Attacking Gates, attacking vaccines: How conflict, religion and conspiracy theories drive COVID-19 misinformation in Nigeria
Since the beginning of the pandemic, local conspiracy theories connected to Bill Gates have circulated in Nigeria. Last year a false rumour by The Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) spread online in Nigeria and internationally that Gates had bribed the Nigerian government $10 million to pass a law to test vaccines on children.
False messaging of this nature is often successful because it builds on the high levels of mistrust for authorities that are already commonplace in Nigeria. According to Transparency International, Nigerian politicians are some of the most corrupt in the world. These rumours are made more believable to Nigerians because in 1996, Pfizer – the company behind one of the world’s most prominent Covid-19 vaccines – did undertake a drug trial on Nigerian children during which 11 children died, and dozens were left disabled. Pfizer paid compensation to the families, but is rumoured to have paid bribes to avoid criminal charges (Pfizer maintains that the cases had been resolved by mutual agreement and that it’s conduct was ‘proper’). Given this history, rumours that a foreign billionaire and foreign drug companies are trying to harm the population, with the permission of their government and with zero oversight, aligns with the experience of many Nigerians.
Vaccinations are already a fraught issue in Nigeria. The latest survey of Nigeria’s national immunization coverage (2017) showed 40% of children in the country receive incomplete immunization even when they live close to a hospital. Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation have played a prominent role in boosting vaccination rates in Nigeria.
The Gates Foundation has worked in partnership with The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) since they formed it in 1999. The Foundation supported a programme to eradicate polio in Nigeria through vaccination. Nigerians’ reception of Bill Gates when he previously visited the country was positive, however, if Gates were to visit Nigeria today, he might expect a less favourable welcome. Indeed, some commentary in Nigeria describes Gates as ‘in league with Satan’. These narratives are closely bound up with the dynamics of local conflicts, and the spread of conspiracy theories, and disinformation, through religious and diaspora networks.
Influence of US Christian movements over Christian communities in Nigeria
Pentecostalism arrived in Nigeria in 1910 when an Anglican Bishop started the first local church, according to the Pew Research Center. After the influenza epidemic of 1918 hit Lagos, revival and spirit-filled churches, Aladura as we know them in the Southwest, became popular.
By 1940 to 1970, American evangelical churches spread to Nigeria and famous televangelists like Billy Graham, Kenneth Copeland, and German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke were famous in Nigeria. By invitation of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), they held massive revival services in the country with millions in attendance.
During his lifetime, Reinhard Bonnke held rallies all over Africa. One of his largest was in Lagos in 2000, holding 1.6 million people in a single meeting and 6 million overall. A year before that 16 people were crushed to death at his ‘crusades’. Reinhard believed in a show of miraculous healing of deadly diseases and raising the dead at the events that inspired a generation of pastors and evangelists in Nigeria today.
Between 1993-97 Billy Graham held massive televised ‘crusades’ in five cities in Nigeria, Lagos, Ibadan, Port-Harcourt, Jos and Kaduna. At each of these events, young evangelists and converts were exhorted to follow in evangelical teachings and continue to spread the gospel of the church.
Billy Graham believed in the New World Order, a conspiracy theory about a singular, tyrannical, antichrist government of politicians and billionaires who seek to take over the world through modern technological advancements such as implanted chips and barcode tattoos, ultimately destroying the freedoms of Christians around the world.
Today, the Pentecostal community in Nigeria is youthful and social media savvy. They provide social support and structure where the government failed, providing schools, hospitals, housing, and social welfare for their members. These churches are often more influential than the government, and no matter how small their congregation, their members look to them for decisions on social issues.
During the Donald Trump Presidency, the close connections with religious communities in the US, many of which were strongly and overtly pro-Trump, has led to significant support for President Trump within Nigeria itself. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2020 showed 58% of Nigerians approve of President Trump despite his disregard for the country. The “Nigerians for Trump: The US-Nigeria culture connection” group on LinkedIn is one example. On Facebook, “we are a Donald Trump… the upholder of good governance” is a public group with over 36 thousand members, among other Nigerian Donald trump supporting groups on Facebook.
The reason this phenomena is relevant is because this Nigerian Trumpism, channelled through the influence of US Christian viewpoints on right-wing evangelical Christianity entrenched among Nigerians, meant that as the COVID-19 crisis and the response to it became increasingly politicised in the US, so too did it in Nigeria. Nigeria imported the US political fault lines on COVID-19 through an unusually strong affinity for President Trump and strong linkages with US-based Pentecostal churches.
In the thick of the pandemic, many evangelical pastors in the US with powerful influence in Nigeria, such as Kenneth Copeland and Paula White-Cain, did not recommend common safety precautions instead backing ‘miracle healing’ for the virus. These messages were picked-up and echoed by influential evangelical leaders in Nigeria like Chris Oyakhilome, David Oyedepo, and politician Femi Fani-Kayode.
