MOMENTS after the Nigerian government, through the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, announced that the controversial team of Chinese medical experts in Nigeria was given only 30-day visa, the Chinese embassy in Nigeria disclosed that the team was actually given a three-month visa. Who is lying? Surely this can’t be one of those subterfuges in language and logic suggesting that the truth lies somewhere between the Nigerian assertion and Chinese refutation. Someone definitely must be lying.
At Tuesday’s PTF briefing, Internal Affairs minister, Rauf Aregbesola, with a smirk on his face, and believing that he had caught pressmen at their own devices, had told the public that the 15-man Chinese team arrived Nigeria on April 8 with a 30-day visa, but were stranded in Nigeria because of inability to get a flight from Nigeria. Not so, said the press officer of the Chinese Embassy, Sun Xaixiong, who insisted that the Chinese experts were given a three-month visa. According to Mr Sun, the team was stranded in Nigeria because “commercial flights to China were not opened yet”.
Right from the beginning of the Chinese medical team saga, neither the Chinese nor Nigerian version of the visit has been consistent. The PTF, through the Health minister, Osagie Ehanire, and others had always argued that they were not privy to the visit of the medical experts organised by the China Civil Engineering Construction Cooperation(CCECC) in Nigeria mainly to attend to the medical needs of the staff of that company. Nigeria would merely seize the opportunity of the visit to make the team share knowledge and expertise with their Nigerian medical counterparts. But they came with a 16-ton medical equipment.
Between April 8 when the Chinese experts arrived Nigeria and last Tuesday, the Nigerian and Chinese versions of the team’s visit had so morphed that it is impossible to describe it in any consistent and coherent colour or shape. Not only did Nigerians denounce the visit, despite the adamant interest of the Nigerian government in welcoming the Chinese experts, they also, through the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), resolved not to welcome them into Nigerian hospitals or allow them interact with patients. In summary, the Nigerian position concerning the visit was that “The Chinese medics will be providing technical support to Nigeria in its fight against COVID-19, and also sharing experiential strategies of how their country curtailed the spread of the virus.” For the Chinese, the Executive Director of China Civil Engineering Construction Cooperation(CCECC), Jacques Liao, had insisted that “the primary purpose of the team is to provide CCECC employees with critical and necessary healthcare.”
What a relief then that, last Tuesday, Mr Aregbesola finally disclosed some of the key assignments of the Chinese team, a disclosure that conflicts with the original position of the Nigerian government. Said Mr Aragbesola: “Indeed 15 Chinese nationals came into Nigeria on April 8. From everything we have heard and said, they were here on the bill of CCECC, a Chinese company working in Nigeria, doing some work for us in several places. And in conjunction with some Nigerian companies, they agreed to support us with efforts to respond to the pandemic. At Idu, they participated in retrofitting and equipping the isolation centre there. They equally worked on the dome project that was handled by the NNPC consortium in conjunction with THISDAY. Those are the locations in which they came to work.”
It took many weeks to get a fair picture of how and why the Chinese medical team came to Nigeria, though it required navigating a warren of lies and half-truths. At a point, the Health minister was so exasperated with the probing questions of Nigerian reporters that he blurted out that he would no longer welcome any question on the subject. Well, Mr Aregbesola has answered some of the pesky additional questions, only that unfortunately, his answer also contained half-truths. Though a clearer picture of the Chinese visit has come out, there is little doubt that the Nigerian government was determined not to say the whole truth. Indeed, they were probably responsible for the half-truths that ensnared the Chinese.
Hopefully, sometime soon, it will be clear just how many months visa the Chinese team were given, whether 30 days or three months. Nigeria is enamoured of incremental truths. But there is something both the Nigerian and Chinese governments will never be able to put to rest: why the medical experts are still in Nigeria. At a point Dr Ehanire said he didn’t know where they were and what they were doing. But if they were retrofitting an isolation centre in Abuja, surely, he should know. It is curious that the Internal Affairs minister knew and the Health minister did not.
It is also perhaps too much to hope that someone would explain why the Chinese team was able to get a chartered flight to Nigeria on April 8 despite closure of airports, and they can’t get a chartered flight back to China while the closure subsists. All the doubts and lies, not to talk of the irresponsible manner the Nigerian authority shoved the visit down the throats of the electorate, indicate how poorly developed Nigerian democracy still is. If votes count, and the electorate were enlightened, no government could take the people on a merry-go-round of duplicitous stories that do not and can never add up. After all, when the Chinese team arrived Nigeria on April 8, the country had 276 confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease and six deaths. By Friday, May 22, the country had skyrocketed into 6,677 cases and 200 deaths. Who knows, Nigerian officials may yet argue that had the Chinese not come, the situation might have been much worse. Very artful people!