On a road out of Kano, the largest city in Nigeria's Islamic
north, Ayo Bello sits by two dozen brightly colored tricycles built
by the Physical Handicap Association of Nigeria, of which he is a
member. The vehicles have hand-controlled pedals for people with leg
disabilities, such as Mr. Bello, who was paralyzed by polio at age
Kano is the center of the world's worst outbreak of the disease,
but its government refuses to participate in an international
inoculation program, claiming that the vaccines are contaminated.
"We need the vaccine," Mr. Bello says. "But only if the vaccine
His ambivalence reflects a deeply damaging tension between
international health agencies based in Western countries and the
Kano authorities, who apply a strict form of sharia, or Islamic law.
Both sides are keen to play down the political and religious aspects
of the dispute, but some of the strongest opposition to the
vaccination campaign has come from Islamic leaders who say the
alleged contamination is part of a Western plot to make Muslims
infertile. The resulting deadlock highlights an isolationist
tendency in parts of the ruling northern elite.
"Anything where it would mean joining the international
community, they don't want it at all," says a Kano-based imam from
western Nigeria who asks not to be named. "This is not a new thing
for them; they have been doing it a long time."
The Kano state government has boycotted two four-day inoculation
campaigns held in Nigeria during February and March, even though the
vaccines have been used in the country's other 35 states and have
been certified safe by the World Health Organization. Sule Ya'u
Sule, spokesman for the Kano government, denies any political
motivations and says a test by a scientific panel showed the
vaccines were contaminated with dangerously high levels of female
International health officials worry that the boycott will
undermine attempts to eradicate polio worldwide by the end of this
year. The World Health Organization says Nigeria accounted for
nearly half of the 782 confirmed cases of polio last year, and that
the disease has spread to eight other countries in the region.
Muslim opposition to the vaccine
The position of the Kano government is endorsed by a number of
Muslim leaders who are highly critical of Western motives and
Inside a small schoolroom with Arabic writing on the blackboard
and "Saudi Arabia" inscribed above the door, Imam Hashim Abdulla
Mohammed Salis claims polio vaccines elsewhere in the world have
been infected with the HIV virus, although he cannot name the
country affected. He dismissed reassurances given by Olusegun
Obasanjo, the country's born-again Christian president, who urged
Nigerians to accept the vaccine after it was declared safe by a
national panel including government representatives, traditional
rulers, scientists, and Islamic leaders.
"I know that Obasanjo is not a Muslim," says the imam. "Anything
that Obasanjo says will not appease me."
Opposition to the vaccine has been strengthened by a 1996
controversy in Kano involving Pfizer, the US drug company. …