Expectedly, the killing of ten polio immunisation workers in Kano last week had dominated discussions in the media, in government circles and among ordinary folk in the last several days.
All shades of opinion had been reflected as Nigerians tried to understand how such a tragedy can happen and why. What is most puzzling to me is the fact that most commentators seem to agree that ordinary people in Kano had taken up arms against poor, defenceless immunisation workers because they were opposed to the exercise.
My former boss, Mahmud Jega, kick-started the discussion among Trust columnists with his fact-laden piece titled 'This story does not hold water' but the central thrust of his argument was that the victims were murdered because their killers believed the polio vaccine was contaminated with contraceptive elements. Subsequent writers, with the exception of Dr. Hakeem Baba Ahmed also treaded a similar path, seeking to link the dastardly deed with the suspicions against the vaccine. One can't blame them because even the government of the state was on the same track when it ordered the arrest of some radio journalists, for airing a programme that was critical of the exercise, just days to the unfortunate killings.
But these doubts and suspicions against Polio have been with us for almost a decade. I remember arranging an interview with Professor Haruna Kaita of ABU Zaria on the issue way back in 2003, in order to clarify claims that some batches of the vaccine, then in use in Nigeria, were contaminated with chemicals that had no relevance to polio eradication. Though some parents had reacted to this controversy by refusing to subject their children to immunisation, there has been no record of any violence against immunisation officials from that time on. Not a single slap was recorded between a parent and a polio vaccine administrator in this whole decade. How can we now be so ready to associate this wanton killing of innocent health workers with the wrath of suspicious parents who are questioning the sincerity of the exercise?
To me the real story that doesn't hold water is the belief that the killers were ordinary concerned parents who do not want the next generation to be raised impotent or sterile or both. Yes, there are people who have these beliefs but no, they will not go as far as carrying out such a pre-meditated, well-planned, successfully-executed, cold-blooded murder of innocent young men and women out to earn a legitimate living. It is beyond them.
For the perpetrators of such a heinous crime you have to seek the same bloodthirsty elements that have been carrying out drive-by shootings and bombings in the ancient city in the last 13 months. The same murderous gang that has been shooting innocent card- game players in front of their homes and many other harmless residents of the city and been vanishing into thin air, in fact the same gang that probably plotted the assassination of the Emir, HRH Alhaji Ado Bayero but failed to accomplish it. This is the same gang the government and security agents should go after not some poor radio journalists who packaged a report regarding the conduct of the exercise. Their views, however inflammatory can never have the effect of making skilled killers out of ordinary folks.
According to news reports, one of the reporters of Wazobia FM had packaged a story on how the former head of Kano state Films and censorship board, Alhaji Abubakar Rabo was being forced to have his children immunised, though he was dead-set against it. In the course of covering the incident, the reporter Mubarak Sani, was allegedly beaten up and his equipment seized by his attackers. This incident was reported on the radio station a few days to the killing of the polio workers. As a result, the state police command is trying to find a link between the report presented by Wazobia station and the subsequent killing of the health-workers. They may not find any though because the expert killers now rampaging in Kano do not need the report's incitement to plan and target their victims.
The latest is that the police are on the track of certain Muslim scholars who have been in support of all parents suspicious of the vaccination campaign. These scholars have been known to advocate that whoever is not comfortable with the vaccination exercise should abstain from it. Some base their position on not only the fact that some vaccines were found to be contaminated in 2003 but that other countries like India had had course to question the efficacy of the Oral Polio Vaccine in really preventing the dreaded childhood disease. But surely these scholars are not in a position to plan and execute the kind of sophisticated hit and run murder that was witnessed last Friday. The police must look in another direction.
The only way this kind of murder can be unravelled is for the police to do as much intelligence gathering as possible at the scene of crime, because people had seen these murderers come and go, and may provide relevant clues as to who they are. Dropping on the scene, after the killers had escaped and arresting anyone who happens to be nearby, will not help in tracking these experienced gunmen who seem to have mastered the art of disappearing act. Neither will looking for media instigators and so-called anti-polio campaigners produce the killers. The police must be more vigilant in doing their work, not engage in shadow-chasing.
Whichever way you look at it, the murder of these immunisation officials further high-lights the precarious security situation in the country. It is time we accept that whether they are the insurgents or other criminal elements, these gunmen are only out to plunge the nation into total chaos. We must therefore not allow tribal or religious sentiments to stand in our way when we begin to decide how best to tackle them. So far from Borno to Yobe, from Kaduna to Kano and all other parts of the nation affected, their victims have cut across all ethnic and religious divides, and included foreigners. We should therefore devise a national not a sectarian approach to facing up to their challenge.
For now, only one thing is certain, lots of people in Nigeria are not comfortable with polio vaccine, for a number of reasons. But they will not be willing to take up arms and master the art of drive-by shooting just to make the point. Criminal fifth columnists must be behind this bloody bit. In Pakistan where a similar incident happened when nine women polio workers were killed some weeks ago, no one had claimed responsibility for the crime. All fingers were pointed in the direction of the so-called Pakistani Taliban, but even they didn't claim it. Pakistanis were left to wonder who was behind it. Unfortunately today, we too are wondering.