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Hijab and status of missionary schools

By John Cardinal Onaiyekan
16 May 2021   |   3:02 am
The Hijab crisis in Kwara State is only a metaphor for much wider and deeper concerns. It has to do with the status of the “missionary schools” vis-a-vis the government and the place of Islam in those schools.

School girls in hijab

The Hijab crisis in Kwara State is only a metaphor for much wider and deeper concerns. It has to do with the status of the “missionary schools” vis-a-vis the government and the place of Islam in those schools.

The issue concerns a particular set of schools, started in the colonial era, called voluntary agency (VA) schools, belonging to various agencies, not only Christian missions, but also Muslim organisations, local communities, and even individuals. Among the few Muslim organizations that ran VA schools like the Christian missions were the Ahmadiya Missions in Lagos and the Ansar-u-deen in Ilorin. But Christian missions happened to be the greatest number.

The system was based on collaboration between the state and these agencies, to provide education for children, with the strong financial support of the state, especially in payment of salaries. For the missions, these were not “private” schools, certainly not for profit, but rather “public” schools to provide education at an affordable cost to the poor parents. The “religious” schools maintained their respective religious traditions, and there were no quarrels. Nor was there any dispute about the ownership and proprietorship of these schools, even though public funds were spent on them.

This continued into the independence era in 1960. I did all my primary and secondary education under this system. All along there were some government schools, totally run, funded and controlled by the state. But these schools were quite few, compared to the voluntary agency ones. As at that time, the present large number of purely private schools did not exist. A major change came with the first military rule (1967-76). It was in the 1970s, when the issue of “take over of schools” happened. The motive behind this move has not been too clear. There are some speculations that there was perhaps an Islamic agenda to neutralize the considerable influence that the mission schools were having in promoting Christianity. As regards the accusation of promoting Christian evangelization through the schools, this was never a hidden agenda. The few Muslim VAs at that time did the same too for the promotion of Islam. It has never been a crime in Nigeria to promote Christianity. And besides, the high quality of education imparted under this system has never been disputed.

No one does anything for nothing, not even the Church. We set up schools for imparting education and promoting evangelization, both of which are perfectly legitimate, and, to us highly noble objectives. Others point to a possible ideological motive behind the “take-over”. It was said that we should no longer put the education of our youth into the hands of “foreign” missionaries.

This was at a time when a good number of the missionaries, especially the leadership, were foreign expatriates. Whatever the motive, it is also clear that the oil boom came around, and made it possible for the government to undertake such a project of massive investment in education expansion. But in fact, this could have been achieved, and better, without jettisoning the long tried policy of fruitful co-operation between government and the VAs. This break in collaboration meant that the Church was effectively pushed out of education. With the passing of years, the rapid expansion led to an avoidable abysmal drop in the quality of education all across the board.

It was at this point that the Church started to move massively into private schools, with the highly undesired consequence that our schools tended to be no longer affordable for our teeming poor parents. I cannot see an end to this unfortunate dilemma, unless and until the system of collaboration between the Church and the State is restored, at least for some schools.

On this matter of the “take over of schools”, we should note that: (a) It was not a national policy of the Gowon Regime. The states at that time took their decisions in the matter. Policies and implementation were haphazard. Most states actually decreed a complete take over of all VA schools, which were mainly Christian mission schools. Some others however did not take over the schools, but only increased the level of government control over the schools. Such states included Plateau, Kano, Benue and Kwara. Yes, Kwara! At that time, what is now Kogi was partly in Kwara, and partly in Benue.

In these states, all the mission schools retained their Christian names, and their proprietorship was recognized. Even in these states, the VAs retained more autonomy over the secondary schools than over the primary schools, which were said to have been “transferred”. (b) All these drastic changes took place without any consultation with the proprietors of the schools. There was also no serious protest from the proprietors. This was possible for two main reasons. First, we were under a military dictatorship that decided whatever it liked, with no recourse to anywhere. Secondly, the leadership of the Church were still largely expatriates, with no courage to confront the military government, With the clear change in these two situations, it is now quite time to challenge not only the morality but the legality of the entire “take-over” process.

In this regard, the court action of the Kwara CAN is a step in the right direction. But this should now no longer be left to Kwara CAN alone, but to all the states, under the national CAN. As regards Kwara State, the 2004 court case, which ruled against CAN was unfortunate.

The ruling practically went beyond the 1975 original partial take over to a complete take over of the schools in question. CAN had every right to appeal against it at the higher court. Unfortunately, the Kwara judiciary has always been dominated by Muslims. These judges seemed to have been unable to resist the temptation to be biased in favour of Islam and against Christianity in their judgement.

It is on the basis of this skewed judgment that Governor Abdul Razaq in 2020 took the liberty to issue directives that were turning around the tradition that had been in place since colonial days. This includes the present threat to change the names of the schools. This was what happened in the 1970s when the government of Kaduna State, for example, changed the names of St. John’s College to Rimi College, and of Queen of Apostles to Queen Amina College. It is clear that this battle goes beyond Kwara State. The CBCN may well be better placed than CAN to fight the battle, and we need to start thinking in that line right now. It is important to note that as of now there are hundreds of schools in Kwara State.

Most of them are government schools where a policy of equality of all religions is in place, with the hijab freely allowed as an alternative headgear for Muslim girls. Other schools include the large number of purely private schools run by individuals and groups, including religious bodies. The Catholic Church has many such schools. These private schools have their own rules about uniforms on which the state does not and should not legislate. The schools that are now in contention are the relatively few historical “public mission schools”, whose proprietorship, until now, had never been in dispute, even though government control kept raising issues about the autonomy of the schools. We have managed to live fairly peacefully with this obvious ambiguity since the 1970s, until these recent attempts to change things for reasons not in the interest of good education.

To conclude, I am convinced that this matter about the Hijab can be resolved with some amount of goodwill on all sides. Governor Rasaq should resist the pressures being put on him by some Muslim fanatics and extremists to impose the hijab on the few public mission schools.

This is not a matter of the fundamental human right of Muslims. Rather, it is the right of Christians to maintain their traditions in their schools. Any Muslim who cannot tolerate his daughter go to school without a hijab should not send her to any of these few mission schools. Options are many and abundant. The effort to impose the hijab on these few schools will continue to antagonize the Christian community in the state. I believe that it is in the interest of the governor, and for the good of harmony in the state to avoid what can cause disaffection and polarization among the citizens. The Governor should also know that the struggle for the complete return of our control over our schools will not stop until it is achieved. At a time when we are all lamenting the free fall in the standard of education, those who are provoking avoidable crisis over the wearing of the hijab in Christian schools are certainly not making any valid contribution to improving the situation.

We should rather work towards improving better cooperation between the state and religious communities, especially the Christian communities, in the common task of providing good education to all children, especially the children of the poor who cannot afford the high fees in the private schools. We should concentrate on more important issues of governance, peace and harmony than on hijab in a few schools belonging to the Christian communities.

Finally, let us make one important point about the government putting public funds into mission schools. Such funding does not give the right to the government to claim ownership of the schools that are receiving such grants. It is not about the private money of the governor or of any government official. Rather these are public funds belonging to all citizens, including Christians, and to which the children in those schools have as much right as the children in the so-called government schools. It is about time this injustice be addressed, even in respect of the so-called private schools.

John Cardinal Onaiyekan, CON, Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja (1990- 2019), Former Bishop of Ilorin (1983- 1990) and Apostolic Administrator of Ilorin (1990-1992).

• Culled from Catholic Herald published by Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos, May 8, 2021