In this post, I will look at the current global emergency of Covid-19 for which the official answer in the “global North” is the vaccination. I will do so from the perspective of two Pastors leading major megachurches in Nigeria: Chris Oyakhilome, the founder of Christ Embassy and David Oyedepo, the founder of Winners Chapel. They arguably represent the current dominant version of Christianity of Nigeria, also active on a global scale. However, there is no consensus and unanimity about vaccination in this religious field, which is also defined by its internal conflicts. They are prominent televangelists and arguably some of the more booming voices within the lively chorus of the Nigerian religious landscape. Their followership can effortlessly be counted in millions. Hence, they both dispose of numerous and high-ranking members who can disseminate their pronouncements within Nigerian society. Additionally, their opinions concerning Covid-19 are amplified by the might of the outlets that broadcast their views via TV channels and social media. So, their strength in the realm of communication, strategic for the current health crisis, cannot be understated.
After a brief presentation of the context of Public Health, critical to situate the religious positions regarding vaccination against Covid-19 with accuracy, I will consider the discourses about the pandemic in both churches. Specifically, I will offer a brief recap of their recent stands. Next, I will focus on the leaders substantially similar declarations about immunization. But before that, let us consider briefly methodology.
On one hand, the present situation makes it difficult to practice regular fieldwork, because of the limitations of international research activities. On the other hand, the current situation propels the researcher to exploit the data gathered through a systematic and constant watch. The researcher has to practice, nolens volens, digital ethnography, and to add multi-methodology of field access to the multi-sited nature of the contemporary fieldwork. My longstanding familiarity with Nigerian culture and society render the exercise less perilous, for it is possible to assess the information gathered online from a double perspective. To begin with, I associate with people on ground; cross-referencing the information is therefore possible. Secondarily, my thick connection with the field allows me to branch the collated information with other dimensions of the socio-cultural perception of the public. These representations may relate with history, geopolitical context or religious world-view.
Hence, in such an exercise, it becomes possible to shed light on other implicit dimensions. For instance, a member of Christ Embassy declares about the vaccines: “there’s a lot of politics being played with it.” Understanding of the local perception of politics by Pentecostals aids to decipher the negative meaning imbued in those words.
A brief presentation of the context of Public Health should first recall that the colonial past failed to establish trust between the public and official medical authorities. Public Health was a part of the colonial project, with other elements of “civilization” (e.g.: education).
Public Health was closely associated with other elements of Colonial Medicine: hospitals, hygiene, vaccination. The hegemonic episteme of this colonial time was marked by a dualistic opposition between “science” and “belief.” It was consequently at considerable variance with traditional ideas about health, in which it had a substantial spiritual component. In addition to this double handicap (term?), the Public Health authorities are nowadays closely associated with local political elites, lately called “rapacious” by a former US Ambassador in Nigeria (Campbell, 2020).
Therefore, it is likely that a preponderant part of Nigerian public attending the megachurches is not exceedingly in support of the official communication about Covid-19. Put differently, vast swaths of this public should naturally support declarations made by “Big-men” of God against the legitimate authorities, supporting “Global” Public Health. But what were they stating in 2020?
David Oyedepo’s and Chris Oyakhilome’s statements in 2020
Bishop David Oyedepo said in March 2020 that the mass-gathering could constitute the most efficient place to display a message regarding public health and should not be prohibited. At this time, the mass-gathering was directly threatened because of a ban on church activities. He also warned that the whole Covid-19 pandemic could be fake, raising doubts about its reality and considering it was rather “a satanic plot against the church.”
As for Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, he was very garrulous. First and famously (Ugba, 2020; Ibrahim M., 2020) in April 2020, as the teacher he claims to be (one of the flagship TV programmes of the church is dubbed: Pastor Chris Teaching), he explained to his audience that the Coronavirus was linked with the 5G. The virus and the network were in fact part of a grand plan to establish a dreadful NWO (New World Order). According to this conspiracy theory, key stakeholders of the planet like Bill Gates are proclaimed to be involved. When Pastor Chris uttered those “facts”, he was contradicted by other prominent pastors (e.g.: Matthew Ashimolowo of KICC).
