Amid a surge of coronavirus cases linked to the Delta variant in Nigeria, authorities have announced the beginning of the second phase of the vaccine roll-out. It’s not just the Delta variant which is spreading at a dangerous pace, however; the misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories which hampered the initial phase of the vaccine roll-out continue to be an all too real threat to the effectiveness of the vaccination campaign.
With the support of the Africa Resilience Network, we investigated a case study of a pastor preaching disinformation about Bill Gates and sinister global plots linked to the Covid-19 vaccinations as an example of the complicated role which international disinformation and conspiracy theories are playing in Nigeria, including shaping attitudes towards the Covid-19 vaccinations.
David Ayuba Azzaman, who often goes by Azzaman Azzaman on social media, is a pastor in the north-western city of Kaduna. Kaduna and the surrounding regions are mired in ethnic, religious and political conflicts, in particular between Christian and Muslim groups. These conflicts are an ever-present theme in Azzaman’s fiery preaching, as he rails against perceived enemies of Christianity.
Based on videos and livestreams of services, Azzaman’s in-person congregation is relatively small, numbering in the dozens at most. On Facebook, however, over 29,000 people follow his Page. 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 significantly higher.
What Azzaman preaches to his followers is a complex blend of the international and the domestic, the real and the fantastical. He layers international conspiracy theories about Bill Gates, the Illuminati and the New World Order in with Covid-19 disinformation, anti-vaccine sentiment, homophobia and transphobia, and US political conspiracy theories about the 2020 Presidential election. Throughout it all he weaves heavy religious symbolism, ultimately linking the elaborate tapestry of narratives back to the fraught political and religious context of southern Nigeria.
For example on January 6th, which many Trump supporters and pro-Trump conspiracy theorists believed would be the day Trump would be affirmed as the rightful US President (and which instead culminated in the US Capitol incursion), Azzaman posted for his followers to pray for Trump’s victory. If not, he warned, traditional gender and family roles would be thrown into chaos, Christianity would be supplanted by Islam, Judaism and Hinduism and Joe Biden would become a global dictator with the help of the “lamestream media”, who are the “modern day prophets of Baal.”
Signing off, Azzaman wrote:
“THEY WANTED TO BRING THE VACCINE WITH THE MICRO CHIP BUT TRUMP WAS SMARTER AND FASTER THAN THE BASTARD DEVIL SON OF PERDITION TRUMP BROUGHT HIS OWN VACCINE OUT FREE OF THE MICROCHIP, REASON THEY ARE SO ANGRY AGAIN.
GOD BLESS TRUMP PRAY FOR HIM , COMMAND THE MORNING TOMORROW 4am LET JANUARY 6 , 2021 BE IN FAVOUR OF TRUMP IN JESUS CHRIST GLORIFIED NAME AMEN”
What this highlights is that Azzaman’s position on the Covid-19 vaccinations is closely enmeshed with his position on US political issues more broadly. Azzaman does not appear to be a committed anti-vaxxer in general, and has at times expressed a willingness to take “Trump’s vaccine.”
His opposition to the Covid-19 vaccinations seems to be predicated on the heavily politicised discourse around them, including conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and ‘vaccine microchips’, in concert with figures such as Anthony Fauci and CDC director Robert Redfield who have come under fire from conspiratorial pro-Trump groups, as well as shadowy forces such as the Illuminati. Azzaman has been espousing vaccine-related conspiracy theories about Gates and other figures since at least May 2020.
Azzaman’s use of disinformation appears to be both performative and instrumental. In drawing on these conspiratorial narratives, he is performing to multiple audiences and pursuing multiple goals.
Most immediately, posts such as these are a performance for his own followers. Azzaman’s content is likely to appeal to his followers, at least in part, for the same reasons that conspiracy theories about grand plots and sinister global organisations full of shadowy figures appeal to audiences everywhere: it’s exciting. Conspiracy theories thrive by giving people a sense of meaning, convincing them that they have a part to play in a greater struggle between good and evil. The international twist helps to frame Azzaman himself as a wise and worldly leader, capable of seeing the broader picture and explaining it to his followers.
At the same time, Azzaman may also see himself as performing for potential international supporters. The US Evangelical community is a crucial source of financial support for many Nigerian Evangelical churches and pastors, and these community and financial ties have been a key driver of Trumpism across Africa. Azzaman’s energetic embrace of pro-Trump US political conspiracy theories and his efforts to draw connections between them and local conflicts between Muslim and Christian communities may in part be about trying to solicit support from US evangelicals in that struggle.
How sincerely Azzaman himself believes the narratives he weaves is difficult to determine. Arguably, it doesn’t matter much either, because it seems clear that many of his followers do believe in them – and this is where the potential for real world harm comes in. Azzaman’s followers trust him; when he says the vaccines are evil, a significant number of them appear to believe it. Replies and shares on his Facebook posts echo or even expand upon the conspiracy theories, and frequently espouse strongly anti-vaccine sentiments.
While it is difficult to know for certain what impact this has on the willingness of Azzaman’s thousands of followers and the many others who see his content shared into their Facebook feeds, it seems reasonable to think that it is contributing to vaccine hesitancy or outright opposition to getting vaccinated against Covid-19.
What this case study highlights is that the ripple effects of disinformation run wider, deeper and more unpredictably than is often understood. Disinformation and conspiracy theories amplified in one context and for one set of motives can be adopted, adapted and incorporated into another context to serve a different set of motivations. It demonstrates the need for those seeking to counteract the potential harms caused by disinformation to recognise the nuances and variations of local contexts.