COVID-19: AN APPRAISAL OF THE EFFECTS OF THE PANDEMIC ON THE NIGERIAN ECONOMY
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, which began in Wuhan, China in late December 2019, has spread to nearly every corner of the world. After the first recorded death as a result of COVID-19 complications, the World Health Organisation (WHO) on January 30, 2020, for the 6th time in history, declared the novel virus as a global pandemic. On the 27th of February, 2020, the index case was announced in Nigeria after an Italian man who had traveled to Lagos from Milan, Italy tested positive to the virus. This led to a sequence of actions by the government in a bid to control the further spread of the virus within our borders. As at 8th of May, 2020 the number of confirmed cases in Nigeria had risen to 3912 cases.
The pandemic has since developed beyond a health crisis into economic consequences such as distorting household income, business revenues, and government incomes. This article seeks to consider the effects the pandemic has had on different facets of human endeavor and the Nigerian economy.
KEY AREAS AFFECTED BY THE PANDEMIC:
- Justice Administration and Dispensation
The effect of the pandemic on the legal system in Nigeria is enormous, especially on the criminal justice system. The courts are closed, detainees are kept in custody indefinitely, while hearings, judgments, and rulings to determine peoples’ liberty or liability remain suspended until further notice. Heads of the various courts had technically shut down their premises but for only skeletal operations prior to the easing of the lockdown which obstructed access to justice.
The National Judicial Council (NJC) has however come up with uniform guidelines and measures to enable safe court sittings during this pandemic period. Some states prior to this development had already put in place parameters to ensure virtual proceedings were conducted and run smoothly, such states as Lagos and Borno states. The legality of virtual court proceedings, in light of section 36 (3) (4) of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution and the case of Edibo v State which are authorities on the need for judicial proceedings to be held in public places, has however been a subject of debate in certain quarters.
- Economic Policy and Palliative Programmes
The government has introduced import duty waivers for pharmaceutical companies and increased efforts toward ensuring that they receive forex. Cash transfers worth ₦20,000 (Twenty Thousand Naira) was also made to indigent families registered in the National Social Register of Poor and Vulnerable Households. The said register is however a questionable one and these payments are likely to reach only a fraction of the Nigerians who will need economic assistance. The House of Representatives also passed the Emergency Economic Stimulus bill, 2020 to provide a 50% tax rebate for employers and business owners who agree to not make staff cuts in 2020.
Already, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has arranged fiscal stimulus packages, including a ₦50 billion credit facility to households and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) most affected by the pandemic, a ₦100 billion loan to the health sector, and a 1 trillion naira to the manufacturing sector. In addition, the interest rates on all CBN interventions have been revised downwards from 9 to 5 percent, and a one-year moratorium period on CBN intervention facilities has been introduced, effective March 1, 2020.
The Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), through various press releases, likewise announced palliative measures to cushion the effect of the pandemic on taxpayers. Chief amongst the palliatives is the waiver of all penalties and interests for taxpayers as long as they pay their debt in full on or before 31st May, 2020, revised and extended due date for the filing of tax returns. However, by a Press release on the 22 of April, 2020, the service appealed to sectors, such as the telecommunications and financial services sectors, experiencing a boom and significant income during this pandemic to pay their taxes as at when due.
The onset of COVID-19 pandemic and its global spread has resulted in a fall in oil prices due to reduced demand and the price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. The prices recovered, however, partially after hopes for an agreement between Russia and OPEC increased. Nevertheless, the prices are expected to remain volatile for at least six months after the pandemic. With oil being Nigeria’s major source of revenue and foreign exchange, amid the steep decline in oil prices, the official exchange rate has been adjusted from ₦306 to ₦390. This means the naira has further depreciated compared to the dollar.
