A Week in Nigeria: 23 January

A secular appeal court in the northern Nigerian city of Kano threw out two blasphemy convictions imposed by a sharia court last year that prompted a global outcry
  • Nigeria, like other countries across Africa, is grappling with a second wave of the novel coronavirus. The spike in cases seen in recent weeks prompted a number of announcements as public health officials provided updates on the planned rollout of vaccines and the provision of oxygen to treat COVID-19 patients. The health minister said Nigeria has written to the African Union to request 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to supplement the COVAX programme and has allocated $26 million for licensed vaccine production. The African Union has secured a provisional 270 million COVID-19 vaccine doses from manufacturers for member states, its chair South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said last week. “Nigeria has written to express interest in 10 million doses of the viral vector vaccine, which could be supplied as from March 2021,” Health Minister Osagie Ehanire told reporters in the capital Abuja. “This vaccine does not require deep freezers.” Ehanire did not mention the name of the vaccine. He also said the ministry of finance had released 10 billion naira ($26.27 million) to support domestic vaccine output as Nigeria was exploring options of “licensed production in collaboration with recognised institutions”. The government is already in talks with “one or two producers”, he said. Last week the finance minister said the government was working on the type and quantity of COVID-19 vaccines to procure and would make financial provision for them, possibly in a supplementary budget.
  • The head of Nigeria’s primary healthcare agency said the country will seek to procure vaccines that are less dependent on cooling facilities. He also revealed that talks were in progress with Russia and India to procure such vaccines. Faisal Shuaib, who heads the National Primary Health Care Development Agency, said Nigeria expects to receive 100,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in the next few weeks under the COVAX programme, backed by the World Health Organization (WHO), that aims to provide vaccines to poorer countries. The vaccine must be stored at ultra-low temperatures. “Our plan now is not to over-invest on ultra cold equipment for vaccines like that of Pfizer vaccines, but go for vaccines that need less cooling facilities,” Shuaib told reporters in the capital, Abuja, during a tour of cold storage facilities. The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at temperatures of around -70 degrees Celsius (-112°F) before being sent to distribution centres in specially designed cool boxes filled with dry ice. Once out of ultra-low temperature storage, it must be kept at 2C to 8C to remain effective for up to five days. Some experts have expressed doubts that Nigerian authorities will be able to store and transport the vaccine at such low temperatures. “We are currently engaged in talks with Russia and India to get more vaccines,” Shuaib said, restating the target of vaccinating 70% of Nigeria’s 200 million inhabitants within the next two years. Shuaib did not provide details of quantities discussed and said vaccines would require certification by Nigeria’s drugs regulator. Other obstacles were also likely. The WHO’s pandemic review panel co-chair Ellen Johnson Sirleaf expressed disappointment on Tuesday in COVID-19 vaccine rollout plans which meant shots would not be widely available in Africa until 2022 or 2023. Nigeria’s state governors issued a statement on Thursday in which they said the country’s first vaccine doses were expected to arrive by the end of February. Authorities previously said the first doses, under the COVAX programme were expected by the end of January.
  • Europe has been inoculating its people since December — but African health authorities say it could still be weeks, even months, until they get their first shots. We spoke to exhausted medics in Nigeria who are waiting for vaccines to arrive in the country. “The cases will continue to rise if we don’t have a vaccine,” a 30-year-old doctor said after seeing a patient. “That continues to mean more work stress, more mental stress, more stress on all the resources.” More than 2,600 Nigerian physicians have contracted COVID-19 and dozens of them have died, said Dr Adetunji Adenekan, chairman of the Lagos state branch of the Nigerian Medical Association. “We are depleted every day by the minute.” Daily tallies of confirmed cases hit record levels across Africa this month, and the second wave is infecting twice as many people per day as the height of last year’s first, according to the African Union’s Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Privately, some doctors say they worry that when vaccines arrive in Nigeria, they will go first to the rich and powerful.
