The bedlam on Tuesday in Rivers State, in which parents in Port Harcourt and other towns in the state rushed to withdraw their children and wards from schools, was incited by the state government, a review of the development by Premium Times has revealed.
The parents were reacting to a seeming confirmation of a rumour that personnel of the Nigerian military were moving round schools in the state to forcibly inject pupils with the Monkey pox virus under the pretext of inoculating them against the disease.
The same rumour had caused panic last week in some states in the North-east, South-east and South-south.
But in those instances, government officials promptly quelled the rumour and restored order by unequivocally declaring that no vaccination programme was going on in any school in their states.
Following the reassuring declaration by the governments, the tension evaporated and schools reopened to normal activities the following day.
But on Tuesday, the Rivers State Government set up the conflagration across the state by lending credence to the rumour through a press release in which it called on parents to resist elements going round to administer vaccination on schoolchildren in the state without authorisation by the government.
In the statement by its Commissioner for Information and communication, Emma Okah, titled: RSG DID NOT AUTHORISE THE MILITARY TO INOCULATE SCHOOL CHILDREN, the state government said: “it did not authorise the Nigeria Army or indeed any other body or person to enter into school premises to administer forced medication or vaccination on any child in any school in Rivers State.
“Inoculation is personal and consent of the Rivers State Government and parents must first be sought and obtained before it can be administered on any school child in a school premises.
“Consequently, all school heads and parents should resist any such attempt.
“Furthermore, the State Government has set up a Task Force to ensure that no school premises is violated in the State for the purpose of imunising any child.
“We appeal to members of the public to remain calm and return their kids to school as RSG will continue to ensure their peace and security.
“Meanwhile the State Government has ordered the arrest of anyone attempting to vaccinate any child in any school premises in Rivers State.”
The statement was widely carried by the state media and shared on the social media by residents of the state, with most citing it as credence to the rumour.
This was against the backdrop that no school in the state had reported receiving any request to vaccinate their pupils and that the state government also did not state what measures it took to ascertain that illegal vaccination was being carried out and those behind it.
The Nigerian Army even issued a statement restating that it was not involved in any inoculation exercise in the state.
The Army had issued a similar rebuttal last week when the rumour caused the first round of panic in the other states.
In a disclaimer notice issued by the Deputy Director of Army Public Relations, Aminu Iliyasu, it said:
“The attention of Headquarters 6 Division Nigerian Army has been drawn to some rumours making the rounds that some Nigerian Army Personnel are going round schools in Rivers State dressed in Military Camouflage uniforms with the intention of forcefully vaccinating students with an unknown substance. The callous and unpatriotic rumours spread by these enemies of State are, to say the least, despicable, deplorable and highly condemnable by all well-meaning Nigerians as they are intended to cause pandemonium among the general public.
“The authorities of 6 Division Nigerian Army wishes to inform the general public that while the Nigerian Army plans to undertake such gestures like free medical outreaches, sanitation exercises in host communities and distribution of educational materials as part of our community relations activities during the ongoing Operation CROCODILE SMILE II, these activities are yet to be conducted and will eventually be conducted with the consent of relevant authorities of designated communities and at venues and dates that will be duly communicated to the general public through future press releases and relevant posters.
“For the purpose of emphasis, the Nigerian Army does not and will never carry out its medical outreaches or vaccination exercises for that matter in Schools. We can therefore categorically inform the public that the ongoing rumours about Nigerian Army Personnel going round schools in military camouflage to forcefully immunize school children are not true and should therefore be discountenanced with. Additionally, members of the public are please requested to call 09072509436-8 to report any case of any impostor(s) that may be seen actually trying to commit such atrocities.”
But instead of the state government circulating the statement to help in reassuring the public, it officially gave veracity to the rumour, inciting worried parents to invade schools to forcibly withdraw their pupils.
The development has predictably pulled the two main political parties in the state into the ring as they have been hauling accusations at each other and further heating up the polity of the volatile state.
The opposition All Progressives Congress was first to react. It pointedly accused the state government of deliberately setting it up by promoting the “Nigerian Army vaccine scare”.
The party in a statement by its state spokesperson, Chris Finebone, said “emerging facts” made available to it indicated that the scare “being promoted on radio and social media earlier today (Tuesday)” by Mr. Okah, “is part of a well-articulated strategy by the Gov. Wike-led Rivers State Government to ridicule, humiliate, intimidate and demoralise the Nigerian Army, SARS and other security agencies ahead of the 2019 elections.
“The APC finds it appalling that the Rivers State Government led by Gov. Nyesom Wike would concoct outright lies and falsehood just to score cheap political points by denigrating our respected men and women of the uniformed and other security services who place their lives on the line every other day to keep Nigerians safe.
“This is the worst form of ingratitude that a government can openly organise against an important set of citizens who lose their limbs and in some cases lose their lives for the rest of us.”
Responding to the APC statement, the PDP accused the opposition party of a “sinister and treacherous effort” to link Governor Wike to the scare.
“At no time in history has the tale of an idle person being the devil’s workshop played out as presently manifested in the life and actions of the idle APC members in the State who for want of what to do, a self-imposed punishment resulting from mental laziness and intellectual poverty of their leaders who have mismanaged the nation’s economy, thus turning the citizens into a rumour mill such as we witnessed Tuesday morning.
“Ordinarily such a goof and unwitting penchant by the APC to blackmail an innocent and comparatively, a superior being, in the person of Governor Wike in a baseless information of fake Army vaccine that cut across various states of the federation including Ondo, Imo, Abia and Anambra States etc…”
The Rivers State Government has been at loggerheads with some security agencies in the state, especially the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, of the Nigeria Police, which personnel the state government once accused of involvement in kidnapping and hijacking ballot boxes during elections.