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Despite lockdown, Chinese firm StarTimes reopens Abuja offices

Moments after President Muhammadu Buhari announced the extended lockdown of Lagos, Ogun and Abuja, StarTimes, with 70 per cent Chinese ownership, decided to open its headquarters and various branches across Abuja for scores of staff to resume.

The development has caused staff to worry over COVID-19 risks. They told PREMIUM TIMES they had worked from home for two weeks and could continue for another two weeks.
A company spokesperson, however, said a further closure was bad for operations, saying there was. “no government subvention for our work.”
An initial two-week lockdown, affecting Abuja, Lagos and Ogun States, was ordered by Mr Buhari at the end of March as a major step to stem the spread of COVID-19. StarTimes had then complied with the order and asked staff to work from home, this newspaper understands.
Before the president’s order to extend the lockdown for another 14 days Monday evening, indications were already emerging that the country’s capital, as well as the two other affected places, would remain closed for more days.
The presidency had during the weekend appealed that the people would have to endure the hardship occasioned by the lockdown some more.
Although Nigeria has been able to keep the number of confirmed cases comparatively low, at less over 300 as of Monday when the initial lockdown was going to expire, health experts say the risk of community-level spread was, and remains, clear if the restrictions were rolled back.
Anxious to put the initial lockdown behind them, StarTimes management emailed the staff, before the president’s renewed order, to resume today, Tuesday.
Apart from the Chinese Startimes majority stake, government controlled NTA is a part-owner of StarTimes, a pay-TV service provider. The Chinese company operates in dozens of African countries, running partnership with state broadcasters.
“In view of the current situation as relating to work and continuity after the mandatory 2 weeks isolation period initiated by the government, please find affixed a list of (a) sheet of which depicts a list of staff which are required to resume tomorrow 14th April 2020,” the first mail, before Mr Buhari’s renewed order, read earlier on Monday.
“The criteria is solely based on the management decisions and necessity of service,” added the mail.
The resumption order affected 45 staff based in the headquarters, company insiders told PREMIUM TIMES with an understanding the list of affected will not be published.
Instruction ‘still stands’ despite Buhari’s order
Several staff, insiders said, were already worried after the initial mail for staff to return to work and it was hoped such instruction would be withdrawn following Mr Buhari’s extension of lockdown later Monday night. But this was not to be.
“They sent an initial mail before Buhari’s address,” one person said. “Then another one reinforcing the instructions around 10.30 pm.”
In the second mail, the company said: “Please note that sequel to the previously sent mail as regards to the work schedule and based on the 14 days extension of the lockdown by the federal government that the instruction by the management still stands.”
A worried member of staff said the reopening of the offices was because there were Nigerian company officials “who want to look good to the Chinese bosses.”
“That is why they think they can be breaking our law,” the staff member said.
The company’s head of legal matters, who speaks for the company, Nwankwo Amaechi, told PREMIUM TIMES that resumption was key to the company’s operations and that closing initially was to contribute to efforts at stemming the spread of the virus.
Mr Amaechi said the company is one of the essential service providers exempted from the lockdown by the president. A staffer, however, argued, “we are not a media company, we are a pay-tv provider and we have been working from home for two weeks.”
“We were told to send in a daily report of work done from home in the last two weeks and told that the daily report will serve as attendance,” one staff member said. “So, it’s not because we can’t operate remotely from office or that people are working seriously.”
Mr Amaechi said the company’s equipment had to be serviced, hence the need for resumption. But staff that have no engineering role, that is, in finance, HR, legal, after-sales, sales, media, admin departments were also asked to resume.
All these people could work and had been working from home for two the past two weeks, insiders said.
Mr Amaechi said the offices had to open for staff to help subscribers solve routine problems. “We may lose subscribers,” he said. “And you know, no government subvention to support our work.”
He could not confirm if the offices outside Abuja are opening now. “That depends on what the state governors say and we have to comply,” he said.
Mr Buhari had listed the media among essential services exempted from the lockdown but added that such exemption must follow proof a staffer could not work from home.
At the company’s Karu district branch, PREMIUM TIMES observed full operations with customers streaming in. A notice on the board conveyed the initial closure and requested customers to use online and telephone methods to be served, including for subscription.
Staff said such notice proved their insistence that they could work from home as they had been doing for the past two weeks.

Since emerging in China last December, COVID-19 has wrecked economies and countries across the world. In Nigeria, it has forced the shutdown of the country’s main capital and commercial centre Lagos and aggravated tough conditions of many Nigerians whose livelihoods depend on going out daily.