With Reporting by Pauline Bax in Kaduna and Kano, Nigeria
Even as Nigeria's government gets serious about tackling bird flu among its poultry, many Nigerians remain skeptical about the effort.
Half the chickens in a pen on a school ground in Nigeria's Kaduna state have already died, possibly of bird flu, while the other half were about to be killed as part of efforts to stop the virus. Their owner, Zubaira, looked on, distraught.
"It was on Monday. I saw one standing and some others were pecking it, so we removed it and killed it," he explained. "Then on Monday, in the morning, too, one couldn't walk, we kicked it and killed it. And what we discovered [is that] eggs had been broken, and once an egg is broken inside the stomach, they will not be active again."
An official from the Kaduna state ministry of agriculture, Sylvanus Babachory, has been working around the clock. "What we're doing is, we've discovered the bird flu and we're now stamping it out," he said. "We're taking the samples."
Meanwhile, the newly named chairman of the bird flu task force in Kaduna, Aboubacar Bala, has been spreading awareness to ordinary citizens, telling them what can and cannot be done. "We are not discouraging people from eating chicken," he explained. "They should understand that they should not eat a sick or dead chicken. Whenever they are going to eat chicken, they should ensure that they clean their hands properly, wash all their utensils properly and cook the chicken and eggs properly."
At a street snack bar in Kaduna, though, the owner is worried about his business. "Here we are, we do prepare [special dishes] with eggs here," he said. "[But customers come and say they don't eat eggs and it affects our market price, so I'm worried about it."
Another citizen in Kaduna, Faisal Lawal, does not trust the government. He says it never looks out for the common man, so he does not see why it would be different for bird flu. "People think it's a set-up," he said. "They've had so many disappointments from the government. Most people believe everything that comes from the government comes just from a purely selfish interest and that it's difficult to get them to believe that this bird flu is real."
In another northern bird-flu affected area, it is the same mixture of government effort and general suspicion.
The chairman of the team monitoring the outbreak in Kano, Shehu Bawa, has just culled hundreds of chickens, and he is optimistic his work will pay off. "Now, we have about 40 farms involved in Kano and we hope to finish," he said. "We hope to contain the matter in a week's time, in a week."
But the chairman of the local poultry farmers association, Alhaji Aruna, is not impressed with the epidemic. "We live with the flu. It's not a big deal to us. We should be less concerned about it in Africa," he said. "We should be more concerned about things that are more devastating to us than a white man's disease. If it is only in Africa, little effort would have been made. In fact, in all sincerity, corruption is the highest disease that we have."
Aruna says farmers need higher compensation than the two dollars per chicken culled they are being promised. He says they should get four times as much. Whatever the promises, though, he does not believe the government will ever pay anything. Instead, he believes the government will keep whatever money they get from foreign donors.
He says most farmers, rather than killing possibly affected chicken, are hiding them or selling them on the black market.
International experts say the virus could spread across Africa if it is not contained in Nigeria, endangering millions of people. Ministers and officials from across West Africa met this week in Senegal and pledged to do all they can to keep their borders closed.