By Tunji Adegboyega
Just as well the Federal Government has intervened in the matter of some state governments that have directed the reopening of worship centres shut as part of the efforts to prevent an explosion of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country. The pandemic has taken a huge toll, both in terms of human lives as well as other areas which we may not be able to quantify. It was not funny that, at this point in time, such reopening could ever be contemplated. But ours is a country with so much religiosity without Christianity. The more churches and mosques we have, the more crimes and criminals multiply. Apparently the Federal Government cried foul because it was not consulted before the state governments took the decision.
One of the state’s that have lifted the ban on mosques and churches is Nasarawa State; it said this would be for only two weeks in the first instance. Commissioner for information, tourism and culture, Dogo Shammah, said “after the expiration of the two weeks, the government would review the situation to see the level of compliance with the conditions to ensure that members abide with preventive measures”.
Although this was cheery news to the Chairman, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in the state who spoke on behalf of other religious leaders, and expressed gratitude to the government for being considerate and also promised to adhere to the conditions, how the worship centres will meet these conditions is yet to be seen, given their huge number, particularly mosques, in the state. We know that there are many mushroom worship centres all over the place, many of which can neither buy the preventive items nor be reached by the government which wants to give them out free.
Adamawa and Borno states that have also eased restriction on worship places and social gatherings insisted that they must ensure social distancing. Adamawa specifically said there must not be more than 50 persons at any worship centre, in addition to other preventive measures. Both states, alongside Gombe and Zamfara, unlocked the worship places on May 14, in one fell swoop. Gombe State Governor Muhammadu Yahaya said aid groups in mosques and Boys Brigade in churches would be trained to enforce compliance with the preventive measures”. He promised to reverse the decision if people did not comply. Borno State said it took the decision because of the progress the state has made in the anti-COVID-19 war.
Governor Bello Matawalle of Zamfara State told the people in a radio broadcast that: “I want to commend the people of the state for supporting government in our effort to frustrate the spread of coronavirus in our dear state by complying with the lockdown orders.
“In the light of this, therefore, we are suspending restrictions on congregational prayers in mosques and churches while appealing to people not to converge in large numbers at the same time.”
One can understand the pressures being mounted on governors by some people, especially religious leaders, to reopen the worship centres. Although this is not the time for such lobbying, some of these people just do not want to understand the gravity of what has confronted mankind as a result of this novel virus.
Ebonyi State government which fell for such lobby unlocked religious activities for churches and mosques once a week, with effect from May 15. A statement signed by the state’s commissioner for information, Mr. Uchenna Orji, said “the governor of Ebonyi State, His Excellency, Engr Chief David Nweze Umahi FNSE FNATE has directed me to inform the general public that in response to the passionate appeal made by the leadership of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Ebonyi State Chapter and some of our reverred bishops that religious centres be re-opened for worship under strict observance of COVID-19 policy and state laws, and having prayerfully (emphasis mine) reviewed the request and in consultation with state leaders, he hereby directs that religious centres in the state do re-open for worship once a week effective from 15th May, 2020 under the following conditions: All churches are to observe their service only on Sunday from 9am to 11 a.m. Seventh-Day Adventist and Muslim faithful are to observe their service on Saturday and Friday, respectively, from 9 am – 11 am.”.
No religious centre is permitted to have more than 500 members; they are to observe at least two meters social distancing as well as observe other COVID-19 preventive measures. The religious centres are also to use the opportunity to enlighten their members on COVID-19 while the state CAN is to ensure compliance with the measures.
Since coronavirus found its way into the country in February, the number of infections has continued to rise. As at Friday, there were 5.11 million confirmed cases worldwide, 1.9 million recovered while about 333,000 have died. In Nigeria, Lagos remains the epicenter of infections with 3,093 confirmed cases, 582 recovered and 40 deaths. This is followed by Kano State which had 875 confirmed cases, 123 recovered and 36 deaths. Others are FCT with 446 confirmed cases, 142 recovered while 14 died; Katsina with 303 confirmed cases, 51 recovered while 13 died; Borno 235 confirmed cases, 89 recovered while 24 died. Nasarawa had 38 confirmed cases ,18 recovered while two died. Ebonyi had 13 confirmed cases, one person recovered and no deaths as at Friday. Adamawa had 27 confirmed cases, 13 recovered while two died.
With the exception of Borno State, it seems other states that have permitted a reopening of worship centres have relatively low cases of infection. But then, we have to be careful because we know this could also be a reflection of the availability of testing centres in the states.
This must have been the fear of the Federal Government in asking for caution on this measure. Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed said: “We are always working together with the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF). We believe that the governors won’t do anything that will put in jeopardy all we have achieved in the last few weeks of lockdown. So, I think it is better that we continue the engagement and I am sure that the chairman of the taskforce who is constantly in touch with the governments will take up this matter and we hope that he will be able to give a feedback.” He assured that the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 which has been engaging the NGF would not relent in ensuring that they are all on the same page on the matter so as not to lose the ground already gained in the anti-coronavirus efforts.
It is possible that some of the state governments want to claim some autonomy in the way they run their affairs, but they should realise that this can only be if they also generate their revenue. To the extent that they still go cap in hand to Abuja every month end, that should tell them that they are not as free as they would want to. Even if and when our federalism is perfected, there are still some things they cannot do, especially if such could adversely affect other constituent parts.
Although only Ebonyi State confessed that its decision was based on representation from Christian leaders in the state, one can bet that it is the same in the other states that have allowed worship centres to reopen, especially with a preponderance of them in the north, even if they did not say so expressly. Ebonyi is largely Christian while the northern states that have relaxed their measures to allow worship centres to open are mainly Muslim states. Could the relaxation in the northern states therefore have been timed to coincide with the end of the Ramadan fast?
Whatever it is though, that the Federal Government has asked the states to reconsider their stance should gladden the hearts of many people. Although not a few persons would blame it for reacting now, when in actual fact, some of these states had given permission to the religious organisations to reopen as far back as May 15. The point our religious leaders should realise is that Saudi Arabia, in what could be described as an exceptional move to curb the spread of coronavirus, announced, as far back as March, that mosques would no longer be open for the customary five daily prayers or Friday congregations. As at that time the kingdom had only 171 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The U.S.-allied Gulf Arab states have registered more than 1,000 infections, many linked to neighboring Iran, which is an epicentre of the outbreak in the Middle East. Even The Vatican banned congregational services for more than two months because of the pandemic. The ban was only lifted recently. So, no one in Nigeria should try to be more Catholic than the Pope. No one in Nigeria should weep louder than the bereaved over closure of churches and mosques.
We should not lose sight of the fact that worship centres are veritable places to get infected with COVID-19 because of the way we do things in those places. We have sad tales from some churches abroad. I can hear some people say ‘what of the markets’? We cannot but go to markets if we must continue to live. Even at that, market days too are regulated now. We can keep praying in our homes because the church buildings are not the church. Our hearts are the temple of God. What the scripture tells the Christians is that where two or three are gathered in His name, He (God) will be with them. It does not matter where. It’s only for a while. This pandemic, like the ones before it, will also pass.