The raging brouhaha generated by the use of Hijab (veil for Muslim women) in schools in Kwara state, appears to have taken a dangerous turn as both proponents and opponents of the matter were in near-fisticuff Wednesday in Ilorin, the state capital.
At the height of the crisis, the state government directed the closure of 10 secondary schools February 19 to avert violent clash between Muslim and Christian faithful in the state.
The schools are Cherubim and Seraphim (C&S) College, Sabo-Oke, St. Anthony Secondary School, Offa Road, ECWA School, Oja-Iya, Surulere, Baptist Secondary School and Baptist Smith Secondary School, Agba Dam.
The rest include 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, all in Ilorin, the state capital.
Consequent upon this, the government set up a committee to decide on the way forward, and after due consultation among stakeholders, it was agreed Hijab-wearing students be allowed in the schools.
While the government had earlier scheduled the affected schools to resume Monday, the date was however changed owing to security report.
Announcing the Wednesday resumption Tuesday night, Permanent Secretary Ministry of Education and Human Capital Development, Mrs Kemi Adeosun, said: “The government is convinced that its policy to allow willing Muslim schoolgirls to wear their Hijaab (face covering) in public schools will lead to sustainable peace and communal harmony anchored on mutual respect and understanding.
“This path to mutual respect, understanding, and peace with regards to Hijaab had long been adopted in all of the northern Nigeria and many states in the South-west such as Lagos, Osun, Ekiti, and Oyo states.
“As the students resume normal classes, the government took special notice of the plight of those of them preparing for the West African Senior School Certificate Examination and hereby directs affected schools to hold at least two-hour extra lesson for all the intending candidates after school hours daily.”
The state government commended the Christian and Muslim leaders for their understandings and efforts to build peace within their respective communities in the past weeks.
And in compliance with the state government’s directive, the schools reopened but not without skirmishes at the Baptist Secondary School, Ilorin, with Muslim and Christian parents throwing stones at one another.
It was gathered that crisis started when some Christian parents at the school barred female Muslim students who spotted their Hijab were denied entrance into the school.
And the crisis took a dangerous dimension when their Muslim counterparts resisted, thus resulting in a free-for-all during which rival groups threw stones, plastic chairs and other dangerous items at one another.
Tension mounted as some people reportedly sustained varied degree of injuries before the soldiers, policemen and personnel of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSDC) arrived to restore sanity.
Stern-looking and gun-wielding security men were sighted around the schools to forestall any breakdown of law and order.
Some Muslim groups were sighted at the main gate of the school chanting “Laillah Illaha Lahu, Laillaha Illah lahu”, meaning there is no god but Allah.
Efforts by the Muslims to make way for the students into the school were rebuffed by their Christian counterparts who blocked the school’s main gate.
The Christian faithful also stood their ground at the other affected schools.
For instance, at the Cherubim and Seraphim College, Sabo Oke, some Christian leaders spotting white garment stood at the gate.
It was a carnival-like situation as the faithful were drumming and singing even as they refused the students and teachers entrance into the school’s premises.
Armed with various placards such as “O To Ge”, “give us our schools back”, “No to Hijab in Kwara,” “Kwara is not an Islamic state, Kwara is for all”, “Our schools is our heritage”, “we oppose the Hijab in our schools,” their actions attracted the attention of passersby.
It was a similar scenario at Bishop Smith College, along Agba Dam GRA, as well as St. Anthony College, along Offa Road, Ilorin as both the school’s principal and security officer were nowhere to be found to open the gates.
One of the teachers at Bishop Smith College, Alhaji Abdulrasheed Gambari, told reporters that government must not back out on its decision.
“Some of the parents wished that their wards use Hijab to school, the government has already intervened in this matter, and made their own stance that the Muslim students who wish be allowed to use Hijab in the Christian schools.
“They are not forcing it on non-Muslims. The issue is that the Christians can’t still be behaving that the schools still belong to them when indeed the government owns the schools which they also know.
“We just came to school, and met the gate closed. We didn’t see the principal and the security to open the gate. The solution should come from the government. To be honest with you, this school is populated mostly by Muslims, any student who wish to wear Hijab should be allowed,” Gambari argued.
Confirming the clash, spokesman of Kwara state Police Command, Ajayi Okasanmi told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that normalcy had returned.
