Africa Briefs

From Africa Renewal: 
page 27

UN mediates in Nigeria polio dispute

The UN is seeking to help resolve a dispute between religious and political authorities in northern Nigeria and the World Health Organization that has halted a vital polio immunization drive. The differences over the safety of UN-supplied vaccines endanger a global 15-year, $3 bn international effort to completely eradicate the crippling illness. In recent months the disease has spread from the region to eight neighbouring countries and parts of southern and western Nigeria previously considered polio free. In March Secretary-General Kofi Annan dispatched his Special Adviser on Africa, Under-Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari, to Nigeria for eight days of meetings with senior political, health and religious leaders in a bid to end the impasse.

Ibrahim GambariIbrahim Gambari.
Photo: Africa Recovery/Ernest Harsch

A fact-finding mission to the vaccine manufacturing plants in South Africa, India and Indonesia by senior government, religious and traditional leaders declared the vaccines safe.The findings pleased all the parties except Kano state governor Ibrahim Shekarau, who repeated his concerns about impurities in the vaccine. Nevertheless, at a press briefing at UN headquarters in New York on 17 March, Mr. Gambari said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the report would "lay the foundation for resuming immunizations throughout the country."

Mr. Gambari, a former Nigerian foreign minister and UN ambassador, said that immunizations could be resumed within a matter of weeks. "Nigeria is facing a number of important development challenges, as well as polio," he noted. "It's time to finish with this disease and move on." Governor Shekarau has indicated that the state would be willing to purchase and distribute vaccines from an Islamic supplier, which observers say could be the basis for the resumption of the vaccine drive there.

The crisis began last July when the head of the Kano state Sharia Supreme Council, which administers Islamic law, claimed that polio vaccines supplied by the UN children's agency UNICEF contained sterilization chemicals and the HIV virus that causes AIDS. Religious leaders in the largely Islamic region charged that the vaccines had been deliberately contaminated by the US government to reduce the size of the Muslim population as part of its war on terrorism.

The controversy is jeopardizing what the World Health Organization describes as the world's "best and perhaps last" chance to eliminate polio from the world entirely. Northern Nigeria is the only remaining polio "hotspot" not participating in the global eradication drive.


Nearing extinction 

world polio cases, 2003

Nigeria

300

India

215

Pakistan

96

Niger*

25

Afghanistan

 8

Egypt

1

* includes new infections from Nigeria

Source: UN Africa Recovery from World Health Organization data


UK launches Africa commission

Africa will be a top priority during the United Kingdom's presidencies of the Group of 8 industrialized nations and the European Union next year, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has pledged. Launching a new Commission for Africa in February, he said that while it would not be easy, the continent and the donors should aim to attain the international targets to reduce poverty, known as the Millennium Development Goals.

By next year, the commission, which Mr. Blair chairs, is expected to identify the global trends influencing Africa's development and propose effective policies to tackle the continent's problems. The commission will carry out a "comprehensive assessment" of the situation in Africa, looking at what has worked in the past and what has not, he said. About a dozen international figures including UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, UN Economic Commission for Africa Executive Secretary K.Y. Amoako, South African Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and development activist and musician Bob Geldof will serve on the body.

Africa is the only continent that has grown poorer in the past 25 years, that has had its share of world trade halved in a generation and that received less than 1 per cent of direct foreign investment, Mr. Blair said.

"Any initiative that provides real solutions is a welcome step," commented Save the Children Director General Mike Aaronson. "But this must be more than just another report on Africa, with yet more targets, plans or strategies that fail to deliver. It must be judged on the concrete action it produces."


Credit ratings: opening the door to private financing

Ghana became the first country to benefit from a UN Development Programme (UNDP) initiative to help developing country governments obtain commercial credit ratings. The West African government received a B+ sovereign credit rating last September from the influential New York ratings firm Standard and Poors. The rating, a measure of a government's ability to meet its commercial financial obligations in full and on time, is a requirement for countries seeking to raise public sector money on commercial capital markets.

The programme is a joint effort by the UN and Standard and Poors. Through it, the UNDP Associate Administrator Zéphirin Diabré told US business leaders in late February, "we intend to support countries in their efforts to mobilize resources from private capital markets." Access to commercial capital sources, he continued, "would help African countries to tackle a broad range of poverty alleviation issues." Two more governments, Benin and Cameroon, have also received favourable ratings under the programme. Six other African countries already have sovereign credit ratings.

UNDP officials caution that most countries will not use their ratings to enter the private capital markets immediately, given their concerns over existing debt levels and the cost of commercial borrowing. The ratings could help them enter the market at a future date. More immediately, a favourable credit rating is one of the factors that potential foreign investors take into account when deciding where to invest.