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Of hijabs and robes: The challenge of secularity in Nigeria




In 2000, the then Zamfara State governor, Ahmad Sani Yerima, precipitated a constitutional crisis in Nigeria when he instituted the implementation of the Islamic Sharia law in the state. Since then, the Sharia law has become significant proportion of legal framework in Sokoto, Katsina, Jigawa, Kano, Bauchi, Borno, Yobe, and Kebbi. The Sharia issue provoked a serious constitutional crisis, especially over the secular status of the Nigerian state. In 2013, the state of Osun also came into the news over the legal and constitutional issue of religious dressing in public schools. The Osun hijab crisis got to a head when a court case, instituted three years ago, was finally resolved a few weeks ago in favour of the Osun State Muslim Community. The court ruled in favour of putting on the hijab as part of the Muslim female dress code to public school. In an outrageous reaction to the ruling, Christian student at Baptist High School, Iwo also appeared in school in their various choir robes and garments.

The judge who oversaw the case had warned about the dangerous dimension the case could take. He is right. The Osun hijab crisis is a “benign” side to the Boko Haram religious insurgency against the Nigerian state. Interestingly, the Boko Haram incidence began as an all-out war against the conception of education in Nigeria. And it gradually snowballed into a war to institute an Islamic state in the Northern part of Nigeria. “And what is religion, you might ask. It’s a technology of living,” says Toni Bambara, the US novelist. But it has become a technology that, like the nuclear bomb, has led to thousands of deaths and maiming. The Boko Haram insurgents have since become the world’s deadliest terrorist group ahead of ISIS, Al-Shabaab, and others, with over 7000 Nigerians killed. The name and the nature of God has become an inflammable and divisive force rather than a divine blueprint for life.

When the hijab controversy reared its head in Europe, it was no less volatile as it is in Osun state. In France, for instance, what went under the name of the “scarf affair” (l’affaire du voile islamique) is similar in all respects to the Osun situation. In September 1989, three female Muslim students of Gabriel Havez Middle School, Crell were suspended for refusing to remove their scarves. The issue then subsequently spread to Picardy where three other girls were equally suspended for putting on the scarf, in Nantua where teachers held a strike action to protest the use of the religious scarf in public schools, and in Mantes-la-Jolie where students also organised a demonstration in support of the right to put on the religious veil in school.

The issue, especially in France, Spain, Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, etc., borders on the nature of religion in the public sphere, the idea of assimilation and integration, multiculturalism, minority status, and even Islamophobia. Political integration has equally remained Nigeria’s albatross since independence. The amalgamation of the Nigerian state placed a very heavy plural burden on the Nigerian leadership to craft a governance dynamics that will ensure that the various constituent parts of postcolonial Nigeria successfully merge together. However, with crises like the hijab controversy, it is obvious that Nigeria is far from integration. Benjamin Franklin, the US statesman and scientist, puts the matter bluntly but straightforwardly: “We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” In spite of the pithy beauty of Nigeria’s national motto—Unity and Faith, Peace and Progress—we have really not found the formula for hanging together beyond the coercive necessity of the Nigerian state.

What underlies all these issues is the meaning and nature of secularity and secularism. From its Latin origin (i.e. saeculum), the “secular” has turned into a conceptual means for differentiating the divine from the earthly. The secular is therefore meant to refer to human temporal affairs. By the time of the Enlightenment, the secular became a firm policy of separating Church from State, or of disentangling democratic governance and economic issues from religious interference. Thus, secularity in this sense refers to the extent by which a society’s institutions, constitutional processes, cultural ethos, bureaucratic norms and economic reality have been dissociated from religious influence. Secularism simply refers to the philosophical justification for pushing the boundaries of secularity within any society.

Religion is the most potent force against the spread and form establishment of secularity anywhere. Fundamentalism, for instance, is a raging religious view about the ultimate control of the affairs of society. One of the critical arguments of the Boko Haram insurgents, in fact an argument shared by most Islamic fundamentalists, is that the strict interpretation of Sharia religious law must be the foundation of legal-political business in Nigeria. The violent desire to establish a caliphate in the North, for sure, is just a short term one for the eventual Islamization of the whole of Nigeria and the eradication of all forms of secular modernity.

Religion has since independence remained a critical crack in Nigeria’s national configuration. The appearance of “Faith” in Nigeria’s national motto seems to signal the recognition of the role of religion in Nigeria’s affair. The word “religion” appeared 12 times in the Nigerian 1999 Constitution and ‘religious” 10 times. Section 10 of the Constitution state clearly: “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.”This seems straightforward enough. This is Nigeria’s nod to secularity even without any mention of that concept in the entire constitution. The next significant provision of the Constitution is 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.”

