Friday, June 17, 2016

Dangerous Signals From Osun State

By Onuoha Ukeh
On Monday, when secondary school students of Osun State attended school in church apparels, with some donning white garments and others wearing hijabs as well as cassocks, I remembered Williams B. Yeats’ poem: The Second Coming. In a verse in the epic poem, the poet wrote: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Gov Aregbesola of Osun State 
Yeats may not have been talking about Osun State in the poem, but his literary work holds true for the state, where a near sectarian strife is looming over school uniform, amid leadership failure. Indeed, in Osun, it seems the falcon is not hearing the falconer. Things are falling apart in the state and the centre appears not holding. And since a stage has been set for students to wear what they like to school, “mere anarchy” is loosed upon Osun State.
The signals from Osun State are not pleasant, indeed. To say the least, they are not only frightening but also dangerous. A situation where Christians and Muslims are pitted against one another, in a country that is supposed to be secular, there is certainly something to worry about. Surprisingly, the state government seems to be playing to the gallery.
Yes, an Osogbo High Court in Osun State  last week ruled that female Muslim students were entitled to wear hijabs to school if they so wished. Delivering judgment in a suit brought by the Muslim community in Osun, since February 2013, Justice Jide Falola held that any act of harassment, molestation, humiliation and torture against female Muslim students using hijabs constitutes a clear infringement on their fundamental rights. The judge had cited Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended) as basis of the judgment. Section 38 (1) states “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 private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
Section 38 (2) also states: “No person attending any place of education shall be required to receive instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if such instruction, ceremony or observance relates to a religion other than his own, or a religion not approved by his parents or guardian.”
For the avoidance of doubt, the Muslim community in Osun had approached the court, seeking an order to allow female Muslim students use veils (hijabs) in public schools. The suit instituted against the state government, also had the state Commissioner for Education, Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice as defendants. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), its chairman and others had joined the case as respondents.

Some people have accused the Rauf Aregbesola government of being behind the problem in public schools. Others have accused the government of trying to islamise the state. And yet others have accused the government of Islamic fundamentalism. Owing to how the state government has so far operated, I would say  that the governor, in particular, asked for it. Granted that he did not decree the use of hijabs in schools, but his failure to rise to the occasion, knowing the sensitivity of anything religion in the country, with the view to nipping the crisis in the bud, makes him culpable.
I blame the government because there are rules that govern schools, especially public schools, which are set by government. The school is not a church or a mosque. It is, therefore, out of place to bring religion to the school system, which is what the Muslim community in Osun State, through the court order, has done. Schools have uniforms, which all students are supposed to wear. Fighting for the use of hijabs, therefore, is going out of the laws for the school system to bring religion into the matter. It is a gratuitous demand, which is capable of causing trouble. Indeed, knowing that crisis would come eventually, I had expected the government of Osun State to play the father’s role by nipping this in the bud.  The government failed woefully.
Now that the court has ruled that the students should not be stopped from wearing hijabs to school and Christians have also decided that they will wear church apparels to class, an avoidable trouble has fully started. For two days, female Muslims students wore hijabs, while their Christian counterparts came to school in church apparels, before the school was shut. Pray, why did Governor Aregbesola threaten to stop Christian students from coming to school in their preferred wears? Going by the judgment, based on Section 38 of the constitution, freedom of religion entails that female Muslim students could wear hijabs, which represents their religion and should not be molested, harassed, humiliated or tortured.  This presupposes that a Christian student, who is also entitled to freedom of religion, could  “manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance” as provide in Section 38 (1) by wearing his church apparel.
This stalemate in Osun could have been avoided had those entrusted with the responsibility of leadership in the state done what they were supposed to do, knowing that the introduction of the use of hijabs in a public school was a way of sowing a seed of discord and discrimination. Such practice could only make the students to know that beyond all the pretentions, they are not one. With such foundation, young Nigerians, from secondary school, will start looking at themselves as Muslim students and Christian students instead of students in concord. This is not the kind of Nigeria  we should bring up our children in.
I have wondered why Governor Aregbesola has chosen to always be at the centre of controversy. A time was when there was a controversy that the state government was planning to promote Islam above other religions in the state. A time was also when the governor preferred to address his state as “State of Osun instead of Osun State, even when the constitution is clear on the official name of the state: Osun State. What really does Aregbesola want? And is it a coincidence that it is under the rule of Aregbesola that Muslim community has to go to court to press for the use of hijabs in public schools?
Governor Aregbesola should concentrate effort in catering to the needs of his people instead of unnecessary controversies that do not add anything to governance. What Osun State needs is good government. Teachers and government workers deserve their pay. The people deserve good roads, social amenities, security, rule of law, equity and justice. 
Osun children need qualitative and affordable education. These are basis for government, not religious expression in schools. Therefore, the state government should find a political solution to the crisis now rocking the state, even as the CAN appeals the judgment on hijab use, with the view to getting it quashed, as it happened in Lagos when similar attempt was made. Nigeria is a secular state. Nobody or group should, in so-called exercise of fundamental rights, take actions that would cause division and break down of law and order.
*Onuoha Ukeh could be reached with ooukeh@yahoo.com

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