In the last few weeks, Kwara State has found itself at the centre of a boiling religious crisis over disagreements between Muslims and Christians leaders on the issue of hijab use by students in secondary schools. The issue which is threatening the peaceful coexistence between the adherents of the two religions in the state left the government no option but to shut down ten schools at the centre of the controversy. The government, warring parties and students are singing discordant tunes. Daily Trust takes a look at the issues trailing the battle between religious groups over the controversy.
The eight-year-long crisis over the right to wear the hijab or not has continued to pose a challenge to the educational system in Kwara State. Several efforts to bring all stakeholders to a middle ground have failed, leaving the government no other option than to shut down 10 schools that have been affected by the hijab saga.
While the students lament their plight and concerns regarding their inability to pursue their education through no fault of theirs, their teachers, religious leaders and the government are entangled in the argument over the use of the hijab in grant-aided schools that are affiliated to Christians in the state.
The genesis of the crisis
The hijab conundrum between the Muslims and the Christians which began in 2013 has defied the intervention of the immediate past administration in the state and is presently giving the incumbent some headaches. From 2013, the case which had gone to the lower court that year went to appeal in 2016 and is before the Supreme Court, according to the chairman of the Kwara State Chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Bishop Paul Olawoore.
However, the present disagreement between the Christians and Muslims began following a video that went viral in the state where a Muslim student was seen being forced to remove her hijab during the assembly session of one of the grant-aided schools in the state operated by one of the Christian missions.
Following the incident, Muslim students embarked on a protest across the metropolis to correct what they described as an infringement on their fundamental human rights by denying them the use of hijab by their Christian counterparts.
At press conference that followed in Ilorin, the Chairman of the Muslim Stakeholders, Alhaji Isiaq Abdulkareem, said they were surprised that some former owners of schools in Ilorin forcefully removed hijab from heads of female Muslim students at the gates of the affected schools.
The press conference, which also included representatives of the Muslim Students Society of Nigeria (MSSN), Federated Organisation of Muslim Women Association of Nigeria (FOMWAN), and concerned Parent-Teacher Associations, called on the state government to prevail on former owners of public schools in the state to allow female Muslim students to wear hijab.
They said that since the state government had taken over such schools, the former missionary owners no longer have control over the grant-aided schools in the state.
The Muslim stakeholders said that allowing Muslim female students to wear hijab will be in conformity with the judgment of the Kwara State High Court of 2016 and that of the Court of Appeal of 2019. They asked the state government to direct schools to allow Muslim female students to practise Islam in all ramifications through observing prayers and the use of hijab by female students. The stakeholder’s statement was corroborated by the leadership of the Ilorin Emirate Descendants Progressive Union (IEDPU).
In a release signed by its National Publicity Secretary, Abubakar Imam, on behalf of the Union’s National President, Alhaji Aliyu Otta Uthman, the IEDPU described the proposed protest of the Christians over the issue of the school closure “as a joke taken too far and an unnecessary display of ignorance laced with arrogance and ethnocentrism by those who are out to perpetuate tyranny and injustice. It urged those who are not comfortable with the position of the Kwara State government to forward their grievances to the appropriate organs of government instead of resorting to illegality or self-help, warning that any form of protest at this point in time could be hijacked by hoodlums and consequently turned into violence.
On the other hand, the Christian counterparts would hear nothing of such protest and countered the position of the Muslims on the issue with the Cherubim and Seraphim and ECWA joining their other brethren in the struggle.
Speaking with journalists in Ilorin, Chairman/Spiritual Father of the C&S, Most Reverend Prophet Samuel Abidoye, said that the state government should return schools built by the church, “to forestall unnecessary trespass capable of leading to the breakdown of law and order in the state”.
Abidoye represented by the acting Chairman, Ilorin District Headquarters, Senior Special Apostle Elijah Fabiyi, said the church appreciated Governor Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq in finding a lasting and amicable solution to the issue, urging the government to reverse its decision on the use of hijab in the interest of peace.
On its part, the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) said that it will not welcome the directive in all its schools in the state.
According to the chairman, ECWA Ilorin District Church Council, Reverend Dr John Owoeye, ECWA schools were established by the Christian missionaries for purposes of reaching communities with the love of Christ and to meet the educational needs of the indigenes irrespective of religious affiliations, among other reasons.
The ECWA church leaders, who demanded the return of ECWA schools to them, said that since 1974 when there was agreement on collaboration between the state government and the proprietor for the school to be grant-aided schools, “the policy has never been total take-over of our schools by the government”.
