The malam said: ‘there is no corona!’
We also say: ‘there is no corona!’
A video of crowds shouting this refrain circulated on Nigerian social media in late March.
The “malam” or teacher they were referring to is Shaykh Sani Yahaya Jingir, an Islamic scholar based in Jos, Plateau State, in Nigeria’s religiously and ethnically diverse Middle Belt. He is a senior figure within the Islamic reform movement Jama’at Izalat al-Bid’a wa-Iqamat al Sunna (Izala for short), the largest Salafi group in Nigeria.
Shaykh Jingir has caused a stir in recent weeks with his incendiary sermons denouncing the coronavirus pandemic as yet another Western plot to stymie the practice of Islam. It is grist to his mill that travel to Saudi Arabia for the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca (umrah) has been stopped, and that several states across Nigeria have suspended congregational prayers in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.
Recognising the danger of inflammatory messages like Shaykh Jingir’s, the Jama’atu Nasril Islam, an umbrella organisation for Nigerian Muslims, issued a statement cautioning Islamic preachers against misleading their followers over COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Under pressure from both the religious establishment (including the Izala leadership) and state authorities, Shaykh Jingir has now backpedalled.
Alas, he is not the only person to publicly air doubt about the threat posed by COVID-19 being real. In northern Nigeria, others – from a wandering street preacher to a local music celebrity – have expressed similar views, as Sadisu Salisu Idris, a Kano-based community activist and Qur’anic school graduate who collaborated with me on this research, has found.
As of April 14, most of Nigeria’s 373 confirmed COVID-19 cases are in Lagos (214) in the south and in Abuja/FCT (58). However, confirmed cases have also started to appear across the north of the country, including in Bauchi (six), Kaduna (six), Katsina (five), and Kano (four).
Lockdowns are in place in the most heavily affected Nigerian states. Many other states have closed their borders and restricted large gatherings including markets. Mosques and churches in many parts of the country have been ordered to cap attendance, or to close.
But state authorities have been struggling to see heavy restrictions through. Met with popular opposition to mosque closures, on April 9 Katsina state announced they would be allowed to reopen for Friday congregational prayers.
There is a history of scepticism in northern Nigeria towards global public health measures. The drive to eradicate polio in the early 2000s was troubled by widespread fears, fanned by religious and political leaders, that vaccines were intentionally contaminated with anti-fertility agents and HIV to decimate the Muslim population. Almost two decades later, polio still remains endemic in the region.
It’s difficult to know how many people in predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria are swayed by the idea that the coronavirus pandemic is merely “fake news” and social media are likely to magnify extreme viewpoints. However, given the virulence of the virus, public health measures will only be effective if the vast majority of the population follows them. Understanding and addressing the wider political experiences underpinning opposition to public health measures is therefore crucial.
Interventions seen to originate in the West frequently spark suspicion in northern Nigeria, and trigger questions about the motivations that underpin them. Memories of the British colonial occupation certainly matter, as do perceptions of current geopolitics. The “War on Terror” in the wake of 9/11 is still fresh in people’s minds and is widely perceived as primarily a hate campaign against Islam.
The persistent anti-Islam rhetoric of some Western leaders has been noted. Events in other parts of the non-Muslim world, including violent clashes between Muslims and Hindus in India and mass incarcerations of Uighur Muslims in China, have not been lost on the northern Nigerian public either.
In these circumstances, it doesn’t come as a surprise that people question whether highly disruptive measures, encouraged by mostly non-Muslim outsiders including the World Health Organization, are indeed well-intentioned.
Widespread perceptions of Nigerian politicians as self-interested and corrupt fuel suspicions further. The news that Nasir Ahmed El-Rufa’i, the governor of Kaduna State, tested positive for COVID-19 in late March was met with suspicion by some Kano residents, my research collaborator Salisu found. They believed his positive test result was fabricated and part of yet another fraudulent scheme to access federal resources allocated to states affected by COVID-19.
People in northern Nigeria have not forgotten the massive misappropriation of federal funds destined to tackle the Boko Haram crisis in north-eastern Nigeria and to support its victims. In this environment, rumours of COVID-19 being a hoax appear plausible, especially as so far most confirmed cases reported by the media have been among the elites. Their international mobility explains this, but privileged access to testing facilities is also likely to contribute to the high number of elite Nigerians confirmed to have the virus.
Recurrent rumours that the world may soon come to an end further complicate an already challenging situation, as they raise the stakes in religious observance. If the end times are imminent, the umma or Muslim community should live extra-righteously. The suspension of communal prayers seems to impede that.
Convincing the faithful that it is right to stay at home will be no easy task, especially with Islam’s holy month Ramadan just around the corner. Unequivocal messages from Islamic leaders across the religious spectrum will be crucial.
However, stay-at-home messages from Islamic leaders will only work if the government and international community do their part to rebuild trust. This means protecting ordinary northern Nigerians from the devastating effects heavy lockdowns are likely to have on their already precarious livelihoods.