How Nigeria’s ex-lawmaker spread falsehood on COVID-19 vaccine, mislead followers

To many Nigerians, Dino Melaye is a man of several talents – a vocal politician, activist in early years and author of a book. Outside politics, the former senator’s skills in singing and dancing, which he deploys in his political battles, arguably endear him to Nigerians the most.

In one of his ‘hit songs’ popularly titled ‘ajekun iya’, Mr Melaye was seen dancing and singing after a senate committee acquitted him in an alleged case of certificate forgery. In several others, he would mock his political opponents, and sometimes praise God for victories.

With this mix of talent and a political career constantly laced with controversies, the former lawmaker who represented his people at both the House of Representatives and the Senate, constantly engages his millions of followers on the social media, especially on Twitter.

This engagement took a new life in 2020 when Mr Melaye started tweeting on the COVID-19 pandemic. Beginning from late 2020, he has released a series of tweets on vaccination against the novel coronavirus, mostly untrue.

Using the ‘tweet content’ feature on Tweet Deck and a key word search of ‘COVID-19’ and ‘vaccine’, over a dozen tweets, containing purported factual information on vaccination were traced to Mr Melaye.

An analysis of the reach and effect of some of his tweets shows that through millions of primary reach and thousands of reproduction, Mr Melaye’s conjectural tweets on vaccination have real life effects. With over two million Twitter followers, even at the time the virus was detected, Mr Melaye’s words were words of authority to many. Only a few Nigerian politicians have more followers.

First, we take a look at the tweets and their metrics.

Fact-checkers’ treasure trove

On December 31, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for emergency use against the virus. Two weeks earlier, Mr Melaye had put out a video on Twitter to advise his followers on the expected vaccine. Way Back Machine only crawled on Mr Melaye’s Twitter page once in 2020. By then (December 16, 2020), he had about 2.55 million followers.

Way Back Machine data

The video titled ‘Say no to Covid 19 Vaccine’ lasted about one minute 50 seconds. He started by calling on Africans, particularly Nigerians, not to accept the use of any vaccine.

He said further, “For 100 years now, we could not find a vaccine for cancer, for over 40 years we are yet to find a vaccine for HIV/AIDS, for over another 100 years research is still going on to find a vaccine for diabetes. How on earth is it possible that in one year, you find a vaccine for COVID-19?”

“I am calling on African leaders not to allow Africans to be used as guinea pigs by developed nations for their satanic reasons.

“We say no to the application of any vaccine in Africa. We call on the Minister of Health of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to immediately discontinue the interaction with those who want to give us vaccines.”

Without any evidence, he claimed that ‘intelligence gathering’ had shown that some people who took the vaccine died in just three days.

As of Friday June 4, Twitter data shows that the video had garnered 75 thousand views, over 3000 likes, and over 1, 800 retweets.

Dino Melaye advises Africans against COVID-19 vaccine

The tweet did not stop on Melaye’s page. It was retweeted close to over 2000 times across the platform. Twitter Advanced search returned the top five associates who interacted with the tweet. These associates, who retweeted Melaye’s tweet also got enmeshed in considerable interaction.

With a total of over 100 thousand followers FS Yusuf (@_Yusuf, Dr. Ben Gbenro (@bengbenro), Bruce Batemen Esq (@demigodgeous), Nwankpa (@Nwankpa_A) and Daddy G.O (oboy_jay) all retweeted the video without captions.

The video was more redistributed and viewed on YouTube. Top five pages who shared it on the platform amassed over 700,000 views. Other blogs and websites also shared both Mr Melaye’s narrative alongside the video.

Majority of comments on this tweet were dismissive; in fact some fact-checks were published to debunk it but this came expectedly late and a good number of his followers took the message in. While some vowed never to take the vaccine, some others urged people to take the words of the politician seriously.

Melaye’s tweet widely reproduced on Youtube

“It’s amazing how quickly people on this TL dismiss this very important message. It rather needs to be amplified,” a user replied.

For some who came across the tweet but decided not to interact, it’s never vaccination. How this played out will be examined later in this piece but let’s first take a look at some other bogus claims on the ‘inefficiency’ of the COVID-19 vaccine by Mr Melaye.

