How Conspiracy Theories Surrounding the Death of Some African Leaders Fuel Misinformation and COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy
By Jack Vincent Fidelis (Maiduguri, Nigeria), Thomas Bwire (Nairobi, Kenya)
“If the west doesn’t have a lot to hide, why are sitting African leaders who oppose
COVID-19 vaccination in their countries dying mysteriously?”
It’s a controversial claim. The idea that those who oppose the vaccine are being
killed (by whom?) has no factual basis at all. But such rumours are commonplace.
Probed further, Bulama Grema, a 44-year old civil servant in Maiduguri, North
East, Nigeria, who made the statement attested to getting his information from
‘informed sources’ at his local majalisa (an informal assembly of peer groups in
most parts of northern Nigeria).
The devastating effect of grapevine has permeated African societies and
unconscionably affected COVID-19 vaccine reception from the fringes of the
Sahel in Northern Nigeria to the coastline of Kenya on the Indian Ocean.
This, according to Nigeria Health Watch, doesn’t come as a surprise considering
the amount of misinformation about the vaccine online and in public
Misinformation, as purveyed by Bulama and his ilk, is responsible for why people
in this part of the world shun COVID-19 vaccines and stigmatize those that
contracted the disease.
The situation in northern Nigeria is no different in Kenya where Agostina
Mbwaya, a 35-year old mother of two living, with her husband at Kibera Slum, a
neigbourhood in Nairobi, was practically ostracized for having contracted and
recovered from COVID-19.
“Neighbours stopped visiting our home and they warned their children not to come
play with our daughter. The message was clear. We had become outcasts in our
own community. I didn’t understand why people well known to us could turn their
backs on us like that?
Now that I think of it, I felt sad deep down in my heart. In the first place, I never
wished to be picked up by an ambulance at my doorstep because of the dreaded
disease. We got healed from Coronavirus and came back to continue living our
normal lives,” she explained.
Godiya Bitrus, a 30-year old resident of Goni Kachallari on the outskirts of
Maiduguri recovered from COVID-19 and was discharged from an Isolation
Centre. She had to relocate to her sister’s house in Bulumkutu, far away from
home, to avoid the ‘hatred’ and stigmatization meted to her for being ‘a potential
carrier’ of the disease, according to misinformed neighbours and acquaintances.
In a similar vein, Mohammed Ibrahim, a 29-year old resident of Bulabulin Anda, a
suburban area of Maiduguri, lamented how close friends deserted him when he
returned from the Isolation Centre fully recovered. According to UNICEF,
knowing the facts is key to being properly prepared and protecting oneself and
Sadly, there’s a lot of information out there that is incorrect. Misinformation
during a health crisis leaves people unprotected and vulnerable to the disease and
spreads fear and stigmatization (https://www.unicef.org/nigeria/what-you-need-
Opposition to COVID-19 Vaccination and the Reported Death of Some
African leaders from Tanzania (John Magufuli), Ivory Coast (Hamed Bakayoko),
Eswatini (Ambrose Dlamini), Burundi (Pierre Nkurunziza) and even the President
of the Caribbean island of Haiti (Jovenel Moise) died in active service.
Coincidentally, before their deaths, they had issues with COVID-19 vaccination in
one form or another; as a result, conspiracy theorists interpreted their demise to
mean that they were eliminated by ‘the powers that be’ for their decisions.
Incidentally, it should also be noted that several prominent anti-vaxxers have died
from COVID-19 across the world. Dr Stephen Karanja, a Kenyan doctor who
became a vociferous opponent of COVID-19 vaccine, died of Coronavirus on the
29 th of April, 2021, in Nairobi (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-
56922517). Stephen Harmon, a 34-year old vocal opponent of vaccines, died on
the 7 th of July, 2021, in California, USA (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-
canada-57958358). Alan Scott Laniox from Texas, 54, who thought vaccines were
‘poison’ died on the 9 th of June, 2021, from COVID-19 after spending 17 days in a
hospital on a ventilator (https://africa.businessinsider.com/science/the-sister-of-a-
On the 22 nd of July, 2021, Reuters Fact Check team did a comprehensive report on
the stories and debunked the fallacy for what it is:
Following the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise on July 7 , a
new meme circulating on social media presents the unfounded claim that he and
four other leaders, who also died while in office, were killed for opposing COVID-
Reuters has debunked similar claims on other posts, visible here here.
The meme (here , here) includes the photos of five leaders: Jovenel Moise of Haiti,
John Magufuli of Tanzania, Hamed Bakayoko of Ivory Coast, Ambrose Dlamini of
eSwatini and Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi.
“All refused the (vaccine emoji)”, the text on the meme reads.
What Killed the African Leaders?
In March, 2021, the late President John Magufuli of Tanzania died of heart disease
according to the current president, Samia Suluhu Hassan (here , here , here).
Before his death, the Vice-President of Tanzania’s semi-autonomous island of
Zanzibar, Seif Sharif Hamad, had died in February, 2021, weeks after getting
The late Prime Minister of Ivory Coast, Hamed Bakayoko, 56, died of cancer at a
hospital in the German city of Freiburg, as reported on March 10, 2021, by Al
Jazeera and the BBC (here, here).
Reuters reported on Dec. 13, 2020, that the Prime Minister of Eswatini (known
until recently as Swaziland), Ambrose Dlamini, died at the age of 52 after battling
a COVID-19 infection for four weeks (here).
The Government of the Republic of Burundi announced the death of Pierre
Nkurunziza on June 8, 2020, saying it was caused by a heart attack (here).
The verifiable fact that the African leaders died from COVID-19 and other natural
causes means, simply, that it would be impossible to surmise that their death had
been caused by some shadowy pro-vaccination cabal.
False. There is no evidence that the former leaders of Tanzania, Ivory Coast,
Eswatini, Burundi and even Haiti were killed for refusing to vaccinate their
countries against COVID-19 (https://www.reuters.com/article/factcheck-africa-
Bulama Grema, the respondent in Maiduguri who amplified the misinformation,
and other people like those at Kibera Slum in Nairobi who victimized Agostina,
Godiya and Ibrahim even though they were certified free of COVID-19 are easily
deluded given the power of narratives created to misinform and mislead
unsuspecting members of the public.
Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation must be combated to Standstill
According to Nigeria Health Watch, The fight against COVID-19 vaccine
misinformation is an aggressive one — one that requires everyone to play their role.
To return to life as we know it, we must increase vaccine acceptance and uptake.
Reducing or stopping the spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation is one
major way to go about it.
Dr Jeremy Gitau HSC, Founder and CEO Daktari Msafiri LTD Initiative in Kenya,
said: “The best way families can handle misinformation on Covid-19 is to engage a
clinician to disclose the positive results to close family members. Positive tests
conducted can be shared as evidence too to eliminate stigma and mistrust by family
members”. While the smart doctor has a strong point, relevant stakeholders must
do the needful to effectively combat conspiracy theories and misinformation, the
bane of COVID-19 vaccination acceptance (https://nigeriahealthwatch.com/how-
This publication was produced as part of IWRP’s Africa Resilience Network
(ARN) programme administered in partnership with the Centre for
Information Resilience (CIR), the International Centre for Investigative
Reporting (ICIR) and Africa Uncensored. For more information on ARN,
please visit the ARN site: https://africaresiliencenetwork.com/