By Adebayo Abubakar.
One of the most likely sources of intergroup strife in our heterogeneously configured nation, as packaged in 1914, by Frederick Lord Lugard, is ethnicity and religion.
A keen observer of how Nigerians relate, when it comes to debate on socio-political issues, on social media, will discover the ethno-religious leaning of most, if not all participants.
An average Nigerian, does not joke with his religion. Don’t get it twisted; it has nothing to do with his Godliness. They may be in inverse proportion, it does not matter.
A Nigerian can step out of the mosque or church, and within the next 5 minutes, be in the thick action in a murder plot or internet fraud, adultery, armed robbery, Indian Hemp smoking, looting of public funds, drug-pushing. But you insult his dear “Prophet Mohammed” or “Jesus Christ” at your own peril, because he doesn’t joke with “him”. An average Nigerian is ready to kill because of his religion, it doesn’t matter what he does for a living. But let’s not dabble in that too much, as it would amount to being too judgemental; something the holy books frown at.
Recently, the issue of dress code in public school took the front burner, as the Nigerian man advances the course of his religion.
From Lagos to Osun, and now to Kwara, it has been a tale of squabbles between “Jalabia and Cassocks”, “Hijab and Skullcap”, “Tasbiuh and Rosary”.
In a supposedly public school, though, owned by religious bodies, if the squabble is not on “Morning devotion” in a particular religion’s way, it would be about what and what not to wear.
Last week Friday, the entire Ilorin Metropolis woke up to the news of an impending religious crisis at Baptist secondary and Primary school, Surulere, in Ilorin West Local Government Area of Kwara State.
What was it all about?
It was about female Muslim students not being allowed entry into the school compound on account of how they were dressed-wearing hijab (a piece of cloth worn by female Muslims to cover their heads, down to their shoulders, leaving out their faces).
Why was it an issue?
Because the school is a missionary school, belonging to the Nigerian Baptist Convention, who believes the school should be run in accordance with the dictates of their doctrines, including dress code of students; it does not matter, if it is the State government that pays the salaries of most, if not all the workers, including the teachers.
Don’t get it twisted; some Muslim schools would do the same thing too, or even worse.
Many people this writer interacted with, majority of whom are Muslims, have condemned that decision, on the ground that, in as much as it is the government that pays the salaries of the teachers and most of the non-teaching staff, it should not be run in such a way that, students who practise other faith would not be allowed to dress in accordance with the dictates of the doctrine of their faiths.
This is a very logical argument, coming from educated and enlightened people, most of whom are Muslims.
But let us ask ourselves a very simple but critical question; Christianity does not make it a matter of compulsion for women to wear scarf or cover their heads; will a school, belonging to Ansarul-Deen, Tijanyya, Nawairudeen or Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat, allow a Christian student dress with the prescribed school uniform, without covering her head? That is where the answer(solution) to this imbroglio lies. It is a question that the “Nigerian factor” of “Religious Hypocrisy” will not allow for a sincere answer.
Meanwhile, the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides in section 38, subsection;
“(1) Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
(2) No person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if such instruction ceremony or observance relates to a religion other than his own, or religion not approved by his parent or guardian.”
With the above quoted provisions of the Nigerian 1999 constitution, it is clear that religion in the eyes of the law, is more of a personal thing between a man and his Creator, than something to be placed on our foreheads as an instrument of chaos, and division among the human communities.
With the provisions of the section (38), there ought not to be any confusion, as to how each and every Nigerian practises his religion. But we all know that, Nigerians are wont to be more Catholic than the Pope; more Egyptian than the Pharaoh.
We pretend to be more muslim than the Sauds; more Jewish than the Israelis; more Christian than christ.
Somebody once said, religion is not our problem in Nigeria; rather, we Nigerians, are the problems to religion. We politicise religion, and religionise politics.
Remember Kwara State is a State that is famous for its pathological harmony among its diverse inhabitants. It would be very suicidal, if we are going to, add the unnecessary burden of religious conflict to the already incandescent political atmosphere in the State at the moment, as manifested in the pockets of acts of political thuggery in parts of the State recently, including the State capital.
Let us not talk about the threat of insecurity that is daily, getting closer to us, than ever. In case I need to be specific; River Niger is the only thing standing between Kwara State, and the spate of kidnapping by bandits in Niger State.
We might just be shooting ourselves in the foot, if what happened in Baptist Surulere last Friday is not nipped in the bud, so as to allow the Governor concentrate on taking pre-emptive and proactive measures against the impending threat of insecurity that has plagued neighbouring States of Niger, Ọ̀yọ́, Osun and even Kogi – forget about Governor Yahaya Bello’s grandstanding self-adulation about being on top of security in the State.
I don’t think schools owned by religious bodies in Niger State will hesitate to allow every student dress as his religion dictates, if they were to choose between it, and being kidnapped by bandits.
What is needed to be done, to curtail the impending danger that the contentious issue of Hijab represents in public school, is a mixture of legal and political solution, and a bit of native intelligence.
This means, Governor Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq requires the supports and understanding of all stakeholders in the State, across the two divides of the controversy, to be able to resolve the issue amicably.
The Governor himself must demonstrate a serious political will to tackle the issue headlong, in a manner that is devoid of ethno-religious bias.
How much of religious crisis, Kwara State needs now; I don’t know.
But certainly, the State can do without anything of sort at the moment, considering the tension in the country, that rises along our fault lines of ethnicity and religion.
Before I conclude this piece, as stakeholders in the state find solution to the Hijab controversy, let everybody know and accept the fact that, where one person’s right to swing his elbow ends, that where another person’s right to defend his nostril starts. If we properly understand and accept this, then we will approach the issue with a mindset of “give-and-take”.
In my own opinion, there should be no room and need for all these shenanigans, because Nigeria is a secular State, by virtue of section 10 of the 1999 constitution, which says that;
“The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion”.
Everyone of us in the country, must abide by that provision. Nobody must impose his faith, whether through, physical threat, subtle indoctrination, intimidation, or through thinly-veiled policy in public office.
Whoever wants something different must be ready to go into a negotiation with the other party, and be ready to give, as much as he wants to take.
If a Sheik whose daughter attends a government-funded Christian Missionary school, want her to be allowed to be clad in a Hijab, (customised with the school uniform), he must also be willing to support the right of a Pastor’s daughter, who attends a government-funded Muslim missionary school to dress in a way that is deemed acceptable in the eye of our law, like wearing the school uniform without covering her head, if she so wishes.
Female Muslim students in Baptist, Saint Anthony, Bishop Smith, or C&S secondary or primary schools should not be forced to remove their Hijabs.
In the same vein, female Christian students in Ansarul Deen, Nawairudeen, and such other Muslim schools, should not be forced to wear Hijab, or driven away from the school for refusing to wear the piece.
We have a lot to gain by living together in tolerance of our ethno-religious differences. We should not allow our humanity to be divided and undermined, using our fault lines.
Adebayo Abubakar writes from Ilorin.