Pentecostalism, Public Health, and COVID-19 in Nigeria

Dr Xavier Moyet is a Visiting Research Fellow in the Centre for Religion and Public Life at the University of Leeds. He also is a research associate of the Pneuma City project at the University of Kent.

Like countries across the world, Nigeria has been hit by the current COVID-19 crisis, with 139 reported cases identified to date. Two narratives about Nigeria, the most populous country on the African continent, are of interest here: first, the idea of Nigeria as a “failed state”, and second, the idea of Nigeria as a “Pentecostal republic” (as the title of Ebenezer Obadare’s recent book has it). In a context where state actors are weak, and Pentecostal churches play a strong public, social and political role, what is the role of these churches in the current public health crisis facing the country?

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the Governor of Lagos State, M. Sanwu-Olu, on 24th March announced several measures. Lagos State is economically and politically one of the most important states in the Nigerian federal republic. It includes the country’s largest city, Lagos, which is often referred to as the “Pentecostal capital” of the world, thanks to the numerous Pentecostal-charismatic mega-churches and prayer camps dominating the city landscape. On 29th March, a lock-down of Lagos, Abuja and Ogun states was announced by the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari.

The lock-down of Lagos included a ban on religious activities, with gatherings of more than 20 people being prohibited. Several videos posted on social networks attest that it was enacted by the police in Lagos. However, there was considerable resistance to it. For instance, Winners Chapel International (also known as Living Faith Church), one of Nigeria’s most prominent Pentecostal churches, continued to hold services (although people were welcomed with sanitizers). Its senior pastor, Bishop David Oyedepo, stated that “Shutting down churches would be like shutting down hospitals”. Other churches, such as Christ Embassy, also continued with their programmes.

To put this in perspective: the main church camp of Winners Chapel, located in Canaan Land (Ogun state) has a seating capacity of 50,000. Another prominent church, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, has an enormous prayer camp with a massive auditorium on Ibadan Express Way, also in Ogun state, both places connected with the megapolis of Lagos. A prominent and defining feature of Nigerian Pentecostalism is its organisational form, with a strong emphasis on huge urban structures. Those mega-churches are clearly not adequate and even become a challenge, in this time of corona-virus, with a ban on the meeting of more than 20 people.

Winners Chapel received strong public criticism for continuing its services, leading Oyedepo to apologise. Interestingly, his excuse was that keeping church services going was vital, because they were channels to disseminate information about COVID-19 to the masses of people who did not have access to other information channels. His public letter stated: “Information has to be strategically disseminated to the grassroot (…) Church platform is a most effective way”, thus implying indirectly that the church can do better than the state to spread the information.

However, Oyedepo’s earlier statement, that “shutting down churches would be like shutting down hospitals”, draws attention to another critical issue: the belief in divine protection and healing that is widespread in Nigerian Pentecostalism. See, for example, another mega-church pastor, Bishop Enoch Adeboye, of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, who is one of the foremost Pentecostal “big” men of God. In a tweet, he assured that the virus won’t come close to those “who serve God wholeheartedly“. Some members of the public reacted negatively to this suggestion. The pastor then recorded a message where he says: “I am praying for you, and your personal & environmental hygiene is very important too”. He retrospectively claimed that God in January this year had already told him that the world would go into forced “holydays”, but that he could not talk more about it at that time. In this video, the pandemic is also woven into a narrative in which there is a divine plan to “shut down” the world. Later, on the 29th of March he urged the public, not to panic for “only those whose time has come will die”.

Thus, some of Nigeria’s major Pentecostal leaders appear to look at COVID-19 as a spiritual enemy, and claim that the protective and healing power of Jesus is bigger. Hence, Bishop Oyedepo tells his followers that a man was miraculously healed of COVID-19 in the USA. In the past month, some pastors were very vocal about their ability to kill the virus, even going to China on healing missions. A certain Pastor Kingsley was willing to use “corrosive anointing” in order to fight COVID-19. Some pastors have prayed over, and “cancelled” the virus, as another declared publicly that Christians should not fear, because with Jesus, “Corona-virus is dead”. Apostle Suleiman was even going further, disseminating negative views about testing and vaccines, which are supposed to become means to infect the people. Another “spiritual weapon” against the virus is prophecy. Hence, the popular Prophet T.B. Joshua issued a message saying that before 27 March, corona-virus will be over.

In view of these reports, it appears that there is considerable basis for doubts about the ability of Pentecostal churches to promote adequate messages contributing to public health in the context of Nigeria. What offers reason for hope is that in each of these reported cases, the Nigerian public has voiced its concern, especially on social media, which demonstrates that Pentecostal churches and their pastors are not immune for critique in the public sphere. Moreover, state actors in several cases have taken measures against churches not complying with the ban, with the police dispersing several religious gatherings. This might suggest that the state, although weak, has not completely collapsed, and that Nigeria has not entirely become a “Pentecostal republic” after all.

Written By: Xavier Moyet

Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons Archive

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