The Yoruba people of South Western Nigeria, described by one English Language dictionary as the fun-loving people of the Southern part of West Africa have a habit of greeting people over everything. Whatever the matter is, they just like to greet, and they will go to any extent to design a message around any event. If the sun is high in the sky, they will greet you and draw your attention to the heat. If it is too cold, the average Yoruba man will remind you that the weather is cold and try to identify with you: “E pele otutu yi.” For other Nigerians who have a different culture and tradition, it can be somewhat irritating. I once thanked a Fulani friend of mine for supporting me when my mother died, he had to remind me that I had already thanked him three times and he felt embarrassed being thanked again and again. He told me to stop!
I recall, most fondly the case of one of my late bosses in my days at The Guardian. Chief as we all called him was the eyes and the ears of the owner of the company. He was Mr. Alex Ibru’s cousin. In his own right, he was a distinguished journalist, one of the best that the Nigerian media industry ever produced. Knowledgeable, confident and self-assertive, Chief was not anybody’s fool. He was a no-nonsense person. He knew the job. He knew everybody. He was not afraid to make enemies. He groomed younger persons. He was our father. But one morning, one Yoruba boy made the mistake of greeting him too much. Yoruba people are very bad when it comes to greetings: they will look at the clock and tell you: “e ku asiko.” Other Nigerians don’t understand why an entire ethnic group must always greet people.
At The Guardian, this young Yoruba boy ran into Chief Andy Akporugo, and greeted him: “E pele sir. Migwo sir.”
Chief fired back: “Shut up. This is the fifth time you are greeting me today. Don’t you have work to do? And why are you not at your desk? Everywhere I go, I run into you and you are busy greeting. Go and sit down and work. Only God knows how many people you have greeted today. If I run into you again and you greet me, I will have you sacked.”
Before long, word went round that it was a crime to greet Chief Andy Akporugo twice in a day. The only problem was that Chief was everywhere. He moved around like a spirit and the staff felt obliged to greet him and pay homage. Some of us got away with it. He would tell me: “Abati, you know you are a brilliant young man, that is why you get away with everything.” God bless Chief’s soul. But I see his point. Yoruba people greet too much. I was in Abeokuta on Saturday. It was Lisabi day. Lisabi is the patron saint of Egbaland. In 1830, the people of Egbaland in the South Western part of Nigeria declared a nation and formed a government – The Egba United Government (EUG). They related directly with the British and other parts of Europe. In the course of the civil war in Yorubaland in the 19th Century, the Egbas were led by a man called Lisabi; that army later teamed up with the Ibadan army to protect the entire Yorubaland against the onslaught of the Fulani Army. They won the war.
They stopped the Fulani Army from dipping the Quoran into the Atlantic Ocean. But the Egba people betrayed Lisabi, their Generalissimo. To atone for that sin, Lisabi is celebrated every year by the people of Egbaland. The Egba National Anthem pays tribute to this valiant warrior. Every Egba child is known as “Omo Lisabi”. Whatever prayer that is taken to “Igbo Lisabi” the spot where the warrior decided to end it all, is answered. So we are told, even when there are other Egba heroes: Balogun Sodeke, Chief Apati of Kemta, Lemboye and Ayikondu of Igbein, Ogundipe Alatishe, Nlado of Kemta, Ogundeyi of Iporo, Sorunke and Aboaba of Igbein etc. In 1914, Lord Lugard amalgamated the Northern and Southern Protectorates, and the Lagos Colony. Egbaland thus became part of a new Nigeria. In 1859, Abeokuta was the first Nigerian town to have a newspaper: the Iwe Irohin founded by Henry Townsend of the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Its children will also become the many firsts in Nigerian professions due to early contact with Western education. In 1930, the people of Egbaland celebrated the first centenary of the Egba nation. There is a Centenary Hall in Abeokuta. The current Alake of Egbaland, Adedotun Gbadebo III, is planning to build a new monument to commemorate the history of the Egba people.
