The Betrothal of Magari Orphans

By Olusegun Adeniyi

A religious dimension was yesterday added to the efforts by the Minister of Women Affairs, Mrs Uju Kennedy-Ohanenye to stop the Niger State House of Assembly Speaker, Mr Abdulmalik Sarkindaji, from marrying off 100 orphaned girls as part of his ‘constituency project’. Although Sarkindaji initially backed out of the idea following social media backlash, the Niger State Imam Forum has vowed to go ahead with the marriage plan on grounds that it did not contravene any sections of the Nigerian constitution and teachings of Islam. The Director General, Niger State Religious Affairs, Dr Umar Farouk, who read their resolutions in Minna, the state capital, gave the Minister a seven-day ultimatum to withdraw her court case against the Speaker or face legal action. They also called on President Bola Tinubu to sack the Minister for an alleged attempt to cause religious disharmony in Nigeria.

This whole controversy started when Sarkindaji announced that he would marry off the orphaned girls in Mariga local government area of the state, in what he said was “aimed at alleviating the suffering of the impoverished.” He had pledged to pay the dowries for their bridegrooms and procure materials for the mass marriage. But on Tuesday, Kennedy-Ohanenye described the plan as “unacceptable” because it flouts the Child’s Rights Act. “These children must be considered, their future must be considered, the future of the children to come out of their marriage must be considered,” the Minister said. “I have filed for an injunction to stop him from whatever he is planning to do on the 24th until a thorough investigation is carried out on those girls, find out whether they gave their consent, their ages, find out the people marrying them.”

It is instructive that while announcing the programme, Sarkindaji had stated that Governor Mohammed Umar Bago, and the Emir of Kontagora, Alhaji Mohammed Barau, would serve as guardians to the female orphans during the mass marriage ceremony. He also added that the Kano State Commander General of the Hisbah Board, Sheikh Aminu Daurawa, would be a special guest of honour. The invitation extended to the Governor, the Emir and the Kano Sheikh was deliberate: To introduce official, traditional, and religious endorsement for this strange ‘constituency project.’ And with the position of the Imam Forum yesterday, it stands to reason that the Minister has lost the battle.

For almost two decades, a marriage scheme has been part of the social programmes in Kano State, upon which billions of Naira have been expended. When in 2019 the current All Progressives Congress (APC) National Chairman, Abdullahi Ganduje conducted a similar wedding for 1,500 couples, he explained that the state government had provided complete sets of beds, side mirrors, wardrobes, and mattresses to the couples as gifts. Last October, the state government conducted another mass wedding of 1,800 couples comprising widows, divorcees, and spinsters selected from across all the 44 local government areas. Aside Governor Abba Kabir Yusuf, the ANPP presidential candidate in the 2023 general election, Dr Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso was among the prominent people who attended the wedding at the Emir’s palace. “The event reflects the deep-rooted values and unity of the people in Kano State and highlights the state government’s dedication to preserving traditions while ensuring a bright future for its residents,” Yusuf said before the festivities were concluded with a ‘Walima’ (traditional feast) at the Government House. The Kano brides were, however, adults, so the issue of consent was not a concern for that event.

Interestingly, this programme has also been gamed by some smart people. In 2012, for instance, Lawan Sadi and his wife Amina, who had been married for years, registered by deceiving officials into ‘joining’ them, just to benefit from the largesse. According to Abba Sa’idu Sufi, then Director-General of the board who attributed the trend to poverty and dishonesty, “the fraud couldn’t have been possible without the help of an insider and that was why we suspended the Hisbah commander in the area so that we can investigate the matter properly.” The said Hisbah commander, Sufi explained, “colluded with the unscrupulous married couples and fraudulently sneaked them into the exercise with the intention of making them to benefit from the N10,000 dowry given to brides, the N20,000 given to women for empowerment and the free furniture and kitchen wares distributed to the bonafide beneficiaries of the scheme.” 

Indeed, there have been many reports of ‘couples’ who simply buy into the programme to collect the freebies, with the contrived marriages terminated soon after. “Some of the Islamic scholars we consulted told us that any person who allowed himself to be re-married to the same wife when his first marriage was intact would only succeed in violating the union. Therefore, we urge people to allow the fear of God to guide their way of life,” Sufi said while appealing to the conscience of prospective husbands and wives.