Early 2021, an image of Remdesivir, a drug considered for the treatment of hepatitis and Ebola virus, surfaced on social media. On the pack, it was indicated that the drug was for use in 47 African countries and not for sale in the US, Canada, or EU.

Mr Melaye picked it up and shared with the caption “what is the meaning of this biko?” Despite fact-checking efforts, many of his followers who had assumed the drug to be a vaccine replied to his insinuation in the affirmative. At least over 1, 000 reactions were tracked across several platforms.

Melaye’s tweet on Remdesivir

“My God, they (they) want to kill us since covid-19 could not do it,” one replied. Another wrote, “Who else observed Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya were exempted? Sudan was the only country amongst the North African countries that was included. Maybe the black skinned nation is their major target.”

Close observation of replies on the tweet shows that over half of the 538 commenters (as of June 6) believe the insinuation. The tweet further reinforced an earlier conspiracy theory of African countries being targeted and marked for a wipe out. But Mr Melaye was not done.

On January 21, he tweeted a video where he gave an over 2-minute warning to the federal government on planned vaccination, stating that vaccines are developed to suit country-type COVID-19 variants.

He then went ahead two months later to disparage the AstraZeneca vaccine received by the federal government. In an interview with Roots TV, with thousands of views on other pages, Mr Melaye claimed that AstraZeneca is the least potent of vaccines. This time, he appeared to have reneged on his total intolerance for vaccines.

Melaye’s tweet on AstraZeneca

“I’m not saying Nigerians should not take COVID-19 vaccine, but what I am saying, in essence, is that —-there are four notable vaccines approved by WHO- AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine, and the one by Moderna. The least most potent of the four is AstraZeneca and the one with greater side effects.”

He later shared an image on Twitter comparing these vaccines with similar disparaging captions. His claims, mostly inaccurate, were fact-checked here.

Melaye’s claims reached many people

Again, majority of the commenters agreed but what happened offline?

Fuel for confirmation bias

In a popular Redeemed Church in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, it was time for another Sunday sermon in January 2021. The lead pastor whose name is excluded from this story for privacy reasons, had decided to teach on end time.

“The pastor told us he was not going to discourage you but he won’t advise you to take it. He said he won’t take the vaccine. For me he was just saying don’t take it,” Milon, a member of the church recounts.

That time, the vaccine was yet to arrive in the country but it was expected to come soon through the COVAX facility. On March 2, four million doses of the vaccine arrived in Nigeria and weeks later, administration of the vaccine commenced in Nigeria.

Against the popular mindset of church members and authority, a civil servant member of the church took the vaccine early in April and died one week after.

“Most people believed it was the vaccine that killed her. Dino Melaye’s comments were used as a point of reference whenever my church members talked about the vaccine.

“After her death, you’ll hear people saying we were told not to take it and she (the deceased) acted otherwise. The death really reinforced his comments. I don’t think up to one per cent of members have taken the vaccine” Milon said.

 “Especially, the youth in my church, they believe Dino Melaye was formerly in the APC (ruling party) before, so if he’s saying this there must be an iota of truth. My sister is not taking this and I know it’s due to these tweets. She follows him and loves him so much,” Milon said.

Milon took his first jab in March and is due for the second soon but he dares not inform his family or any of his church members.

While vaccination is understood to be individuals’ decision, the influence of public figures like Dino Melaye cannot be overlooked. This was confirmed in interaction and interviews with some youth members of the church.

“Many prominent people in the country such as Dino Melaye, Pastor Chris (being) against this vaccine is enough reason to convince someone not to (take the vaccine.),” a female member of the church said, adding that “the way the country is, it’s actually hard for someone to trust government officials, you feel like how sure am I that something is not behind this thing.”

Mr Melaye did not respond to a request for an interview sent to him via messaging app as his known lines were switched off.

Back to the church, five other youth members who spoke on record would not take vaccines. Their faith leaders have warned against it and their political leaders are not ready to be vaccinated, why should they?

This publication was produced as part of IWPR’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.

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