When the President signed the ₦10.50 trillion 2020 budget in December 2019, oil production was pegged at 2.18 million barrels per day, with a price benchmark of $57 per barrel. As it stands from the recent oil price slash, the benchmark cannot or may not finance the projected revenue for the year. Thus, in the coming months, the country would experience tough times as the 2020 budget would be reviewed downwards. The crisis has led to a massive decline in stock prices, as the Nigerian Stock Exchange records its worst performance since the 2008 financial crisis, which has eroded the wealth of investors.
The pandemic also has dire implications on the aviation, tourism, and hospitality sectors as gross loss of revenue is being recorded due to closed air space and ban on international and interstate travel. Major players in these sectors, which are one of the hardest-hit, are considering furloughing their employees as a measure to cope with the harsh realities of the pandemic.
Contracting parties affected by the pandemic would most likely be looking to terms in their contract to minimize their financial losses as the pandemic forces closure and cancellations and hinders productivity in many industries. Business contracts often include force majeure protections that let parties off the hook for obligations that go unfulfilled in the happening of an event beyond their control which interfere with their ability to hold up their end of the bargain.
If invoked, the clauses can relieve parties from commitments, temporarily or permanently, without being in breach of their agreement. However, a pertinent question to ask is if the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a force majeure. The answer to this depends on the wordings of individuals contracts. Contracts that include force majeure provisions tend to spell out qualifying events and as a general principle of law, terms of a contract are interpreted narrowly. Parties whose contracts lack protective force majeure provisions may have some other avenues to avoid the consequences of breaching a binding agreement. This avenue is known as the doctrine of Frustration.
The legal doctrine of frustration makes provision for the discharge of a contract where, subsequent to its formation, a change of circumstances occurs without default of either party as to make it legally, physically, or commercially impossible to fulfill the contract. Usage of the two doctrines over time has been intertwined, however, the distinguishing factor is that while Frustration can be implied in a contract, Force majeure cannot be implied or invoked where a contract does not specifically provide for it.
- Fintech and Electronic Payments
It is general knowledge that one of the several ways person-to-person transmission of the virus can occur is through the exchange of cash. The WHO advised consumers to avoid handling bank notes and instead switch to contactless payments. This has led to an increase in the adoption of USSD and mobile money platforms for retail payments. Although the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is yet to make any pronouncement about the use of currency notes, a rise in the volume of online transactions and electronic payments has been recorded.
The loss of physical banking due to the lockdown as a measure to control the spread of the virus has been a gain for electronic payments, and this has a ripple effect on telecoms and internet service providers. This period has also put to test the reliability, availability, and security of bank’s ATMs, online transactions, mobile apps, etc.
Although fintech are known to thrive in challenges as it shines in adversity, the sector is not immune from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the challenges the sector faces are an increase in cyber threats and fraud, high cost of data and internet tariffs, lack of structured data necessary for making informed decisions, and poor infrastructure (power supply and telecoms services).
- Health Care Sector
The pandemic has revealed the acute deficiency in the health care sector in Nigeria. Lack of standard equipment and poor welfare packages of health workers has been brought to light. Hospitals and clinics are experiencing a reduction of in-person clinic visits due to social distancing. Some hospitals have been shut down due to exposure to the virus thereby limiting access of a person to quality health care services.
Enterprises engaged in the health sector are significantly affected by the pandemic. With hospitals running out of drugs, test kits and protective masks, and pharmaceutical companies (particularly in Africa) unable to either import drugs or raw materials from affected producing countries around the world; there is pressure on the supply side of the market with many pre-COVID-19 arrangements/orders disrupted.
Manufacturing was declared by the government to be essential services and thus not directly affected by the lockdown put in place in the states that have been worst-hit by the spread of the virus. However, the restrictions on the movement of people and border closures foreshadow a decline in exports, access to raw materials for industries, and supply chain marketing.
The COVID-19 health crisis has, within a few weeks, fundamentally changed the way we live. Our most basic understandings of our freedoms to go about our daily lives as we choose has been upended. This pandemic has also exposed the lack of digital readiness of the economy to reflect modern realities. It is thus a wake-up call to policymakers as the unusual and unprecedented nature of the crisis has deeply affected the economy, hence, tougher decisions need to be made, including but not limited to diversifying the country’s revenue base away from oil exports and improving investments in the health care sector in ensuring that the economy is able to recover quickly from difficult conditions in the future.
