In May 2020, a Christian television channel founded by a Lagos-based megachurch pastor, Chris Oyakhilome, was sanctioned by OFCOM, the British broadcast regulator and prevented from airing “potentially harmful statements” about the COVID-19 pandemic. The statements included a baseless conspiracy that the virus is linked to the rollout of 5G networks and was broadcast by his LoveWorld Television Ministry on satellite around the world. He had been in combat for months against what he claims is a “global cover-up” over 5G networks being the cause of the pandemic and deaths. OFCOM also complained that the programme echoed claims from US president Donald Trump that an anti-malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, was a cure for the virus. Trump is the most adored world leader within Nigeria’s militant Christian community.
Oyakhilome is a powerful Nigerian pastor of Christ Embassy Church established in Lagos in 1987 with an estimated 13 million followers around the world. His message for the last three months has been the devilish 5G conspiracy designed to precipitate global lockdown and closure of churches. In 2019, Christ Embassy had been condemned by the UK’s Charity Commission for “serious misconduct” over a large number of “informal grants and payments” made to organisations and individuals, including more than £1.2m to LoveWorld TV. This story illustrates the conflictual relations between religious movements and what they consider to be the threats posed by this “devil-promoted” Coronavirus.
In my article “Nine Thesis on Nigerian Religions” I argued that Nigeria has one of the highest levels of religiosity in the contemporary world. The key marker of high religiosity is the visible growth in the intensity of belief and in the investment of time, resources and efforts devoted to religious activities and practice. In other words, Nigeria is consumed by an extraordinary expenditure of energy in religious activism. Nigeria’s religiosity, for the most part, is not about the enunciated values of the Abrahamic religions - love, compassion, honesty, moral uprightness and peace. The social reality expressed is massive immorality, debauchery, sex, homosexuality and other activities that genuine Christians and Muslims who believe in the core values of their religions avoid. Add also drugs and alcohol abuse, rape and other forms of anti-religious behavior.
Popular religious movements have made massive inroads into the religious space. About 30-35 per cent of Christians have left orthodox churches for Pentecostal ones and about the same proportian have left Sufi Islam for Salafi Islam. Both Pentacostalism and Salafism emphasise the personal, rather than the collective, as the basis for salvation, as such they divide families and communities while promoting individualism as the most important behavvioural trait to develop. This is an unprecedented level of religious change rarely encountered by any society.
What is special about Nigeria’s religious arena is that it has become the most profitable sector for young, articulate upwardly mobile Nigerians who want to become rich and live a life of opulence. Religion has replaced commerce, banking, industry and agriculture as the most efficacious route to primitive accumulation of capital.
Many within Nigeria’s religious arena therefore understood the swift spread of the Covid-19 pandemic as an existential threat and fought it hard. The biggest bone of contention was the policy banning congregational prayers, which produced a direct hit on accumulation in the religious sector. It was therefore not surprising that many of its actors would fight back by jumping on the numerous conspiracy theories that emerged. Many Muslim clerics for example actively promoted the Zionist thesis arguing it was a plot to place a barrier between Muslims and their religious practice. Even when the restrictions on congregational events were reduced in June 2020, the social distancing rules introduced in mosques were read by many in the Muslim community as being in direct contradiction with Islamic theology that encourages Muslims to pray close to each other. For many pastors, it was the work of the devil to block Christians from salvation. Many religious actors therefore campaigned passionately against lockdown measures that were taken to slow down the spread of the pandemic and probably forced government to lift some of the measures earlier than they would have done. Government might also have become disillusioned with the gradual non-adherence to lockdown measures which seriously affected people’s livelihoods as most of Nigeria’s 100 million very poor are dependent of incomes from their daily hustle, which required movement.
Nigeria is a complex country and it would be foolhardy to focus on only one narrative on the Coronavirus-religion problematic. Many religious leaders, especially the orthodox religious organisations accepted COVID-19 as a real disease and actively encouraged their followers to accept and practice lockdown and social distancing measures introduced by government. Their efforts were critical in getting people to endure total lockdown for weeks. My final point is that Nigerians derive enormous spiritual satisfaction from religious activities and congregational prayers in particular. I was struck by the genuine happiness expressed by so many Nigerians when congregational prayers resumed. There is a reason why the leaders of popular religious movements are loved by their fans - they provide spiritual benefits which they believe is worth paying for.
Jibrin Ibrahim, is a professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Democracy and Development, Abuja, Nigeria.