Nigeria can be anything but boring. The country often reminds one of the title of one of Dr Anezi Okoro’s novellas – One Week, One Trouble (African University Press, 1972). In that novella, the lead character Wilson Tagbo, a brilliant and determined chap, had gained admission into a secondary school during the colonial days. In his quest to turn the period of his studentship into a journey for self discovery, the young man had several run-ins with the school authorities almost on a weekly basis.
As it was with Anezi Okoro’s One Week, One Trouble, so it is with Nigeria. Every week brings its own simmering discord and contentious issue.Over the past few weeks matters that dominated the headlines have included the purported $6bn loans and currency swap deal with China, the radicalization of ‘Fulani’ herdsmen as a new terrorist group, the trial of Senate President Saraki by the Code of Conduct Tribunal, agitations for Biafra by the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, Boko Haram, Buhari’s foreign trips and the debate on whether the Naira should be devalued or not. The current ‘trouble with Nigeria’ is the reported move by the Ministry of Education to merge the teaching of Christian Religious Studies (CRS) with Islamic Studies (IS) under a new subject to be known as Religion and National Values (RNV).
I use the word ‘purported’ deliberately because, to the best of my knowledge, there is no official confirmation or denial of this story – not even on the website of the Federal Ministry of Education. However given the tendency for this government to either allow the media to go to town with stories and then deny such stories after they have gained currency (as happened with the issue of $6bn loan and currency swap with China) or to stake a position and then do a U-turn (as happened with the issue of Nigeria joining a Saudi-led Islamic coalition against terrorism), anything is possible with this story. It is on this premise that I feel that certain observations on the matter are germane:
One, the idea to ‘merge’ the teaching of CRS with IS actually predates the Buhari regime. It all started with the Universal Basic Education (UBE) Programme, which was introduced in Nigeria in September, 1988. In 2008 the Federal Government through the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC) introduced the 9-Year Basic Education Curriculum (BEC) in schools which sought to realign all extant Primary and Junior Secondary School Curricula to meet the key targets of the UBE programme. The structure of the 9-Year Basic Education Curriculum was such that the number of subject offered ranged from ten to sixteen. Between 2008 and now, the country witnessed two major curriculum reform initiatives at the Basic Education level, namely: the 9-Year Basic Education Curriculum (BEC) (September 2008- August 2014); and the Revised 9-Year Basic Education Curriculum (September 2014 -Present). The Revised BEC comprises ten subjects namely English Studies, Mathematics, Basic Science and Technology, Religion and National Values, Cultural and Creative Arts, Business Studies, Nigerian Languages, Pre-vocational Studies, French and Arabic.
Two, it is not clear how the Revised 9-Year Basic Education Curriculum, which theoretically came into force in September 2014 and under which the RNV subject was introduced, has been enforced across the country. It is also not clear whether the current speculation is merely a kite being flown by the government about its desire to more strictly enforce the teaching of RNV or whether it has something else under its sleeve in this matter. At least one blogger has argued that the idea behind the new RNV subject was not to merge the teaching of the two dominant religions in the country but that the new subject has several themes, some of which are compulsory such as social studies, civic education and security education while the themes on CRS and IS will be taught separately. We await further clarification on this.
Three, since religion is a matter of faith and belief, its discussion in a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and low-trust society like ours often risks touching extremely sensitive nerves. It could in fact be hypothesized that any initiative that verges on religion and which is fiercely opposed by both leading Muslims and Christians is already dead on arrival. This appears to be the inevitable fate of RNV – whether it is merely a kite being flown by the government or not. For instance two prominent religious leaders, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar, and the Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos, Alfred Adewale Martins, have condemned any move to merge CRS and IS under any guise. In the same vein, the Muslim Rights Concern, (MURIC) has warned the Federal Government against any merger of the teaching of the two faiths in school. MURIC drew the attention of the government to both the letter and spirit of Section 38 (ii) of the 1999 Constitution which states that “No person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction …if such instruction …relates to a religion other than his own, or a religion not approved by his parent or guardian.” There are also concerns that RVN could actually contravene the Child’s rights Act of 2003, which preserves the right of the child not to be exposed to any religion contrary to that of his parents or guardians.
Four, those who promote the RNV assume wrongly that allowing students to study about Christianity and Islam will automatically promote religious tolerance. The premise of this logic is erroneous. It is akin to arguing that the colonial anthropologists who pioneered the study of African cultures would be less racist than their counterparts who had never been to Africa. As experience showed, they were often more racist than their fellow citizens who never visited Africa. For instance Joseph Conrad, who wrote the infamous novel The Heart of Darkness (1902), which caricatured African customs, had travelled extensively in India, Singapore, Australia and Africa as a seafarer and had ‘studied’ African cultures. Collapsing the teaching of CRS and IS under RNV is therefore more likely to promote feelings of superiority and intolerance than religious amity. How will for instance ordinary Nigerians in a predominantly Muslim state in the north react to a Christian teaching them about CRS or IS under the RNV? And how will a student in a predominantly Christian state in the southeast or south-south react to a Muslim teaching them about CRS or IS under the RNV? It is difficult not to believe that students will under the RNV be forced to study comparative religions which could be problematic on its own especially in a society like ours, and given the age-group that is targeted. Based on this, I believe that those who fashioned the RNV were either genuinely ignorant of the depth of the religious fault line in the country or were being deliberately mischievous.
Five, the impression one gets is that those who designed the idea of RNV want religion to be taught as an academic subject (secular study of religious beliefs) – rather than as theology (designed to teach morals). If this assumption is correct, it immediately raises the question of how the adherents of one faith will feel when their faith is being critiqued from a secular perspective, especially if the teacher is not someone who shares the same faith as them. Even if the teaching of morals is stretched to be part of the objectives of collapsing the teaching of both CRS and IS under RNV, it raises the question of how this can be done given instances of different moralities preached by the two religions such as on polygamy? One may also want to know why Traditional African Religion is omitted from the RNV.
Six, there is also the question of where we will find teachers with the requisite skills and training to teach both CRS and IS and at the same time teach the other components of RNV such as social studies, Civic Education, Security Education, Consumer Education, Disaster Risk Reduction Education and Peace and Conflict Education? Even if we accept that ‘separate classes should be run for CRS theme and IS theme’ as one blogger argued, where do we get enough adjunct lecturers to teach the two religions across the country? RNV therefore is a poorly conceived programme that should never be allowed to see the light of the day, especially by a government which is already being accused of implementing religious and ethno-regional agenda.