There are several deductions to be made from this provision. One of them borders on the relationship between religion and identity. Islam happens to be a religion that transforms the identity of its adherent, not least in terms of dressing. Thus, if hijab is a significant part of my identity as a female Muslim, why must I be prevented from that expression? After all, the Constitution permits a public or private expression. It is in this sense that the Court is justified in protecting the interest of the Muslim community which insisted that its freedom of religious expression is potentially under breach. But this is hardly the end of the matter about religion and secularity.

It seems that Nigeria’s nod to secularity is half-hearted. And the reason is not far-fetched. In spite of the provision of Section 10, religion plays a critical role in our political language and culture. When the idea of secularity was formulated during the Enlightenment, it was premised on the belief that humans possess the capacities to transform their own lives and institute a social governance framework that makes society heaven on earth. A secular state is therefore supposed to be a state that is sufficiently democratic and institutionally viable enough to ground religious tolerance on a material prosperity that generates an ecumenical spirit of unity.

This requires not only a constitutional nod to secularity, but a gradual deepening of the separation of religion from state matters that translates into institutional dynamics that delivers democratic dividends to Nigerians.

Dr. Tunji Olaopa is Executive Vice Chairman Ibadan School of Government and Public
Policy (ISGPP), Ibadan.


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  • Jolayemi Uthman

    I see the place you are thinking from…. The issue of hijab is a matter that is discussed in chapter four of the Nigerian Constitution every individual in Nigeria has his or her rights and duties… As a matter of fact in your write up u mentioned just countries like France, Germany etc who took a stern test on the hijab issue…but u forgot to mention countries like Great Britain, United States of America were their is real “freedom in the sense of freedom”… Muslims are allowed to wie Hijabs in the UK without choas resulting out of it at least they are our “colonial masters” who still systematically “neo colonise” us… I see no fuss about the hijab issue any other religious beliefs that feels that dey are being sidelined can go to court nd try to fight out dia ryt… Which will foster the Unity… Faith… Peace ✌ and progress

  • Maigari

    The issue of hijab is really a non-starter but for extreme views on both sides but basically a CAN-elitist view that hijab means Islam and must not be tolerated for everyone.. That said the view on the origins of Boko Haram seem not to tally with the reality. Boko Haram started as a political tool used by very cynical but vicious politicians to rig themselves in power and retain that power. It was the fallout between these Nigerians and their “tools” that escalated to the Boko Haram issue. The founder of Boko Haram we understand was western educated, rich and definitely elitist with huge bank accounts and all. That does not sound like a terrorists who stands against Western Education. That cam with the ascension of Shekau to the leadership after the police murdered Yusuf Mohammed and many members of the then unknown group as it were. The lesson look and listen seriously before you decide on the “extreme adjustment” because that as no remedy.
    The average Nigerian has no issue or problem with these elitist propagated views, many stand and live with one another without rancour, it is just that the elites who live by the table of the powers that -what with private jets, Abuja and Lagos penthouses & condos, and billions in their accounts- be don’t want anyone near lest the crumbs they get diminishes and that is the problem with the secularist attitude of the Nigerian elites not their faiths as such.

  • Akanji92

    Is Nigeria a secular or Christianised state?
    Is Saturday and Sunday weekend official rest days secular or Christian?
    Is skirt and berret or hat secular or Christian outfits?
    Is January 1 officially declared by Pope Gregory in the 14th century as beginning of New Year in Christendom a secular New Year? etc.

    The CAN, Christian Journalists, Christian Guest Writers, etc., are unnecessarily creating tension to maintain their oppressive status quo; dominating others; through the colonial inherited Christianised national institutions.

    Muslims are ready to assert Islamic structures without impinging on the rights of Christians to practice and live the way they like. But Muslims will never ever again succumb to cheap blackmail. Hijab is a right for any willing Muslim lady, that right cannot be denied.

    Gone for ever, those bad days when as Muslim children, in the Southwest in public school, we were:
    i. forced to buy Songs of Praise and sing songs irrelevant to our sacred faith;
    ii. forced to close our eyes for prayer on the assembly;
    iii. forced to line up and march to the church;
    iv. forced to crawl on our knees on bare pebble floor for coming late to an irrelevant morning devotion, etc.

    When our Friday oppressors will deny us the privilege of one hour Jummat service.

    When you cannot be a school prefect or officer because of your faith.

    Never again. Christians should accommodate Muslims and allow them enjoy their basic human rights.

  • Olu Titus

    No nation engages in religious war and survives. Period. The danger before us as a nation is the use of the instrument of governance to propagate a religion. The earlier we all think of what will unite us instead of what will divide us. If anyone claims to be God fearing, he has no right to kill another person because that person is not sharing in his faith.

    • Akanji92

      Yes, anybody who kills another one for religious sake is a devil. Boko Haram, ISIS and others do not represent Islam