tuesday morning; I woke up enraged, shouting and screaming at everyone in the house – except my wife – because all the transistor radios I had purchased in the past either mysteriously disappeared or died in the hands of my baby engineers who decoupled them to feed their curiosity. Now, I needed to listen to news update on coronavirus, and feel the texture of the seriousness of the lockdown before venturing out. None of my radios was in view; the FM apps on my handset was not reliable as its sound appeared and disappeared as if it were a goddess that required constant sacrifices to make herself accessible. That sacrifice was internet connectivity, which was beyond my control.
Though I knew it would not resurrect my transistor radio from the garbage or junk house, I grumbled aloud about their disappearance. But it seemed everyone in my house ignored me, and thought about other existential matters.
'There’s no bread for breakfast', my wife announced. 'What’s your idea of breakfast this morning; the house is full and complete'.
Yes, all my children were indoors; we had wards as well. The house was full.
'I expected some loaves to be hiding somewhere in the refrigerators or in the kitchen', I lamented. 'Where can we buy bread now that Abuja is in lockdown?'
'Nowhere', she replied. 'My bread supplier claimed that producers were not certain if government would allow them to deliver bread to customers during the lockdown. They didn’t produce for today'.
'But, Buhari said food vendors are not affected by the restriction; they would go on with their businesses', I interjected.
'No one is sure of anything', my wife remarked.
Breakfast options? Fried yam with egg? Boiled yam? White rice?
As we voted for yam and stew, my wife warned, 'If we do all that, our store will be empty before two weeks'.
I pulled my generator to life and switched on my television set. It was already 10.00 am, and reporters were on the streets of Abuja ‘to monitor the situation’ of the lockdown. The roads were not just empty; they were clean, dry and eerie, as a ghost city where residents had escaped to safe grounds from an invading beast, like a lion. As shown of the television, the streets were idle, lonely and beautifully romantic for leisurely walk. The serenity was punctuated only by the sprinkling presence of security men at various intersections of the Federal Capital Territory.
'It’s now an opportunity to work from home', I told myself. 'We’ve mouthed the concept of working remotely or virtually; necessity would warrant putting into practice that ideal that we have preached to journalists and media executives'.
But I was wrong. There was hardly a consistent service to enable me engage in any meaningful task. One or two internet service providers would be promising, but get frozen at a very critical moment, destabilizing my workflow and quenching the enthusiasm that sustained the efforts. After two hours, I had to resign to fate and turned to my books, reading pages in between the fluctuation in internet connectivity.
At midday, my wife rushed to the house from her supermarket – with a crazy idea. A customer had bought all the tubers of yam on sale; she needed to urgently re-stock.
'How?' I asked.
'Let’s drive to Orange Market in Mararaba, Nasarawa State and buy some', she told me.
I resisted the idea. There was lockdown and I didn’t want to flout the law. Already, I had read reports that soldiers had begun to brutalize some persons for violating the restrictions imposed by government.
'But as a journalist, you could pass', she argued.
Yes, my ID card could open the multiple tyres barriers mounted by security personnel, but I hated taking an unnecessary risk, especially because I was not out to report the effectiveness of the lockdown. But I had to give in, as she had begun to grumble and mumble over what she called my lack of support for her business.
We drove out of the estate and connected the main road on Lokogoma area towards Galadimawa Roundabout. My heart sank at the emptiness I saw. The road was devoid of vehicles, and the shinning tarred road created the mirage of a lake that was non-existent at every distance. No trekker; no motorcyclists; no cars; no trucks. A ghost town, like Wuhan, as described by Fang Fang. Half-heartedly, I drove on, looking for an opportunity to convince my wife that we needed to return to the house.
