The COVID-19 pandemic has indeed had a hideous impact on nations globally, leaving no one untouched. Although the International Monetary Fund has projected a deep coronavirus-induced global recession, which threatens a nearly 4% drop in world GDP and could drag the GDP of African economies into a fall of about 1.4%, with smaller economies facing a contraction of up to 7.8%. African leaders have remained undaunted as formed a consortium to collectively address the challenges facing each nation and the continent. In this exclusive interview with African Leadership Magazine’s Mayowa Jolayemi, Serah Makka-Ugbabe, ONE Campaign’s Nigeria Director and Oulie Keita, Francophone West Africa Director spoke extensively on how African Leaders have responded proactively to the COVID-19 pandemic and on ONE Campaign’s advocacy programmes in fighting extreme poverty and preventable diseases across the continent. Excerpt:

Interview:

  1. Tell us Serah, at the initial stage of the COVID-19 outbreak, what was your response to the pandemic in relation to ONE CAMPAIGN’s mandate of fighting preventable diseases?

Serah Makka-Ugbabe: ONE’s mission is to eliminate extreme poverty and preventable diseases, and our focus really is on the continent. Before COVID, what is important to note is we had poverty globally falling but within Africa, it was growing. In fact, COVID is one of those issues where the national response is not good enough. It requires a global response because until all of us are safe, none of us is safe. Until everyone in the world is guarding the citizens and is guarding themselves, no one is truly safe, so we went into gear and started working on the ONE World campaign.

  1. Oulie, you have engaged in high-level lobbying of the United Nations Security Council, the World Bank Group, various Heads of State and with your wealth of experience at the USAID, ECOWAS, the African Union and the UNDP, with a pandemic of this magnitude, what are the priority points that you believe governments, private organizations and development organizations should really focus on at this time?

Oulie Keita: The COVID-19 pandemic is primarily a health crisis but with human tragedy. As you can see, we have been working, and governments have been working together to face economic ramifications in Africa. This COVID has definitely disrupted millions of people’s livelihood with impacts on poor household, small and informal businesses, and of course, no country in the world is exempt from the impact of this pandemic. The priority points where I believe governments, private organizations and development organizations should really focus on at this time is on doubling down on efforts to safeguard economies and livelihood across Africa and most importantly, the transparent utilization of the funds that were allocated since the pandemic began. Many governments have given millions of dollars to economic stimulus funds as their response to the pandemic. However, we know that the issues of transparency and accountability in our countries are usually not well taken care of, so we have all these money going into these countries, and we don’t know where this money is going or if the money is actually benefiting the intended beneficiaries. I think this pandemic presents an opportunity for all African governments, development institutions, private sectors to really take a critical look at, first of all, our health care systems, we have to be able to secure supply chains of the PPEs, the masks, Gels and especially the healthcare workers. We also have to look at the stability of our financial systems. Whether it’s small or medium businesses as well as the viability of household economic welfare. You know, we have seen global pandemics before with Ebola, and we know how that has affected the supply chains with good coming from Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Now that the airports are closed and we are on lockdown, in terms of import and export, we are suffering; in terms of foreign direct investments, FDI, we are suffering drastically. With travel bans, lockdowns, and all of the limitations that were imposed because of the pandemic have really disrupted our ways of living alongside businesses and governments agencies. So, if you think about all of that and look at a country like Nigeria, which is the number one economy on our continent, and the impact of the oil and gas sector, that shows that if Nigeria is sick, the rest of Africa will be sick. It’s really been hard on all of the African countries so the financial and economic recovery and the viability of the household’s economic welfare is really important. We should focus on strengthening the preventing and limiting of local transmission. We understand that the coronavirus is here to stay at least for a while; we should focus on limiting the transmission. We should improve the way the surveillance systems and training of front line responders. We should expand testing and provide medical equipment such as gloves and masks and ventilators to our healthcare facilities that are lacking all of these things, and we should continue on the sensitization, the Solidarity, and the no-stigmatization messages because as we know, we are touch and feel its community. As African, we cannot live without each other and physical distancing is difficult for us, so we need to be able to protect ourselves and stay in Solidarity with the people who are sick.

Coupling all these with the partnership and the collaboration that Africans need to really strengthen with the external partners like the bilateral and multilateral financial institutions like the WBG, AfDB, IMF and the likes. If we are able to manage the national points that I have listed, then African governments can find ways to deal with these diseases and to contain it.

  1. We have seen what some experts call ‘Impressive” leadership from female heads of government as these countries seem to be particularly successful in fighting the coronavirus. Countries such as New Zealand (Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern), Finland (Prime Minister Sanna Marin), Germany (Angela Merkel) , Taiwan (Tsai Ing-wen), Iceland, Norway, Denmark. Experts have also said that women’s success may still offer valuable lessons about what can help countries weather not just this crisis, but others in the future. What invaluable lessons would you want female leaders draw from these heads of state as you may also have been inspired? – Serah

Serah Makka-Ugbabe: Yea, you see, one of the more joyful outcomes of this pandemic is to see female leaders step up in an environment where the narrative is on leadership where there is gender bias against female leaders. Seeing this pattern emerge is gratifying. I will like to put something in other. I will not say what females should learn, but I will say what all leaders should learn. Certainly, these women have demonstrated true principles of leadership that are good for men and women. Uhm, I think it is worth noting what is pulling out and this is what I am learning personally from them. A couple of things are coming out; one is that these leaders tend to be listeners. I cannot emphasize it enough that in leadership, you are not the expert of everything. You need to pull an expert, and you need to listen to what the experts are saying. Being a good listener is one of the principles we see emerging as a game-changer for moments and challenging situations like this.