- The Coronavirus pandemic has presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the digital transformation of the civil and criminal justice systems of Nigeria. It can help kickstart the long-overdue comprehensive reform of the justice system. This is a call for greater use of technology in court processes to speed them up and decongest the courts.
- The Nigerian government must lead economic diversification drive. It is one practicable way to saddle through the current economic uncertainties and instabilities. The government must begin to look beyond oil as the mainstay of the economy.
- The Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) as well as States Inland Revenue Services (SIRS) should waive payments on personal and corporate income tax for the second quarter of 2020, considering that the shock has affected the income and profits of households and businesses.
 Senior Associate with the Company Secretarial and Legal Advisory Team of Lords and Temple Attorneys.
 Associate with the Dispute Resolution, Real Estate and Corporate Commercial Practice of Lords and Temple Attorneys.
 WHO Timeline- COVID-19, https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/27-04-2020-who-timeline—covid-19
 Data from the Nigeria center for Disease Control (NCDC) official twitter handle, accessed on the 9th of May, 2020 at about 4:13pm.
 Unini Chioma, COVID-19: NJC Releases Guidelines for Virtual Court Sitting, Payment of Filing Fee, Hearing Notices, Others, https://thenigerialawyer.com/covid-19-njc-releases-guidelines-for-virtual-court-sitting-payment-of-filing-fee-hearing-notices-others-in-full/
 Bolanle Olabimtan, “Borno Sets Up Virtual Courtroom- First in Nigeria”, The Nation, https://www.thecable.ng/borno-sets-up-virtual-courtroom-first-in-nigeria
 (2007) 13 NWLR (Pt. 1051) p. 306
 Nigeria: Protect Most Vulnerable in COVID-19 Response, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/04/14/nigeria-protect-most-vulnerable-covid-19-response
 On the 23rd March, 6th April and 30th April, 2020 respectively.
 Update on Covid-19 Tax Palliatives to Support Taxpayers, https://thetaxville.com.ng/update-on-covid-19-tax-palliatives-to-support-taxpayers/
 How long will it take for the oil prices to stabilise after the COVID-19 pandemic? Poll has an answer, https://www.offshore-technology.com/news/covid-19-pandemic-oil-prices-to-stabilise/
 As at close of work Friday, 8th May, 2020.
 Abiola Odutola, “Arik Air bows to pressure, implements 80% salary cut for staff in April”, Nairametrics, https://nairametrics.com/2020/04/24/arik-air-bows-to-pressure-implements-80-salary-cut-for-staff-in-april/
 This is a French word that literally means “Greater Force” and widely interpreted in the legal parlance to mean “Act of God”.
 Ellen M. Gilmer, “Coronavirus as an Act of God: Force Majeure Clauses Explained”, Bloomberg Law, Accessed March, 27, 2020.
 See the case of A.G. Cross River State v A.G. Federation  16 NWLR (pt. 1327) 425
 Oluwatosin Adeshokan, “Coronavirus in Nigeria: a catalyst to changes in financial sector”, The Arica Report
 Rarzack Olaegbe, “Impact of COVID-19 on Electronic Banking in Sub-Sahara Africa”, Fintech Africa, https://www.financialtechnologyafrica.com/2020/05/07/impact-of-covid-19-on-electronic-banking-in-sub-sahara-africa/
 Seun Folorunsho, “FintechNGR Strategises Post-COVID-19 Intervention, Engages Sectors of its Membership”, https://fintechng.org/2020/05/05/fintechngr-strategiises-post-covid-119-intervention-engages-sectors-of -its-membership/?
Nigeria: COVID-19 And Commercial Transactions: Some Emerging Legal Issues https://www.mondaq.com/nigeria/contracts-and-commercial-law/910150/covid-19-and-commercial-transactions-some-emerging-legal-issues