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Suffer the children

The children of Niger are the innocent victims of religious fanaticism

In the centre of Niamey–the capital of Niger, one of the poorest countries on earth–stands a lavish monument to the global reach of Islam. The Great Mosque of Niamey casts long shadows over the surrounding squalor. Its pencil-thin, aspirational minaret, cavernous prayer hall and enormous green dome tower above the rubbish and depressing low-slung houses, where single rooms are home to entire families. The mosque cost around A$1.25 million to build in a country where more than 60 per cent of the population lives on less than US$1 per day.

Each time I have visited Niamey, the mosque has always stood empty, as if it belongs to another place, an edifice somehow transported here from a world where money doesn’t matter. This substitute for much-needed infrastructure, and reassertion of Islamic credentials, was an act of appeasement by a bankrupt government as desperate to survive as its people. This myopic gesture carried with it echoes of Madame Diori, wife of former President Hamani Diori. She was known among the whisperers on Niamey’s streets as ‘l’Autrichienne’ (the Austrian) after Marie Antoinette’s famous pronouncement: ‘Let them eat cake’. Her husband’s sorry government–which had led Niger since independence in 1960–fell in April 1974, after it was discovered that food aid sent to relieve the great famines of the 1970s had been hoarded in the homes of government ministers. The Diori government stole its people’s dreams of an independent Africa.

The closer you get to the border with Nigeria, the more obvious the growing separation between governments (and local manifestations of Islam) and the needs of the people they claim to serve.

Maradi is Niger’s third-largest city. Hard up against the Nigerian border and surrounded by enormous sand quarries, which produce clouds of lung-choking sand, Maradi has a reputation for being a politically active and restive city. Its predominantly Hausa merchant classes are the most vocal in Niger, and protests against government policies or unpaid wages invariably start here. It is a transit town. Nigeria is a few short kilometres away and everyone appears to be involved in some form of cross-border trade.

Maradi’s sprawling markets straddle the main highway which passes south to Nigeria. The markets, which spread out from the clamorous bus station and are almost invariably awash with people, are surrounded by trucks unloading cargo in a great din of horns and shouts and diesel fumes. Everything is for sale here, from fresh produce to cigarettes and cheap designer clothes, from smuggled petrol to guns.

The only time when the markets and adjacent bus station are not in uproar is during prayer times, when the mosques fill and the streets fall eerily quiet.

The first time I visited Maradi, I met Mona, a sad Lebanese woman. She had just opened a hotel. She avoided my questions as to why she was so far from home, saying simply that this was now home, as West Africa is for so many Lebanese. Beirut was a 30-year-old memory, reincarnated in her hotel with touches of flair and style from a city of grace that no longer exists. Her husband had died the year previously. As she said this, a shadow passed across her face. She clearly did not belong here and knew it, but was weary of it all and planned to stay anyway. A motherly woman, with only Maradi for company, she smiled benignly at me and her staff with the air of someone resigned to keeping alive a sense of hospitality as her last effort at connection with people.

In the intervening years, protesters had gone on a rampage, heeding the call of conservative Muslim clerics who denounced as un-Islamic an international fashion festival being held in Niamey. Mobs of fundamentalist thugs roamed the streets targeting businesses rumoured to be engaged in un-Islamic practices. The imams called on men to stone women who were dressed inappropriately. Bars, restaurants and hotels were torched or, if they were lucky, forced to close under threat of arson.

When I returned to Maradi, two years after meeting Mona, much had changed. Mona was gone. Her hotel, her modest dream, lay abandoned, stripped of every last tastefully furnished detail. Outside what had once been her gate, the footpath was black, the still visible scar of Maradi’s night of fire when the mobs came, set fire to the street and demanded that she leave. I asked neighbours and passers-by if anyone knew what had happened to her, this foreigner who had made Maradi her home. Nobody could tell me and nobody seemed to care. Each one cut short the conversation and hurried away.

