Popular cleric and founder of the Resurrection Praise Ministry of Africa Worldwide, a.k.a ‘Jehovah Sharp-Sharp’, Archbishop Samson Mustapha Benjamin, has urged the Federal and state governments, most especially Lagos State, not to succumb to the intense pressure mounted on them to relax all the measures put in place to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He made this amid the continued exponential rise in the numbers of people infected with the deadly Coronavirus.
In this interview, Archbishop Benjamin, who runs the church with the largest single congregation in the entire Badagry West of Lagos, raised doubts and serious concerns about the rationale behind the huge pressure on the government to call off the lockdown because of religious and economic reasons.
He accused his colleagues calling for the reopening of churches as part of the ease measures in the lockdown of being selfish, and only concerned with tithes they will get, and not the lives of their members, plus the general public.
What do you make of the whole movement restrictions by government in this battle to curb the COVID-19 pandemic?
There are moments you call normal and abnormal. This COVID-19 pandemic has actually changed almost everything in everybody’s life, not only in Lagos, or Nigeria or Africa, but the world at large. All the continents have had their own share of the change of life because of the pandemic called the Coronavirus. So I will say that this moment is not a normal moment. We saw how the pandemic spread from Wuhan in China to Italy to Spain to Germany to France. Now these countries are all developed, but in Africa, we can not say the same. So, if the pandemic changed their lifestyle, we have no choice than to alter ours. And that’s also what affected our government in Nigeria, but the truth is that Nigeria was not proactive enough when this whole pandemic thing started. Nigeria waited until we had an imported case from Italy, and from there the virus started spreading and as we talk now it has become a community issue. So, the best is to go for preventive measures. That’s why, I am warning against easing the lockdown in places like Abuja, Lagos and Ogun states. It is still not the best. I think total lockdown is a very good innovation because we should go more for preventing the disease than talking about curing the disease since there’s no known cure or vaccines for the pandemic. However, it requires a whole lot of planning to be able to ensure an effective total lockdown. The government is supposed to provide palliative for the people that depend on daily wages, for them to obey the law of both federal and state governments.
What’s your take on arguments from some prominent leaders and religious groups, that it’s wrong for governments to allow the opening of markets and then close churches?
Honestly, if I have my way, we should go back to complete lockdown, if we really want to save the lives of more people, but this has to do with the government because if we want to do a complete lockdown, the government should be able to come up with a proper arrangement to provide palliatives for the vulnerable and for my colleagues clamouring for churches to open, to be very honest, it is a wrong call. The churches are supposed to be thinking of ways to get involved in ameliorating the plights of the poor people at these critical moments, and not complaining why the markets are open. It’s because the government is unable to meet up with palliative for the people, that’s why they allowed gradual easing of the lockdown. They had to open these markets for people to go and buy food, but in the church we don’t sell tomatoes, rice, or beans; what we do in the church is to have fellowship with God and then go home. Honestly, the truth behind the clamour for churches to open is because of tithes and offerings these religious leaders get. If there is a way for the normal tithes and offerings will be going back the way it used to before the lockdown, nobody would clamour for churches to open. But now some men of God have gone bankrupt because they don’t get the offerings and tithes. If they care about the spiritual upliftment of the people, what stops them from going to preach on the streets? I go out and evangelize to people sitting in their homes and on the streets, we preach that God is omnipresent, so what happened to that belief? We’re making it seem like if they don’t come to the church, people can’t get to Him, that’s not true! The issue is that we are even lacking in our responsibility as spiritual fathers to people and I still clamour for government to avoid calling off the lockdown on social gatherings, parties, churches, and mosques. That would be a very big mistake on the side of the government. Rather let us think of how we would create better palliatives for the people. Before the ease, you see the number of cases we have, after the gradual easing, we see the astronomic rise of the virus and the way it is affecting people. This is because contact has become so much. When there was total lockdown, and there was no movement except essential duties, how many people were able to be tested at that time, now that there is an ease of lockdown, movement is a bit allowed, how can you test the number of people who have it, and who do not have it? Our leaders should sit down again and reconsider this because the spread is very serious. Look at Kano, they don’t have a case before, but before you knew it the number of deaths was more than the number of deaths in Lagos. Again with the astronomical way the spread is increasing on a daily basis, the best thing to do is to enforce total lockdown. Churches should stop crying because the ease was allowed because of the hardship, and for people to feed. So religious leaders should stop making news out of this situation. We should care more for the lives of the people because without the people the church would not exist. For me, on Sunday and other days of the week, I take a megaphone and go to the streets to preach. This is what I expect the servants of God to be doing now, and join in sharing palliative to the poor, this is not a normal time, so we should not expect normal things. We should do things compliant to the time we have found ourselves. I feel sad when I see us, religious leaders, screaming as if without church we can not exist as pastors, it’s truly not the right way. So, I’ll ask the Federal Government and the Lagos State governor, not to dance to any pressure to open churches, because if they do, no one can control the people. You will agree with me that out there in most public places, social distancing is not being obeyed. So, what do you think would happen when you allow the churches and mosques to start meeting? it is not still the right time to allow congregations in churches, because you know Nigeria with religion, they’ll rather prefer to run to church for a miracle healing, instead of going to the isolation centres.
