Nigeria’s Ambivalence to Russia’s COVID-19 Diplomacy

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As Russian efforts to promote the Sputnik V vaccine to African countries gained steam in 2020, Nigeria’s leaders did not rush to embrace this vaccine, even though it was the first available on the global market. Given their proud history of nonalignment, their penchant for dealmaking, and the risk that COVID-19 posed to Nigeria—Africa’s most populous country—this ambivalence appears odd at first glance. However, with limited internal pressure to field a vaccine for which the World Health Organization (WHO) had yet to issue an emergency use license, Nigeria’s drug regulators instead took a by-the-book approach, subjecting Sputnik V to a six-month testing and evaluation process before finally giving it a green light in July 2021. However, by that time Nigeria was beginning to field Western-made vaccines that had already received WHO emergency use approval—most of which turned out to be cheaper than Sputnik V. Sputnik V has since had a hard time gaining market share in the country.

Why did Russian vaccine diplomacy—characterized by aggressive marketing and nontransparent deals—fall so flat in Nigeria? The answer is complicated. Surprisingly, Sputnik V’s travails in Nigeria highlight Moscow’s lack of strategic thinking and its inattention to local dynamics in Nigeria, complicating its ability to market the Sputnik V vaccine there.

In Nigeria, a combination of domestic factors undermined Sputnik V’s elite and popular appeal. Not only was its approval process complicated by inflated costs and questions over efficacy, but the vaccine also encountered several other local obstacles, including Nigeria’s existing ties to Western health and immunization organizations, a lack of high-level Nigerian allies for the Russian jab, bureaucratic headwinds, vaccine hesitancy among many Nigerians, and recent attention to a long legacy of health failures and corruption in the country itself, all of which likely made backroom deals for doses of Sputnik V politically challenging for Nigerian officials. Furthermore, Russia’s mercantilist approach toward promoting the vaccine, as opposed to prioritizing WHO emergency use approval and donating even a small amount of doses through COVAX, the global vaccine alliance, also may have complicated Sputnik V’s ability to gain traction in Nigeria.

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