By Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN
Kwara State is in the news again, this time for the wrong reason. The State has recently been embroiled in needless controversies arising largely from the internal wrangling between various factions of the ruling All Progressive Congress, APC. The question that I’ve been asking myself in respect of this matter is this: why should a State government be involved in religion? Is the governor not aware that Nigeria runs a secular State and no government is expected to dabble into religious matters, to support one group against the other? In the course of last week, I watched a very disturbing video, of some persons, who assembled opposite what looked like a big cathedral, from where they were hauling stones and other dangerous objects, into the compound of the church, with the security standing and watching them, helplessly. Why should this happen? Or is the house of God no longer sacred? Is the church the problem or the management of the school, or the State government that jumped into the murky arena of religious conflict? How do we justify or even rationalize the attempt to destroy a church building, with the agitation for students to adorn a particular mode of dressing? What is the relationship? Will that be tolerated if the situation were to be reversed, for other members of the opposing faith to seek to destroy a mosque simply because a school located in the same premises has not allowed Christian pupils to adorn cassock as uniform? We dwell too much on minors.
Now in some years past, certain missionary organisations got permission from the government to establish churches and other worship centres, as facilities for the practice of their faith, where their members gather to serve God. Over the years, some of these worship centres grew in leaps and bounds and they were handed over upon independence, to the local members, to further their legitimate objectives. As part of their corporate social responsibility, some of these churches established schools, hospitals and even justice centres, where the indigent and needy can have access to social services. In the case of my own church, a maternity was established right in the compound of the church and it admits RCCG church members, Christians from other denominations, Muslims, traditionalists and even atheists, who daily patronize it, for delivery of their babies, at little or no cost. After all, the unborn baby in the womb has no religion yet and cannot be the subject of discrimination on account of the religion of the parents. These churches exist all over Nigeria, in Kwara State in particular. I have since confirmed that Kwara State is neither a Christian nor a Muslim State, for the government of that State to seek to take up arms in favour of or against any particular religion. In any case, Section 10 of the Constitution clearly prohibits any State in Nigeria from adopting any particular religion as State religion.
The genesis of the whole matter as I read from the news is that the government of Kwara State has been involved in the determination of private choices of students and their parents, as to what type of uniform students should wear to school. This is not about the school fees to be paid, the rehabilitation of the structure of the schools, or equipping the laboratories or libraries of the schools, or even improvement of the welfare of teachers and other members of staff of these schools, which number about ten in all, in the State capital in Ilorin. I read a statement where the Kwara State government announced the extension of the closure of 10 Mission Secondary Schools in Ilorin. In that statement released by Mrs Kemi Adeosun, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education and Human Capital Development, she said the schools should remain closed because of security reasons. Part of the statement state as follows:
“The government earlier shut the 10 schools belonging to some Christian Missions in the state on February 19, 2021, following a crisis on the wearing of Hijab by Muslim female students who are attending the schools. The government had earlier said that it approved the wearing of Hijab in all government grant-aided public schools in the state and directed that the schools be reopened today (Monday, March 8, 2021).
“Ministry of Education and Human Capital Development wishes to inform members of the public that the 10 government schools where the use of hijab is disputed will remain shut until a later date. This decision has been taken for safety reasons.
“A statement by the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education and Human Capital Development, Mrs Kemi Adeosun, listed the schools to include C&S College Sabo Oke, ST. Anthony College, Offa Road, ECWA School, Oja Iya, Surulere Baptist Secondary School, Bishop Smith Secondary School, Agba Dam, 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.
“The government, therefore, directs school children and teachers in the affected schools to remain at home until the contrary is announced. The government remains committed to fairness, pluralism, and respect for the law and rights of every citizen at all times.”
Now this was greeted with protest from the management of the schools affected and a case was filed in court. Whatever the merit of the said case, it will be good for parties thereto, to await the final determination thereof, in the interest of peace and tranquility. Amongst the many problems of Kwara State, religion and dressing of students should be the least concern of the government. I take it that the government of Kwara State has only gotten itself immersed in this controversy purely for political capital, at the expense of the combatants themselves. And this is where I find all the controversies amusing, because the government is seeking to profit from the misfortune of its own citizens, purely for populism. I am not unmindful of the provisions of section 38 of the Constitution on the freedom of religion and the practice thereof, the same Constitution however in its section 43 grants persons and organisations the right to acquire and own property, such as churches, mosques and schools. If the right to acquire property is exercised for the establishment of churches, schools and hospitals, the right to freedom of religion should not antagonize or limit the discretion of the owners, in the choice of policy formulation. It should be a matter of dialogue and agreement, where non-members seek to take advantage of social infrastructure established pursuant to the lawful exercise of these rights. The government cannot and should not legislate it by fiat, as Kwara State is presently doing. It will not work.
I believe that there are Parents/Teachers Associations in these schools. They should rise to the occasion and save the children the trauma and stress of religious fanaticism. When we indoctrinate these children so early in life, we then turn around to preach unity to them, later on in life. It is hypocritical, in my view, to train up children in policy segregation, thus sowing the seed of discord among them. Meanwhile, in their examination hall, the issue of dressing and uniform, plays no role at all, in their performance or the outcome of their grading. The capacity to absorb instructions and teachings in the classroom is not affected by the contents of the Bible or Quran that the students can recite, especially in science-related subjects. What then is the value of all these hullabaloos?
I know very serious minded Muslims who attended Christian missionary schools and came out in flying colours, ditto for Christians who were trained in Muslim schools. Indeed, the children of prominent Nigerian Muslims are being trained in established universities in Europe and America, where the adornment of hijab is not an issue at all, but rather the content of their intellect and character. In this case however, the options for the Kwara State Government are very clear and narrow. It should steer clear of religion and allow the owners of schools to administer them in line with the objectives for which the said schools were established. Government should have no business with religion other than regulation. A situation whereby policies or actions of government lead innocent children to pelt themselves with stones is totally unacceptable. More condemnable is a situation whereby the church as an entity, and by extension its members, are subject to agony, ridicule and opprobrium by reason only that a school is domiciled in the compound of the church. In the final analysis, it may be that not all members of the said church have their wards attending the school located within its premises.
But I have a word for the owners of the schools. The Kwara State government claims that these schools are partly funded by the government and this has not been denied at all. As we say it, he who pays the piper must be allowed to dictate the tune of the music. Once the resources of the State are involved in the running of any school, then the State cannot be reasonably excluded from participating in the management of the school that it is funding. As students are pelting themselves innocently with stones, on account of the incitement of their parents, Kwara United Football Club shot itself to the top of the football league table over the weekend. Those who played in the field did not display their religion on their foreheads, nor was any particular uniform selected for them in order to earn them victory. Let there be peace in all schools in Kwara State, which will put a permanent end to the prevailing anomaly, occasioned by the poor handling of the situation by the government in power.