In Animal Farm, George Orwell symbolically captured how, in an ‘egalitarian society’ where all beings enjoy equality, some animals can actually be ‘more equal than others’. Though the world created by Orwell was vivid, some may find it illusory and a mere paperwork which cannot obtain in our modern democratic society.
Those who hold that view would perhaps do well to examine a recent incident at the Rivers State University of Science and Technology (RSUST) before they reach a conclusion which may turn out to be myopic. Reproducing the socio-cultural circumstances in Animal Farm, the management of the RSUST on Jan. 25, 2012 institutionalized Islamophobic bias and faith-based despotism. The school allows the existence of 6 impressive churches on the campus but would not tolerate a single makeshift mosque! This was what informed the cruel demolition of the only mosque on the campus. Some students snapped the felling of the praying structure with their phones and, without doing more, they landed in police custody! Is there a better way of acting out the script of Animal Farms?
The destruction of the makeshift mosque is unlawful, unholy and it amounts to a brazen violation of God-given, inalienable and constitutionally guaranteed rights of the students. It infringes on the fundamental human rights of the students to freedom of religion, of expression and of association under sections 38, 39 and 40 of the Constitution respectively. Section 38 (1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) provides that: “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 in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” Prior to the actual demolition of the mosque, series of oppressive policies and discrimination have been visited on the Muslim students. The tyranny has reigned for 12 years, growing grimmer by the day.
A quick perusal of the facts of this incident and its ugly antecedents reveals that they were motivated by a morbid hatred for Islam and undue revulsion for Muslims. It is not only unpopular and draconian; it is, to be euphemistic, a reversal of civilization towards the Stone Age or the era of slavery when inhuman policies and segregation held sway. By no stretch of imagination is it justifiable and one does not require the legal erudition of Lord Denning or the historic ingenuity of Einstein to discern that the policy is an institutionalization of religious repression and fanatical intolerance.
A December 8, 2011 report of the Nation Newspaper quoted the Vice-President of the Muslim Students’ Society of Nigeria (MSSN), RSUST chapter as saying: “For the past eleven years, the Muslim community has been writing frequently to the school authority to have a permanent site for worship (mosque) but their efforts were fruitless. No audience was given except on two separate occasions where threat letters were sent for the suspension of executive members of the society.”
The students sent several written requests to top societal personalities including the state governor and the Sultan to intervene in the matter and plead with the management on their behalf, but they received no help.
On March 19, 2005, the then Vice Chancellor, Prof. Simeon Achinehu ordered security officers of the school and policemen to bulldoze the marquee used by the students for worship. Some valuables owned by the Muslim students were also seized and some of these are reported unreturned yet. These incidents were happening while the Christian students have six massive churches, some of which were erected after the rejection of the numerous requests made by the Muslim students demanding that a parcel of land be allotted to them.
According to Sulaimon in the report of The Nation Newspaper, “The restructuring commenced on December 3, 2011 but to our surprise, the Director of Works came and ordered that the restructuring work should be stopped. He told us that the mosque was the only illegal thing on the campus. He threatened to demolish the structure on Monday, December 5, 2011 if he still found the structure there. He said: “I will remove the entire thing (mosque).” On Jan. 25, 2012, the threat was executed and two of the students who captured the exercise on their mobile devices were arrested. Daily Trust reported on Feb. 2 that the sum of N5000 was paid before the students were released. Indeed, the mosque – before its illicit demolition – was too poky being just 20 by 50 feet and serving more than 250 students.
It has been a long, dark era of tyranny, subjugation and formalized discrimination. Every single article which entrenches religious freedom for the students in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been violated. It is on record that RSUST excels as a public university where some students are ‘more equal than others’. Successive administrations have behaved like high-handed military generals in a garrison command, trampling upon the rights of the helpless Muslim students, hurting their dignity, ridiculing their faith and counting its successes by the magnitude of the torture inflicted on them. For many who might not have witnessed the untold savagery of the apartheid system in South Africa, RSUST presents an excellent opportunity for a first-hand feel of the racist segregation endured by the blacks in the then South Africa. Without being sensational, Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini would have had ample inspirations to draw from the prevailing anti-Islamic policies thriving in RSUST, if only they were still alive today.