On Saturday, I was in Abeokuta. Although I was not directly involved in the preparations for Lisabi Day, having so far put off all chieftaincy title acceptance ceremonies, I felt a sense of duty to be in the town on the day the iconic Lisabi was being honoured. I was in town also for political reasons. There had been reports in the newspapers about further frictions in my political constituencies: Ogun Central and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the state. You will recall that I was a Deputy Gubernatorial candidate of the PDP in the 2019 general elections in Ogun State. I was a genuine running mate with only one name and solid certificates, if you know what I mean. I needed to talk to the stakeholders, the foot-soldiers and the people we call “strikers” to get a good sense of the politics. The first man I met was more interested in Corona Virus.
“Deputy, e ku Corona Virus oh.”
That threw me off balance. Two days earlier, an index case of Corona Virus involving an Italian who returned to the country on February 25 had been reported. The Yoruba people of South West Nigeria wasted no time in constructing a greeting around it: “E ku Corona o” (that is an announcement of awareness and an expression of concern”). “E pele Corona” (that is an expression of sympathy”). “A o ni ri ogun Corona lagbara Jesus” (that is a prayer in Jesus name). “Corona ko ni ko wa lo o” (These people are terrible: this statement means Corona will not destroy us.). “E de ku ti Corona yi o” (that is another expression of concern). The way Yoruba people greet and pray, you simply can’t stop them. Every hello is a paragraph. Every greeting is a philosophy. You just need to be patient. I was.
Nigeria’s first index case who is now in Yaba at the Lagos State Infectious Diseases Hospital was said to have visited Ogun State. He arrived in the country from Italy and went straight to Ewekoro, where there is a cement factory, less than 30 kilometres from Abeokuta. He then returned to Lagos where he has since been isolated. Ogun State has isolated 28 persons with whom the index case, hopefully he won’t be a super-spreader, reportedly had contact. Across the country, Nigeria has been on the equivalent of a red alert. The Federal Capital. Territory has isolated up to 9 persons. The Benue State Government has set up a 17-man committee to address the likely menace of Corona Virus. Plateau State has quarantined 43 persons in Wase LGA: 25 Nigerians and 18 foreigners. Edo State has put a mechanism in place to track all travelers to Edo State from every part of the country. On the face of it, Nigeria seems to have done better than other countries of the world. There is big panic in the United Kingdom with senior doctors protesting that the country is not prepared. In the United States where the first death has been recorded in Washington State, the people think a lot more can be done. In Italy, perhaps the second worst hit country, the authorities are just not prepared. Italy is overwhelmed. Iran is confused.
I have heard a few voices commending Nigeria. But we are not yet doing enough. We need to do more. It is not enough for President Muhammadu Buhari to tell us not to panic. Nigeria should panic. We face a public health safety crisis. Nobody should tell us not to panic. About the same time that Corona virus made its landing in Nigeria, we were told that Lassa Fever is a major problem in the country: over 100 reported deaths already in more than 27 states. Nigeria also has one of the highest rates of maternal morbidity and infant mortality in the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) has further reported that Nigeria has the highest sero-prevalence of tuberculosis in the world. HIV/AIDS rate may have reduced in Nigeria but it also remains a serious problem around here. Nigeria also ranks among countries with the highest rates of open defecation in the world. Thus, Nigeria is a country with a public health emergency. It is the more reason why every step must be taken to ensure that Corona Virus does not spread in Nigeria. So far, over 33 countries have been affected including the United States. There is no cure yet, and what we hear is that the fastest vaccine trial effort in Israel, will take up to three months. Since the Virus left Wuhan, its epicenter, there have been more cases outside China, with the new virulent cases being reported in Italy, South Korea and Iran. The entire world is vulnerable. Our world is at risk. Nobody is safe. The entire world faces the threat of disease. Humanity is humiliated, reminded forcefully and starkly, of its vulnerability and mortality. What is it that we do, that reminds us again and again of the helplessness of man in the face of the immensity and supremacy of the cosmos? I have no answer.
