From Layi Olanrewaju, Ilorin
That religion is currently tearing Kwara State asunder is a statement of fact. In the last few days, the difference between Christians and Muslims is simply ripping the state apart.
The background to the current face-off is the right or otherwise of Muslim girls to dress in hijab in grant-aided Christian mission schools. While Muslims assert the right of their girls to dress in hijab to Christian schools, the school proprietors object to this move on the grounds that it offends their faith.
The crisis has peaked to its crescendo. That was after government gave approval to Muslim girls in grant-aided Christian schools to wear hijabs in while imploring them to report any resistance to their mode of dressing by the management of these schools.
The said schools, all located in Ilorin, included Cherubim and Seraphim College, St. Anthony College, ECWA School, 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.
But sensing trouble, the same government ordered the shutting down of these schools until March 8, 2021. Announcing the closure, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education and Human Capital Development, Kemi Adeosun, assured the parties involved that an amicable resolution would be reached.
Secretary to the State Government (SSG), Prof. Mama Jibril, urged parents, officials and authorities at the affected schools to maintain peace and avoid making comments or doing anything that could cause further misunderstanding and heat up the polity.
But on the expected resumption date, with the tensed atmosphere yet to be abated, government directed that the schools remained indefinitely shut: “The Ministry of Education and Human Capital Development wishes to inform the members of the public that the 10 government schools where the use of hijab was disputed will remain shut until a later date.
“This decision has been taken for safety reasons. The government, therefore, directs school children 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 held.”
Road to crisis
The road to the present trouble did not start today. Before now, members of the Muslim community had been mounting pressure on government to compel the management of these schools to allow their girls to wear hijabs in schools.
The situation informed conveyance of a meeting between government and leaders of both faiths. At the meeting, which was presided over by Deputy Governor, Kayode Alabi, government urged the parties to bury their differences and allow peace to reign.
But while a resolution was yet to be reached, some Muslim girls, were said to have adorned their hijab to classes at LGEA Baptist School, Ilorin. As expected, they were denied entry into the school premises on account of their dress, a situation which only but festered the wounds.
The decision to shut the schools has not gone down well with the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and the immediate proprietors of the affected schools. They have all roundly rejected the hijab wearing policy by Muslim girls in their schools.
Spokesperson of the proprietors, Reverend Victor Dada, said: “The body condemns the use of hijab in Christian mission 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.
“We shall continue to interact and dialogue with government on the return of grant-aided schools to the proprietors.”
Chairman, ECWA Ilorin District Church Council, Reverend John Owoeye, said that ECWA schools were established by the Christian missionaries for purposes of reaching communities with the love of Christ and to meet educational needs of the indigenes, irrespective of religious affiliations, among other reasons.
The ECWA church leaders, who demanded 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, “the policy has never been total take-over of our schools by the government.
“We have equal rights under the provisional constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
He accused government of bias in favour of Muslims, saying for instance that Christian Religious Knowledge (CRK) teachers were not posted to Muslim grant-aided schools and the gatherings of Fellowship of Christian Students (FCS) were not allowed in Muslim grant-aided schools:
“Now that Kwara State Government has suddenly become an advocate for religious freedom and tolerance in public and Christian mission grant-aided schools and are supporting Islamic religion fundamentalists to foist their religious codex on our school.
“We the Evangelical Church Winning All( ECWA), Kwara State Chapter, Nigeria and International states empathetically that we will not welcome the wearing of Hijab in all ECWA schools.”
In the light of the forgoing, they charged government to return their schools to them: “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.”
Abdullahi Ibrahim, on behalf of Muslim stakeholders, told Daily Sun: “The body went to court in 2013 to demand for the legal ownership of the schools that were taken over from them since 1976. The Ilorin High Court, ruled in May 2016, that all the schools taken over by the state government, belonged to the Kwara State Government.
“The Christain Association of Nigeria went back to the former Kwara State Government and sought for an out-of–court settlement. But the government of AbdulFatah Ahmed replied that since they went to court and lost, no out-of-court settlement would be realistic.
“CAN appealed the judgment in 2016, and after three years of legal proceedings, the Court of Appeal headed by a Christian, in its judgment delivered in September, 2019, upheld the decision of the lower court.
“The fact that both Muslim and Christian missionaries wrote to the state government to take over their schools, 45 years ago, makes the current crisis being instigated by some Christian missions in Kwara State fruitless and meaningless.
“The decisions of the two courts avail the students of these schools the right to practice their religions without any hindrance whatsoever, including extending to them the right to dress according to their faith.
“I see the actions of some of our Christian brethren on this matter as being aggressive and intimidating to the Muslim parents who have the majority of students in the schools affected.
“My appeal to CAN, Kwara State and to other Christian brothers and sisters that share their view on schools ownership is to obey the law and respect the subsisting judgments of both the Ilorin High Court and the Court of Appeal.”
He implored the state government to do its part to check the crisis, asking them to copy the steps adopted by Oyo, Osun and Lagos States when a similar crisis broke out in their midst.
“The three state governments stood by the law and issued relevant circulars directing all principals of schools not to deny any female student the use of hijab in line with the courts’ judgement.
“In fact, I want to observe that what brought about the present crisis in the state is the non-issuance of the relevant circular by the state government, which would have served as guideline for the school authorities.
“The government should note that in Federal Government Colleges across the Federation, hijab is used by Muslim students. Catholic Nuns also cover their heads in the same manner and Christians, who established individual private schools here in Ilorin, allow their Muslim children to use hijab.
“Why are some Christians in some missions turning government-owned schools into battlefield?”
But the CAN refuted these claims, describing them as a gross misrepresentation of what transpired in court in 2013. Its said the case had nothing to do with the wearing of hijab, but about getting the schools back for their owners – the Christian missions:
“The proprietors took Kwara State government to court, asking them to return their schools. The issue of hijab was not part of their claims.
“The court made reference to it as an obiter and not a ratio decidendi (the issue of Hijab was mentioned just by the way and not the cause of action.
He disclosed that on the said matter, the proprietors of the said schools have already appealed to the Supreme Court of Nigeria
“Why the hurry” he asked, noting that, “Some individuals just woke and made up their minds to distract the current government.
“In a similar vein, whoever cannot comply with the uniform of Christians grant -aided schools can go to another school.
“Moreover, it is only the government that can bring up policies and not a group of people wanting to impose their wish on grant-aided schools. They should tolerate the uniform of the Christian grant aided schools.
“Closing all these schools is uncalled for and misconceived. Can Christians go and build Chapels in Muslim grant-aided schools? This state of harmony should not be turned to something else.
“In conclusion, everyone should comply with proprietors’ designed uniforms, which include beret and or cap, “ he stated.
The Advocate for Right Leadership Association (ARLA) also known as Believers In Politics (BIP).
National President of the group, Mr. Kolade Segun Okeowo said in an open letter to Governor Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq that some Muslim fundamentalists were fiddling with the peace and harmony among religious divides in Kwara State by trying to force the use of Hijab in Christian Mission Schools.
“While it is the right of the Muslim female students to wear Hijab, according to the tenets of Islam, that right does not mandate them to attend schools that do not permit or believe in such Islamic doctrine. The same right that Muslim female students have is the same right that the Christian students and school proprietors also have to determine the dress code of their schools.
“Our position is that, any Muslim student that cannot go to Muslim schools or government-established schools but prefers the Christian Mission schools should be ready to abide by the rules and regulations of such schools.
“In the same vein, any Christian student that prefers an Islamic school should be ready to abide by their religious rules.”
The group further cautioned Christian female students not to enroll in Islamic schools only to claim that they cannot use Hijab because of their faith.