Rev. Owoeye, who said that Christians are bonafide citizens of the state, added that, “we have an equal right under the provisional constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”. He argued that the government is aware that Christian Religious Knowledge (CRK) teachers are not posted to Muslim grant-aided schools and that the gathering of Fellowship of Christian Students (FCS) is not allowed in Muslim grant-aided schools.
“Similarly, we want the government to be informed that her decision and plan to provide hijab and enforce its use in our Christian mission grant-aided schools will not be tolerated as it is an infringement on our freedom of religion as enshrined in the constitution of Nigeria.”
A Troubled Peace Meeting
In the light of the “fireworks” coming from the relevant stakeholders, Governor Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq summoned a “peace” meeting so as to arrive at a middle course over the issue.
The meeting presided over by Deputy Governor Kayode Alabi who appealed to all the leaders to respect their differences and collaborate to raise a generation of children who will see themselves not as foes, but friends, however, ended in a deadlock.
With representatives of the Muslim and Christian communities, political leaders and leaders of thoughts in attendance, the leaders of the two religions stood their grounds over the issue.
As the drum beats continued among the two leaders and their foot soldiers, in a bid to forestall the breakdown of law and order, the state government ordered the closure of the 10 schools involved in the crisis. That closure was followed by the approval of the hijab for the Muslims according to the government in a statement by the Secretary to the State Government, Professor Mamma Sabah Jibril.
“The state government said it “acknowledges and approves the right of the Muslim schoolgirl to wear the hijab, and directs the Ministry of Education and Human Capital Development to come up with a uniform hijab for all public/grant-aided schools, which will be the accepted mode of head covering in schools”.
The statement also said that any willing schoolgirl with the approved (uniform) hijab shall have the right to wear same in public/grant-aided schools.
Parties head for court
The road to this narrative that is already threatening the religious peace in the state which prides itself with the sobriquet of the State of Harmony began in 2013 when the litigants dragged themselves to the court. The dominance of the disagreement now within the polity is what has baffled many with some unconfirmed insinuations in high quarters that it has already led to the stockpiling of arms by certain individuals and religious organisations.
However, many observers have asked if the government and religious stakeholders who have sharply differed on the hijab issue find a common ground to meet these students and urge them to return to school? Neither the government nor the warring parties have an answer to this puzzle yet.
The government appeal was rejected; leading to the state extension of the closure of the 10 grant-aided schools indefinitely.
The government in a statement by the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education and Human Capital Development, Mrs Kemi Adeosun, said the continued closure of the affected schools was taken for safety reasons.
“The government, therefore, directs schoolchildren and teachers in the affected schools to remain at home until the contrary is announced. The government remains committed to fairness, pluralism, and respect for the law and rights of every citizen at all times,” the statement said.
But despite the closure, there was heavy deployment of security operatives to the affected schools because of the cloud of uncertainty that has surrounded the initial botched resumption.
To this end, the affected schools which include C&S College, Sabo Oke, ST Anthony College, Offa Road, ECWA School, Oja Iya, Surulere Baptist Secondary School, Bishop Smith Secondary School, Agba Dam, CAC Secondary School, Asa Dam Road, St. Barnabas Secondary School Sabo Oke, St. John School, Maraba, St. Williams Secondary School, Taiwo Isale, and St. James Secondary School, Maraba became scenes of heavily armed security operatives.
When Daily Trust visited Bishop Smith’s, St Anthony and C&S, among others, armed soldiers with pilot vehicles were stationed at the main entrance of the affected schools. Also, plain-cloth security men were cited around the schools so as to forestall any unforeseen situation in the area. It was reliably gathered that some Christian leaders who mobilised students to the affected schools and students in hijab were dispersed by the security operatives.
Ayomide Gloria and Sheriff Yakubu (pseudonyms), both 14-year-old students of St. Anthony College, Offa road, Ilorin, the ongoing closure of schools by the Kwara State government as a result of the faceoff between the Christian and Muslim communities over the Hijab crisis in the state is extremely worrisome.
After the last school closure by the government due to the COVID-19 pandemic nationwide which shattered the school system in the state, the last thing at the back of their minds is a return to such a status quo of uncertainty. Regrettably, that reality is now staring them in the face if the vibes coming from the government and the two religious communities are anything to go by.
According to Gloria, an SS2 student of St. Anthony, shutting down the schools is really unfair and queried why it is now that the issue of the hijab is being brought up. Her only concern now is when she will be allowed to go back to school to be able to prepare for the upcoming tests and exams which have been put on hold.