All around me, pious men walked the streets, parading their dishonourable, grim asceticism, their anger and their disapproval; their simplistic scholarship masquerading as one of the world’s great religions. With deeply conservative clerics finding a ready audience in these men of Maradi, there had been a flurry of calls for the Niger Government to introduce sharia law.

A cancer of intolerance had taken root. Days after I visited, a woman was to be stoned for adultery in nearby Sokoto, just across the border in northern Nigeria. She fell foul of an interpretation of sharia law which considers sex between consenting adults to be more heinous than the unequal poverty in which these people live, punishing women and allowing men to escape for want of evidence.

In Africa, or more particularly in Niger and northern Nigeria, such manifestations of local Islam’s bleak and hostile public face seemed a violation of Africa’s vibrancy, a reminder not so much of life as of death.

The most dangerous sequel to these pogroms and stonings in a forgotten corner of Africa came later when Muslim clerics in the northern Nigerian states of Kano, Zamfara and Kaduna declared that they would boycott a World Health Organisation (WHO) polio vaccination program. The vaccine was, they alleged, contaminated with oestrogen that could, they claimed, cause infertility. The imams asserted that the vaccine was part of a US-led conspiracy to render Muslims infertile and thereby depopulate the region.

Although tiny traces of oestrogen were found in the vaccine, they were, according to the WHO, the very same vaccines used in every country in the world. Polio, as readers will recall, is a virus that destroys functioning human nerve cells resulting in local or widespread paralysis. It is transmitted through poor sanitation and contaminated water. While the vaccine is highly effective in preventing the transmission of polio, there remains no cure. The availability of the vaccine has ensured that polio has been virtually eradicated from Western countries since the 1950s. Global use of this same vaccine has resulted in the number of polio sufferers worldwide falling from 350,000 in 125 countries in 1988, to just over 1000 people in six countries in 2003.

Undeterred, Datti Ahmed, a medical doctor and president of Nigeria’s Supreme Council for Sharia Law, told the BBC in October 2003 that ‘there were strong reasons to believe that the polio immunisation vaccine was contaminated with anti-fertility drugs, contaminated with certain virus that cause HIV/AIDS, contaminated with Simian virus that are likely to cause cancers.’ He went on to say that reports of an American plot may appear fanciful but must be investigated.

Playing on local people’s mistrust of their own public authorities and multinational pharmaceutical companies, the imams called on Muslims everywhere to resist the vaccine. (In 1996, the US drug company Pfizer was accused of using an untested vaccine for bacterial meningitis in Kano, resulting in 11 deaths. Pfizer denies the charge.)

As a result of the imams’ boycott, polio again began to thrive. By 2004, the number of polio cases in Nigeria had doubled. The disease then spread, as at least ten previously polio-free countries, including Niger, were re-infected. The imams of Maradi announced their support for their brethren across the border–the same border through which illicit goods and dangerous orthodoxies, not to mention, killer diseases, pass with impunity. Some Maradi clerics argued that even if the vaccine was safe, it was un-Islamic because God’s will alone ought determine whether a person lived or died.

In July 2004, new vaccines, manufactured in Muslim Indonesia, were prepared and the imams relented. But by then the damage was done and up to two thirds of the world’s polio cases are now to be found in Nigeria. Across the region, 15 million children–more than half of all polio victims are children under three–were at risk. The WHO’s aim to eradicate polio worldwide by the end of 2005 was in tatters.

That the damage done by the imams of Nigeria and Maradi remains was evident in May this year. Eleven men in Mali were sentenced to three years’ jail for refusing to allow their children to be vaccinated, claiming that the vaccines would make their children infertile.

In the meantime, in the strongholds of polio and intolerance that are Maradi and northern Nigeria, the children continue to die, withering away under a harsh, repressive vision for the world which has nothing to do with the hospitality, concern for the poor and visions of paradise central to Islam. It is as if the clerics have become as divorced from the needs of their own people as the great mosques which so often lie empty.

Anthony Ham is a freelance writer living in Madrid and is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.

For more information on the WHO campaign to eradicate polio, and the current status of polio globally, visit www.polioeradication.org

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