Note: The views and opinions expressed in blog/editorial posts are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the views or opinions of Misbar.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, it has been a herculean task keeping up with the conspiracy theories and fake news in Nigeria, especially those coming from our pulpits and mosques. These statements are made even more difficult to debunk since they are said to be declarations from God. How can journalists fact-check God?
David Oyedepo, Nigerian cleric and presiding bishop of the Living Faith Church, described the COVID-19 vaccine as illegal during his church’s Covenant Hour of Prayer programme back in April. According to him, there is no outbreak of COVID-19 in the church, and as such, no one needed vaccinations, especially him. “The world is confused,” he said. “But the church is the light.” Such is the view several other influential Nigerians hold in a nation that has seen over 160,000 COVID-19 infections and more than 2,000 related deaths.
This is not the first time Bishop Oyedepo has made such declarative, yet false statements regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. In early 2020, just before a total lockdown was imposed across the country, he told his congregation that the cure for coronavirus would be found that week. He is also not the only Nigerian cleric who made such statements before their congregation. Shaykh Sani Yahaya Jingir has a reputation for spreading conspiracy theories to his followers. An Islamic cleric based in Jos, Plateau State, Shaykh Jingir has stated in his sermons that the coronavirus pandemic is yet another Western plot to limit the practice of Islam. Yet another example is this wandering cleric who speaks in Hausa.
Religious leaders play an essential role in nation-building and delivering critical information to a large section of the nation’s citizenry, especially the poor and uneducated whose world view is largely based on what they hear from spiritual leaders. When those vested with such a huge power decide to spew conspiracy theories and false information as directions from God, the ordinary citizens suffer.
In the past, clerics have played essential roles in times of great national need. During the Ebola outbreak across West Africa in 2014, several men of God offered direction and advice to both the federal government and the populace. One of such men was Prophet Samson Ayorinde. A recent example is that of Sheikh Gumi. His name is one that has featured prominently in discussions and efforts to ensure the release of abducted Nigerian students by Boko Haram.
Social media has also allowed misinformation to spread faster and become more difficult to curtail. Prophetic video and audio clips, messages and ‘revelations’ by these men of God are promptly shared and reposted by spiritual faithfuls who see such acts of duty. It is not uncommon to see Whatsapp groups of churches filled with these clips and promptly and enthusiastically forwarded by members to their contacts.
Contrary to early predictions, Nigeria (and by extension, Africa) has had a much lower fatality rate when compared to other nations and continents. But these cultural and religious sentiments do not help in keeping the Nigerian citizenry properly informed. In Nigeria, it is not uncommon to hear ‘God forbid’, ‘I reject it in Jesus' name', ‘My pastor says’, and many other popular terms when issues such as death, disease, and any untoward occurrence are mentioned among them. Such is the deep-seated and religious nature Nigerians have and this influences how many view issues regarding facts and science.
However, a number of religious bodies and faith based organizations must be commended in their response to the fight against the pandemic. Both the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and the Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) were supportive of government efforts before and during the lockdowns, and also worked closely with both local and state governments to disseminate accurate information and encourage compliance. The Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) had ordered their mosques to close down one week before the government announced a general lockdown, issuing directives for mosque organizations and sensitizing their members on how best to combat the disease and prevent further transmission.
In all, Nigerian journalists and fact-checkers must be commended for rising to the occasion. Covering the pandemic has made them frontline workers. Journalists face risks in the process of carrying out the essential duty of information dissemination. This is brought to the fore by the story of Mr. Edem Edem, a reporter with the National Post Newspaper who was the first journalist to be vaccinated in Calabar. Regardless of their spiritual leaning and beliefs, Nigerian journalists have to a large extent, given a good show in objectively reporting news pertaining to the pandemic and covering all sides of the story.