‘Where Are the Bodies?’: How Nigeria’s COVID Vaccine Drive Fell Short

Poor access to vaccines, rampant misinformation pushed by religious leaders, and mistrust in the government have all hit Nigeria’s stuttering vaccination rollout.
‘Where Are the Bodies?’: How Nigeria’s Vaccine Drive Fell Short
A mask on the statue of Nigerian civil rights lawyer Gani Fawehinmi in Lagos's Liberty Park. Photo: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

LAGOS – Emmanuel Nnaji, a 39-year-old cab driver in Lagos, said he caught COVID-19 early last year. His symptoms were very mild and he only got tested because his wife had been scared, he said. But despite his personal experience with the virus, Nnaji still believes COVID-19 to be a hoax and the vaccine to be pointless.

"They keep talking about COVID-19, but where are the bodies," Nnaji said immediately after a news report played about the Omicron variant on his car radio. According to official statistics, Nigeria has recorded 221,000 COVID cases, and suffered 2,983 deaths. The true toll is likely higher due to a lack of testing, however.


"All of this is just another way for politicians to enrich themselves,” Nnaji continued, without missing a beat. “If COVID was really out there, do you think the Nigerian government would care? They would have left the country since. Now they are giving out vaccines. If the vaccine was a good thing, do you think they wouldn't hoard it like they were hoarding Indomie [instant noodles] last year?" 

Last year it emerged that some politicians were not sharing food and other supplies meant to be given to Nigerians who had lost their sources of income or had them affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially last year. 

During the peak of the nationwide #EndSARS protests against police brutality, people broke into warehouses where they discovered large amounts of food and other supplies. It transpired that these supplies were being hoarded by politicians who were supposed to have distributed them. Incidents like this have sowed considerable mistrust between the average Nigerian and the government, and have contributed to a feeling of vaccine hesitancy that has gripped the country.

Pedestrians walk past a billboard displayed in Benin City, capital of Edo State, southern Nigeria, in September this year. Photo: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

Pedestrians walk past a billboard displayed in Benin City, capital of Edo State, southern Nigeria, in September this year. Photo: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

Nigeria's COVID vaccination rollout began on the 2nd of March this year when the first batch of 3.9 million doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine arrived in the country from the Serum Institute of India, according to the records kept by the United Nations. This was enough to give roughly 2 percent of the country’s 200 million-plus population one dose of the vaccine. 


Fast forward to December 2021, and just 2 percent of Africa’s most populous country has been fully vaccinated. This is despite Abdullahi Garba, the director of planning research and statistics at the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA), stating that the agency planned on vaccinating 40 percent of Nigeria’s population before the end of 2021, and 70 per cent by the end of 2022. Recent news even shows that over one million vaccine doses have expired while in storage and must be destroyed. According to the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), Nigeria has used just 45% of its vaccine supplies.

The NPHCDA did not respond to repeated requests for comment from VICE World News.

"Nigeria started well, with virtual training of health workers across all 36 states, setting up of an online registration site and widespread social mobilisation. Sadly, all these have waned," Dr Ifeanyi Nsofor, the senior vice president for Africa at the Human Health Education and Research Foundation, told VICE World News via Twitter. 

"The online registration site no longer works, and there is no regular public health information from especially state and local governments. [Local] governments also wait for people to get to health facilities to be vaccinated. There are structural issues too. For instance, the difficulty for people to go to health facilities because of work or trading." 


Nsofor contrasted this approach to the much more successful polio vaccination rollout in Nigeria, which saw health professionals go door-to-door and make visits to churches and schools to vaccinate kids. "Health agencies must take vaccines closer to where people live, work and congregate. If we used a house-to-house strategy to interrupt polio, we can use the same for COVID-19,” he said.

Just five African countries, less than 10% of Africa’s 54 nations, are projected to hit the year-end target of fully vaccinating 40% of their people according to the World Health Organisation. Across the continent, Africa has fully vaccinated 77 million people, just 6% of its population. In comparison, over 70% of high-income countries have already vaccinated more than 40% of their people. 

A man is vaccinated against COVID in Lagos in March this year. Photo: Emmanuel Osodi/Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A man is vaccinated against COVID in Lagos in March this year. Photo: Emmanuel Osodi/Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A vaccination rollout that’s not tailored to fit around people’s lives, a growing distrust of the government, and the large number of Nigerians who do not have access to reliable information sources is also hampered by a powerful anti-vax movement in the country, led by religious bodies and figureheads.

Pastor Chris Oyaklhiome, the founder and lead pastor of LoveWorld Incorporated also known as Christ Embassy, a popular Pentecostal church with branches all over Nigeria, has given several impassioned sermons where he shared COVID-19 conspiracy theories linking the virus with 5G networks. 

His conspiracy theory-laden sermons eventually led to him being fined £125,000 by UK media watchdog Ofcom when he broke the country's broadcasting code by disseminating misinformation on COVID-19 for the second time with his UK broadcasts. LoveWorld Incorporated did not respond to a request for comment.

A 19-year-old university student from the University of Port Harcourt, told VICE that no one in her family is vaccinated as they believe the vaccines are an attempt by the world government to plant nanochips into their bodies.

"My parents refused to let me get vaccinated. I had to get vaccinated when I went to school. They still don't know,” she told VICE World News via WhatsApp, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of fear of having her parents find out she had been vaccinated. 

“My mum is a huge Pastor Chris [Oyakhilome] fan, and the moment he said something was not right with COVID-19, that was it. She has pressured my dad, who normally doesn't believe in things like that, to do so, refused to talk to my aunt who got vaccinated and is still telling our neighbours that the vaccination is part of a grand plot by world leaders to get us all chipped."

“It does not also help that some religious leaders have made atrocious stammers about COVID vaccines," Nsofor, from the Human Health Education and Research Foundation, said. “Addressing a combination of misinformation, disinformation, poor access to vaccines and poor vaccine communication, would help deal with the seeming anti-vaccination situation."