from Africa in Transition , Africa Program , and Nigeria on the Brink

Principal Nigerian Religious Leaders Largely in Lockstep With Government on Lockdowns

Christian worshippers sit during a mass at the St. Gabriel Catholic church, as the government struggles to control the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Abuja, Nigeria, on March 22, 2020. Lockdown orders were issued for March 30. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

April 14, 2020

Christian worshippers sit during a mass at the St. Gabriel Catholic church, as the government struggles to control the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Abuja, Nigeria, on March 22, 2020. Lockdown orders were issued for March 30. Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
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Nigerians like to say that they are the world's most religious people and the happiest, despite their low standing on most of the standard indices of development. In fact, they say, they are the happiest because of the hope that religion provides. Conventional religious practices are widespread, from regular attendance at churches and mosques and private reading of the Bible and the Koran. More than fifty years ago, the Nigerian government declared that the number of adherents to Christianity and Islam was equal, and that therefore neither was a minority religion. Nobody knows the relative size of the two religions, though in general each claims to be "really" the largest. Holy Week, Easter, and Ramadan are the high points of the religious years, with processions and packed churches and mosques. 

Not this year. The federal government issued stay-at-home orders to contain the spread of COVID-19, starting on March 30, for Lagos, Ogun state (a suburb of Lagos), and Abuja, the national capital. President Buhari recently extended them for another two weeks. The order made social distancing mandatory and was enforced, sometimes brutally, by the army and the police. State governors on their own authority have largely imposed the same restrictions on the rest of the country. All churches and mosques have been closed, and parades have been banned, and all other mass events that Nigerians love, such as weddings and funerals. Mainstream Muslim authorities, represented by the Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), have said they will follow the Federal government's restrictions on meetings and movements and instructed members to do the same. A spokesperson for the NSCIA denounced calls from some governors to reopen churches and mosques. He was clear-eyed in his support for the lockdowns: “This pandemic has overwhelmed advanced nations and we know the level of our capacity in this country.”

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The "mainstream" churches, Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, faced with declining attendance even as the Pentecostals flourish, have supported the government response. Leading up to Easter, there was some initial push back from Nigeria's Pentecostal mega churches with a few high-profile arrests of pastors that flouted the shutdown. But, their flocks have apparently accepted the restrictions with no popular demonstrations. The streets of Lagos on Easter Sunday were empty.

Despite reports of drug cartels and terror groups in some countries supporting efforts to contain COVID-19 and mitigate its effects, for Boko Haram, it is a different story. Some of their spokesmen are calling for a new push against the Abuja government in its moment of weakness. But, jihadi areas of operation are far from Lagos and Abuja. 

There have been few reported cases of COVID-19 in Nigeria, and even fewer deaths. As of April 13, Nigeria has had a total of 343 cases, 10 deaths, and 91 recoveries. Trust in the Federal government in Lagos is always low, no matter who is in power in Abuja. Under such circumstances, how to account for the seemingly remarkable compliance with church and mosque closings and other strictures? We do not know, but here are some hypotheses, at least for Lagos. If confidence in Federal government is low, it is higher for the state government; something of a new political culture has been emerging in Lagos in which citizens pay taxes, hold officials accountable, and the state government delivers services. The state government not only supports the Federal restrictions, it has added some of its own. The containment strategy is reminiscent of the successful effort by the Lagos government to contain an Ebola outbreak in 2014. Another hypothesis—applicable beyond Lagos—is that Nigerians are terrified of COVID-19, a fear fed especially by news reports from Italy but also by sensationalist rumor mongering. They also seem to be aware of how unprepared medically the country is for responding to a major health crisis.

How long will Nigerian and Lagosian patience last? Nigeria probably remains a majority-rural country, despite high rates of urbanization. Presumably the virus will spread more slowly in rural areas, and the government's strictures are less burdensome. There will be no wholesale deaths in nursing and retirement homes because both facilities are rare—the elderly remain dispersed with their families. But in Lagos and Nigeria's other large cities, the economy is mostly informal and based on face-to-face contact. And the impact of restrictions on gathering and movement will be severe. Already there are reports, entirely anecdotal, or hunger in Ogun state. If there is to be a flashpoint against the restrictions, it will likely be in Lagos. 

More on:

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Public Health Threats and Pandemics

Sub-Saharan Africa

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