On April 5, in a television studio just outside Lagos, Nigeria, Pastor Chris Oyakhilome sat on an expansive settee and held court as his monthly Global Communion service streamed live to a global audience. Under bright TV floodlights, a choir sang songs of praise while church members testified. A devotee in Myanmar spoke of converting 40 Buddhist villagers to Christianity by distributing the pastor’s teachings; a parishioner in England described how inmates in a local prison had told her that their lives had been changed by Oyakhilome. In a world disrupted by coronavirus, the service proceeded with a semblance of normalcy. 

Then Oyakhilome, flanked on both sides by associate pastors, began to preach. A telegenic man with impeccably coiffed hair, he spoke softly and deliberately, and kept his eyes firmly trained on the camera, as though speaking to an audience of one. Oyakhilome urged his congregation to pray and fast because the “level of deception is far beyond what our world has ever seen.” He didn’t elaborate on who was behind the deception, or how exactly it worked, but he was clear about its cause. The pastor claimed 5G was responsible for the deaths in Wuhan and the motivation for Nigeria’s stay-at-home orders: on March 29 President Muhammadu Buhari announced a lockdown of the capital, Abuja, as well as Lagos, and the neighboring state of Ogun. 

“I’m not creating a conspiracy theory, I’m saying there is a conspiracy,” Oyakhilome elaborated. “I’m not theorizing; a theory is something that is not yet proven. This is not a theory, it’s a proven reality. It’s a fact,” he said, waving his hand to emphasize the gravity of the situation. The room fell eerily silent, the low strum of background music now gone. Oyakhilome wore a puzzled frown, as though wondering how anyone could have believed the official version of events.

Oyakhilome has repeatedly claimed that 5G was responsible for the deaths in Wuhan.

Nigeria is a deeply religious nation. Of its roughly 240 million citizens, approximately 70 million are Christians, and a fast-growing number identify as Pentecostal. Pastors wield an incredible amount of influence, and in gleaming megachurches all across the country, faithful followers hang on their every word. Many Nigerians are likely to trust religious leaders as much as, if not more than, government officials, and during elections, politicians openly seek their support.  

One of the country’s best-known religious leaders is Oyakhilome, the charismatic Pentecostal founder of LoveWorld Incorporated and its church, Christ Embassy. Headquartered in Lagos, Christ Embassy has more than 100 branches worldwide. It is also a fixture on university campuses throughout the country, which partly accounts for the youthfulness of the church’s following. Another factor is Oyakhilome’s ease with technology. “Pastor Chris” has been a household name in Nigeria since the early 2000s, but his prominence increased dramatically after 2009, when he launched his YouTube channel. He now has more than 3 million followers across various social media platforms and has expanded his reach beyond his home country, selling out the O2 Arena in London; Black Star Square in Accra, Ghana; FNB Stadium in Johannesburg; and other venues in North America and Africa. His website is filled with praise from people claiming to have been healed by him, including a Zimbabwean woman who said Oyakhilome cured her of HIV. 

Timing also played a role in his success. In 2004, the National Broadcasting Commission, Nigeria’s media regulator, banned TV stations from broadcasting miracles that are not “provable and believable.” Before the ban, Nigerian TV was awash with shows depicting on-air miracles, such as blind or terminally ill people suddenly being cured of their ailments. While the ban hit many TV networks hard, Pastor Chris was lucky. A year before the landmark ruling, he had launched LoveWorldTV, Nigeria’s first 24-hour satellite Christian channel, which routinely ran segments of Oyakhilome relieving parishioners of, say, infertility, skin infections, or deep vein thrombosis. Perhaps because it was exclusively religious, or perhaps because it was only a satellite station, LoveWorldTV wasn’t affected by the new regulations. And through his station, Pastor Chris preached to viewers around the world.

When Nigeria recorded its first coronavirus case, in February, the immediate concerns were familiar: a lack of adequate testing kits and personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers, the potential collapse of an underfunded and overburdened public health-care system, and the disease’s effects on a fragile economy. There was also fear of misinformation, but on a local scale—of aunties and parents flooding family WhatsApp groups with unverified claims. What nobody saw coming was a popular religious leader spewing conspiracy theories. 

