If religiosity is the way to economic power and technological advancement, Nigeria would have been an Eldorado by now. Many Nigerians are extremely adept at being sanctimonious. They would rather fight for God than love fellow citizens. Some even kill for God to prove their right standing with their Maker. Never mind that religion doesn’t stop these people, especially the political elite among them, from stealing and looting the nation’s commonwealth.

Converting state money to personal funds is not a sin; they don’t care if all the schoolchildren in the country live and die in the enclaves of terrorists so far they can make more money in the process. They are not bothered when pupils study under trees, wear tattered uniforms or defecate in the bush and drink pond water often mixed with cattle urine. But trust them, they won’t miss any opportunity to enforce the “fundamental rights” of these children in religious matters-that is perhaps the only rights Nigerian children get to enjoy. Nigerian elite have mastered the act of using religion as a tool of manipulation to keep the poor in a state of perpetual misery. Unfortunately, since religion remains the opium of the poor, the elite give them a large dose of the drug, enough to keep them in a state of stupour so they could embark on their looting spree without hindrance.   

Kwara State has been in the news. The bone of contention is hijab. While this is not an attempt to trivialise the importance of hijab to a Muslim faithful, it is just an example of how the political elite would rather leave leprosy and fight ringworm. For instance, there are many schools in Kwara State that currently require urgent government attention but this won’t be a topic for public discourse. Is it not in this same Kwara that about 25 women had to tax themselves to raise money to build a community school for their kids? It took these poor women in Agindigbi and Onila communities in Irepodun local government area of the state five years to contribute N1million for this project. The state governor, Abdulrahaman Abdulrazaq had to return the money to the women following media reports on the women’s activities. Who knows how many people in other communities doing the same thing but yet to receive media attention?  

During his first tenure as Osun State governor, Rauf Aregbesola introduced a single uniform for all the schools in the state, reclassified the public school system and abolished single-sex schools across the state among his other controversial educational policies. This caused a lot of chaos and students lost ample study time in the process. The unenlightened folks might have thought that the former governor was fighting their cause, not knowing that religion was merely being used as a political tool to further his interest. His successor, Governor Adegboyega Oyetola, came and reversed the controversial policies. If anyone thinks his successor made that move to please the people, they are wrong. It is all political. The day Nigerians know that the real motives behind some of their leaders’ actions are selfish, they will stop hating one another. Many of us still remember how the Sharia apostle in Zamfara State, Ahmad Sani Yerima, rebranded himself after using Sharia as a political tool as governor. The same Yerima ended up wearing suits as a senator. This was a man that was always dressing as a Mallam as governor suddenly falling in love with suits-a supposedly English outfit. This is after he had cut people’s hands for stealing claiming to enforce Sharia laws. 

The truth is hijab controversy is neither new in Nigeria nor in many other parts of the world. As a matter of fact, what is happening in Kwara now happened in Lagos State a few years back but the situation did not degenerate into chaos because political actors in the state did not use it as a pawn on the chessboard. In fact, Lagos State government is still at the Supreme Court appealing the ruling of the Appellate Court on the use of hijab in its public schools. A Lagos High Court had in October 2014, ruled against the use of hijabs in public schools, a judgment that was upturned by the Court of Appeal in July 2016. Interestingly, the governor of Lagos as of the time the suit was initiated in 2012 was a Muslim. But since former governor Raji Fashola was not interested in playing the religious card, there was no mayhem. By the time the appeal court upturned the ruling of the high court, another governor, a Christian, was in charge. Akinwunmi Ambode, a Christian, did not turn the situation to a political capital. Rather, the state decided to maintain the status quo and allowed students to wear hijab after due consultation with stakeholders pending the ruling of the Supreme Court on the matter. I can’t recall anyone carrying placard following the government’s decision because it wasn’t an issue of so much concern. 

