The UK Office of Communications (OFCOM) recently came down hard on Pastor Chris Oyakhilome, announcing a total ban on his Loveworld Television Network. It was yet another low on a self-triggered slippery-slope for the evangelical preacher, whose kvetching over the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and other conspiracy theories have been equal parts shocking and sad.
Ordinarily, OFCOM wouldn’t be the least bit perturbed over the religious ranting of a Nigerian pastor. But all kinds of red flags go up when protesters begin to gather and threaten mayhem in central London over the object of his fascination. Quite simply, authorities in the UK deemed Pastor Chris Oyakhilome dangerous to society, and they couldn’t be more right in light of recent events.
Amid the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic and the devastating toll on lives and livelihoods across the globe, the Nigerian government, in a bid to curb the effects here, imposed a lockdown on vulnerable cities in the country. This was in addition to various forms of lockdown already announced by state governors to nip the pandemic in the bud and save lives. As a result, markets, business centres, government offices, recreational and religious centres were shuttered. Yes, churches were closed – to save lives.
This didn’t sit well with Pastor Chris, but it was nothing extraordinary seeing as millions of Nigerians probably shared his sentiment. Weeks later, however, he committed the huge gaffe of not just giving voice to his vacuous sentiment, but attempting to back it up with a mishmash of science fiction and divine injunctions. Addressing his church members, he said:
“with the classification of a weapon, 5G technology is very dangerous. When it comes into contact with a human body, it can provide some poisons to the cells because our bodies try to fight the radiation, kicking out some proteins and some DNA cells in a form of chemical which is called a virus. This shows that what is killing people is not coronavirus but 5G.”
You’re scratching your head right? Wait, there’s more.
He further berated the Federal Government, saying that the lockdown – which many have said was announced a shade late – was merely adopted to enable the adoption of 5G in Abuja and Lagos. There was no stopping him now, as he let rip at his fellow pastors, insisting that those who complied with the ban on religious gatherings were not “congregational leaders”.
Let’s be clear, Pastor Chris is not exactly a stranger to scandals. At the outset of his ministry, and the peak of his rivalry with his namesake, Pastor Chris Okotie, he had to shrug off the toga of being a protégé or secret buddy of Prophet T.B. Joshua. This may sound a little odd to millennials or other folks of a certain generation, but time was when T.B. Joshua was merely on the fringes of Nigerian Christendom and you were best served touching him with a long pole, if you must. He also emerged unscathed after the manager of a five-star hotel landed in hot water for ‘gifting’ his church a month’s wage bill for the entire hotel staff. Barely four years ago, he commanded the headlines following the acrimonious divorce from his wife, Pastor Anita Oyakhilome. His past is not squeaky clean.
Inevitably, his COVID-19 stinker put him in the egregious situation of heavy social media bashing. It’s a well known fact that Nigerian Twitter is a mean street lined with trolls, and the ‘Man of God’ was brutally hauled over the coals. One Twitter user @aina_akin, citing the words of late Nigerian scholar Prof Pius Adesanmi, took a rather hilarious dig at what he termed his “LAFA – locally acquired foreign accent.” The celebrated clergyman, whose visage and voice bestrode our screens and airwaves for decades, was now the butt of all jokes.
But he was apparently tone-deaf, because weeks later, he doubled down on his claim and dropped yet another bombshell. Speaking on the recommendation to wear masks as a means of curbing the spread of the dreaded disease, a besuited Pastor Chris, with all the calm and gravitas in the world, said:
“Wearing face mask is an embarrassment to science. Face mask is dangerous to your health.”
While his risible remark may have earned praise from US President Donald Trump – arguably the most popular mask sceptic today – it drew the ire of renowned author Molara Wood, who delivered perhaps the most stinging criticism of the cleric.
Tagging a tweet containing a video of his speech, she wrote:
“Chris Oyakhilome has been all kinds of messy this COVID-19 season. Irresponsible to the point of deranged. A train wreck. An absolute disgrace. For those still programmed or deluded enough to worship his talcumed face, his affected accent, we present to you – the demystification.”
Of course he had his backers online, those ultra-religious fellows whose pastors can do no wrong. But a perusal of their tweets in defence of their ‘persecuted pastor’ with the hashtag #IStandWithPastorChris, showed them to be nothing more than rent-a crowd who didn’t get the memo. Their position was further diminished when fellow Pentecostal heavyweights – Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo of Kingsway International Christian Centre and Pastor Sam Adeyemi of Daystar Christian Centre – openly rebuked him.
It will be more excusable were Pastor Chris an insignificant, B-list preacher of an obscure church. But that’s not the case here; we’re talking about arguably Nigeria’s foremost televangelist, credited with carrying Christian-based television from Africa to the rest of the world. A pastor whose outreach programmes, devotionals, books, tapes and crusades have touched millions of lives across the globe. An ostensibly dynamic cleric attuned to the times with a massive presence on social media and even a messenger service to better connect with the faithful. No, it’s difficult, nay impossible to explain away his delusive ramblings.
Decades ago, a young Pastor Chris burst onto the scene with the appeal of a gadfly, questioning long-established religious practices and bringing a whole new light to the word. In his fresh revelation, sin and guilt and religious fervour vanished in the presence of the abundant grace bestowed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He even had a catch phrase: “Christianity is not a religion”. This makes his hysterical outbursts over COVID-19 and the ban on religious gatherings more inexplicable.
Speaking further on the COVID-19 and 5G chaos, he said: “I’m into the healing ministry. You may be a pastor or minister but not into healing ministry.”
And one can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t be infinitely more effective to bring and heal COVID-19 victims on his “atmosphere for miracles” programme. That will definitely be a much-needed victory for faith over fact, as he sees it. At the very least, such an act does less harm than espousing a non-existent nexus between 5G and COVID-19, and a possible ‘new world order’.
He comes off in even more terrible light considering the sacrifices that have been made to mitigate the spread of the virus the world over. The St Peters Basilica was shut to thousands of churchgoers as the Pope celebrated Easter mass alone in April, while Saudi Arabia closed Islam’s two holiest sites as Hajj was called off – losing close to $20bn in the process. Doctors and other frontline workers died trying to save lives of those infected, and the Catholic Church in Nigeria offered up its 425 medical centres as treatment and isolation centres. The world stood as one to fight the plague.
As the opprobrium grew, a beleaguered Pastor Chris beat a retreat. “I’m a science and technology enthusiast,” he said.
“Just studying the application of 5G makes me like ‘wow!’ I’d like to get on it like tomorrow morning.”
And it is at this point that I crave your indulgence to get a little irreverent, remembering the words of Pop star Rihanna in the 2008 hit song ‘Take a Bow’.
“Don’t tell me you’re sorry cos you’re not…cos I know you’re only sorry you got caught”
It’s highly likely he will disagree with the words of Rihanna, but he’ll do well to take the advice of Pastor Ashimolowo, who said:
“Christian leaders should be more concerned with preparing their members for the second coming of Christ instead of condemning major technological breakthrough.”
The entire saga has thrown up a lot of questions: was there something up his sleeve? Did he have an ulterior motive? Was it all about the bottom line in the end?
While we may never unravel the entire mystery, it’s instructive however, to ponder on the words of late literary icon Ola Rotimi in his classic, ‘The Gods are not to Blame’.
“All lizards lie prostrate, how can a man tell which lizard suffers from bellyache? In time, the pain will make one of them lie flat on its back, then shall that which has been unknown be made known.”
COVID-19 may have just shown us the Pastor Chris we never knew…