The second point is who you listen to. Not all speakers are saying the right things, so whom do you listen to? I think what we are seeing is that these female leaders are listening to experts. Science and facts are dominating in an environment of a pandemic where these are leading the way. They are listening to those experts. One of the Presidents has a Vice President that is an Epidemiologist. Being able to listen to facts and science is important. For a pandemic, science leads and politics needs to follow. I also think that acceptance of science is helping them to have an open mind that perhaps, the course we have decided to go on is not the right one, so there is a need to change course. That ability to welcome diverse viewpoints as you listen is pivotal. I think the dynamism of being able to course-correct has played out. For me, the one thing that when I compare the countries that are doing well, and I must say, there are countries that are led by men that are also doing well. The Solidarity of most of the African leaders at the African Union should also be applauded, that ability to come together and respond quickly, decisively in a pandemic. But the number one principle that is coming up to the top is the ability to listen. I cannot emphasize that enough, Listening and leadership go hand in hand, and they are very important. And we hope that this moment breaks down the narrative and changes the world’s perception about women and leadership because I do think that there is something special about women who can lead well.

  1. I have listened to ONE CAMPAIGN’s theme song “Stand Together” by ten-strong African Artists. It is such a beautiful song with strong words. Some lines I picked says, “it might be difficult until it passes” and that “nobody is safe until everybody is safe.” How well would you say African Nations have stayed together in the fight against extreme poverty and preventable diseases?  – Oulie

Oulie Keita: From where I stand, African governments, I think have really pulled up from their solidarity hats for the most part of these times. We have seen from the onset of the pandemic. You may recall when the Finance Ministers of the African Union all got together asking for the cancellation of the debt, calling for a $100 billion dollar debt relief from bilateral / multilateral and commercial partners, with the support of the international community to ensure African counties have what it takes to deal with the COVID-19. The money that we spend in debt could be used to improve our healthcare systems during the crisis. I think that this is the spirit of Solidarity of Africans and the African Union. In addition, all African countries are working with the African CDC on various mechanisms. For example, Senegal and all other African countries are working with Africa CDC to develop the COVID-19 vaccines in Africa. This is unique because usually, we would wait 7-10 years after a vaccine is already created in the west and after waiting for that long, there is the issue of access and cost, with the poorest of the poor who don’t get the vaccine. Making this collaboration at the African level with the African CDC, with Nigeria taking leadership, with countries really coming together and finding resources and creativity for our own, I think that’s really unique. We haven’t seen this in such a long time, so I actually do applaud the African Union and African governments for really coming together in Solidarity because none of us is safe until everybody is safe and they really got it this time.

Serah Makka-Ugbabe: What Oulie says about the Solidarity is actually correct, we saw the play out. 2 things worth adding is that the African Union have come together and provided a strategy on how to tackle COVID-19, which is not something we see with the European Governments. We also know that recently, the African Union in concert with the private sector came and developed a pulling order so that they can purchase medical equipment in bulk as Africa as opposed to each individual country. To buttress the song, that is standing together we saw in real life.

  1. The UNDP Administrator, Achim Steiner in a tweet said that, “The 2020 Multi-dimensional poverty index shows that countries have made significant progress to improve lives of the most vulnerable. Rather than allow these gains to be reversed by COVID-19, governments must seize this moment to redouble efforts to end poverty.” What better approach should governments, private sectors and other development agencies engage in combating the impacts of COVID-19 which the African Development Bank have already projected that about 50 million African are more likely to be drawn into extreme poverty as a result of this pandemic? – Oulie

Oulie Keita: Absolutely, you know in Africa, the informal sector makes up about 80% of the population. This is classified as a set of economic activities, enterprises and jobs that are not regulated by the market, as so, the government do not protect them. You can imagine if that many people cannot function or lose their jobs and are not economically viable because of this devastating COVID-19 pandemic, how this will be devastating to the local economy. African people are struggling with little or no help from the government, for the most informal part, which represents the majority of the working population, most businesses were also closed or affected, one way or another, because of the lockdown. If governments do not see this as an opportunity to change things around, by doubling efforts on economic stimulus and the transparency and accountability mechanism as I had noted before, we would, unfortunately, have to face another disaster.

And so, if you look at the rising death tolls from this pandemic, this has provided us with a chance to do development differently. This is an opportunity for us to shift towards actively shaping and creating markets that deliver sustainable and inclusive growth for most, especially the informal population. I think we should continue to limit the roles of government by the international community as to how we regulate the market. African markets should be an opportunity to see the African people as the customers and regulate the market based on the Africans themselves.

