By Arogbonlo Israel
As paradoxically the headline may suggest, Kwara popularly known as ‘The State of Harmony’ has been engulfed at the centre of crisis following the hijab controversy making rounds in the media space in recent days.
The crisis that became full-blown this 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. But can we really say they’re right for making that decision? A discussion for another day.
What led to the recent crisis
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When the state government said it could not grant their request until the state’s Education Law of 2006 was repealed, the groups headed to court.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.
About four weeks ago, a video footage emerged showing a Muslim schoolgirl at St. Barnabas College Ilorin alighting from a motorcycle and quickly removing her hijab and tucking same in her school bag. The bike man who took her there asked why she did so and the student said she is not allowed to wear the hijab within the school compound. The bike man goaded the girl to wear her hijab. The poor girl hearkened to the voice of the okada man and entered the school with her hijab.
On entering the school premises, a teacher ordered her to remove it, and there started a shouting match (between the bike man and the teacher). As a result, some Muslim students of Baptist school in their hundreds protested what they tagged ‘humiliation against their fundamental right’ while their Christian counterparts insisted there was not going to be hijab. This was how the centre of crisis in the state of harmony started, leaving the government in a ‘dilemma of many faces’.
The way forward
Having established the scenario that led to the recent crisis, it’s crystal clear that the concerned parties as a matter of urgency must come to the negotiation table and deliberate on the way out of this quagmire. The present crisis is beyond political gimmicks and should be treated with the utmost care because an injury to one is an injury to many others. The religious bodies should set aside their differences and embrace dialogue which is key to shedding light on the issue at stake.
It’s high time the state government referred to the cases of Lagos and Osun respectively with a view of making a good judgment that will bring lasting solution to the crisis bedevilling the state. The aforementioned states at a point in time faced hijab controversies and were able to handle them in the best possible way that led to the resolution of the crises. Kwara state should not act in isolation in this stance but must be proactive rather than being reactive about the whole thing. A word is enough for the wise.