Nigeria: How Does Faith Affect Disinformation?

Conspiracy theories spreads by religious leaders have far-reaching impact.

Nigeria: How Does Faith Affect Disinformation?

Conspiracy theories spreads by religious leaders have far-reaching impact.

Tuesday, 14 September, 2021

Earlier this year, David Lloyd, bishop of the Living Faith Church, told 50,000 people at one of his services in Ogun state that the Covid-19 vaccine was a ploy to kill Africans.

The bishop informed his congregation that “they wanted Africans dead” an assertion that spread widely on social and traditional media, with other preachers also echoing the claim.

I spoke with a number of people who worship at the Living Faith Church, one of the biggest churches in Nigeria, as well as people in different cities across the country. All of them told me that because the bishop has spoken against the vaccine, they are not going to take the vaccine.

In fact, one of them, when I initially asked her if she was going to take the vaccine, said yes. But when I told her that the Bishop was against the vaccine, she changed her mind. So it appears that his claim has been taken very seriously by many of his followers.

I wondered, who believes such a conspiracy in the 21st century? That a group of people just sit somewhere and hatch a plan to kill Africans? I thought that was impossible. The head of the WHO is Ethiopian.  And yet still people think that the WHO - which has so many Africans, and so many Nigerians, working there, and top scientists from all over the world - is promoting something to kill Africans.

The Africa Resilience Network project has given me confidence to start reporting Covid-19 and health related misinformation. So I thought, okay, let me do some fact checking.

It’s not the first time Nigeria has experienced this kind of propaganda

The bishop claimed that an un-named official from the World Health Organisation (WHO) told him that it was the right to speak out against this vaccine because it has not been tested. But that is making two different contradictory claims: that the vaccine has not been tested, but also that it's a ploy to kill Africans.

Some people who have I've interacted with are beginning to modify their views, after I showed them the fact that the vaccine has really helped in reducing the threat. The facts are there.

It’s not the first time Nigeria has experienced this kind of propaganda. I remember that in the 2000s, the polio vaccine was rejected in the north, basically because some people said it was a plot to sterilise the Muslim population.

It took a lot of effort and intervention to get the people to start accepting that vaccine. It took a long time to convince people that this polio vaccine was safe, and wasn't going to sterilise anybody. And it turns out that Nigeria became the last country in Africa to have zero polio infections. And in the north, you will find many people who are crippled because they did not have the polio vaccine.

The Living Faith Church has a seating capacity auditorium of 50,000 people and the bishop runs three services in a day, and three different services on Sunday morning. He has a massive following on YouTube and on Facebook, so he can reach more people than so many others who think that the vaccine is safe and should be taken. So why is he interested in this kind of misinformation?

I would have thought that he should be at the forefront of educating people, encouraging them to take the vaccine, all kinds of vaccines that are good for our health, like against polio, hepatitis B and TB.

I believe he feels that since everybody is talking about the vaccine, it is an opportunity for him to stamp his authority over their lives - that he needed to give his followers or audience a reason to think that he remained the one with the greatest access to God.

I also think that these megachurch pastors are worried. Their opposition to the Covid-19 lockdown came as a result of the restrictions on gatherings in churches. When people don't show up in churches, they have to resort to Zoom, and that wasn't really working for them, because people will basically not be offering [collection money].

It also contradicts their message. They have always preached that once you attend their church, they pray for you, and you buy their olive oil, then you get healed. And then the only way they feel that they can stay relevant in the lives of these people is to rail against any attempt to make them protected through other means than what they have.

I get a very serious negative reaction from doing this work. Myself, I'm a Christian. But somebody told me just today ago that I'm lying, and that I could not have been pushing this position if I were Christian, because he claims that the Bible is clear that if you have faith, then all other things should be left in the hands of God. He will simply fix it.

But I drew his attention to many Bible verses, like 1 Timothy where the Apostle Paul advises to “use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities". In the parable of the Samaritan, he also took a sick person to hospital. As we said, Christ never preached against medication. And there are physicians mentioned in the Bible.

So the idea that there is not any healing other than the divine is false. God has given people the knowledge to discover that these herbs are good, these roots are good and they are processed into drugs. It's God that has given knowledge. So that is also good. If you believe that you can be healed by believing in God, that's fine. But don't make it a national policy.

This publication was produced as part of IWPR's Africa Resilience Network (ARN) programme.

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