Guest Columnist By Enyi Abaribe
The Senate last week voted on the report of its constitutional review committee and at the end of it all, it once again achieved a milestone in altering the 1999 constitution to bring the document in line with the general aspirations of the Nigerian people.
However, while the Senate appreciates and welcomes the healthy debate that ensued within the public on some aspects of the sections that were voted on, which it sees as a veritable feedback that signals the public acceptance and overwhelming followership of the happenings in the hallowed chambers, it is nonetheless bothered by negative commentaries which suggest a deliberate misinformation and distortion of what actually transpired on the floor when the distinguished senators voted on each section of the report by its constitutional amendment committee.
For the avoidance of doubt, at no time did the senators vote, neither did they ever deliberate on any clause that has to do with marriage age. They also did not vote to introduce any new law on underage marriage. The senators only voted to amend some clauses in the articles that were already in the constitution.
It is pertinent for the public to know that the section up for amendment had to do with persons qualified to renounce Nigerian citizenship. The 1999 constitution as amended in Section 29, (which has suddenly become a hot issue for both informed and uninformed interpretation in the press and social media) states in section 1 S29 (1): "Any citizen of Nigeria of full age who wishes to renounce his Nigerian citizenship shall make a declaration in the prescribed manner for the renunciation."
S29 (4): "For the purposes of subsection (1) of this section,
(a) 'full age' means the age of eighteen years and above;
(b) 'any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age'
The prevailing view of the committee before the initial vote was that Section 29 (4) (a) was gender neutral but with section 29 (4) (b) specifically mentioning "woman", it now looked discriminatory and as such is in conflict with section 42 of the constitution which prohibits discrimination of any form. The committee thus sought for it to be expunged from the constitution.
Senators therefore voted earlier to expunge that sub section and it scaled through by 75 votes. Note that under the constitution, to amend any clause you will need two-thirds of the members of the Senate which translates to 73 votes.
However, the revisiting of the voting on that section was to take care of objections raised by Senator Ahmad Sani Yerima among others. He pointed out that removing the clause 29 (4) (b) contradicts section 61 of the second schedule of the constitution which restricts the National Assembly from considering matters relating to Islamic and Customary law.
Revisiting the section was purely and simply a pragmatic approach. It had to be so, considering that the Senate as the representative of the people represents all interests and all shades of opinion.
Therefore, a fresh vote was called and even though those who wanted that section expunged were more in number, they failed to muster the needed votes to get it through. What it meant was that majority of senators voted to remove it but they were short of the two-thirds majority or (73) required to alter an article of the constitution.
Had voting in constitutional amendment not been based on the mandatory two-thirds or (73) votes of senators at the seating, perhaps the issue would have been rested by now, but be that as it may the outcome of the voting remains the position of the Senate. S29 (4) (b) still remains part of the constitution.
What is important is for the issue to be put in its proper perspective.
This clarification has become necessary because of the wilful and deliberate act to distort and misinform the general public on what was never discussed nor contemplated by the senators.
At no time was marriage as a section of the constitution discussed or voted for.
The National Assembly in 2003 had passed "The Child Rights Act" which specifically took care of the fears being expressed in a cross section of the media. The Act clearly states in section 21: "No person under the age of 18 years is capable of contracting a valid marriage, and accordingly, any marriage so contracted is null and void and of no effect whatsoever."
Section 22. 1. "No parent, guardian or any other person shall betroth a child to any person"
2. A betrothal in contravention of subsection (1) of this section is null and void.
Therefore under the Childs Right Act the lawful age of marriage is 18years.
The constitution does not provide for many rules of human engagement such as marriage and only makes provision for specialised laws to take care of such matters. That is why the National Assembly now made a specialised legislation to address the matter of lawful age for marriage as seen above.
In fact, section 23 of the Childs Right Act provides stiff penalties:
23. A person (a) who marries a child; or
(b) to whom a child is betrothed ; or
(c) who promotes the marriage of a child; or
(d) who betrothes a child commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N500,000 (Five Hundred Thousand Naira) or imprisonment for a term of five years or to both such fine and imprisonment.
It was the Senate of this Federal Republic that made this law which is still operative in some states. The snag in any case is that the Child Right Act does not automatically apply across the country. It has to be domesticated on state by state basis by the respective Houses of Assembly. Up to date, 12 states are yet to domesticate or adopt the law. It is with respect to those states that the advocacy on age of marriage should be directed since it was the National Assembly that passed the law in the first place.
The essence of this further clarification is to remind all that the Senate in its wisdom passed that law, which has become operative in most states with the exception of the remaining 12.
The Senate has done its best with utmost concern for national interest and its leadership has ably navigated its affairs with high level of integrity, sense of responsibility and fairness to all Nigerians.
• Senator Abaribe is the Chairman, Senate Committee on Information, Media and Public Affairs