Up until recently, Oyakhilome had been fairly uncontroversial. His 2014 divorce was briefly a news story in Nigeria, and while a six-year inquiry by the UK’s Charity Commission for England and Wales into allegations of his church’s misuse of funds did conclude that there was “serious misconduct and/or mismanagement in the charity’s administration,” no charges were ultimately filed. Then Oyakhilome began talking about COVID-19. In his account, unnamed but powerful forces were ushering in a “new world order” through 5G technology, and coronavirus lockdowns were happening so that 5G structures could covertly be built. The ultimate goal of the lockdowns and social distancing was not to curb the spread of the disease, he said, but to “create the antichrist and go after the church of Jesus Christ.”

As Oyakhilome devoted more and more airtime to this fringe theory, the link between 5G and coronavirus became a mainstream topic of conversation in Nigeria. As of May 7, his April 5 video has been viewed 148,534 times on his personal YouTube channel, and has been disseminated even more broadly through other accounts and platforms. Even government agencies felt obliged to weigh in on the controversy. Despite having initially been enthusiastic about an MTN 5G trial run last November, as theories were starting to circulate the ministry of communications and digital economy tweeted that it had not issued any fully operational 5G licenses. With many Nigerians assailing Oyakhilome for promoting a dangerous fiction, his followers came out in force, and the hashtag #IStandWithPastorChris trended for several days on social media. By that point, at the end of the first full week of April, Nigeria had 354 confirmed COVID cases. 

“When trusted and powerful men of God venture an opinion, their followers tend to see it as sacrosanct and sacred, even over the government.”

Dennis Erezi, a journalist involved in the fact-checking project Cross Check Nigeria, was not surprised by the pastor’s comments. He believes that spreading fake news is a useful way for leaders to prey on people’s ignorance for their own gain, and in this case, it enabled Oyakhilome to keep his parishioners in their pews. Nigeria is divided by ethnic, religious and political lines, and, Erezi noted, when controversial issues arise, opportunistic leaders are often willing to deploy an “‘us vs. them’ narrative” to keep a hold on their followers. 

In Nigeria’s close-knit community of church leaders, other pastors have been reluctant to talk about Oyakhilome, and even those who have debunked his conspiracy theory have not called him out by name. But Pastor Ferdinand Adimefe, founder of the youth-focused Tribe church in Lagos and Abuja, says that although religious leaders have a “spiritual and moral obligation” to weigh in on issues affecting their congregation, they should be careful about what they preach. “When trusted and powerful men of God venture an opinion,” he observed, “their followers tend to see it as sacrosanct and sacred, even over the government.” This, he said, is especially true for technology.

It’s difficult to know the extent to which Oyakhilome’s preaching has affected coronavirus-prevention measures in Nigeria. Even as he criticized the government’s social-distancing orders as “antisocial,” he hasn’t urged his followers to disregard them, and as there are no 5G towers in Nigeria, there’s no risk of their being burned down, as has happened in Europe. Reaching out to various Oyakhilome followers, I was told that everything I needed to know about him could be found in his videos. After being consistently turned down for interviews, I finally found a parishioner who was willing to talk. She agreed to go by only her first name: Elizabeth. “5G, to me, isn’t bad,” she said. “But it will bring a shock. What my pastor said was that it’s dangerous to human health. And I stand with him, since he knows best and must have done research on it.”

As Nigeria eases its lockdown measures and gradually begins reopening its economy, houses of worship remain closed and the government is urging its citizens to continue following social-distancing guidelines. Nigeria has recorded 3,145 cases of COVID-19 and 103 deaths, and although case numbers are still rising, the government is under great pressure to restart the economy. With more than 60% of Nigerians working in the informal sector, many people could simply not afford to stay at home. Even so, they are treading carefully. Despite pockets of misinformation and the best efforts of Oyakhilome, Nigerians seem to be following government advice.