With that said, we can proactively invest in institutions that prevent a crisis like the healthcare systems. We should coordinate with scientific and technological experts in those domains, as well as research and development activities, using the public-private partnership model to ensure that both citizens and economies are benefiting from the system. If those in the informal sectors are included as actors, they can contribute to the system meaningfully and shape our economies based on our local needs. We need to look at transparency and accountability. The problem is that we have the resources in Africa. Africa is not poor; we are a rich continent, but the way we use these resources does not benefit the local population.

We need to take advantage of this situation and reinvent the wheel for the benefit of the African people. We need to put the African people at the driver seat and move from the way business is done and show preparedness by putting in place the right infrastructure such as the right healthcare system with well-trained personnel, viable funding for SMEs, technology-enabled schooling system and ensuring food security.

We need to take advantage of this situation and really double efforts to fight poverty to the roots and make sure that we are ready in case of other pandemics.

  1. This health crisis and ensuing lockdowns have destroyed jobs, crippled incomes and devastated economies across the continent. What are the actionable plans the ONE is working on in Nigeria, in Francophone Africa to achieve her objectives to: 1. reverse the impacts of COVID-19, and 2. in achieving her objectives by 2030? – Serah

Serah Makka-Ugbabe: One of the things Oulie said is correct, and it is that there is an opportunity here for us to redesign, build back better and as she said, reinvent the wheels and put African citizen at the head of the wheel. Coming back to the One Campaign, what are we actually doing? We are doing things on two levels; one is on a global level the other is on pan-African and the other one perhaps will be a national level. When we started this effort with the ONE World Campaign, our number one objective was to stand with the African Ministers. So at the start of the pandemic, the ministers got together and said we need a $100 billion and then that was changed to $200 billion as an economic stimulus to our economy. I think it is worth noting that throughout the world, other countries gave themselves economic stimulus, the US pumped about $2 trillion dollars that is more than twice the GDP of entire sub-Saharan Africa into one country. China also gave themselves a significant economic stimulus. The EU gave themselves about $.8 trillion dollars stimulus. What Africa was asking for was about $200 billion. Now the difference between the others and us is that we did not have enough resources in our coffers, so we needed to go and ask for loans. We went out to the multilateral and bilateral entities and private sectors creditors and said we need the $200 billion stimulus to do two things. First, it will help us get some resources that we can bolster our economies. People are out of work; our healthcare system was going to be tasked severely given COVID; Agriculture and food supply chains were being dried up, and farmers could not go to their farms, commodity prices were dropping; so we needed these resources to bolster our economy.

The second reason was for debt suspension. As you know, many countries get debt to finance their activities within their country. We wanted multilateral and bilateral organizations to suspend debt for at least two years, so that bolster our economy.

Right now, ONE is joining our voice alongside other NGOs and CSOs around the world to call for debt suspension for African countries, and we are standing with the African Finance Ministers because it is what they demanded and we support their demand. We look at how parliamentarians get involved with this, how the bilateral entities pull in, how to put pressure on the different factors to ensure that we can get this done for Africa, for an economic stimulus.

On a more Pan-African and more global level, we are looking at vaccines and one other the things we say is “none of us is safe until all of us are safe.” Frankly, the only way we can get safe is when we have a vaccine. However, when that vaccine is developed, we need to make sure the pricing is adequate for poor countries, and we need to make sure it is equitably distributed. What we saw when COVID hit was that countries were closing their borders, not willing to send their equipment abroad because we do not have enough. We do not want to send our personal protective gear because we do not have enough. There was a lot of an understandably hoarding mentality. When the vaccines are created, we want to ensure that, that hoarding mentality is not part of the equation.

As you know, there is a $31.3 billion fund, being raised to ensure we have about 2 billion vaccines available the first year. The World Bank is undertaking this pretty significant project. The goal is to ensure that everyone who wants a vaccine should have one. The vaccines should be equitably distributed. We do not want one country buying off all the vaccines and another country not having enough. So we are part of those conversations here at ONE. To ensure that once the vaccines are available, they are equitably distributed t that Africa’s voice is in the mix, African Scientists are in the mix and that African pharmaceutical companies can also distribute these vaccines when they are created.

Also, we are making sure that countries are ready for the next pandemic. In Nigeria, we have the “make naija stronger campaign” to bolster the primary health care centres and thankfully, we joined the Campaign with other CSO’s in Nigeria to call for 1% for basic health care in Nigeria. After three years of campaigning, we got $153 million dollars, which is now a recurring amount into the basic health care fund. The basic health care is still not being delivered, but we are campaigning that people in the rural areas have these free basic package, where if you go to the clinic, you get malaria treatment free, typhoid treatment free, caesarean section is free, basic things for maternal and infant under five years old. We have been making sure that the basic health care provision fund is up and running, which is also going to help us build our healthcare systems so that if a next pandemic comes or this, we have a strong network of thirty thousand healthcare centres in Nigeria.

These are a few of the things we do at especially at this time that COVID has really exposed the system and the vulnerabilities within the system and it calls for a moment like this when our nation is being tasked for us to rise up and I believe that is what we are trying to do at ONE.