Gradually, peace is returning to the polity following the anger which sprang from alleged moves by the Senate to legalise child marriage penultimate week. Omololu Ogunmade tells the inside story of how the controversy came about
The political climate was tensed, reminiscent of the days of subsidy removal protest. Anger and indignation flowed from the people like blood from the veins. Nothing gave signs of reprieve as more and more threats are issued day after day. It was indeed a trying moment for the Senate as members struggled hard to defend their alleged endorsement of child marriage.
The above expression captured the episode that followed the failure of the Senate to delete Section 29 (4)(b) from the constitution during voting on constitution amendment report in the chamber on July 16. Voting in the parliament had been smooth that day until the Senate opted to become a purist of sort. The senators were oblivious of the trouble to come when they agreed to revisit the vote on pension and prison after the result of the initial vote opposed the move to decentralise pension scheme and prison operations.
After they had successfully voted to put labour on the concurrent legislative list as recommended by the Senate Committee on the Review of the Constitution, the move to also secure the required two-thirds majority to put pension and prison on the list proved abortive.
But some senators reasoned that if labour had been decentralised, it was only right that prison and pension should also be put on the concurrent list. Therefore, in their bid to achieve this, they agreed to again vote on both items with the hopes of securing the required two-thirds majority that would fulfill the intention of the review committee.
Indeed, they voted again on both items. While the move to put pension on the concurrent list succeeded, that of prison fell through as the parliament still failed to secure the required 73 votes required to pass it. Thereafter, they opted to move on, they soon discovered that the snake they thought had been killed was not dead as Senator Ahmad Sani Yerima (Zamfara West), was only waiting for the voting on pension and prison to be concluded before staging a protest.
The senator who had earlier protested the voting which deleted Section 29 (4) (b) of the 1999 Constitution, claiming that it was against Islamic law, exploited the return to voting on pension. With rage all over his face, he threatened to walk out of the chamber if Senate President David Mark would not allow voting on the section to equally be revisited.
He instilled fears in other Muslim senators who had earlier overwhelmingly voted for the deletion of the clause, saying let’s see any Muslim in the chamber that would not vote for the retention of the section. The section states that “any woman that is married shall be deemed to be of full age” while Section 29 (a) says “full of age is 18 years and above.”
Yerima, while seeking the retention of the clause said it was against Islamic law to retain it, thus creating the impression that once the clause is retained, a woman is free to get married any time irrespective of her age. In the earlier voting on the section, 85 votes which exceeded the required 73 as the two-thirds majority of the total 109 senators in the chamber had voted for the deletion of the clause while six others abstained.
But having introduced religious colouration into it, all other Muslim senators mainly from the North also shared the sentiment.
To this end, Senator Danjuma Goje (Gombe Central) also joined Yerima’s protest as he accused Mark of double standard over his stance not to revisit the concluded vote on the section. This accusation stunned Mark, who quickly retorted. “What is the double standard that I have played in this matter? I take exception to that,” he stated.
Mark had earlier told the protesting Sani that the Senate might consider his request some other day but certainly not that day. But when Mark saw that the atmosphere was getting more charged as a result of the religious sentiment brought into the day’s voting, he asked the senators to vote again on the section but he took time to explain to them that if they voted for the retention of the section which stipulates that “any woman that is married shall be deemed to be of full age,” they would be implying that even if a woman gets married at ages two or three she is of full age.
The explanation notwithstanding, the situation was beyond redemption as the output of the vote showed a drastic reduction in the number of those who earlier voted for the deletion. Whereas 85 earlier voted for the deletion and accordingly, Mark announced that the deletion had been successfully achieved, only 60 voted this in its favour this time. The figure fell short of the required 73.
Therefore, Sani raised his shoulder high with grinning expressions that it was mission accomplished. Forthwith, he rose from his seat and ascended the elevated platform where the Senate president usually sits to pay homage to him for acceding to his request to revisit the vote.
Still smarting from the euphoria of “victory,” Yerima dared again to stand up, with a sense of pride like a man who attained a great feat, saying “distinguished colleagues, I want to thank you.”
This unsolicited appreciation infuriated those who were already pained by the turn of events as they shouted him down, saying the appreciation was uncalled for. All had thought that the matter ended there that day unknown to them, it was just the beginning of a fresh battle as by the next weekend the decision had drawn public angst.
The matter had overheated the polity as the social media were awash with condemnations against the Senate’s action as the chamber was accused of voting to legalise child marriage. By Monday, July 20, criticisms of the Senate had grown wild with many groups threatening to march on Senate’s doorstep.
This created unease in the Senate throughout last week as senators spent the better part of their time defending their action and also informing the public on what actually led to the decision which has now been described as giving nod to child marriage.
Yerima had in April 2010, married a 13-year-old Egyptian, probably capitalising on the section under contention “that any woman that is married, is deemed to be of full age.” He claimed at the time that his action was in agreement with Islamic law. The action attracted wide spread condemnations from the general public which described his marriage to an underage girl as unfair and against the interest of the young girl.
In its explanation on the matter, the Senate said it never attempted to introduce underage marriage into the constitution as the public had thought. Rather, it said it only attempted to remove the controversial section which it said had been in the constitution since 1979.
