On February 27, 2020, Nigeria recorded its first case of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which has ravaged critical sectors globally, killed thousands and affected millions. There have been recoveries of some affected persons too.
The country’s index case occurred in Lagos through an Italian. He was successfully treated and discharged. Thus as the cases increased, the President, Major General, Muhammadu Buhari (retd), ordered a two-week lockdown in Lagos, Ogun and Abuja and later extended it by another three weeks before easing it.
Businesses shut, schools closed and worship centres closed. However, some religious leaders flouted the lockdown order by not only opening worship centres, but also gathering people beyond 20 thereby breaking the social distancing rule which was part of measures to curb the spread of the virus.
Some of the religious leaders who violated the directive were in Lagos and Abuja. The Lagos State Police Command and the FCT Administration Task Force on COVID-19 arrested the clerics for violating the order. The culprits were arrested in mosques during Ramadan prayers alongside their worshippers. Among those arrested is the Imam of Sheik Central Mosque, Mile 12 while holding prayers in the mosque with some worshippers.
In a video posted on Twitter by the Chairman, FCT Administration Task Force on COVID-19, Ikharo Attah, the agency was seen arresting three imams and a pastor while they were leading their congregation in prayers.
Addressing the imams and their congregants shortly before making the arrests, Attah said, “We have not come here to do anything against what you believe. We understand clearly that this is the holy month of Ramadan. But while Allah gives you the caveat to pray constantly in line with Quranic injunctions, Allah was also clear in Qur’an chapter 4, verses 59 and 60 that ‘oh ye who believe, you must obey the messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, and you must obey all those whom Allah has given authority over you.”
In Akwa Ibom State, Ifeanyi Ojonu and Giniki Okafor were among the 10 pastors arrested in the state for violating the lockdown order by the state. They were arrested for holding services attended by a crowd.
The Divisional Police Officer, Eket Police Division, Mr Sunday Diggah, said the pastors were prosecuted for violating the state government’s stay-at-home order.
He said, “The offenders were arrested and subsequently arraigned before a Chief Magistrates’ Court on March 30, 2020, to demonstrate the government’s determination to prosecute violators of the quarantine law.”
Also, in Kaduna, two pastors were arrested and arraigned for violating the stay-at-home order to check the spread of COVID-19 in the state. The two pastors were arrested in the Sabin Tasha in the Chikun Local Government Area of the state while holding Sunday service.
The Commissioner for Internal Security and Home Affairs in the state, Samuel Aruwan, said, “They were promptly arrested and subsequently arraigned before a Chief Magistrates’ Court on March 30, 2020, to demonstrate the government’s determination to prosecute violators of the quarantine law.”
Same story in Ekiti, others
Two pastors, Abiodun Daramola and Sunday Akinwande, were convicted for violating the lockdown order of the state government. The two clerics were found guilty on the two counts preferred against them and were ordered to pay a fine of N50,000 and to carry out one-hour community service each.
They were charged for conducting a service of more than 30 persons on Sunday, contrary to the stay-at-home order of the Ekiti State Government and the order prohibiting gatherings of more than 20 persons.
The state prosecutor, Mr Femi Onipede, told the court that “the two pastors committed the offence on April 19 at the Source of Salvation Ministries, Omisanjana in Ado-Ekiti Magisterial District without lawful excuse.”
Ekiti State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Olawale Fapohunda, expressed worry over the development.
The unending increase in the number of religious leaders arrested in Ekiti made the AG to hold a meeting with the Christian Association of Nigeria in the state, while appealing to the body to cooperate with the government to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
He said, “The Ministry of Justice is concerned about the increasing number of pastors that have been arrested over the past few days for violating the prohibition of gathering provision in the COVID-19 regulations.”
Fapounda stated that more than 10 pastors had been prosecuted for violating the Ekiti State COVID-19 Regulations, noting that the state derived no joy in prosecuting representatives of faith-based groups.
He said that this was the time when the state government needed prayers as well as a constructive partnership with churches and mosques specifically in the areas of message transmission as well as counselling people to stay calm and keep faith during the trying period.
In Delta State, some pastors also disobeyed the lockdown order. On Easter Sunday, three pastors and their church members were arrested by the state police command.
The state Police Public Relations Officer, DSP Onome Onovwakpoyeya, said the pastors presided over St. James Anglican Church, All Saints Anglican Church and Christ the World Mission churches respectively.
Onovwakpoyeya said, “We arrested three pastors and their members and they were in cell before we finally charged them to court. In one of the churches, they had almost 100 people.”
In the same vein, the state police command launched a manhunt for a fleeing imam, Alhaji Mohammed Okotie, who allegedly flouted the state’s sit-at-home order to curtail the spread of coronavirus.
The state Commissioner of Police, Hafiz Inuwa, ordered the arrest and immediate prosecution of the imam.
Also, on Sunday, May 17, three pastors in Abuja were arrested by the Ministerial Enforcement Team for violating the ban on public gatherings. The pastors, Ibitoye Kayode of the Liberty Faith Gospel Church; Joshua Olaniru of Liberty Gate Ministry and Vitalis Udeazi of Dominion Chapel, all in Lugbe, a satellite town along the airport road, Abuja.
It was such a humorous sight as the pastors upon seeing the task force quickly mixed with their congregations to evade arrest. After a lot of trouble identifying them, some of their members identified them.
The clerics were arraigned for contradicting the ban despite the increasing figures in cases of coronavirus nationwide. The Magistrate, Idayat Akonni, fined them of N5,000 each in addition to three hours of community service.
Another pastor, Effiong Bassey of the Holiness Revival Ministry Church in Karamajiji, Abuja, was holding a church thanksgiving service to mark the 60th birthday of a retired military colonel when he was arrested.