  • Still on the subject of vaccines, Reuters exclusively reported that African countries will pay between $3 and $10 per vaccine dose to access the 270 million COVID-19 shots secured this month by the AU, according to a draft briefing on the plan prepared by the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank). South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who serves as AU chair, said last week arrangements had been made with the bank to support member states who want access to vaccines. Countries can pay back the loans in installments over five to seven years, the document showed. Afreximbank’s press office declined to answer questions on the terms outlined in the briefing, saying the document was in draft form and meant for confidential discussion by members of a team created by Ramaphosa to secure vaccines and financing for the continent’s coronavirus immunization programs. The AU team also declined to comment. The document, which was shared with Reuters by two sources, provides the first public details on the prices manufacturers are offering African nations outside of the COVAX global vaccine sharing scheme led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the GAVI vaccine alliance. Although the prices are heavily discounted compared to what wealthier nations are paying, some experts worry about countries already struggling to manage the economic fallout of the pandemic having to borrow more money to protect their people. “No country should have to take on debt to pay for the vaccine,” said Tim Jones, head of policy at the Jubilee Debt Campaign, a British charity working to end poverty.
  • Nigeria’s president has approved the release of 6.45 billion naira ($16.94 million) to set up oxygen production plants in 38 sites to help treat COVID-19 patients as authorities contend with a sharp rise in cases, the government said. The presidency said the release of funds to address the provision of oxygen was announced at a meeting of the National Economic Council (NEC) advisory body. “President Muhammadu Buhari has approved 6.45 billion naira for the setting up of gas plants in 38 locations nationwide in a bid to enhance the treatment of Covid-19 patients who need oxygen,” said a statement issued by the vice president’s office. The release of funds for the production of oxygen was “necessitated by the increased number of patients who need oxygen due to the surge in Covid-19 infections in the country”, the statement said. It said a further 255 million naira ($670,000) had been approved for repairs of oxygen plants in five hospitals. Earlier this week, the state government in Lagos, the epicentre of Nigeria’s outbreak, said demand for oxygen at one of its main hospitals had increased fivefold in recent weeks to 350 6-litre cylinders a day. It said that was expected to more than double to 750 by the end of January.
  • A Nigerian court threw out two blasphemy convictions that had caused an international outcry, freeing a teenager from a 10-year prison sentence and ordering a new trial for a man sentenced to death. The two had been convicted in August by a sharia court in Nigeria’s northern, mainly Muslim state of Kano. Teenager Omar Farouq was accused of making blasphemous comments during an argument, while Yahaya Aminu Sharif was accused of having shared a blasphemous message on WhatsApp. Appeal judges at the secular branch of the state’s high court ruled that Farouq should be acquitted because he was a minor who had not had adequate legal representation. They said he was 17 at the time of his sentencing and not 13 as stated in previous hearings. In the case of Sharif, the conviction was quashed and the case sent back to the sharia court. “Their lives will never be the same again,” said Kola Alapinni, a defence lawyer representing both defendants. He said it would not be safe for Farouq to remain in Kano, while Sharif was likely to remain in custody until his retrial was heard. Protesters in Kano destroyed Sharif’s home last year, forcing his family to flee. Farouq’s parents disassociated themselves from him due to the shame caused by the case, according to Alapinni, who said the boy’s uncle was the only relative to have been in regular contact with the legal team. The convictions were condemned last year by rights groups and the United Nations. The head of Poland’s Auschwitz Memorial had said he and others would volunteer to each serve a month of Farouq’s prison sentence. Nigeria is roughly evenly split between a predominantly Muslim north and mainly Christian south. Sharia, Islamic religious law, is applied in 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states. The convictions sparked a debate about sharia, which the defendants’ lawyers argued was incompatible with Nigeria’s secular constitution.
  • It wasn’t all doom, gloom, vaccines and blasphemy. We profiled a Nigerian stunt crew that’s bringing blow-by-blow recreations of famous fight scenes to Nollywood, aiming to put some muscle into a film industry better known for drama, comedy and romance. The 15-member Xcel Theater, based in the southern oil city of Port Harcourt, started out posting dance and comedy routines on social media. Last year, the group began clashing swords, ducking kicks and flipping over scenery to recreate some of film and television’s most intense fights, including “Into The Badlands”, “The Witcher” and “The Raid” as well as scenes featuring actors like Jason Statham and Jet Li. Now, producers who spotted their talents have flown them to Lagos to choreograph action sequences for upcoming films in a bid to bolster the genre within Nollywood, a multibillion dollar industry churning out movies and TV shows at a rate second only to India’s Bollywood.

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Nigeria bureau chief for Reuters. Ghanaian family, British accent. Ex-BBC, before that newspapers.

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Alexis Akwagyiram

Alexis Akwagyiram

Nigeria bureau chief for Reuters. Ghanaian family, British accent. Ex-BBC, before that newspapers.

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