Before I left Abeokuta, however, I was shocked when someone asked me to pay for Corona, again in Yoruba language: “Deputy, e sanwo Corona oh”. I thought this was a joke. I felt like telling the guy he was mad, but he meant business. “E fun wa lowo Corona oh.” He was literally asking me to give him some money for Corona. He had no fever. Nobody around him had been diagnosed as a Corona patient. He just wanted money and he thought mentioning Corona would do the magic. I played along. “Corona ko ni ko wa lo o, tomo tomo.”. In Nigerian politics, you must learn to speak the people’s language and identify with them. The bigger epidemic in Nigeria, in any case, is the epidemic of empty pockets. The ordinary Nigerian will do anything to fill the emptiness of his or her pockets. It is therefore not surprising that the prices of sanitizers, face masks and hand wash have gone up. I won’t be surprised if very soon, there is a Nollywood movie on Corona Virus! I have already seen photos of some beautiful women carefully posted on Social Media with the message: “Not all Coronas are deadly!” Phone numbers are discreetly attached. In the midst of everything, sad and tragic, Nigerians always manage to be humorous. The only problem is that there is nothing laughable about a global epidemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) is yet to declare it a global pandemic. I think the time has come for that.
COVID-19 as it is designated by the WHO is worse than MERS, SARS, Zika and Ebola before it. Nigeria woke up early to the crisis. We must commend all the agencies that began with public sensitization and enlightenment programmes. The Federal Government, the state governments of Lagos, Ogun, Plateau, Benue and Edo States have so far done a good job of mobilizing the populace to take precautions or quarantine likely cases. But we certainly need to do a lot more, relying on lessons from other jurisdictions.
Is it possible for example for Nigeria to ban arrivals from all high-risk countries until further notice and that should include China, Japan, Italy, Iran, and South Korea? Can Nigeria also issue a travel advisory insisting that any Nigerian that has been in Europe in the last two weeks should be compulsorily isolated, and that no other Nigerian should go to Europe or Asia until further notice? Is it also possible to put every Nigerian state on red alert? There are reports that there is now in Nigeria a scarcity of hand wash, face masks, and sanitizers. The Federal Government should try every effort to ensure adequate supply of these protective materials particularly for our health personnel who are most at risk. Every available isolation and laboratory centre should also be upgraded. We should scale up medical checks at our ports of entry. The index case in Nigeria came in through Murtala Muhammed Airport. He should have been quarantined at the airport and not allowed into the community. As the Yoruba would say: “A o ni ri ogun Corona. Corona o ni ko wa lo o”. You will have to understand Yoruba to get that.
Yesterday at Arise News, Collins Khumalo of Arise Play came visiting. He had just returned from Europe. We greeted each other shaking legs. He too shook legs with Ijeoma Nwogwugwu, the MD of Arise News. I later exchanged leg greetings with Chika Mbonu, Arise News Business Analyst. When I ended up doing high-fives with Ijeoma, I quickly rushed into the bathroom to wash my hands. She provided money for the purchase of hand wash for all toilets in the building. We later resolved to advise one of our colleagues who just returned from Europe to stay away from the office for the next two weeks if she doesn’t mind. Covid-19 has brought a new form of madness into town. It is disrupting relationships and the way we behave and do business. Even the Nigerian Stock Market is down. The spot price of Brent Crude has crashed throwing Nigeria’s economy and the 2020 budget into disarray, with genuine anxieties about the eventual value of the national currency, the Naira. Market capitalization has declined. What have we done to deserve this? “E pele Corona oh.”
Reuben Abati is a host of the Morning Show on Arise Television. He was the spokesperson and special adviser, media and publicity to President Goodluck Jonathan (2011 – 2015). A former chairman of the editorial board of The Guardian, Dr. Abati is one of the most respected columnists in Nigeria. He writes his syndicated column twice a week. He tweets from @abati1990.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer.