Despite the pronouncement last week by the Kwara State government directing all public schools in the state to henceforth allow female students to use the hijab, the last appears not to have been heard on the issue as it concerns schools with Christian heritage.
The government had announced the decision on Thursday to end the conflict between the two major religious communities in the state.
The conflict is over the use of the hijab by female Muslim students attending schools taken over long ago from their Christian founders by the government.
The government had temporarily shut 10 grant-aided secondary schools in Ilorin, the state capital, after Muslim female students insisted on using the head covering in the schools.
The schools are C&S College, ST. Anthony College, ECWA School, Surulere Baptist Secondary School, Bishop Smith Secondary School, CAC Secondary School, St. Barnabas Secondary School, St. John School, St. Williams Secondary School and St. James Secondary School.
The development took the controversy outside the schools. While Muslim leaders insisted students should be allowed to use the head covering in accordance with the Constitution, their Christian counterparts demanded respect for the background of the schools that were established by churches or Christian missionaries.
On Thursday evening, the state government approved the use of the hijab in all public schools in the state.
According to a statement by the Secretary to the State Government, Mamma Jibril, the government considered the submissions of all the major interest groups on the matter in arriving at its decision.
“Consequently, the government hereby 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. Any willing schoolgirl with the approved (uniform) hijab shall have the right to wear the same in public/grant-aided schools.
“Also, the government affirms the right of every child in public schools to freedom of worship.
“The government hereby directs that the affected 10 schools should reopen to commence classes on Monday 8th March 2021.”
The crisis that became full-blown in the past week started in 2012 when Christian groups challenged the state government’s control of the schools.
The military government first proposed to take over missionary schools from churches and Islamic denominations in the late 1960s but did not carry it out until the early 1970s. In 1974, the General Yakubu Gowon-led federal military government completed the process despite dissent from some critics.
Many of the affected schools, now grant-aided, had their names changed afterwards while some, like those in Kwara, retained their names.
But it has since been a tug of war as many canvassed for the return of the schools to the owners because the purpose of the handing-over appeared to be defeated.
For instance, in the late 1970s, the Anglican bishops of the western states said one of their conditions for handing over their schools was that the government would continue the teaching of morals, physical and religious education, and encourage pupils to participate in the activities which would foster personal discipline and character training in the school.
As facilities decayed in the schools and the quality of education plummeted, many Nigerians, including a former Minister of Health, Alphonsus Nwosu, and a former Anambra State governor, Peter Obi, canvassed for the return of the schools to the missionaries.
Some state governments have since heeded the call. In Delta State, 40 schools were handed over to the missions. These include 27 to the Catholic Mission; eight to the Anglican Mission; four to the Baptist Mission and one to the African Church Group.
Meanwhile, in 2012, owners of mission schools and some churches in Kwara approached the state government with a demand for the return of their schools.
When the state government said it could not grant their request until the state’s Education Law of 2006 was repealed, the groups headed to court.
The Christian groups, including the Incorporated Trustees of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Cherubim and Seraphim and Baptist Convention, filed the suit against the state government.
However, some Muslim groups joined in the suit as co-respondents because they were uncomfortable with the likely consequences of the return of the schools for their children.
The state high court, in 2016, delivered its judgment in favour of the state government but the Christian groups appealed. However, the Court of Appeal in Ilorin on September 20, 2019, affirmed the judgment. The four-member panel, in a unanimous judgment, said the appeal lacked merit.
In the lead judgment delivered by Justice Saidu Hussein, the court held that the state government remains the owner of schools and the refusal of the schools to allow the use of hijab was discriminatory and not in line with the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution.
“The submission made on behalf of the appellants that section 38(3) of the Constitution allows them or gives them the exclusive right to make Christianity the only norm in the schools under focus is only wishful thinking. Such is not tenable in a heterogeneous set-up such as the schools under focus where students and pupils alike do not belong to the same religious community or denomination.
“The appeal on the whole falls and the same is dismissed as lacking in merit hence the judgement of the High Court of Justice of Kwara State delivered on the 17th May 2016 in Suit No. KWS/20C/2015 is affirmed,” the judge said.
“The appellants have by no means alleged the restriction of Christian students from the practice of their religion or that Christian students were prohibited by the 1st – 3rd respondents from the practice of their religion by reason of the control exerted by them in the management of the affairs of those schools.
“If that were the case, their grievance would have been understood as genuine. This is not the case. Rather, it is the appellants who are not happy to see the 1st – 3rd respondents continue to allow certain policies being introduced into those schools. They failed to realise that the schools under focus, some of which are co-educational, multi-ethnic and co-religious institutions, have been run or managed as such public institutions for well over a period of 40 years,” the judgment read.
The appellants have proceeded to the Supreme Court.
Following the appeal court’s ruling, Muslim groups mounted pressure on the state government to compel the schools to permit the use of hijabs.
The recent flare in the crisis started at Surulere Baptist Secondary School in Ilorin when the authorities asked some female students who donned hijabs to remove them or go back home.
This led to an argument between some clerics and staff of the school. This newspaper learned that it then spread to some other grant-aided secondary schools.
When PREMIUM TIMES visited Barnabas Secondary School on Wednesday, one of the officials who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to journalists, said some Muslim clerics stormed the school and insisted that those with Hijab should be allowed into the school premises.
“The teachers did not allow this and the issue escalated. We are not against the use of hijabs. If the government says we should add it to the uniform, who are we to oppose it? Let the directive come from the government,” he said.
To put an end to the controversy, the state authorities met with the religious leaders on two occasions but no concrete resolution was reached, our correspondent gathered.
The first meeting was presided by the Deputy Governor, Kayode Alabi, and the second by Governor AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq. They both urged the parties to bury their differences and allow peace to reign.
The CAN Director of Ecumenism and Interface in Kwara, Ralph Ajewole, a reverend father, confirmed the two meetings. He said the missionaries are keen on upholding the tradition the founding fathers started regarding dressing.
“We are saying that there are traditions, there is a culture that goes with the establishment of the schools. Dressing is part of it and all that which we have been managing since that time. Even though they are grant-aided, we still have the ownership taking care of the dressing and all,” he told PREMIUM TIMES.
“I am not unaware that the Muslims want to use hijabs but we are saying that they can do that in Muslim grant-aided schools and not Christian grant-aided schools, and till tomorrow we are still saying that.”
He said the issue of hijab, although addressed in the court ruling, was not part of the suit filed by the Christian groups.
“We want the Supreme Court to know that issue of hijab was not part of what we took to court and a few things that were not well judged in that case, we are contesting.”
“We are waiting for the government to act because nobody seems to be changing grounds for now. But we hope that very soon the students will resume. The two communities are also discussing. We both love peace and harmony,” Mr Ajewole said Wednesday evening.
Speaking with PREMIUM TIMES Wednesday evening, Abubakar Aliagan, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Ilorin who represented the Muslims at the meetings, said the students should be allowed to exercise their constitutional rights since the Supreme Court is yet to rule on the matter.
“The Christian missionaries have gone to court twice. It was between them and the government. Not until the ownership is given to them, (if the court decides, so be it) the status of those schools remain public schools. As public schools, the government has responsibility to protect the interest of both Muslims and Christian students attending the schools.
“It is the government that controls the school that has the right to give directives on the uniform it approves. What is happening is that there will be regulation from the ministry of education, the so-called owners of the school will oppose it.”
Mr Aliagan said if the school is returned to them (missionaries), any Muslim that sends his child to such school must be ready to obey their regulations.
However, Sambo Abdulfatah, who holds a PhD in law, reminded the two parties of section 23 of the 1999 Constitution law that preaches religious tolerance.
“The national ethics shall be Discipline, Integrity, Dignity of Labour, Social, Justice, Religious Tolerance, Self-reliance and Patriotism,” the Constitution stipulates.
“No matter your religion, you have to tolerate other religions,” the don said.
He said if that section of the law is married with section 10 that allows religious freedom, it will bring a peaceful resolution to the issue.
Mr Abdulfatah called on the two religious communities to toe the path of peace, else, the government should take a firm decision.
“If they are not willing to shift grounds, the government should follow the dictates of the law. We don’t want issues of religion to cause chaos and anarchy in a peaceful state like Kwara. The government should be firm,” he said.
School owners defiant
Despite the government’s intervention, Christian leaders have rejected the use of hijabs as the school reopens next Monday.
Reacting to the government’s decision, the proprietors in a communique read by Victor Dada on Sunday said they condemn “the use of hijab in Christian missions grant-aided schools as this will cause discrimination in schools and allow terrorists to easily identify our children and wards.
“Christian mission grant-aided schools should be returned to the owners promptly as most of these schools have churches besides them and unnecessary trespass may lead to break down of law and order.
“Christian faithful should occupy all grant-aided schools. Christians should have a day for prayers and fasting for God to intervene in the imbroglio.
“We shall continue to interact and dialogue with the state government on the return of grant-aided schools to the proprietors,” Mr Dada said.
The spokespersons of Governor AbdulRahman AbdulRazaq and the education ministry both declined to comment on the statement by the Christian leaders.
However, an official of the ministry who spoke unofficially on the matter, said the decision of the government stands.
” The appeal court has ruled that the schools belong to the government and the use of hijab is a constitutional right of the pupils,” he said.