By 2020, Bill Gates had become more vocal in his criticism of President Trump’s claims and policies on the coronavirus, and doubled down his advocacy for vaccination. This public disagreement made him the target of hatred and vilification from pro-Trump forces, including widespread misrepresentation of a Ted Talk he gave to support vaccination against infectious diseases. For many Nigerians, this is where it all began – and has endured despite President Trump confirming he has been vaccinated, and has recommended it to others
Gates’ comments in an interview about digital certificates which will have a record of testing and vaccination in the future were twisted by conspiracy theorists who claimed he intended to implant microchips through vaccines and tattoos. His funding for vaccination research was used to imply he plans to control the world through manufactured vaccines and the New World Order. For many in Nigeria, Gates has come to be perceived as a godless billionaire representative of the New World Order. His recent opposition to President Trump – who is believed by many Nigerians to be endorsed by God to fight against evil and oppressive political and financial establishments – adds further to Gates’ problematic reputation in Nigeria
There is a strong diaspora influence on the misinformation about Bill Gates in Nigeria. Nigeria has a large diaspora community. Many of them long for home, are in need of community, and so join churches familiar to those at home. There are Nigerian Pentecostal churches in the United States and the United Kingdom with services rooted in specific local rituals, strengthening the connection to their pastors. American televangelists and crusaders greatly influenced these pastors themselves.
Meanwhile, Nigerians living in the country value the experiences of their friends and relatives living abroad, and place great value on their views on what is true and what is not. So, a Nigerian living in the county could easily receive false claims about Bill Gates losing a vaccination case in court on closed groups on Facebook or WhatsApp from diaspora connections and accept it as fact.
An equally complicated and important aspect to the spread of Bill Gates and COVID-19 conspiracy theories is the way it plays into the violent conflicts currently taking place in parts of the country.
The crisis in Kaduna
The north of Nigeria is predominantly Muslim and the south majority Christian. The north-central or middle belt of the country has a long history of recurring ethnic and religious violence lasting decades. The states most affected are Plateau and Kaduna.
Since 1992, over 10,000 people in this region have been killed due to their ethnic or religious identity. Many more have died decades before and after, with the most recent attack in the region just three weeks ago.
Kaduna has a 50/50 division between Christians in the South and Muslims in the North. Indigenes of southern Kaduna who have rejected Islam and consequently come under attack from the dominant Hausa-Fulani Muslim community have turned to Christianity, which appeals both as a reprieve and alternative.
Southern Kaduna is majority Christian, with many from the region occupying major leadership positions in the Christian Association of Nigeria, the central organization for all denominations in Nigeria.
Several modern-day foreign missionary groups are also in the region providing psychosocial support, community development and funding, education, and conversion to Christianity. One of those is Youth With A Mission (YWAM) an international, interdenominational Christian training organisation focused on expression in the local context and based in Seattle, Washington.
YWAM as an organisation does not consider itself right-wing evangelical and is pro-vaccination, with many of their missionaries already vaccinated. Mr Michael Kurams, one of the national leaders and base leader of Youth With A Mission, Jos, Plateau State, tells us that there are still some divergent personal views concerning healing and COVID-19.
For example, some believers trust divine healing is absolute therefore they do not need the coronavirus vaccine, while some believe in divine healing and medical support. Although many have heard concerns around Bill Gates disinformation, most of the believers he counsels are more concerned about solutions as the reality of COVID-19 bites hard on locals. He calls the false rumours around Bill Gates and coronavirus “unnecessary trouble”.
Some other religious leaders, however, take a very different view.
Pastor David Azzaman is a native of southern Kaduna who has made conspiracy theories about the New World Order, the Illuminati, Donald Trump, and Bill Gates a central part of his preaching to his followers, weaving through religious symbolism and framing it all within the context of the war between Muslims and Christians in Southern Kaduna.
Azzaman is pastor of a small church, King Worship Chapel and Ministries located at Kunai Street in Kaduna Metropolis, an area where mostly Christians reside.
Although his church is small, Azzaman’s online influence extends far beyond its walls. On Facebook over 29,000 people follow his Page, a significant number in a region like Kaduna. His online following is also highly active in sharing his posts out to much bigger Facebook groups, meaning that the true number of people his content reaches is likely to be substantially higher.
Azzaman’s preachings are highly political, often centring on the issue of religious conflict. He is vocal and aggressive about the plight of Christians in Southern Kaduna who also identify with the middle belt.
Kaduna state has only had one Christian governor in its 54-year history and the Christians who mostly make up the area they call Southern Kaduna say they suffer marginalization and violence. For instance, on August 2, 2021, at least 22 people were killed in Jos. The people who were identified as Hausa Fulani were allegedly killed in a reprisal by Irigwe youth. The government issued a swift response and arrests were made. This has angered the Irigwe and their sympathizers who say they have been under constant attack, and nobody has come to their aid.
