There is a saying in some Nigerian tongues, notably the Yoruba, that what you sometimes seek from extreme distances may well lie discountenanced on your palm.
Put in other words, the answer to an agitated quest may be out there in plain sight, but not reckoned with. This seems to be the message by some civil society groups in response to a quest by government for additional facilities to use as isolation centres for the spiralling number of persons testing positive to coronavirus.
The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and the Housing Development Advocacy Network (HDAN), last week, advised the Federal Government to consider converting buildings seized from owners indicted for, or convicted of graft into isolation centres for COVID-19 patients.
They spoke against the backdrop of an appeal by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 that Nigerians should make their spare buildings temporarily available for such use as the country would likely run out of space soon in the raging battle against the pandemic.
Speaking at a media briefing by the task force penultimate week, health Minister Osagie Ehanire urged that citizens should donate their idle property to state governments for use as isolation centres over short periods.
He said the call became all the more imperative because the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) had indicated intention to test two million people for infection in the next three months.
Ehanire spoke to reinforce NCDC Director-General Chikwe Ihekweazu, who had said healthcare officials were “struggling with bed spaces” in certain areas.
He noted that Kano and Abuja were of sufficient concern while Lagos, the local epicentre of COVID-19, posed the “biggest challenge.” Ihekweazu added that his agency was looking at all options, including home care for patients, but is working with state governments to mitigate the possibility of such recourse.
Responding to that challenge, SERAP said it had advised President Muhammadu Buhari to instruct the Attorney-General of the Federation Abubakar Malami “to identify, publish and temporarily use confiscated stolen assets as isolation centres instead of begging Nigerians to donate their buildings.” It added: “Using stolen assets would reduce risks to Nigerians and to public health.”
HDAN, for its part, faulted government’s appeal for donation of buildings when there are unoccupied houses across the country – some linked to politically exposed persons with unexplained wealth – that could be appropriated for use.
The group was reported saying: “Instead of allowing these empty buildings to waste away, government can temporarily convert them to isolation and treatment centres.”
It also called on real estate developers to assist government with information on idle property that could be available for temporary donation by owners.
Radical though the call by these groups may seem, we agree with it. NCDC is boosting its capacity for testing samples, and this has resulted in surging data count of infections now in community transmission mode.
It isn’t in the slightest doubt that pressure on isolation spaces will intensify as increased testings show up more confirmed cases.
Thus, there is need for accelerated provision of additional spaces at a more decisive pace than awaiting the pleasure of donors.
In any event, the level of anticipated response by donors is up in the air. We need a more sure-footed solution to meet this rapidly evolving challenge, and that is what the suggestion on confiscated building offers.
Of course, even in event of that recourse we insist on due process. Property seized from erstwhile owners who have been convicted by courts have already reverted to government ownership and could more easily be appropriated for emergency use.
Regarding others where litigations are pending, government could file applications with the courts for formal leave to temporarily appropriate them for use.
For accountability purposes, government should make such property fully known to the public so their onward disposal after the pandemic can also be tracked. This could be solution in plain sight to a nagging problem.