This inflammatory statement was equally the cause of a fierce battle with state media regulators, namely the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) in Nigeria and the Office of Communications (Ofcom) in UK. Due to global media outreach – his programs are also broadcasted in UK through LoveWorld Christian Network (LCN)- the statements made by Pastor Chris triggered controversy far from Nigeria. In UK precisely, where Public Heath reality and information are understood according to different norms.
It was not the first time that Pastor Chris was embroiled into a controversy with a regulator, as was the case during the “ban on Miracles” in 2003 (Ukah, 2015). Pastor Chris has never been afraid of the controversy, which may on the contrary be considered as a critical element of its ministry’s growth. He was involved in the early 2000s with Pastor TB Joshua and Pastor Chris Okotie, in the so-called “Pastor war.” Thereupon, he stated that: “there is nothing like negative publicity”. The aftermath proves him right since his celebrity grew for the best.
So, both pastors emitted reserves about the measures adopted by the Nigerian state to protect Public Health. There was a nascent conflict about the regulations of bodily matters, or, in other words, bio-political decisions. Those measures were probably averse to the serene operation of their megachurch’s activities, in which mass-gathering represent a critical element (and source of income). Moreover, both of them are frequently involved in the healing practices, and claim to offer divine healing (a.k.a. an alternative treatment). Their stance may be related with their initial positions of megachurches leaders. They are consistent with the world-view of many of their followers, regarding healing or the suspicion of mismanagement of state affairs, including Public Health. But what did they say recently about immunization?
Recent declarations of the Pastors in 2021
During the New Year’s Day of December 2020, Pastor Chris further linked his controversial 5G theory with nanotechnologies, and with the vaccines. At that time, his public was persuaded to believe that the vaccines include nanoparticles actionable through the 5G network. With the immunization, one would hence become an object, like any other part of the Internet of Things (IOT). This commodification of the body is not without connection with slavery. In both cases, the body becomes an object, a material thing. Regarding the Corona pandemic, according to Pastor Chris the vaccination implies that one is possessed by “the beast”, and is no more a (saved) member of the body of Christ.
In March 2021, Pastor Chris was still twisting the knife in the wound, unafraid of stirring reactions. In April, his LoveWorld Christian Network (LCN) broadcast was struck by a considerable fine (125000£) by Ofcom (UK) for breaching again the ethical code and holding “inaccurate and potentially harmful claims.” He said that the Coronavirus was developed in order to popularize the 5G network. According to him, 5G and Covid represented a “criminal partnership”, and this “unholy alliance” was a part of the Antichrist’s plan to establish the New World Order (NWO). His understanding of Apostle John, in Revelation, Chapter 13, supports this claim.
Recently, Pastor Chris berated Christians receiving the Covid-19 vaccines. After all, Christians are healers and should believe in the word of God more than in the vaccine. Such a statement is consistent with his long-lasting discourse about divine healing (Moyet, 2007). He also criticized pastors who were advising their church members to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. When observing the activities of Christ Embassy in Australia, for instance, there is no mention of the controversial statement about vaccination. But when one searches the website thoroughly, the controversial statement uttered during the Global Day of Prayer, Final part, March 2021, is available (at least, it was the case on the 17th of May, 2021). Pastor Chris, as the press reports, “slammed” publicly other Pentecostal Pastors. He said:
“It is not ok to just say: ‘Oh well, we were waiting for nice vaccines to come, that is why we are so glad that the vaccines are here, now.’ I can’t understand how a minister of the Gospel would be waiting for some vaccines to be the solution for the world. WHERE WERE (sic) YOUR FAITH?? What happened to you? (saying this with a scornful and disdainful face). We cannot make such recommendations. It is not our calling. We cannot be used for that. As a minister of the Gospel, you cannot be used for that. How can you become a minister, a preacher (smiling with irony) of vaccines? What happened to you (furrowing his eyes-brows)? Where is the Word of God in your mouth? Do you realize that if you would believe in Christ and in the Word of God the way you believe in this vaccine, there would be power in your mouth! HE made us healers! What is wrong, what happened to you? When did we start making such kind of recommendations to God’s people? God’s people! For God sake, think again! How can they send us to the Churches to tell them: “Go and take the vaccine”. Listen: If I say to someone: “You shall live and not die!” that’s it for him. Isn’t that the Bible that you read, isn’t that the scripture that you read? Where is your God of Elijah, your God of Moses? Where is your God of Peter, James and John? What is the matter with you? (leaves the front stage angrily). I made up my mind a long time ago, I dare believe in Jesus Christ! With all of my heart. I dare believe; If you don’t believe, don’t make others to become unbelievers like you.”
