By Mark Michael

Violence erupted at several historically Christian schools as clashes between Christian and Muslim groups continue into a fifth week in Ilorin, Nigeria’s seventh largest city. The 10 schools at the center of the crisis, at least two of them Anglican foundations, refuse to allow Muslim students to wear the hijab.

On March 22, Muslim youths described as “hoodlums” by local media broke into Cherubim & Seraphim College, a secondary school associated with an African initiated church movement in Sabo-Oke, a district of Ilorin. They chased away the school’s students before being dispersed by police.

Later in the day, while Maluum Tauheed Bello, a local educational official, was addressing an angry crowd outside the school’s gates, shots rang out from inside nearby Baptist and Apostolic churches. Violence erupted among the crowd, with crowds throwing rocks and other objects at the church. Angry crowds armed with cutlasses and broken bottles attacked several other local churches, Sunrulere Baptist Secondary School, and St. Barnabas Primary School, an Anglican-founded institution, while local Christians took to the street to protect their property.

Tensions have been building since February 19, when Kwara State officials suspended classes at 10 historically Christian schools, after Sunrulere Baptist Secondary School staff refused to admit a female student who came to school wearing a hijab. At least two of the 10 schools, Bishop Smith Secondary School in Agba Dam and St. Barnabas Secondary School in Sabo-Oke, were founded by Anglican missionaries.

After listening to the claims of Christian and Muslim leaders and deliberating for nearly a week, the Kwara State government declared on February 25 that the historically Christian schools have no right to enforce their traditional ban, and that the ministry of education will develop a uniform head covering. “Any willing schoolgirl with the approved hijab shall have the right to wear same in public/grant-aided schools,” said Mamma Jibril, Secretary to the Kwara State Government.

The 10 schools are all considered grant-aided, their expenses supported by public funding. Though all were founded by missionaries in the early and mid-twentieth century, they were seized by the state during rule by a military junta in 1974.

In an interview with The Guardian of Lagos, Jibril said, “[State] laws are very clear about the status of these schools and the rules guiding them. Such rules include pluralism in recruitment of students and teachers. These schools, being public-owned, are to adhere to policies of government.

“The court has flatly rejected arguments over the years that these schools still belong to either the Muslim or Christian missionaries. So, the government totally rejects claims some organizations are still laying to these schools because the law does not know such claims. The fact that some of these schools retain the names of their founding organizations is purely honorary and in memories of their contributions to education. It does not translate to such missionary bodies owning the schools.”

This claim is contested by many of Ilorin’s churches, who have sued the state government for ownership, with the support of the powerful local chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). The case is now before Nigeria’s Supreme Court. CAN’s general secretary for Kwara State, Joseph Daramola, claims that the government’s ruling is an attempt to preempt the court’s decision. “While the government may give directive on its own schools, it ought to respect the schools it does not directly own or started and respect the religious cultures of such schools as well,” he said.

The Kwara State government initially attempted to reopen the 10 schools on March 1 but delayed in response to threats of violence. Angry crowds have attacked school property several times in recent weeks, and truckloads of sand were dumped in front of the gates of several schools. Public safety officials have repeatedly called for peace and toleration in a city with a relatively strong tradition of good relations between the two religious communities.

During the weeks that the government kept the schools closed, some local congregations organized gatherings at the schools, asserting their historic claims. Members of St. Barnabas Anglican Cathedral held a worship service at the gates of St. Barnabas Secondary School on March 18. The Premium Times reports that an unnamed cleric from the cathedral said in a short sermon, “This is a period for us to be fervent and secure our schools.”

Olalekan Aransiola, a cathedral elder, suggested that forbidding the hijab was integral to the church’s Christian identity. “We just want to defend this place with God sending us to this place,” he told reporters. “It is the blood of Jesus that formed this place and that we want to sustain. We welcome everybody to come and school here but that name of Jesus should not be defamed and cannot be crossed.”

Abideen Olasupo, the director of a local youth development organization, told The Premium Times that he is concerned that students will suffer most from the suspension of classes, noting that a lack of technology access made digital learning impossible for most students during the pandemic and little time remains for them to prepare to sit the national examinations necessary for college admission. He urged the government to resolve the matter permanently by renaming the schools.

A spokesman for the state police told the press that peace had been restored on the afternoon of March 22, and that armed soldiers were patrolling the city. State officials say they hope that all 10 mission schools will open to students the following day.