In Nigeria, faith and religion matter. Governor Abdulaziz Yari of Zamfara State knows this.
Unfortunately for us, our leaders have caught on to the impact of religion on the Nigerian mindset. However, even amongst the most ardent believers, more than a few would question the link between divine intervention and the outbreak of cerebrospinal meningitis.
Governor Yari is not one of them.
In an interview a few days late for April Fool's, the Governor was questioned on the outbreak of the virus which has affected over 2000 people nationwide and caused 355 deaths in his home state. Responding, the Governor thought it wise to invoke religion, saying, "...because people decided not to stop their nefarious activities, God now decided to send Type C virus, which has no vaccination." As penance, he asked people to "repent and everything will be alright".
Even as Nigerians quickly raised an issue with his assertion that the state's inhabitants were to blame, we know there has always been an uneasy relationship between religion and politics.
Welcome to Zamfara
Zamfara State can either be held in esteem or suspicion, depending on your perspective on the interaction between state and church. In 2000, the then Governor Ahmad Sani led 12 Nigerian states in adopting Sharia Law in the criminal domain. The Governor had been facing a socio-political crisis in the predominantly Muslim North and chose religion as his tool for garnering popular support. It worked.
In 2010, while serving in the Senate, he faced an uproar from women right's groups for allegedly marrying a 13-year-old Egyptian girl. Having been done in adherence to law, he insisted that he had done no wrong. He faced no censure.
Any savvy politician eager to either satisfy demanding citizens or garner political support can read in between the lines. Religion doubles as a political tool. Nigerian politicians – from the East, North, West and South – lacking concrete political programmes can easily turn to distractions or popular sentiments to mask their actions, or inactions, as the case may be. Religion just happens to be one of these distractions.
Polio must be a trick
Healthcare has not been spared. In 2003, the government of five Nigerian states – Zamfara included – suspended the polio vaccination programme orchestrated by the World Health Organisation. The reasons are difficult to pin down, but the former US Ambassador to Nigeria asserted that the suspension trailed a discovery by an obscure Northern pharmacist of harmless traces of oestrogen in the polio vaccine. This story transformed into a religious message. The polio vaccine was peddled as part of a diabolical plot to reduce the Muslim birth rate with the use of antifertility agents by a pro-Christian Western-backed Obasanjo administration.
Politicians, being politicians, will always prioritise their survival ahead of most societal costs. In doing so, they often choose to maximise political support or minimise popular criticism with the opportunities presented to them. At that point in 2003, preachers and local politicians encouraged opposition to the vaccination on the back of anti-US feelings strengthened by US intervention in the predominantly Muslim nations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps the leaders, despite knowing better, realised that the sentiment was strong and popular, and again took the opportunity to leverage the religious tensions present in the country.
In their defence, some Nigerians were rightly suspicious of Western ‘help’ with good reason. Based on trials from 1996, the US pharmaceutical company Pfizer agreed to an out-of-court settlement of $75 million dollars, without admitting culpability, for carrying out fatal experiments on children in Kano State. That being said, the ease with which political support could be gained was too tempting for politicians to avoid. Again, religion allowed politics win the day.
But Ebola changed our minds
However, Nigeria has progressed. In the wake of a strong, religiously neutral, Ebola containment effort from Lagos State, there is proof that a crisis must not always be subject to religious tampering. But where does this leave politicians who can no longer ply old tricks?
Men like Governor Yari can no longer simply look to religion and invoke the immorality of Nigerians as the culprits. At a time when he had been levelled with accusations for diverting ₦500m of the Paris Club refund, he found himself at the centre of an additional storm and looked to God. But, we will not take it.
Nigerians should hope that this sort of buck-passing does not hold ground amongst the most vulnerable groups. Despite the intellectual authority with which social media veterans mock Governor Yari's assertions, some Nigerians are easy targets. A Global Public Health report which broke down the impact of the rumours surrounding the polio suspension in 2003, argued that societies are still vulnerable to ‘opinion leaders’. In 2003, the then Governor of Kano, Ibrahim Shekarau lent his voice to the anti-vaccination sentiment alongside Dr Ibrahim Datti Ahmed, a medical doctor and leader of a prominent religious organisation. In doing so, they gave credence to the rumours and possibly convinced many other Nigerians to do the same. The risk remains present.
Governor Yari may have known exactly what he was doing when he positioned the Meningitis crisis as one caused by Zamfaran residents. After all, if he can blame the citizens for inviting God’s wrath, he can make a case for being powerless. To prove this point, when questioned about whether the virus was partly the result of the moral latitude of Nigerian leaders, he excluded them by saying:
“Leaders are doing their best by enlightening the populace and working assiduously for the good of all. Your major assignment as a leader is to convey the message; you cannot go from house to house and arrest offenders for instance.”
It is clear that Governor Yari has failed to learn new tricks. In his political playbook, this strategy is foolproof. But we know things have changed. We know that diligence, allocation of resources and deployment of trained medical staff can tackle the disease in ‘miraculous’ ways.
In the meantime, while we remain at the mercy of Nigerian leaders, we can only hope that come 2019, divine intervention brings us more creative leaders. Leaders with a firmer grasp of the connection between God and Meningitis C.