He said following the announcement by the state government to re-open the schools after it had been closed since Feb. 19, the Commissioner of Police, Mohammed Bagega, deployed personnel to ensure peace reigns in the schools.
“The situation grew worse as angry Christian and Muslim faithful started throwing various objects such as stones, plastic chairs and empty can drinks at themselves.
“The security operatives deployed there called for reinforcement to calm the situation and the situation has been brought under control.
”Peace and order has been restored in the affected schools and everyone is now going about their normal activities,” he said.
‘Govt not respecting rule of law’
Speaking to journalists after the fracas, President Kwara Baptist Conference Victor Dada accused the state government of not respecting the rule of law.
He said it was wrong of government to have made a decision on a matter still pending at the Supreme Court.
“What transpired this morning is simply because the government, led by Governor AbdulRahman Abdulrazaq is not respecting the rule of law, and if the state government does not respect the rule of law, there will be chaos.”
Also holding a similar position, another Christian leader, Venerable David Babatunde Alao said: “As at last week Tuesday at our meeting, our resolution was still the same; no student would be allowed to wear hijab in any of the Christian schools. I don’t believe that our leaders would sell us out. So, we are still on it.
“The matter is in supreme court, why is the government intervening, in fact, it’s a contempt of court. The government should allow the court to dispose of the matter instead of taking a stand.”
Crisis needless- Ex-student
But an ex-student of one of the schools, Malam Akeem Ayinde, told journalists in Ilorin that the crisis was needless.
He said: “I finished from one of the Christian schools without any hassles. I think both Christians and Muslims should abide by the state government’s directives so that we can continue to live in harmony.”
Our position –KWSG
In a reaction to the development, Secretary to the State Government (SSG), Professor Maman Sabi Jibril, dismissed the ownership claim of the schools by the Christian groups.
In a statement Wednesday, SSG Jibril said since the takeover in 1974, “the state government has controlled, managed, wholly funded, and staffed these schools which were ran and are still being run as public institutions.”
It further said government “totally rejects the claims some organisations are still laying to these schools because such claims are not known to the law.”
“The law today is that any willing Muslim schoolgirl cannot be stopped from wearing hijaab in public schools. Anything to the contrary will be in violent contravention of provisions of Section 38 of the Constitution. The Court of Appeal has affirmed this position in at least three different declaratory judgments,” the statement said.
He said government was “not imposing the hijab. It is not mandatory for all our schoolgirls to wear hijaab. Rather, the state government approves hijab for any Muslim schoolgirl who wishes to use it. The government is only respecting the fundamental human right of those schoolgirls. Nothing more. This has been communicated to all school heads via a circular of the Ministry of Education and Human Capital Development.”
While pleading with members of the public and religious organisations to allow room for peace, just as it warned against breach of public peace.
Emir calls for calm
Meanwhile, the Emir of Ilorin and Chairman Kwara State Council of Chiefs, Alhaji Ibrahim Sulu-Gambari, has urged adherents of the two religions-Islam and Christianity- to continue to live in peace and harmony..
In a statement issued Wednesday by his spokesperson, Mallam Abdulazeez Arowona, the monarch described the Hijab controversy as unwarranted.
He said: “No group or individual should take laws into the hands. Ilorin is known for peaceful co-existence nationwide. Let us remain calm and resolute to the fact that the position of law is clear on the matter.
“There is no fight between Muslims and Christians. Let us avoid religions crisis of any kind. Islam and Christianity preach peace and harmony. Let us also avoid division and enemity in our society.”
Sulu-Gambari called on religious leaders to prevail on their followers to respect constituted authorities in their dealings with members of the public.
What the courts say
The state chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) had approached the court in 2013 to demand for the legal ownership of the schools taken over from the body since 1976.
And ruling on the matter May 2016, an Ilorin High Court declared that all the schools taken over by the state government belonged to the Kwara State Government.
Dissatisfied with the ruling, the Christian groups proceeded to the Ilorin Division of the
Court of Appeal in Ilorin, which September 20, 2019, affirmed the judgment of the lower court.
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 that 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 judgment of the High Court of Justice of Kwara State delivered on the 17th May 2016 in Suit No. KWS/20C/2015 is affirmed,” the panel 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.
The appellants are now at the Supreme Court.