The accountability examples highlighted in this essay are in the context of countries with democratic governments that require elected political leadership teams to take responsibility for the outcomes of their actions and decisions. And the examples relate specifically to the management of the coronavirus crisis that has been ravaging almost every country across the continents for over six months. After providing g illustrations of good and bad accountability examples, drawing on selected international experiences, I review the Nigerian experience to date. And I conclude with some comparative notes.
Good Accountability Examples With the backdrop of effective crisis leadership demonstrated by the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, the resignation of David Clark, a cabinet member in charge of the health sector until his resignation, is a good accountability example. After breaking the country’s lockdown in April for which he was demoted to the bottom of cabinet rankings, Mr Clark resigned from the cabinet in early July after he took responsibility for the poor handling of border and isolation facilities in the country. His “goodbye” statement echoes the definition of accountability provided in the opening paragraph: “I take full responsibility for decisions made and taken during my time as Minister of Health.” To date, New Zealand has had just 1,556 cases and 22 deaths, and there has been no infection since late May.
A second example is the United Kingdom that has had one of the world’s 10 highest infections (over 299,000) and the world’s third highest deaths (over 45,000) by July 26. In the heat of public debate of the government’s gradual relaxation of lockdown in late June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson was asked whether he will take responsibility for whatever happened next. The PM responded: “Yes, of course, I take a responsibility, the government takes a responsibility for these decisions.” He added that while his leadership team is indebted to the Covid-19 scientific advisers, his team is responsible for the decisions. Again, this is consistent with the definition of accountability adopted in this essay. Notwithstanding UK’s poor coronavirus management outcomes to date – compared to other European countries, it has the second-highest infections and the highest deaths – the political leadership’s sense of responsibility deserves to be highlighted. Bad Accountability Examples The two selected bad accountability examples are Brazil and USA. Notwithstanding the rapidly increasing number of Covid-19 cases in Brazil in April/May, the leadership of the health sector responsible for managing the crisis was changed thrice under president Jair Bolsanaro’s watch. In April, he fired the health minister after publicly criticising him for urging people to observe social distancing and stay indoors. Then, in less than one month, the successor health minister resigned because he disagreed with the president over his plans to open up the economy without any restrictions and over how hydroxychloroquine should be used as cure for coronavirus. The new health minister, General Eduardo Pazuello, unlike his two predecessors has no medical education background; he is a logistics professional. Given the prevailing outcomes with respect to coronavirus cases and deaths, second highest in both categories (over 2.4 million cases and over 87,000 deaths by July 26), Brazilians are certain to regard their president as a bad accountability example. Although President Bolsanaro has attributed his recovery from a positive to a negative Covid-19 test (from July 7 to July 25) to hydroxychloroquine pills that he took, the drug’s failure to help stem the tide of ever-increasing fatalities in the country is consistent with the scientific consensus on its ineffectiveness. In the USA, our second example, President Trump combines taking responsibility with blaming China, his predecessor (President Obama), the World Health Organisation, his scientific advisers (especially the straight-talking Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), as well as some subnational state governments for the country’s poor outcomes with respect to the coronavirus crisis. By July 26, USA had the world’s highest number of cases (over 4.3 million) and deaths (over 149,000). The recent resurgence of the virus in a majority of the country’s fifty states could mean that both unenviable records will remain unbeatable. Evidence of the extent of President Trump’s blame of the WHO is his decision to end USA’s membership of the organisation effective from July 2021. Significantly, the Speaker of the country’s House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, reacted to this development as follows: “The President’s withdrawal from @WHO as it leads the fight against COVID-19 is an act of extraordinary senselessness. Again, and again, he [President Trump] blames others and refuses to take responsibility.” How will US citizens react to President Trump’s bad accountability example highlighted here during the country’s forthcoming presidential election in November 2020? Interested readers will find out within about 100 days. Nigerian Experience President Buhari has largely relied on a Presidential Task Force (PTF) for managing the coronavirus crisis in the country. Although his occasional interventions through national broadcasts on the subject qualify as an admission of his overall accountability for the outcomes recorded in managing the crisis, he has clearly not demonstrated crisis leadership. Indeed, his delegation of leadership roles for coronavirus crisis management is like an abandonment of both leadership and responsibility. Although a few subnational government leaders are providing fairly effective crisis leadership, nation-wide progress in handling the COVID-19 crisis requires effective crisis leadership at the national level. For example, PTF’s briefings that have been widely acknowledged as focused and substantive would have benefitted from monthly participation by the President: to underscore the seriousness of the crisis and add both weight and urgency to the PTF’s guidelines. To date, the coronavirus crisis management outcomes in the country are poor: Africa’s third-highest number of cases (40,532) and the fourth-highest number of deaths (858). Given the very limited testing capacity across the country with only a few exceptions, there is strong likelihood of worse outcomes in the near future. Other issues that could impact negatively on future outcomes include continued virtual denial of the virus in many parts of the country, especially in the rural communities; inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers; and the flip flops on the reopening of places of worship and schools. Conclusion: Four Comparative Notes First, the bad accountability examples reviewed above – Brazil, Nigeria and USA – are characterized by poor coronavirus crisis management outcomes. Second, the two good accountability examples, New Zealand and UK have strikingly contrasting coronavirus crisis management outcomes: good outcomes in New Zealand and poor outcomes in the UK. Although good accountability example can go pari passu with both good and bad outcomes, effective crisis leadership is required for ensuring good outcomes. Third, two leaders who combine some degree of acceptance of responsibility with blaming others, ranging from members of their political leadership teams to scientific advisers, ensure poor coronavirus management outcomes. Fourth, and finally, the five-country examples reviewed briefly in this essay point up two equations for discussion and debate. A: Effective crisis leadership + good accountability example = good coronavirus crisis management outcomes. B: Weak crisis leadership + bad accountability example = poor coronavirus crisis management outcomes. New Zealand is the obvious example of A. Any list of the top 10 most effective crisis leaders since the outbreak of Covid-19 is almost certain to include its Prime Minister, Ms. Jacinda Ardern. Regarding equation B, Brazil, Nigeria and USA are stand-out examples. And I would conjecture that the leaders of the three countries are likely to feature in the bottom league of crisis leadership with respect to coronavirus management.