We are receiving disturbing reports that the COVID-19 food aid in Rivers State goes mainly to members of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the State, on the strict instructions of Mr Nyesom Wike, the Governor of Rivers State.
Two weeks ago, the Rivers State Government succumbed to pressure from civic leaders to provide food aid to vulnerable families and communities affected by the lock down, due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
But in reaction to the clamour, governor Wike chose none other than Mr Desmond Akawor, the recently elected Rivers State Chairman of the PDP, to lead the food distribution effort.
According to reports, recipients of the food aid must present their party cards or swear an oath of total loyalty to the governor, under the harsh gaze of Mr Wike’s dreaded political enforcers at the food distribution venues.
Are these reports true? If not, the State government should address these concerns urgently.
An important first step would be for Mr Akawor (the recently elected Chairman of the Rivers State branch of the Peoples Democratic Party), to resign his post as the head of the food aid committee immediately,.
This will alleviate perceptions of partisanship in the food aid distribution effort.
Furthermore, we have seen video footage that shows that food items bought with State funds are stored in the governor’s political campaign office, where only accredited party stalwarts are allowed in.
This is not only illegal, it is a violation of global standards of humanitarian relief work.
A proper and institutional approach would be to use the facilities and personnel of the Rivers State Ministry of Social Welfare, in the storage and distribution of relief materials.
This will help build institutional capacity for future emergencies, and entrench transparency in the system.
As we continue to monitor and evaluate reports from ordinary citizens, neutral community leaders, faith leaders and social partners in the field, we wish to remind Governor Nyesom Wike as follows :
- Any unfair and discriminatory distribution of relief aid is a violation of International law, norms and practices. Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food..”.
- The use of food as a political weapon is also a direct contravention of Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which recognizes people’s right to food, and “the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger”.
- Depriving vulnerable children of critical food aid in the midst of a deadly pandemic, because of the perceived political affiliations of their parents, would be a serious breach of the founding principles of UNICEF.
- We plan to share our final report with the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Security Council, the UN World Food Programme, and the United Nations Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF), among others.
But we invite these global bodies to note the early signals of potential malpractice in the relief aid distribution process now underway in Rivers State.
We believe that food should never be used as a weapon by political actors.
In the context of the lethal COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world, the politicization of relief aid would be considered a crime against humanity.
- Dr Austin Tam-George is a former Rivers State Information and Strategy Commissioner.