Letter from Africa: Nigeria's war of the religious robes

image copyrightJosiah Oluwole / Premium Times
image captionChristian students wore religious clothes over their school uniforms

In our series of letters from African journalists, novelist and writer Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani looks at how the latest religious tension in Nigeria is playing out in what people wear to school.

Almost all of Nigeria's many inter-religious crises have erupted in the north of the country, where the majority of the country's Muslims live, along with a sizeable Christian minority.

But, over the past few weeks, a religious conflict of a peculiar nature has sprouted in Osun state, south-west Nigeria, which has a large population of Muslims as well as Christians.

While previous religious conflicts have involved machetes, the battle in Osun is being fought with religious garments.

It's the war of the religious robes.

Back in the beginning of June a judge ruled that female Muslims who attend public schools in the state could wear their hijabs to class.

image copyrightAFP
image captionIn 2014, Lagos students went to court over a ban on wearing the Muslim headscarf in state schools

The state's branch of the Christian Association of Nigeria (Can) said Christian students would wear garments associated with church activities to schools if the state governor implemented the court ruling.

And they made good on their threat.

On 14 June some Christian students in the state's schools turned up wearing church clothes over their school uniforms.

Some wore maroon choir robes and others donned ankle-length, white garments.

The photos of the students provided a comic relief.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani:

image copyrightAdaobi Tricia Nwaubani

"We Nigerians love our malls. But we love our religion even more"

But the war of the robes did not begin with the hijab ruling.

It goes back to 2012, when Governor Rauf Aregbesola approved the demolition of the Fakunle High School to make way for, as the rumour goes, the construction of a mall.

We Nigerians love our malls. But we love our religion even more.

And Fakunle High School was originally a Christian missionary school.

The school's alumni organised a peaceful protest but the governor still went ahead with the demolition.

Shortly afterwards, Mr Aregbesola announced plans to "reclassify" schools in the state, further frightening the Christian community into suspecting that he had a hidden agenda.

"There are indications that Governor Rauf Aregbesola of Osun State is nursing the ambition of Islamising the state," said Reverend Musa Asake, Can's General Secretary.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionNigeria's 180 million people are thought to be evenly split between Christians and Muslims

The reclassification entailed merging some schools. For example, some male students were dispatched to the Baptist Girls' High School in the state capital, Osogbo, while some Muslim students were asked to join the Baptist High School in another town, Iwo.

In a letter to the governor, the Osun chapter of Can opposed the plan, alleging that "the foundation of the Christian faith is being threatened by some of the state government policies especially in the education sector".

Despite a peaceful demonstration and a seven-day ultimatum, the governor went ahead and merged the schools.

"No single group, organisation, individual, religious or social body's interest would suffer as a result of the ongoing re-classification and reform," Mr Aregbesola assured in a statement.

But while schools, such as the Baptist High School, ultimately complied with the directive, they drew the line at allowing Muslim students to turn up for classes wearing the hijab.

Thus began a litany of accusations and counter-accusations, with several media reports alleging harassment of students by teachers, and violence against teachers by recalcitrant students.

image copyrightAFP
image captionMost of Nigeria's Muslims live in the north of the country

Hijabs were reportedly yanked off students' heads, and students allegedly beat up disapproving teachers.

At some point, a Muslim group in the state organised a protest, which saw Muslim students marching from school to school.

Fearing a "breakdown of law and order", the state government temporarily shut down schools in the state.

Eventually, the Muslim association in the state took the matter to court.

After three long years, Justice Jide Falola ruled at the beginning of June that the use of hijabs by female Muslim students in Osun was their fundamental human right to freedom of religion.

Thus began the present crisis.

‎"We are appealing the judgement, but Christian pupils will continue to wear church garments to their various schools," said Moses Ogundeji, Can vice-chairman in the state.

Professor Ishaq Akintola, director of the state's Muslim Rights Concern group, described Can's reaction to the court's decision as "impunity of the highest order", adding that the wearing of hijab was an "Allah-given fundamental right to female Muslims students".

One can only imagine the impact of all this commotion on the Osun state students who are expected to study amid such tension.

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