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Socialist Democracy July - August 2016


26 June 2016

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Hijab Crisis in Osun State: Avoidable Distraction caused by Aregbesola Government's Policies

The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), Osun State Chapter, is greatly worried and concerned by the worsening dimension of the religious crisis in Osun State which is compounding the woes of the already crisis-ridden education sector.

It is no exaggeration to say that a state of religious anarchy currently prevails in the state. This anarchy, quite unfortunately, is causing division among the ranks of the poor masses who should be united in opposition to the anti-peoples' policies of the Aregbesola regime.

Indeed this issue has the capacity to precipitate religious and social crisis in a state where majority of the population are languishing in poverty and want as a result of government-created economic crisis.

Following an Osun State High Court judgment that gave a go-ahead for the use of Hijab (Muslim females' head cover), the Osun State chapter of Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) rejected the judgment and directed Christian students in public schools to also start wearing church garbs to schools, an action aimed at protesting the use of hijab in so-called 'missionary' schools. It would be recalled that the crisis over religion in schools is not new. In fact, it was after a physical brawl between some Muslims and Christians in some schools over the use of hijab some years ago had failed to resolve the crisis that a Muslim group approached the court. Unfortunately, rather than lay the matter to rest, the court judgment has further generated unwarranted religious animosity.

We in the DSM decry this unnecessary religious tension in the state and especially in the already crisis-ridden education sector that is gasping for breath. In a state that is owing workers months of salary and which came a distant 29 in the May/June 2015 West African Senior School Certificate Examination, we clearly do not see how the question of allowing religious apparels in schools is linked to anything that fundamentally benefits working class people and their children. However whilst being sensitive to people's religious feelings, our stand is that the principles of secularity which the Nigerian constitution recognizes should apply in all public institutions which are funded by tax payers of different religious or faith persuasions. While defending the right of students to wear any religious apparel they wish, we also are opposed to any attempt to divide or segregate students on the basis of their parents' or their own religious beliefs.

At the same time however, we find it ridiculous that religious groups that claim to represent the general interests of their members will find the issue of head cover or apparel of students more important than the quality of education being given to the students. If the religious groups that are so concerned about students' apparel, had committed the same energy to agitating for a total development of schools by the Aregbesola government, and not rebuilding of some few selected schools, maybe the output in terms of examination results would have improved significantly. Latest news from West African Examination Council (WAEC) placed Osun State 29th in the 2015 rating of states in the 2015 West African Senior School Certificate Examinations (WASSCE).

However, we place the blame of the religious crisis being generated in public schools at the doorstep of the Rauf Aregbesola-led Osun State government, which policies and politics have placed religion as a major plank. The Aregbesola government on several occasions and at different forums used religion as basis for wooing support for the government. Aside turning every public programme into mini-religious gathering, the government has also committed useful state resources to supporting religious activities and groups even when Nigeria is constitutionally a secular state. These were accentuated especially during governorship elections in 2014. All of these have raised religious consciousness to a new height. While the Muslim groups see Aregbesola government as theirs, various Christian groups feel that they are not specially recognized. The traditional religious groups also demand 'equal right' like their Muslims and Christian counterparts no thanks for the government's unnecessary involvement in religious matter.

For us in the DSM, religion should be a private affair of those practicing it, and should not be turned into a public issue in terms of state policy. We condemn diversion of public resources to service religious ends. By making religion to be an integral part of state policy, the government will be setting the tune for social crisis that will see diversion of governance and public issues toward divisive view of religion. This is because the government itself thrives on divisions among people.

Furthermore, the undemocratic merger of public primary and secondary schools in Osun State in 2012 also accentuated an already latent crisis of religious identity. The government, in an action that smacked of attack on the education and rights of students, forcefully merged hundreds of public primary and secondary schools and in the process changed the previous and nationally recognized format of schools. These meant that students were moved from their preferred schools of choice to different schools imposed by government.

We agree that students have rights to attend any public school without the fear of being discriminated against on the basis of creed, religion or ethnicity, which will mean that no student should be barred from attending any public school or be forced to observe another religion's activities and beliefs. However, merger of schools by a government, without democratic discussions and agreements among concerned people including teachers, parents, students, communities, etc., could only generate unnecessary religious agitations, since government's action was viewed from divisive religious view, rather than on its social and economic merit.

But much as we condemn the Aregbesola government's undue promotion of religion as state policy, we also condemn the crude reaction of CAN Osun State, which directed Christian students to wear church garbs to schools. This smacks of attempt to create anarchy. CAN's position is premised on a false stand that public schools, because they are bearing Christian names, are still properties of various Christian missionaries. We find this as retrogressive. These are schools that have been acquired over forty years ago, with the missionary owners duly compensated. The schools have become public schools, which mean that they must serve the general public. Therefore, the attempt of CAN and other religious groups to lay claim to ownership of these schools, or demand use of private religious policies in these schools is totally wrong and backward. It is an effort aimed at preventing students of different religious background from accessing education.

It should further be stated that many of these schools have been further developed by the government while government commit public resources to running these schools. Thus, demanding that the schools be run on religious policies will be tantamount to privatizing education. The demand of CAN that if government could not run the school on the basis of missionary principles, it should return the schools to former missionary owners is totally backward, as it tends to roll back the wheel of history. This will deny people of different religious and creed orientations right to access to education while also leading to pricing of education out of the reach of poor people who will not be able to afford cost of privatized education in missionary schools. This will be throwing the society back to the colonial age where few people had access to colonial education. It is in order to avoid this that working people and youths in Oyo State are currently in struggle against planned privatization of school by Ajimobi government.

Similarly, we find the undue promotion of use of hijab over the quality of education students receive, by Muslim groups championing the use of hijab as opportunistic, diversionary and unnecessary.

As a way forward, the state government must accept the responsibility of striking a balance that will protect personal liberty and choices but at the same time prevent the society and public institutions from being divided on religious lines.

We therefore propose that a democratic summit of all interest groups including labour unions, student groups, parents' associations, communities, etc. should be convened to discuss every aspect of government education policies, including the issue of religion in schools. As we noted in 2014 when this issue of religious identity in schools first reared their ugly head, "The question of how to run schools without promoting religious intolerance, and ensuring the security of lives of students were not discussed with those to be affected, as the so-called education summit convoked by the government some three years ago was only populated by imported stakeholders from Europe, North America and other parts of the country. This has given various religious interests opportunity to lash on the merger policy to promote their interests."

In all, the Aregbesola government should accept that its education policies, including the much touted mega schools, have failed. This has been variously corroborated by the dismal performance of Osun State in external examinations, especially WASSCE, in the last few years of Aregbesola government's multibillion-naira-worth education reform. Ultimately, only through massive development and transformation of the society socially, economically and technologically can religious divisions and extremism be finally subsumed.

Alfred Adegoke
State Coordinator
Kola Ibrahim
State Secretary