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Hijaab: Kwara and fundamental human rights

By Rafiu Ajakaye

Bad news doesn’t get better with time is an expression from the famous Black American five-star General Colin Powell’s book It Worked For Me. In the opinion of Powell, a problem (challenge) will not disappear by anyone simply ignoring, abandoning or pretending it does not exist. He feels that challenges, however unpleasant and tough, are better confronted and dealt with, with everyone first admitting it exists and taking steps to solve it. He feels that anything short of it amounts to kicking the can down the road. This quote fits the hijaab controversy in Kwara State and it (also) explains the unpleasant yet a no-or-yes choice before the government.

The first choice is to feign ignorance of the pent-up anger in the Muslim community about the refusal to let their girl-child wear the hijaab in public schools and the attendant humiliation the girls face each time they made such attempts. The second is to take a position to allow the girls to wear their hijaab (and possibly regulate same in such schools) in compliance with Section 38 of the Constitution, which speaks to her right to freedom of religion and her freedom to manifest same. This section has repeatedly been interpreted by the Court of Appeal in favour of the Muslim schoolgirl. Either of the two has implications for the polity as Kwara has seen.

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 hijaab 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 hijaab within the school compound. The bike man goaded the girl to wear her hijaab. The poor girl hearkened to the voice of the okada man and entered the school with her hijaab. True to her fears, a teacher ordered her to remove it, and there started a shouting match (between the bike man and the teacher). The domino effect of the St. Barnabas incident was quickly felt in far-away Baptist School in Surulere suburb of Ilorin. At the Baptist School, the Muslims in their hundreds said they have had enough of ‘this humiliation’ and the Christians insisted there was not going to be hijaab. Both sides stood their grounds.

Tension was at fever pitch. Bloodshed was imminent. Myself, the Permanent Secretary (Education), and the two Special Assistants to the Governor on Religion (Islam and Christians) had a hard time convincing the Muslims to vacate the entrance of the Baptist College. They finally left with a condition: these schools will not open unless their children are allowed to use their hijaab as had been proclaimed by the court. Those who questioned government’s decision to shut down those schools a few weeks ago clearly missed this point or were playing cheap politics with a serious matter of state.

St. Barnabas and Baptist School are two of the schools acquired through the Yakubu Gowon Decree of 1974 and run by the state government. They have the same antecedents as the Ansarul Islam Secondary School Ilorin. Both had their roots in faith-based organisations. However, both, like others in their categories, are categorised as public schools and are subject to the laws of Kwara State. Per the judgments of the two courts of record, their names do not, in the law of Kwara State, suggest ownership. Rather, the names keep the fond memories of their founders. So the education law of Kwara State makes them (public schools) pluralistic in nature, mandated to admit students and have teachers from various backgrounds. They are ordinarily disallowed from having discriminatory rules. Their teachers are recruited, promoted, disciplined, and paid pensions and gratuities by the government. Yet these schools had certain rules that are deemed inconsistent with the law, fuelling resentments and pent-up anger as the two incidents above typified.

One of those (informal) rules dating back to 2008 is the one implicitly banning hijaab. A major takeaway in the Lagos hijaab judgment was the position of the judges (including three Christians) that no government rules or circular shall supersede the provisions of the Nigerian constitutions.

There are several theories about the intention of the unidentified bike man who stoke the fire at St. Barnabas. However, his action, the reaction of the teacher at the school, and the reverberating effects it had elsewhere in Ilorin pointed at a town waiting to explode unless an official position is taken. This is especially important in the light of recent court judgments concerning the hijaab. A coterie of former government officials have gloated about how they smoothly managed the hijaab situation without a rancour. A few clarifications: as of 2008, the Christians had not gone to the court to seek return of ‘missionary schools’ and ask that court should disallow hijaab in the schools. The Muslims, in principle, had no judgment to hang onto. In the case of former Governor Ahmed, there was a judgment of the High Court rejecting the position of the Christians on school ownership and declaring the hijaab as a fundamental human rights of the Muslim schoolgirl. The administration did nothing. It simply balked at the issue and postponed the evil day, of course fuelling anger. The matter went to the Appeal Court, which upheld the position of the lower court on school ownership and the hijaab right. The Muslim community felt the administration was being unfair and irresponsible to deny their children the enforcement of the judgment of the Appeal Court. They cited the declaratory nature of the hijaab judgment and a need for the government to implement the law, particularly in the face of the developments at St. Barnabas and Baptist School.

Precedents across Nigeria do not favour government refusing to take a position on the hijaab question. Contentions about status quo on the question of hijaab have since been resolved in the Lagos case. Despite having a pending appeal at the Supreme Court, the Lagos government had since approved the use of the hijaab in all its schools in compliance with the 2016 judgment of the Court of Appeal. In a circular referenced ED/DISTVI/CCST/HI/14/I/63 and issued by Tutor-General O.A. Olukoya, the Lagos State Government graciously stated: ‘Since the case of the use of hijaab in Lagos is still pending in the Supreme Court of Nigeria, the status quo should be maintained to avoid contempt of court. That is, students should be allowed to wear hijaab on school uniforms.’ So those asking the government to maintain the status quo are invited to note what it means on the hijaab.

The government is unhappy at the turn of events with tensions on both sides and our people almost having a go at one another. Nonetheless, the hijaab question had become a bad news that would never get better with time — and the recent tension has shown just that. Pretending it does not exist or it does not matter is simply postponing the evil day. The difficult decision of the administration to allow the hijaab for any willing Muslim girl child is a matter of law, human rights, diversity, personal choice, and mutual respect. Anything short of that is simply playing the ostrich. It is only a matter of time before the bubble bursts.

The reopening of the school on Wednesday was a necessity for our children not to miss out on the registration for the external West African Secondary School Certificate Examination (WASSCE). The deadline is Friday March 18, although the government has now written to the WAEC to grant it extension. This was made clear to all the stakeholders, with appeals made for them to consider the children.

Notwithstanding its two court victories on the ownership of the schools, the government has similarly acknowledged the request of the Christian leaders for a return of schools acquired in 1974. In the statement announcing approval of the hijaab for any willing Muslim schoolgirl, the government said it would set up a panel to consider the request alongside different models adopted elsewhere and then weigh same against Kwara peculiarities before a decision is reached. That option is sincerely still on the table and a win-win outcome is always within reach, while the government continues its peace talks with all the sides.

The hijaab decision was definitely not an easy one for the government to take. It was taken after weeks of peace talks, stakeholders’ meetings with all the sides, and daily consultations with religious and interest groups hosted by the Governor himself. This position was taken with the long-term interest of all of our people fully considered and to disallow a conflagration that will not discriminate between Christians and Muslims. This is why the government continues to appeal to every side to see the bigger picture and not fight over personal choice. And as far as this is concerned, there is no victor or vanquished.

•Ajakaye is CPS to the Governor of Kwara State

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