The Kwara hijab controversy

FOR weeks now, crisis has been brewing in Ilorin, Kwara State, over the state government’s directive granting female Muslim students the right to use the Islamic veil, hijab, in missionary schools. Following weeks of heated controversy and opposition to the wearing of hijab in the schools, including the C&S College, St. Anthony College, ECWA School, Surulere 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 were reopened on Tuesday under tight security. Sadly, however, the crisis has assumed dangerous dimensions in recent weeks, with hoodlums taking advantage of the situation to unleash violence on churches, businesses and law-abiding individuals.

In his address to the people of the state on Tuesday, Governor Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq said the decision to allow every Muslim schoolgirl who so wishes to wear hijab in public schools was taken in good faith, warning parents to talk to their wards to stay away from trouble, as “any attempt to take advantage of the situation to foment trouble will be met with maximum punishment prescribed by the law.” Reassuring all stakeholders that he would take care of the interests of all Kwarans according to his oath of office, Abdulrazaq indicated that he would constitute an interfaith committee to further build confidence among religious leaders. His words: “I acknowledge the apprehension from the Christian and Muslim communities. Having held dozens of meetings with various thoughts leaders from both sides in the last four weeks, I am convinced that beneath the tensions and misgivings around the hijab decision are old wounds that must be healed. I assure all Kwarans that we will take genuine steps to address the concerns raised by various faith communities. In doing so, a huge dose of understanding, selflessness, and patriotism will be required. Going forward, we will need leaders from both sides to spread message of love, accommodation, patience, peace, and mutual respect.”

To be sure, schools, as public institutions, cannot discriminate against any religion. To that extent, Governor Abdulrazaq is quite in order in his quest to accommodate the wishes of students willing to use hijab in the state’s public schools. That would be perfectly legal. However, beyond the issue of legality, there is also the question of legacy. At the centre of the ongoing controversy is the question of religious legacy, a very sensitive issue. The schools in question are legacy schools and that fact cannot be wished away. Going by the historical records, the affected schools were built by different Christian denominations. However, in a bid to ensure their proper funding and improve the education sector in the state,  the military government headed by the then Colonel David Bamigboye had, in 1974, decided to issue an Education Edict whereby the government would take over the payment of teachers’ salaries in the schools as well as providing grants for their smooth operation, while preserving the rights, responsibilities and roles of the proprietors.

Earlier, in a speech delivered at the official launching of the Kwara State Schools Board in Ilorin on July 3, 1972, the military administrator pointed out that his government had not yet decided to take over the schools under reference. According to him, “What will now be taken over is the staff management in grant-aided post-primary institutions and NOT the institutions themselves.  A total take-over of schools by Government means, among other things, a change in ownership of schools. In this connection, I want to remind the Voluntary Agencies that they are still the owner of their schools and therefore retain the rights over as well as responsibilities for them… Proprietors still retain the greatest of proprietory rights, namely ownership of their grant-aided institutions.  It should be noted that the existence of the Board will in no way detract from this. The names of schools remain as given by proprietors. Religious orientation and practices in the schools remain generally undisturbed. The right to nominate Board of Governors with responsibility for the day-to-day management and welfare of the institutions remain unchanged. The Board of Governors will continue to function normally except in regards to staff matters which responsibility is now taken over by the State Schools Board. Finally, the total tone of the institutions remains the responsibility of the Board of Governors as the main organ of the proprietors.”

Given the foregoing, it is clear that the military administration sought to protect the religious orientation and legacy of the schools. In that regard, since the missions have expressed opposition to the use of hijab in the schools, it would be unwise for the Abdulrazaq administration to impose it on them. That would breed animosity and mistrust, problems which cannot be resolved by any court. Since the schools are actually grant-aided missionary schools, not full-fledged institutions conceived, built and funded by the state government, we think that the real solution to the present imbroglio is to return them to their founders. That was the step taken by Osun State, a state which the Kwara State government has cited as an example of what it calls ‘pluralism’ in its justification of the hijab policy. With the schools back in their kitty, the missions would be fully assured that the Kwara State government has no intention to obliterate their legacy.

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