Jonathan Asake is the President of the Southern Kaduna People’s Union (SOKAPU) and says the ethno-religious violence is part of an entrenched agenda against the people of the Middle Belt.
“The recent killing in Jos is a continuation of an entrenched agenda against the people of the Middle Belt and by extension the people of the South by the core North,” he said.
Asake says the government is selective in how it dispenses justice and accuses the government of protecting the Fulani, who he alleges are the aggressors.
The SOKAPU President says the government ‘s handling of the killings justifies their belief that the government is selective in their actions.
“You could see that when the Miango people, that is the Irigwe people of Bassa local government, were attacked for over 5 days with over 500 homes destroyed and almost 100 people mostly women and children massacred in the most barbaric manner imaginable, there was no word from anybody, from the federal government. There was no help coming from the government for people who were internally displaced but as soon as word came out that some Fulani numbering up to 22 that were killed in transit all hell broke loose. The government deployed every intelligence and every machinery of the security to track down the so-called perpetrators because they were Fulani.”
The complex and highly charged ethno-religious conflict of Southern Kaduna makes up a key part of Azzaman’s preaching to his followers, including the above example of the killings in Jos.
Azzaman’s willingness to call out national leaders and his vehement defence of what he views as the rights of the Christian community in Kaduna mean that he is viewed by his followers as someone who speaks truth to power.
As a result, when he takes a strong position on an issue, as he has done concerning Covid-19, his followers are likely to support him – in particular because, as discussed above, many people are predisposed to believe conspiracy theories around Covid-19, especially those they attribute to Bill Gates and other perceived ‘malicious foreign powers’.
Conflict, COVID-19 and Conspiracy Theories
Azzaman’s social media footprint illustrates the central role which conspiracy theories and disinformation play in the messages he broadcasts to his followers. Azzaman appears to have been a fervent supporter of President Trump since at least 2017, when he penned an op-ed in which he thanked God for President Trump’s election and claimed that it would herald an Evangelical awakening in America.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Azzaman has espoused a complex blend of local and international disinformation, mixing pro-Trump US political conspiracy theories with COVID-19 disinformation, religious symbology, and local Kaduna political conflicts. These conspiratorial views appear to have profoundly shaped his response to the COVID-19 pandemic and led him to view the vaccines as the instruments of evil forces at work.
Bill Gates plays a starring role in these conspiratorial narratives. Azzaman’s Twitter activity indicates that as early as May 2020, he was already espousing anti-vaccine beliefs and opposition to Gates.
Multiple Facebook posts by Azzaman indicate that his antagonism towards Gates is directly tied into his broader conspiratorial beliefs, which fold Gates in with beliefs about the Illuminati, the United Nations, Freemasons, religious symbolism, and the narrative that COVID-19 was intentionally manufactured in Wuhan as part of a Chinese plot. He has also repeatedly claimed that the vaccines are intended to kill African people.
The specific blend of conspiracy theories espoused by Azzaman appears to be idiosyncratic. He is not simply copying conspiratorial content wholesale from other sources, but rather is synthesising conspiratorial narratives from a range of sources around the world, primarily the US, and weaving them in with religious symbology and Kaduna’s ethno-religious conflicts.
While it is difficult to know exactly where Azzaman is absorbing content from, some of the misinformation which features in his conspiracy narratives appears to have come from fringe US news outlets like NewsMax (which he follows on Facebook), a number of North American Christian leaders including controversial Canadian Evangelical Todd Bentley and President Trump himself, whom Azzaman tweeted at many times over the course of 2020.
Azzaman also appears picking up and incorporating other pieces of viral misinformation which have been circulating internationally on social media, such as the conspiracy theory that the vaccines make you magnetic, baseless theories relating to the real and unfortunately numbered Microsoft patent 060606 or the equally baseless conspiracy theories about the presence of Luciferase in vaccines.
Azzaman’s social media followers are highly engaged and active in sharing his content – and therefore his conspiracy theories – across their own Facebook profiles and into a range of Nigerian and continent-wide Facebook groups, disseminating his narratives amongst a far greater audience.
Azzaman had not responded to efforts to contact him for this story at the time of publishing.
While this article has used Azzaman as a case study, he is one example of a larger phenomenon which illustrates the complex, multifaceted role which disinformation and conspiracy theories are playing as the COVID-19 crisis and response rolls on across the world. Disinformation moves fast through transnational community networks and is adapted by people with a range of motives to fit local contexts, with consequences which are far-reaching and difficult to predict.
While Azzaman’s conspiracy theories may appear to be far-fetched, particularly to those outside of his immediate audience, his messaging has the potential to be extremely serious, even deadly, for those who follow him – especially if they choose not to be vaccinated as a result.