Many religious leaders would disagree with you. Some of them say that their call for the opening of churches is based purely because they are concerned about the spirituality of their followers, and that the lengthy lockup of churches could adversely affect the Christian faith. Do you share the view that many Christians would go cold in their faith and belief because of the lockdown?
I agree some people because of the lockdown might relax in their faith, but that is the reason technology now comes in. If you cannot stream via free to air or terrestrial television, or radio station or Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, then you all have bulk SMS messages to send scriptural messages and prayer instructions to members. The truth is for anything in life, especially in Christianity, you have a scripture to back it. We only need to be sincere. I’m not in the field of criticism and all that, but the truth is that we have too many prophets in Nigeria today. In fact, in the world, Nigeria has the largest number of prophets. We have prophets that can foresee your account number, and even one’s future, so how come they didn’t foresee that the pandemic was coming. So, all my colleagues in the pulpit that are complaining that people’s faith will grow weak, should know that people have always been weak and lukewarm. The Bible says that ‘as because iniquity shall abound, the love of many for God wax cold’. It doesn’t matter whether it’s during Coronavirus pandemic or lockdown, or easing the lockdown, or removing the lockdown completely and bringing the congregation together. I am a pastor, and I’ve been a pastor all my life right from the age of 12 up till this moment. Believe me, the cry is all about tithes and offerings because if it’s not for tithes and offerings, there are many ways you can reach your members like sharing palliative to the poor, and encouraging the wealthy to share with the less privileged in their areas. We should be thinking more of what to give to society now so that people would see the love of Christ, that’s what we should look at not complaining that our members would grow weak. Even when the church was on, how many of them were on fire for Christ. that’s the truth. We should instead find a way of showing love to them without them coming to church too. Our love should not be on congregating together in church and making it seem as if Jesus is only working through the pulpit. My love for my members is not by congregating with them inside the church. No! my love for them is when they can’t come to church, how can I find a way to reach them where they are. So, I am telling you as a pastor that those of my colleagues who are actually fighting and struggling and doing everything to pressure the government to allow them to open the doors of the church for people to come in, are doing so purely because of the tithes and offering. Sincerely speaking, I used to say to people that no matter how rich a pastor has become in life, he first started with the little tithes and offerings of the church, before he became big, but they would never tell you this truth.
The huge negative impact on Nigeria’s economy is another reason being given for the government to call off the lockdown. What can you say about that?
You don’t need an angel to tell you the negative impact of the pandemic globally, not just in Nigeria. The truth is every economy can be revived, but dead lives can not be revived. Right now, African nations should not be bothering about the economy, they should be more concerned with saving the lives of the people. Remember the Spanish flu of 1918 to 1920, the mistake that was made was easing lockdown like we’re doing now.
The death rate rose each time they eased the lockdown and social distancing measures. The easing of the lockdown increased the spread of the pandemic. So, when nations are looking at the economic effects, rather than the mortality rate of the pandemic, then we are misprioritizing what we should do. We shouldn’t look at the economy right now, we should look at the ways of saving the lives of the people, because it is the people that would revive the economy.