Conflict in the Classroom: Educational Institutions as Sites of Religious Tolerance/intolerance in Nigeria

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I. INTRODUCTION In Nigeria, black Africa's most populous nation, it might be expected that education would be a contentious issue in terms of its provision, control, form, and content. I am concerned in this Article with the ways in which educational institutions-whether primary, secondary, or tertiary-have been connected to the growth of religious conflict in Nigeria over the last two decades. How might Nigerian schools and institutions of higher learning constitute sites for generating or countering religious intolerance?1

There have, in fact, been a number of incidents of religiously-linked violence involving Nigerian students since the 1980s.2 However, efforts to utilize educational resources to achieve religious harmony and national unity also exist. Educational institutions may thus be viewed as microcosmic versions of more macrocosmic socio-political trends. Furthermore, such institutions constitute important breeding grounds for religious ideas and movements.

In that vein, Part II of this Article examines the history of religious education in Nigeria, focusing primarily on primary and secondary school education. Part III examines the role student organizations have played in shaping religious education discourse and policy in Nigeria. Part IV discusses religious education in the specific context of universities. Parts II through IV of this Article thus explore specific examples of religious conflict in the realm of education.

The examples that I utilize for analytical discussion are varied in that some pertain directly to curricular matters, as in the case of religious education, while others concern religious activities at educational sites. Some examples are more concerned with constitutional issues, namely religious bias in the educational sector and unequal access to state and federal resources. However, all of these examples bear on the relationship of religion and the state in a multireligious society such as Nigeria,3 as well as on freedom of religion.4 Adopting education as a lens through which we view rights pertaining to freedom of religion or belief has the methodological and theoretical advantage of obliging us to consider these questions at local "grassroots," regional, and national levels.

My analysis of these examples leads me to conclude in Part V of this Article that the Nigerian system which encourages a confessional approach to religious instruction in the schools has contributed to the further polarization of Nigerian society along religious lines. The system also leads to probable violations of the principles of religious freedom embodied in the U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981).5 I therefore recommend that the current system be abandoned in favor of one in which nonconfessional religious education is presented in an objective non-normative way.

II. HISTORY OF RELIGIOUS ISSUES IN PRIMARY AND SECONDARY EDUCATION

Nigeria, like many other African nation-states that have emerged from under the cloak of colonialism, has sought to negotiate equitably its extensive ethnic and religious pluralism,6 and channel such diversity into national integration. Many changes have been required to divest the country of its colonial heritage, not the least of which were educational reforms. The much talked about imbalance in the country, then as now, stems from the advantages gained by those who received Western education.7 It was in the South of the country that Christian missionaries were most active in establishing schools. Because of the British policy of noninterventionism toward the Muslims in the North, the latter did not gain as many of the benefits of Western education as their southern neighbors.8 This resulted in a lasting and destabilizing dichotomy that is firmly imprinted on the historical memory of Nigerian Muslims.9

Nigerian Christians, for their part, still harbor fears of political domination by the northern Muslim Hausa-Fulani peoples. …