As reported by Daily Trust Newspaper, the Public Relation Officer (PRO) of the institution, Mr. Desmond Nwosu claimed ignorance of the development. It is remarkable that he had put up the same air of phoney pretence back in April 2005 when asked by the Beacon Newspaper about the cruel demolition of the makeshift mosque. It is difficult to believe that the PRO would be oblivion of such colossal developments. Assuming he said the truth, then it follows that he was negligent, lackadaisical and incompetent to have been unaware of the incident. If he was not careless and was aware of the incidents, then he was liar.
It is saddening that in this age of rising religious intolerance and avoidable blood-letting in the name of religion, a public institution of learning which should be a citadel of civilization, a centre of ideological detachment and the hub of reformation has been converted into a replica of the Guantanamo Bay. How a venerable academic community from which values of tolerance, respect for other people’s faith and mutual understanding of human diversity ought to emanate have become a dictatorial kingdom is alarming.
This case reminds one of the avoidable sectarian and racial segregation characteristic of public institutions of learning in early 1950's in America. The prevailing policy – shamelessly called ‘separate but equal’ – entails the provision of standard schools for white children and substandard, poorly-equipped ones for black children. The black kids were not burnt like coal, not painted with tar, not stinking like pong and neither did a contact with them cause a skin stain to the white kids. Yet, they were treated like beasts, showing that the white kids were ‘more equal’. This explains why Linda Brown had to walk two miles daily to and fro her black basic school, while a white basic school was only seven blocks away from her residence. This policy reigned till the case of Brown v. Board of Education brought us the desired succour, equality and justice. The US Supreme Court had found the discriminatory practice revolting and disgraceful as it “deprive(s) the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities.” It therefore had no difficulty in declaring the racist and repugnant practice illegal and unconstitutional. Sadly, that buried practice has now been resuscitated and enthroned king in RSUST. The obnoxious policy reigns, its rules thriving and its adverse effects brewing resentment and stirring extremism.
The mellowness of the students is commendable as they have sought legal assistance to redress the colossal wrong. This piece is not a call to jungle justice or religious uproar. My motive is not to instigate or to incite to vigilante justice or thoughtless reprisal actions by the Muslim students. While the management has been utterly provocative and thoughtless, one must acknowledge that any recourse to a tactless remedial battle by the students would be counter-productive. Violence is not an option; it must fail and backfire. In fact, the objective of this piece is to point out to the school authority that religion being a touchy and sensitive phenomenon should not be turned into a monstrous tool for despotism. Religion binds us all to God Almighty. It is not a recipe for furthering the parochial interests of a few selfish and powerful persons, and it should be treated with the sanctity it deserves.
It merits mentioning that Brown’s case was not the first case that challenged the abhorrent law which legislated the controversial “separate but equal” doctrine in public schools for black and white children. In fact, it was the eleventh case to dare the 1879 Kansas law and the case dragged on for 4 full years to resolve. This shows incontrovertibly that the road to fairness, equality and justice may be rough and thorny; that injustice may live long; and cruelty may subsist for ages, but they shall all expire; they cannot enjoy a perpetual existence.
The management has unjustifiably provoked and traumatized the students for more than a decade. But for the maturity of the students, violence would have been occasioned. For instance, the Beacon Newspaper in 2005 reported the incident under the alarming headline: “Muslim students threaten uprising at RSUST”. Emphasis here is tacitly laid on the possible reaction of the victim rather than the intolerance of the management which in fact is the root of the problem. This unconsciously deceives the unsuspecting reader into the stereotype: ‘Muslims have arrived with their terrorism again’. The students are urged to keep calm, maintain decorum and refuse to allow the management lead them into unbecoming reprisals.
Every peace-loving Nigerian must condemn these acts of religious fanaticism. We can’t afford to aggravate the already tense security situation and terrorism in the country. The management should also unconditionally restore the inherent rights of the students and refrain from fanning the embers of violence.
*Muhammed Abdullahi is a freelance writer and public commentator based in Ilorin. He writes as a concerned Nigerian. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org