The BBC’s interview programme HARDtalk has just featured Ibrahim Shekarau, Governor of Kano State in northern Nigeria and current presidential candidate. Among the issues discussed was Shekarau’s suspension of Kano’s polio vaccination programme, which had tragic results both in Nigeria and other countries. Interviewer Zeinab Badawi reminded the governor of a 2004 quote:
It is a lesser of two evils to sacrifice two, three, four, five, even 10 children (to polio) than allow hundreds of thousands or possibly millions of girl-children likely to be rendered infertile.
Badawi sources this to the Vanguard newspaper, although a BBC report from the time cites the AP. Either way, though, Shekarau now claims this was a misquote. He explains that he had never claimed that the polio vaccine could render children infertile – rather, he simply acknowledged that the conspiracy theory was widespread in rural areas and that he had so suspend the vaccination to maintain public confidence in wider health programmes:
I was misquoted…. I said it is a lesser evil compared with the fact that if we do not take any action to convince the general public of the safety of the vaccine, after going through all the processes of explanation, then there will be millions of children that will be affected by polio. We never raised [infertility].
This is shameless spin. As I blogged at the time, the federal government was also aware of the Islamist-fuelled hysteria over the vaccine, and sent a committee to South Africa to look into the issue. This committee, which included representatives of Jama’atul Nnasril Islam and was chaired by Sheik Umar El-Kanemi, declared that the vaccine was completely safe. However, rather than support this effort “to convince the general public of the safety of the vaccine”, Shekarau instead used his position to undermine the committee’s work. He wilfully misinterpreted its findings, claiming that there was indeed “contamination”, and he made the lame objection that the Christian Association of Nigeria had not been included – even though neither CAN nor local Christians had raised any complaints.
Eventually, and after an excruciating delay, an alternative vaccine was imported from Indonesia. We don’t know who profited from this, although then-President Obasanjo alleged that “one of the Muslim leaders opposing the immunisation programme had unsuccessfully sought a government contract to import new vaccines.”
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