Controversies surround reasons why religion thrives in Nigeria. It is said to be an opium. For some, regular religious attendance is a prerequisite for a good life in heaven after the misery here, and continued merriment for them that are merry now. To attain that sort of Nirvana, most Nigerians believe they will get to heaven if they attend regular religious services. For others, they kill and steal in the name of God. Most believe that if they give their offerings regularly and pay their tithes, things will not be tight for them. As a matter of fact, some religious institutions demand contributions, and keep regular records of it. In some cases, there is a ‘sacrificial giving’, a situation where a congregant is expected to give all of his or her first salary in the New Year, for a so-called ease of life in the year. Apart from the assurances and guarantees that you are verily to ‘make heaven’ from paying a regular religious contribution, the faithful contribution is said to confer special recognition in certain realms.
But sometimes though, recurrent practices like this in many religious institutions hamper governance. For instance, while there are some religions that follow the injunction set out in Hebrews 10:25, not to neglect the assembly of the saints, some others run as family enterprises. Most do not remit taxes to government from the huge profits made from monies used to set up schools, hospitals, real estate and other money-making investments. Analysts believe that even though funds for these investments are gotten from ‘freewill’ offerings from church members, how they are plowed back into ‘regular’ business is no different from how seedy politicians who have put their hands in the public purse invest theirs through property investments and real estate – and private jets.
Accruing monies from regular and irregular religious attendances are largely unaccounted for. A lot of it is spent at the discretion of the founder of the religious institution. There are allegations that these founders spend these monies living large: from their expensive and expansive homes, they ride around in the best cars. Like the archetypical Nigerian politician, if the founder of a religious institution ever falls ill with a malaria or cough or a cold, they hop aboard a jet for medical treatment in Switzerland, the UK, the US, Germany, France and Canada. If you were to point these out to an average adherent, he would probably shrug you off with a sharp rebuke and ask you to mind your business. ‘We are giving the monies to God, and the GO sends it to HIM. If the GO wants to spend God’s money, let him…he’s the one to answer to HIM not me. These are MOG – men of God’, they would say.
In recent times, Nigerians who hold these kinds of beliefs have been led on by founders of religious institutions to believe that the Covid 19 pandemic is the foretold anti-Christ. They claim the Covid 19 was sent by the Devil himself to wrest the adherents from God, and to establish a New World order based on the mark of the beast 666 in the book of Revelations.
On the other hand, and in seeking to secure lives and the health of its citizens, government officials first set up a daily Covid 19 update centre. What it basically tries to do is urge Nigerians to undertake none pharmaceutical measures – avoiding large gatherings, using face masks, maintaining social distancing and to observe basic hygiene by washing of hands. From about March to August 2020 government officials in Nigeria ordered a lockdown on churches, schools and markets, and all sports activities.
The uproar that this set off was unprecedented. Before many set out to fast and pray against the government regulations against Covid 19, they asked pertinent questions: why ask schools and markets and sports centres to open for business and exclude the churches? Why is the government singling out the churches? Why have the political rallies held but the religious institutions were being forbidden from opening as well?
Those praying and fasting against government regulations on the Covid 19 pandemic appeared worst hit. If the religious institutions are empty, recurrent capital runs dry. One of the most strident of the voices against the government regulations against the Covid 19 for Nigerians has been Chris Oyakhilome, PhD, founder of Christ Embassy. Believed to be among the richest pastors in Nigeria, Pastor Oyakhilome is a divorcee with huge investments in hotels, media and religious institutions. He has all but asked members of his church to ignore government regulations on social distancing. According to Pastor Chris, the Covid 19 is all a part of a grand plot organised by interested parties to install an antichrist. Several of his messages to his followers indicate that he has access to documents which are evidence to his claims. He refers to those he claims are responsible for infecting the world with the Corona Virus in the third person plural ‘they’, – suggesting government complicity.
David Oyedepo, founder and General Overseer, GO, of the Winners Chapel is another arrowhead of this religious challenge against government. Also considered one of the richest GOs in Nigeria, Pastor Oyedepo has substantial investments in education and social services. Every year, he gathers his followers from the West African Sub-region and the rest of Africa to ‘Canaanland’ for the Shiloh programme. Like the trip to Canterbury in the days of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Shiloh programme is a religious pilgrimage, and it attracts millions of Christians from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Liberia and South Africa. In a series of media messages, Oyedepo has condemned the government Covid 19 order for churches to remain shut. He claims that instead of social distancing and self-isolation prescribed by government, churches have the ability to neutralize the Covid 19. After the 2020 edition of the Shiloh programme in Canaanland, rumors were rife that several attendees, especially the pastors were infected by the Corona Virus. Another one of the Pastors, Enoch Adeboye, has said that Covid 19 cannot prevent him from laying hands on the sick to heal them. He has however asked his adherents to be ‘sensible’ with the government regulations against the Covid 19.
Two well-known admonitions in the Holy Book urge believers to obey those in authority. The first is in the book of Hebrews 13:17. The other is in Mark 12:17, where Jesus asked his followers to give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God God’s. Questions therefore arise from this challenge to constituted authority in Nigeria over the Covid 19. At what point should believers in the Christian faith listen to or obey their pastors instead of their government? At what point should religious institutions transmute to civil society crusaders challenging government authority, supposedly on behalf of their followers? In a letter he wrote to his brother pastors while in a jail in Birmingham in April 16, 1963 the Rev Martin Luther King said ‘one has not only a legal but moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws…an unjust law is no law at all’. But if a law is just, should an adherent disobey it?
The situation in Nigeria, concerning the management of the Covid 19 Pandemic, is a confused one. Apart from the religious beliefs (most of which are promoted by the pastors) Nigerians believe that the Covid 19 is a white man’s malaria. Even though certain prominent Nigerians have died from Covid 19, some ascribe their deaths to complications from existing ailments.
Part of the confusion arises from government dishonesty. In the past decade, government officials have stolen public monies, and used these monies for investments in real estate, and investments in private businesses. Universities have been shut for nearly nine months over unpaid salaries of lecturers. Instead of fixing public hospitals, government officials usually behave like the pastors: they hop on planes at public expense and travel abroad to be treated. Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president frequently travels to the UK to treat ear and nose problems. All the monies in the budget for a clinic in Aso Rock the seat of power are allegedly stolen or cannot be accounted for.
The crisis of legitimacy in disobeying government authority in the management of Covid 19 would not arise if one or two of these religious institutions had come up with a cure. They have not, and therefore fuelling the argument that that their positions against government is basically a selfish rather than one inspired by the Holy of Holies. Since the Covid 19 became a pandemic, some pastors who made a lot of money from selling holy water, holy oil and from crusades have not healed a single person with Covid19. Rather, they are to be seen in public wearing face masks while others have adopted virtual preaching sessions. They continue to use these virtual sessions to encourage their followers to continue to pay their contributions to designated bank accounts.
There is now evidence that most GOs of religious institutions have been smiling to the banks, that is, in spite of the hardship that the Covid 19 brought about. One Apostle Suleiman has gleefully said he is not interested in seeing the end of Covid. At this most precarious epoch of our lives, where government officials hid palliatives from Nigerians, envisaging to distribute them on birthdays of some politicians, this brother Jero in the Lord announced his acquisition of a third private jet. At that announcement, a judicial enquiry would be initiated in some countries – what kind of business does this brother Jero in the Lord carry out to be able to buy a third private jet? How does he get his money? Is he paying a tax on those monies his adherents put in his custody for God?
But this is Nigeria. Religion will take us to heaven not so? Forget about the judicial enquiry.