His staunch condemnation of other Pastors, in the extremely competitive religious environment of Nigeria, must not merely be interpreted against the backdrop of the debate about “Global” Public Health. It can equally benefit from a strategic perspective. From this angle, Pastor Chris is carving a niche for himself.
It must also be recalled that in recent past, vast swathes of the population have been strongly standing against the government. By this time, politics and health were already firmly linked negatively. A country-wide movement took place against the Police Unit called SARS. At the culmination of it, twelve unarmed citizens, according to Amnesty International, died on the 20.10.20 during the Lekki Gate shooting. After this, there were many mass incidents of people looting the “Covid palliatives” stored by authorities. Furthermore, the recent political agitation in favor of the Yoruba Nation in the South-West or for Biafra independence in the South-East of the country is detrimental to the Nigerian federal ideal. And the “rapacious elites” are tought by many to be feasting on the “federal cake”.
Later in March, some of his church members addressed the issue of immunization in a straightforward but unsurprising way, stating clearly that they would never receive the vaccine. One Joy Okezie says that her views are (also) “rooted in the fact that there’s a lot of politics being played with it”. And lastly, in June 2021 Pastor Chris stated that “forced Covid-19 vaccine will not work.”
According to the Punch (18.04.2021), David Oyedepo equally issued his lot of declarations about the vaccination. He said notably:
“I have never seen a generation where people are forced to take vaccines. It is inhuman; it is immoral Sir. I’m not a lawyer, but I do not think it is legal. You can’t come to my house and want to give me injections. Did I invite you? They are confused. But the church has the answer. Did you see any outbreak of virus here? How will it enter the gate? Will it come through the air? How? One woman just got down after that injection in Kaduna. What kind of life? Are human beings now turned to guinea pigs? The world is confused but the church is lighted. So, the triumph of the church will humble the pride of the world. They don’t know what to do, Sir. In the last days, the church will be reigning in power and glory. That is God’s agenda. No apologies. There is a big, big bird in our land, saying ‘don’t take it, they are deceivers’. Let me see someone who will come and inject me. By who? Are you going to tie my hands? How? Did I invite you? I know you are quiet, you will hear more of it. My job is to expose the devil and tell his agents, ‘get off, we are not guinea pigs.’”
Furthermore, he added it would be immoral to force people to sustain the jab. He also stated that 114 members of his church had Covid-19. They were conveyed to him for divine healing. He became the instrument of God, and provided healing, has he typically does for HIV, Cancer and death itself. He is willing to provide healing again, and he would lay his bare hands. It is also noteworthy to observe that his declarations are translated into Yoruba and relayed by the BBC, giving him an echo outside his own mediatic reality. Reading the comments generated by his declarations in the social forum nairaland.com, it is clear that there is much disagreement about his stand in the public.
How relevant are the views expressed by Bishop Oyedepo and Pastor Oyakhilome? It is comprehensible that their do not make unanimity. Other actors in the Christian spectrum also spoke about the current health situation. Some of them disagree with these two pastors but one of the most vocal opponents to “Pastor Chris” also have vested interest in the transnational diaspora. Is he neutral?
Other clergy may be discreetly sympathetic. For instance, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, the leader of the largest Pentecostal megachurch in Nigeria, recently told his followers that they should not be bothered by the virus. They enjoy protection provided “they dwell in the secret place of the Most High.” He also assures the Christians that no virus will come near them. His son observes in the press that the politicians, decidedly not very trusted, will loosen all the restrictions by 2023, when the presidential election must occur. Pa Adeboye is in addition Daddy Oyedepo’s father in the faith and David Oyedepo paid him a visit with his wife for his birthday in March. Concretely, the pastors utilize their strategy in a reality where they want to distinguish themselves from their competitors. At the same time, they also distance themselves from the political elites popularly perceived as corrupted. With their controversial messages, Chris Oyakhilome and David Oyedepo are hence “killing two birds with one stone.”