Expressing concerns, Attah told the pastor, “You cannot hold a worship service in defiance of the directives of the commander-in-chief just to mark the 60th birthday of a retired colonel.’’
The clerics were consequently arraigned before a mobile court presided over by Magistrate Akonni who found them guilty and fined them N5,000 each in addition to three hours of community service.
Attah in one of his outings complained of what he described as the disobedience of the lockdown violators.
He said, “Why are you all denying these large groups of worshippers? No one among you agreed that anyone came to worship with them even when they turned out in large numbers. One of you even went ahead to deny being a pastor.”
Like the pastors, two imams were convicted for contravening the COVID-19 lockdown order by leading Juma’at prayers in their mosques.
The two Imams, Mallam Musa Hassan and Mallam Dahiru Alhaji, both of Dunkui Ambi village were arraigned before a Magistrates’ Court in the Misau Local Government Area of Bauchi State, via a mobile court after they contravened the government’s order on the suspension of religious and social gatherings in the state. The case was presided over by Magistrate Muktar Abubakar, who found them guilty of breaking the law and fined them N25,000 each. Some people commented on the videos showing the task force officials arresting the violators.
One of them, Wale Peters, said, “Most of these clerics see themselves as gods. They think in the larger society they should be above the law.”
Another commentator, Tunde Adesokan, said it was a good thing that the government arrested the defaulters.
Also, Miyen Akkee applauded the mode of the arrest of the lawbreakers without having contact with them.
She wrote. “He’s making his arrests without any form of struggle. A very intelligent man, Kudos.”
Another commentator on Twitter, Salami Ademola, said there should be a whistle-blowing policy so that Nigerians could report more of such cases of violation of orders during the COVID-19 lockdown.
He said, “There are other places where these things are happening as well. Give out numbers to call and I will gladly snitch on them.”
But some Nigerians disagreed with the sentencing of the lockdown violators.
One Harrison Anis said, “While I sincerely commend the teams for their dedication to the fight against COVID-19, I do not subscribe to the culprits being sentenced to a correctional centre. What is wrong with the option of supervised community service for the same duration of sentencing accompanied by fine? Please, let there be synergy especially in times like these.”
Supporting Anis, Íkéchukwu Mámàh also said, “We should be thinking of how to decongest our prisons not to congest them the more. Every offence mustn’t end with prison terms—what happened to fine and community service?”
For Ogbonna Ugorji, he wrote, “Good. Let the same action be taken on our politicians when they equally violate the law.’’
Also, Jude Edoga said, “Also arrest those who attended Abba Kyari’s funeral.”
Another commentator, Henshaw Kate, wrote, “So pastors, imams, and celebrities could be sentenced or given instant judgment but government officials are free to send in apologetic press releases. This is Nigeria.”
Mr Bayo Oladeji, who is the Special Adviser on media matters to the President, Christian Association of Nigeria, Rev. Supo Ayokunle, told Saturday PUNCH that the body adhered with the government directive during lockdown that worship places should be closed.
He said, “The position CAN is that any church or pastor that opens or acts otherwise against government directive should be ready to face the consequences. The organisation is not happy with the prolonged closure of the church. We believe that the closure has nothing to do with the spread of the virus. The church is a place of worship and a house of prayer. People will gather to pray against the further spread of the virus.
“The lockdown is a state by state affair and there are different guidelines in different states. In some states, churches are allowed to hold with strict rules from the government. Churches in states where churches are allowed to open should adhere strictly to the guidelines. In states where churches have been ordered to close, we stand with the government’s decision. Any pastor or church who goes against the law should accept the punishment that comes with such disobedience.”
Oladeji noted that CAN would never encourage pastors to disobey government’s order.
He added, “We appeal to the authorities in states where pastors have violated the laws that they should pardon them and warned them. But if such things occur again, they should be made to face the wrath of the law.”
The CAN executive also expressed concerns that government made such decisions without the involvement of religious bodies.
Oladeji stated, “Also when the government was making those decisions, they didn’t consult or contact us before taking such decisions. We just wake up to see such decisions in the newspapers, TV and on the radio. It’s not supposed to be so. Religious leaders are stakeholders, we pray for the success of the government, stability and the peace of the state.
“If the government had carried us along, we know the guidelines that we can give to our people to help avoid the spread of the virus.
He stated that the body was surprised that government allowed people to go to banks, markets and offices but not to church.
“Are we an ungodly nation? We have doctors, biologists and other scientists in churches that can help us with these guidelines but we were just shut out of the whole process. And they just read out guidelines to us like a riots act. We are a democratic nation,’’ he added.
Also, former chief missioner of Al Fathiu, Imam Suleiman Adangba, said the Chief Imam after consultations with major Islamic stakeholders ordered that no cleric should gather people to hold prayers until the ban on religious gatherings was lifted.
He said, “The Chief Imam in collaboration with some of us issued a directive that no mosque for any reason must gather people together to hold prayers while the ban on religious service is still on. The government has said that for the safety of the people, there should be no religious gatherings. This is also part of the guidelines of Islam that ‘Lives first.’
“If our mantra is lives first and one is not ignorant of what is happening around the world and even in the country, and one values people’s lives, one should follow the directives of the state.”
Adangba noted that most of the clerics holding worship sessions and prayers were after personal gains and not following Islamic injunctions.
He added, “Most of those who flouted lockdown orders did so for ulterior motives. They tend to turn deaf hears on divine regulations and governmental laws. If such people are caught and punished, they are the source of their own troubles and they are on their own. We condemn such acts of disobedience. It’s wrong and totally unacceptable.”