The auditoriums of Nigeria’s mega churches are empty and their gates are shut as they are forced to observe a government ban on large gatherings to halt the spread of coronavirus.
But it took not only threats, but force and arrests for the message to get across.
In some cases those in charge of making the churches bolt their doors turned to the scriptures.
“May I use the words of [Prophet] Mordechai: ‘For such as time as this we do what is appropriate,'” said the leader of an enforcing team in the capital, Abuja, as he arrested a pastor in front of his congregation.
Dressed all in black, had he had a collar he would have passed for a preacher with his baritone voice and gesticulations.
These preachers have changed the face of Christianity in Nigeria – with their evangelical sermons, prophecies and promises of miracles.
One of the most famous of these is TB Joshua, who last month claimed to be divinely inspired, predicting that the coronavirus pandemic would be over by 27 March, several days before a lockdown was imposed on the states of Lagos, Ogun and the capital, Abuja.
“By the end of this month, whether we like it or not, no matter the medicine they might have produced to cure whatever, it will go the way it came,” he said to applause from his congregation.
When 27 March passed the TV evangelist found himself mocked for his “false prophesy”.
But he defended himself – once again to cheers from worshippers – by saying: “What I meant was that the virus would be halted where it began, and in Wuhan it has stopped.”
Other pastors have been accused of flying in the face of the authorities and spreading fake news, impeding efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The biggest controversy has been caused by Christ Embassy pastor Chris Oyakhilome, who in a video post that went viral, linked the virus to 5G networks and alleged that it was part of a plot to create a “new world order”.
There have been calls for the arrest of prominent TV preacher Chris Oyakhilome, known as Pastor Chris, after he repeated an unsubstantiated theory that the coronavirus is caused by fifth generation (5G) mobile communication technology.
“Don’t think what is happening right now has to do with a virus. It’s not a virus. The world has chosen to be deceived. As they have been deceived many times before,” Pastor Chris claimed.
“If you still don’t yet know what is going on, know today; it’s not about the coronavirus. This is basically a group of people serving a devilish cause trying to checkmate humanity to hell.
“There’s a movie called ‘Divergent’ from 2014. That’s what the groups that are interested in the New World Order are up to, to put vaccine in your body containing a digital ID, by which you as a human being can be controlled, you cease to be yourself.”
He claimed Nigeria’s federal government locked down Abuja, Lagos and Ogun to install 5G, and not to stop the spread of coronavirus.
“They had already tested 5G in Abuja and now they are digging in Lagos to get it ready. That’s why they locked down Abuja and Lagos so that the 5G can be installed.”
His bizarre conspiracy theory, which has been peddled by others online, has been rejected by other Nigerian preachers and the country’s communications ministry.
“What Oyakhilome has done has the tendency of rolling back the gains made in the fight against Covid-19 and also of derailing efforts at containing the spread of the disease. What he has done can be termed a terrorist act for its capability of leading citizens astray to mass death and certain doom. He should be held to account,” wrote Nigerian journalist Fredrick Nwabufo.
A conspiracy theory that links 5G mobile telecommunications masts to the spread of the novel coronavirus is dangerous fake news and completely false, according to experts. Other experts believe 5G can cause health issues but none have made a link to coronavirus.
In Britain and Brazil, masts were torched by people taken in by the conspiracy.
When asked by a reporter about the so called “theory” that 5G telecommunications masts could play a role in the spread of the disease, British Cabinet Officer Minister Michael Gove said: “That is just nonsense, dangerous nonsense as well.”
National Health Service England’s national medical director, Stephen Powis, said the 5G conspiracy idea was fake news with no scientific backing that risked damaging the emergency response to the outbreak.