Some external observers may think that the mere expression of the Pastors views is adverse to Public Health communication, and is rather dangerous. Some already objected to the opinion of Pastor Chris becoming heard on the national debate (e.g.: Ibrahim J., 2020). However, if one wants to achieve a better communication result, there is need to understand the discourse on-ground, its logic. Goldenberg (2021) incites the researcher to live a paradigm of misinformation, in which the problem is that the public misunderstands the science. In fact, in the present situation, the issue of trust requires the first place. The issue is preferably to appreciate why there is little or no trust between the public and the medical experts.
Somehow fascinatingly for the anthropologist of religion, the whole issues of “vaccine hesitancy” or “trust” are boiling down to the sensitive issue of belief. Who to believe? In an environment where trust and beliefs are confused by the abundance of access to competing opinions, it is necessary to analyse the issue of trust. In the case on Nigeria, an obvious avenue to explain the lack of public trust towards science is linked with the sensitive issue of power. It can be tracked back to history. About the future, are pentecostalism and public health on a collision course? How is it possible for each to accommodate the other?
Lastly, I would like to link the situation depicted above with a scholarly debate dealing with the Pentecostal impact on Politics. This debate is adequately represented by the work of Ruth Marshall (2009). She argued that in Nigeria a Born-again revolution has taken place, affecting both the bodies and the society. Her argument draws notably on Foucault’s work about political theory. Incidentally, the philosopher was instrumental in establishing the ground for bio-politics. Some other authors are more circumspect about the tangible impact of the Pentecostal movement (e.g.: Obadare, 2018). Regardless, the irruption of Covid on the social scene is offering the possibility to envisage from a distinct perspective the interaction between religion and politics. More largely, on a global scale, a work about Nigeria must relate with the issue of Health democracy (Stiegler, 2020) agitated in the “Global North.”
Xavier MOYET is a social anthropologist who has worked on the Megachurches in Nigeria since his PhD (link in the bibliography). Some years after, he worked in Nigeria in capacity of Director of IFRA, a French Social Science institute, in Ibadan. Lately, he was the coordinator in Lagos of the Religion and Urbanization in Africa and the Pneumacity project. Currently, he is a Visiting Fellow of the University of Leeds (firstname.lastname@example.org).
This blog is a part of ‘Dossier Corona’, introduced by Religious Matters in the spring of 2020.
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Goldenberg M., 2021, Public Trust, Expertise, and the War on Science, University of Pittsburg Press.
Ibrahim M., 2020, “Conspiratorial Explanations of the Covid-19 Pandemic among some Religious Leaders in Nigeria”, Religious Matters Blog. Retrieved 30.03.2021. Weblink.
Ibrahim J., 2020, “Covid-19 in Nigeria: Once Again, Religion Stands in the Way”, Friedrich Ebert Stiefung Blog. (opposed to religion). Retrieved 30.03.2021. Weblink.
Marshall R., 2009, Pentecostal Spiritualities, University of Chicago Press.
Moyet X., 2007, Unpublished PhD, partly about Christ Embassy in Nigeria, accessed on the 28.04.2021. Weblink.
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Stiegler B., 2020, De la démocratie en Pandémie, Gallimard. Retrieved 21.05.2021. Weblink.
Ugba A., 2020, Religions and Covid-19: Virulent Resistence and Virtuous Accomodation, Northern Notes Blog, University of Leeds. Weblink.
Ukah F., 2015, « Managing Miracles Law Authority and the Regulation of Religious Broadcasting in Nigeria » in Soares B. & Hackett R., New Media and Religious Transformation in Africa. Retrieved 7.04.2021. Weblink.
 Apublicopposition between three Pastors with bearings on the definition of what constitutes a real or fake Man of God.