“We are still battling to cover lost grounds because of the first closure as a result of the pandemic; to even think of going back to that era of inactivity is frightening enough. They should just allow us to resume school activities. Our parents have taken advantage of this forced holiday to increase our domestic chores and activities”, she added.
On his part, Yakubu, a JSS3 student believes they have had too many holidays, already expressing fears that the ongoing disruption of their school calendar might have catastrophic consequences on their educational growth and pursuits in the future, beginning with their senior colleagues who are expected to seat for the forthcoming National Examinations Council (NECO) and West African Examinations Council (WAEC) examinations.
According to the CAN chairman in the state, Bishop Paul Olawoore, despite the government second pronouncement on the school closure, there is no going back on their position of ‘no hijab’.
“Now our position remains that there should be no hijab in our schools. If the schools are ours, then they should allow us to dictate the uniforms of the students. I don’t know whether the government is aware of our appeal, but the date for the hearing has not been fixed.
“We are looking to see if there is a common ground where we can meet, but we have not been able to arrive at one yet,” he noted.
Asked if the association is less concerned about the plight of the students who are back home now, the CAN chairman said “Of course, we are concerned about the plight of the students but what needs to be done must be done and we cannot say because one party will be affected we should fold our hands and allow our property to be taken away from us. There should be peace because in a situation where we say there is no hijab and some people want to set our school ablaze, how do you explain that”.
Speaking with Daily Trust on Sunday, the Chairman of the Muslim Stakeholders, Alhaji Isiaq AbdulKareem, said the position of the Muslims remains the same.
He added that “We are waiting for the government, but at the same time, we’re trying to let the government know that if they know they don’t have the political will to implement the court judgment, and to defend the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, that they swore an oath to stand by, then anarchy resumes.”
He noted that this is a legal matter, supported by the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and a court judgment. “Sitting on this matter again is to take a contrary position with what the court of law has taken. This is a declaratory judgment. Looking at the closure of the schools now, we’re the most affected because we have a higher number of students. But we will never sacrifice the hijab because of it.”
Reacting to the development, the Chief Press Secretary to the Governor, Rafiu Ajakaye, told Daily Trust that the Kwara State government did not have a policy on hijab until about two weeks ago.
“This judgment on hijab is simply declaratory in nature which means it was just the court making a pronouncement on the position of the constitution on the subject matter. It is different from the issue of ownership of schools. This simply means this is what the constitution has said. Don’t forget the constitution never mentioned hijab, but their lordships made pronouncement based on the relevant sections (38) which were interpreted that any Muslim child who wishes to wear the hijab has the constitutional rights to do because the word manifest in the constitution covers the wearing of the hijab as a manifestation of her faith. But despite that, at no time in the history of this state did any government come up with a policy and this government, having listened to various stakeholders and advisories from the Ministry of Justice, has now come up with a policy,” he said.
But how long will the closure last following the loud complaints that have trailed it? The CPS said: “We must realize that the primary duty of any government is the security of lives and properties; every other thing comes after. You can only go wherever you like when you’re alive and secure. When the security of a state is under threat, the government has a responsibility to prioritise security which is what the government has done. As soon as the coast is clear, the government will open these schools and when we do that, we must support the children to succeed.”
Parents/Counselors raise concerns
The proprietor of Great Minds School and a parent, Olarotimi Oshin, said, “Another lockdown on the children when the second term examination is around the corner is disastrous. Some schools are starting their second term examination on Monday and WAEC is even around the corner. This is not the issue of religion or CAN or MURIC but we want the government to look at it based on academic and security or crime perspectives. The government should sit down with the affected stakeholders. We are yet to fully overcome the academic crisis that coronavirus has caused, and some teachers are struggling to bring the students up to pace.”
Dr Habibat Odenike, a counsellor, said students stand to suffer a great deal of physiological effect from this closure.
“Closure of these schools will no doubt have a drastic effect or physiological impact on the students, which ranges from sadness, loneliness, anger, boredom and frustration, especially when they see their colleagues going to school every day. Just like the adage goes; the idle mind is the devil’s workshop. This may make the affected students misbehave within the environment,” she added.
It, however, remains to be seen when the stakeholders will tone down their war narratives and heed the call and cries of Gloria and Yakubu from St. Anthony and several other students in the affected schools.
“In the school, we see ourselves as one, both the Christians and Muslims. When we were told that we should go home until further notice, everybody was concerned that history will repeat itself just like when we were told to go home for two weeks during the coronavirus pandemic that later stretched to over six months. We began to hug ourselves because we didn’t know when we would meet again. We are eager to return to school and get over our studies. That is all that we care about”, they said.