Okunnu: Consideration of Gender Equality Bill by N’Assembly, Display of Ignorance


L-R: Akwa Ibom State Governor, Mr. Udom Emmanuel; Group Managing Director, United Bank for Africa, Mr. Kenedy Uzoka; Management Staff members of the Bank and some members of Akwa Ibom State Executive Council, during a condolence visit by the Bank to the Governor at his office, Government House, Uyo…recently

Former Federal Commissioner for Works and Housing and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Alhaji Femi Okunnu, has added his voice to the opposition to the Gender Equality bill that has passed second reading in the Senate. He described the consideration of the bill as a display of ignorance of the provisions of the constitution by the lawmakers.

Speaking with THISDAY on the contentious bill, the octogenarian also noted that the bill was unnecessarily heating up the polity and called on its sponsor to withdraw it.

The Senate Minority Whip, Senator Abiodun Olujimi (PDP, Ekiti South), had last year sponsored a bill entitled, “A bill for an Act to Incorporate and enforce certain provisions of the United Nations Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the Protocol of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the rights of women in Africa, and other matters connected therewith, 2016 (SB. 116).”

The bill was thrown out by the Senate last March. A modified version of the bill, which seeks to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women in Nigeria, was however represented and passed second reading last September.

The bill has continued to receive knocks from Isamic leaders, including Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar, who said it was repugnant to Islam. Commenting on the bill, Alhaji Okunnu, looked at it from three angles.

He said: “the first impression going through a copy of the bill is that the author wanted some relevance and that was why she proposed the bill which is unnecessary and unwanranted in our society today.

“She wants to domesticate the UN convention in its entirety and also African Union Protocol on equal rights for women. I don’t know any country among the members of the UN that has domesticated or is thinking of domesticating the UN convention on this matter. Very few, if any. The European powers, America, Russia, China will just laugh at us, not to talk of many African countries. Even the AU Protocol, also how many people hook, line and sinker, want to domesticate the whole thing and make it their internal laws? Very few.

“It talks of many rights which women ought to enjoy, how many of them are enjoyed by men? But on the issue of relevance, I don’t think it is necessary because most of these provisions are already in our laws and in the constitution of the country. They are unnecessary. That’s why I said the sponsor of the bill wants her name to be written in gold. That’s all.”

Looking at it from the second angle, the elder statesman: “First of all, let me start with marriage because a good part of the bill is devoted to marriage, status of marriage. The author ought to know if she understands the constitution of the country very well, which I presume she should know, that marriage is not on the exclusive legislative list of functions or powers upon which the National Assembly can make laws.

“So this law is a non-starter. It’s irrelevant. I will call your attention to some sections of the constitution. Section 4 (1, 2,3,7) on this issue. Legislative powers, that is Section 4 (1) of the 1999 constitution says:

“The legislative powers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria shall be vested in a National Assembly for the Federation, which shall consist of a Senate and a House of Representatives.”

(2) “The National Assembly shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation or any part thereof with respect to any matter included in the Exclusive Legislative List set out in Part I of the Second Schedule to this Constitution.”

He said: “No state can legislate on those exclusive functions. Of course, there is also the concurrence legislative function.”

Quoting subsection (3), Okunnu says: “The power of the National Assembly to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Federation with respect to any matter included in the Exclusive Legislative List shall, save as otherwise provided in this Constitution, be to the exclusion of the Houses of Assembly of States.”

Reading Section 7 which, he described as very important, he said: “The House of Assembly of a State shall have power to make laws for the peace, order and good government of the State or any part thereof with respect to the following matters, that is to say:-

“(a) any matter not included in the Exclusive Legislative List set out in Part I of the Second Schedule to this Constitution.

“(b) any matter included in the Concurrent Legislative List set out in the first column of Part II of the Second Schedule to this Constitution to the extent prescribed in the second column opposite thereto; and

“(c) any other matter with respect to which it is empowered to make laws in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.”

He explained that any matter not on the exclusive legislative list is reserved only for states or state Assemblies.

“Let’s look at the exclusive legislative list. If you look at the whole list and that is at page 130 of this copy of the constitution that I am looking at, there are 68 items, the last on the list is general application, marriage is not one of them. Marriage is not listed on the exclusive legislative list of the 1999 Constitution. The Senate and the House of Representatives are in competent to make any laws on any aspect of marriage which will include marriage itself, divorce and intestacy. It is residual power. Federal parliament has no power whatsoever to pass most of the sections of this bill which relate to marriage and marital status”, he argued.

He said: “If you look, you will see that it is in alphabetical order and look for ‘M’ you will see that marriage is not there. Marriage is also not in the concurrence legislative list reserved for both federal legislature and state legislature. So the bill is incompetent, 100 per cent incompetent. She doesn’t know what she is talking about. It is an exercise in futility. It is a pity that senators even went through first reading and second reading.”

Commenting on the third angle, Okunnu said: “The third area where I will fault this proposed bill is that it is even discriminatory in nature. Its pretends to remove discrimination against women. Most of the other parts which don’t deal with marriage simpliciter, concerns human rights. The human rights content of this proposed bill already contained in chapter 4 of the constitution – Fundamental Rights. No discrimination on grounds of sex, religion, ethnicity and so on. So what is it talking about.?

“Most of the proposals are already contained in the constitution You cant make a law in aide of the constitution, the constitution is very clear. As I said, the bill is very unnecessary. The chapter of the constitution has covered the field, you don’t need a legislation to explain to us or to give effect to the constitution. The constitution is not ambiguous, it is clear, no discrimination on grounds of sex. So what is the bill talking about? We should just stop the controversy. I hope the author of this bill will gracefully withdraw and remove the heat in the polity. Very unnecessary.

“She should look for relevance elsewhere. Christianity has its law on marriage, there is sharia on marriage, there is custom, the customs of the people on marriage, you want to wipe all that out and bring convention, UN convention which nobody is applying in full.”

He noted that Chapter 4 of the Quran is exclusively on Women’s rights and family relationship generally. He said the chapter deals with equitable distribution of property after death –intestacy. “It deals with women’s rights in marriage, property and inheritance. Let me say this, the reason why a male child is entitled to two portions in the estate and a female child is entitled to one portion is because of the assumption that a female child will later be married and be entitled to the estate of her husband. But if a will specifically states that his daughter should be given even the entire estate, it is valid and it must be followed because that is the will of the man. Islam permits it. But generally, if a man dies intestate, this applies.

“Of the 114 chapters in the Quran, there is one specifically for women. All other chapters focused on both men and women. So if somebody sits in Abuja and specifies what women should do or not do, she is talking rubbish,” he said.