Incidentally, we drove past Galadimawa Roundabout. Four tyres laid idly as if they had been used to divide the road and restrict driving, but there were no security personnel to restrict vehicular movement. Though unspoken, my wife felt triumphant that we had crossed the first hurdle. I turned right towards Games Village. I noticed few vehicles on the road, some by police, some by health workers, but several others were private cars. I drove on, passed the Roundabout at Games Village towards Area One. I noticed some Vehicle Inspection Officers, Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) operatives and Civic Defense officers, but none of them asked me any question. I drove past.
At Area One, I turned towards Asokoro on my way to Nyanyan and ultimately Mararaba. No one stopped to ask me why I was on the road. Rather, the security personnel waved at me, and I acknowledged their compliments.
I enjoyed a thoroughfare until I arrived at Mopol Junction at the entry point into Mararaba in Nasarawa State. There was a traffic snare that made my heart to jumped, not knowing what was in the offing. I began to imagine how I would respond to it if the security personnel at the ‘border’ between FCT and Nasarawa insisted that I would not enter into Nasarawa State due to the lockdown. But I as drove closer to the ‘border post’, I noticed that the personnel were not interrogating motorists who were entering into Nasarawa. Rather, they were taking the temperature of every occupant of vehicles, and then allowing them to drive on. When I arrived at the post, I noticed that they were health workers. They put the infrared digital thermometer gun to my forehead and took my temperature. It measured 35 degrees. He cleared me, and turned to my wife, whose temperature was about 35.6 degrees. We were free to enter into Nasarawa State.
Mararaba was a different world; hawkers swarmed the highway; motorcyclists rode like hell; taxis and private cars; buses were all over the place, savouring the freedom that those in locked down Abuja have to wait for another 14 days to access. Social distancing?
Apparently, that phrase meant nothing to those I found on the highway and neighborhoods in Mararaba while driving to Orange market. Though the crowd there did not peak compared to previous times, I did not notice a conscious ‘social distancing’ among the people. Few persons wore funny face masks, then some used hand-gloves, but the majority of the traders and buyers were more bothered about their businesses than coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps, that was because Nasarawa State had not entered into the high-risk states register of the NCDC.
On our return journey to Abuja, the story at Mopol junction between Nasarawa and FCT changed to bitterness. Security personnel had blocked the entrance into the FCT from Nyanyan, forcing a long winding traffic and army of confused drivers and passengers. Apparently, the officers who manned the border post had the heart or mind of iron, ignoring appeals, by even gun-wielding military officers who drove siren-blaring vehicles that apparently conveyed VIPs or their wards. As the prospect of softening the resolve of the officers faded, drivers diverted their vehicles into streets in Mararaba in order to snake through alleys that would take them into FCT through porous entry routes. I joined in the adventure.
When I eventually connected Nyanyan and entered the highway back into the city, I noticed that many other vehicles had defied the lockdown. But at the Army checkpoint at Karu bridge many were stopped, and asked to identify themselves. Those who didn’t convince the officers were asked to park for more explanation. In minutes, the number of vehicles there spread into a lake of cars and buses. When I arrived at the judgement point, I flashed my complimentary card, bearing the name of my media organization. I had passed the test; the bar was lifted and I sped into the city, and to returned to a lockdown in my house.
Why are Nigerians not adhering to the lockdown measures? Perhaps, it’s because they did not appreciate it as an epidemic or a pandemic. The Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) data said, as at Tuesday, 135 cases had been confirmed; eight had been treated successfully, two persons had died. The data showed that most of the cases were in Lagos, some in Abuja, and trickles in several states. But an epidemic is defined as “a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time,” while ‘pandemic’ is defined as “an epidemic of disease that has spread across a large region, for instance multiple continents or worldwide. A widespread endemic disease with a stable number of infected people is not an epidemic.” In a way, the situation had not scaled to the height of an epidemic. The remote argument among some was that the lockdown was Nigeria’s attempt to ‘copy’ and ‘paste’ other countries’ responses to coronavirus.
Nigerian journalist, writer and researcher Theophilus Abbah keeps a 'Covid-19 Diary on his website.