While receiving a coalition of women groups led by Minister of Women Affairs, Zainab Maina, which visited the National Assembly on Wednesday last week to protest the retention of the clause by the Senate, Mark said the Senate was blackmailed to alter its first vote on the clause which he said fulfilled the yearnings of the people. Mark said the Senate’s action was influenced by the introduction of religion into the exercise, regretting that the section under contention had nothing at all to do with religion.
In the coalition were former Minister of Education, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili, former Minister of Women Affairs, Mrs. Josephine Anenih and wife of former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Mrs. Maryam Uwais, among others.
According to Mark who said the good intention of the Senate to delete the section had now turned out to be its albatross, the Senate ought to be commended instead of being vilified by the public for daring to take the first lead to delete the controversial section which he said bordered on renunciation of marriage. He regretted that after the Senate had successfully taken the right decision, religious connotation which he said forced Muslim senators to reverse themselves came in.
“Why we voted public was so that everybody will know the stand of every senator on every issue. I think the problem is not whether we can delete this Section 29(4) (b) or not. That is not the issue; it is whether we can get the number to be able to delete it. With all due respect, the entire Senate is being castigated because there was and there is still a complete misunderstanding of what the Senate had tried to do.
“We are on the side of the people. That was why we put it that we should delete it. That was what the people wanted. We, in fact, are the first people that took the step in the right direction to delete it. It didn’t go through because of other tangential issues that were brought in on the floor of the Senate which were total inconsequential issues, unconnected issues that were brought in.
“We wanted to remove it but it failed. We were a total of 101 that voted, 85 voted for the deletion. I think about six or so abstained. There was hardly any dissenting vote but once it got mixed up with so many other issues, it didn’t get the required 73 votes anymore. So, first of all, I think the castigation out there is done out of misunderstanding but because a religious connotation was brought into it, which is a very sensitive issue and you must agree with me that in this country, we try as must as possible not to bring issues that involve religion to the floor of the Senate and indeed the chamber.
“We keep religion completely out of it because what is good for a Christian is also good for a Muslim. The good of the country is for everybody and not for a particular religious sect. I think the bottom-line is, when people get more educated, then we can have a re-think and probably, if the Senate agrees to go back, we will see whether we can get the required number once more because that is the solution. Let me also talk to my own brothers and sisters who are senators, who were probably blackmailed to do it.
“That is the fact, because it was in the open. I cannot also hide it and nobody can hide it. They were simply blackmailed and on that day, if they didn’t do what they did, nobody knows the outcome or how the consequences will be today because the people outside can say this man, you are Muslim and didn’t vote for something that is of Islamic interest because if we don’t hit the nail squarely on the head, we may never get it right,” Mark revealed.
While presenting an address on behalf of the women group under the aegis of Gender and Constitution Reform Network (GECORN), Mrs. Saadatu Mahdi, advised the Senate to be wary of giving room for emotion and religion in the discharge of its duties. She also faulted claims that the deletion of the section was opposed to Islamic law.
“From the moment of birth, the first gift every Nigerian receives from the state is citizenship. To protect this sacred gift of citizenship, we advocate the deletion of Section 29 (4) (b) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It is the desire of all Nigerian girls, who are not old enough to vote or obtain a driver’s licence, somehow old enough to renounce their citizenship,” She said.
Further, she noted: “Nigerians deserve to be protected by their constitution and so we call for the deletion of Section 29 4(b). The Senate must remain impervious to emotional, religious reasoning and focus on aggregate social good which will protect and enrich the lives of half of the nation’s population.
“Meanwhile, contrary to the position conveyed for the retention of the section that under Shari’a, a girl, once married, automatically assumes full mental and intellectual capacity, we posit that there is certainly no unanimity of positions on such matters among Islamic jurists which therefore allows the society to determine for itself what is in its best interest (maslaha).
“Consequently, we further posit that there should be no basis to compel a girl to deal with matters of such gravity as the renunciation of citizenship merely because she is married. Islam is certainly not presumptuous or harsh as to burden her with what she is mentally and physically incapable of bearing.”
Also last week, Deputy Senate President and chairman, constitution review committee, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, elucidated more on the content of the controversial section when he said the public misconstrued the intention of the committee which recommended the deletion.
Ekweremadu who advised the public to go back to the constitution and read the section very well, submitted that contrary to insinuations, the constitution does not categorically specify marital age for women as it is erroneously believed adding that the section had nothing to do whatsoever with early marriage.
“On the issue of Section 29, I want to appeal to Nigerians to please show understanding, to possibly read this section and understand that the issue has nothing to do with early marriage. It has nothing to do with Islam. Essentially, it has to do with renunciation of citizenship. So, you have to give it a proper perspective. I want to assure them that in the future, we are ready to revisit it if Nigerians feel strongly about it.
“We have no bill to approve early marriage. We are not sponsoring any bill against Islam. This particular provision has been in our constitution since 1979. Ours was just an attempt to remove that aspect so that men and women would have equal footing regarding the issue of renunciation of citizenship and we will never support early marriage,” Ekweremadu said.
In all, even though the intention of the Senate was indeed misconstrued, one fact stands out from the entire opprobrium; it is the fact that the situation shows that the public is neither asleep nor indifferent to its political, social and economic environment. On the contrary, it is alert and can always bark when necessary.