 Kwara State may claim to be doing what Lagos did by asking mission schools to allow Muslims to wear hijab pending the ruling of the Supreme Court on the matter. However, the difference between Lagos and Kwara is that Lagos State granted the request of the complainant, that is, the Muslim body that took it to court. In the case of Kwara, the mission schools are the complainant while the state is the defendant. The Kwara State government should have been more sensitive to the interest of the complainant. As it is, the government is giving room for unnecessary suspicion. Why the rush to implement the ruling of the appeal court when the case is already at the Supreme Court? How can a government that has failed to implement many pending court rulings over time convince mission schools that it means well by rushing to implement a ruling on hijab in a case where it is the defendant? This is a state that is yet to grant substantive autonomy on the throne of Ohoro of Shao in spite of court ruling; it hasn’t implemented the judgement on the throne of the Oba of Jebba; or the injunction that Yorubas should be occupants of the throne in Ganmo; the expanse of land ceded to Erinle from Offa by the Court. If government is eager to obey court, why has it not obeyed these rulings? 

No doubt, Muslims see school uniforms as being beyond mere wears. They believe the present-day uniform takes its origin from the western world and therefore should not be binding on them. They have also said that hijab should be seen as the fundamental human rights of Muslims. I agree with these submissions absolutely. Let’s face it, Nigeria is not the only country where the two main religious groups-Christians and Muslims have been at loggerheads on use of hijabs in schools. Never mind that some Muslim countries have had cause to ban hijab to protect their children in the past. Tunisia, Gabon and Morocco are African countries with large populations of Muslims that have banned the burqa. Also, in 2015, Congo, Chad, Guinea and Cameroon, banned hijab in schools to counter Boko Haram attacks. In Kenya, Muslims pushed for the wearing of hijab in mission schools but in 2019, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that had allowed female students to wear the head coverings in school.  

Those who argue for dress codes and school uniforms claim it encourages discipline, unity, equality, and prevents groupings amongst children. In this age of terrorism, they also say it prevents terrorists from identifying non-Muslims, thus protecting students of other faiths. On the other hand, Muslims will tell you that wearing hijab is an act of worship or a statement of Muslim faith, while Christians believe uniforms is part of church and school traditions. In the case of Kwara, the Christians are saying that in principle and practice their schools are mission (government) grant-aided schools and not general public schools and cannot be technically islamised starting with the use of Hijab. Each faith holds a strong position on hijab and honestly I don’t see how they can be forced to hold a common position.  

So, what is the way out? I love the submission of a Muslim religious scholar, Abdallah Kheri, who chairs the Islamic Research and Education Trust in Kenya. To him, both Christians and Muslims are rivals, as they both call on people to join their faiths. They are always looking for customers, and they shall forever be rivals. Knowing that this is the situation, politicians should stop fuelling the rivalry among the two faiths. 

Agreed Muslims have a right to wear hijab to school. Mission schools equally have the right to uphold the traditions and tenets of their founders against the use of hijabs in their schools. Some people have argued that the mission schools are funded by public funds and should therefore be controlled by it. They however forget that government didn’t build these schools. The people that built those schools had a purpose for investing their resources in them. They did not envisage that the government would take over these schools. To that extent, the government also has a moral responsibility to respect the vision and mission of the school founders. Under normal circumstances, mission schools, be they of Islamic or Christian faiths, should be run by their owners. It is an anomaly for government to take over a school and subsequently impose the wish of one faith on another. 

Let Kwara State government voluntarily return the mission schools to their owners and allow them to run their schools based on their vision and mission. The Muslims should also be encouraged to establish their own mission schools and run them in accordance with their religious tenets. Every child has a right to be schooled and taught in line with their faiths. It’s their fundamental human rights. Instead of encouraging anarchy, let each faith build and fund their schools. Anyone that goes to such school will know what to expect. We may choose to deny this, but believe me, there will always be problem when government tries to force a particular faith to accommodate the interest of the other all in the name of understanding, mutual respect and communal harmony. It won’t work. No amount of preaching on government’s part will change that!

Olabisi Deji-Folutile is the Editor-in-Chief, Franktalknow.com and member, Nigerian Guild of Editors. Email: [email protected]  

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