Now that we have been told the Mariga marriages will hold next week Fridayas scheduled because Sarkindaji has already paid for it, there are pertinent issues. The Speaker and his enablers seem to believe that marriage is a solution to the challenge faced by orphaned girls. Even if they are of the age where their consent is considered acceptable, who will protect them if their marriages are terminated at the whim of the men who marry them? Whatever happened to a formal education, the acquisition of skills, and livelihood support that can ensure these orphans are supported to earn a decent income? Not to mention the confidence, self-esteem, and agency to contribute to their communities and their families, when they eventually do marry men of their own choice.

The marriage scheme continues to raise fundamental questions. If the government supports a man or woman to marry as the answer to poverty, what happens after the knot is tied? Who is going to take care of the family? And when children come from such marriages, how do they go to school? What about their health and other social needs? What safeguards are entrenched in these government arranged unions to ensure that the marriage institution remains sacred, and the bedrock of the family and community?

The greater concern is that we seem to be perpetuating intergenerational poverty in Nigeria. While announcing the suspension of his Mariga marriages on Tuesday although with a caveat that the decision was left for traditional and religious leaders in the area, Sarkindaji chided Kennedy-Ohanenye for obstructing his ‘constituency project’. But he overstated his case by asking her to visit the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps in Niger State to understand the challenges faced by young girls and their families. It may have been unintended but Sarkindaji has raised another problem that is also tied to the crisis of our irresponsible procreation. 

Last Sunday, Vanguard newspaper did a detailed report on the situation in Benue State described as “the hub of the IDPs in the country” with as many as 17 camps housing over 1.5 million people. “Given the dire conditions in the camps, the IDPs are faced with the challenges of inadequate food and drug supply, including insufficient sleeping spaces and other challenges that make life unbearable for them,” the report stated. “But amid these challenges, one notable issue in the camps is the high rate of new childbirths being recorded…Strange as it may sound the reality is that newborn babies are recorded in the camps in high numbers despite the living conditions of the IDPs.”

The development has necessitated an outcry from the Executive Secretary of the Benue State Primary Health Care Board, Mrs. Grace Wende, who is concerned about the “very high level of fertility and childbirth within these camps” despite their advocacy on the issue. “Today alone we noticed that there are 200 new births per month. It is quite high, and the government needs to do something about it,” said Wende who broke down the situation: “The 200 births I am talking about are just in Ortese IDP Camp. I am not talking about any other. 200 babies delivered in one camp in one month is huge. And we have not gotten the situation in other camps. Our findings indicate that the women there are helpless. Some women are remarrying within the camp, their husbands are not there; the husbands are also remarrying elsewhere. They are also sort of negotiating sex with women within the camp. Those are things that require that we intensify our advocacy and decision-making within the camps.”

This and many similar social problems across the country should be of concern to the authorities. For instance, Monday’s revelation by the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of the Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC), Bello Hassan, that only 25 per cent of the value of customers’ deposits in banks across the country are insured by the corporation is disturbing. “Even though the number of depositors we are covering is about 98 per cent, in terms of value we are only covering 25 per cent, which means about 75 per cent of deposit value is not covered” Hassan said. But more depressing is this: “The value of depositors within the system is highly skewed. Only very few, about 1.02 per cent control about 74 per cent of the value of deposits.”

That about one percent accounts for 74 percent of bank deposits says a lot about the inequality in Nigeria which is evident in the growing millions of people who are now living far below the poverty line. Such a dire situation requires leaders, at all levels, who would come up with policies for income generation and equitable distribution. Not those who would be donating clay pots and burial clothes in their senatorial districts or marrying off some young girls (when their own are in schools) as ‘constituency projects’. 

The very notion of government officially arranging ‘marriages’ for their citizens speaks to the presumption that marriage resolves all challenges, whereas realities on ground are at variance with this position. As has often manifested, many offer to participate in these unions for short term gains, while the institution of marriage itself is gradually being perceived as a transactional enterprise. Besides, a system that encourages hurriedly arranged unions, without instituting the safeguards of respect, love, and care between the couple, merely institutionalizes the recklessness and trivialisation of a sacred institution.

On my way to the office yesterday, I listened to a popular radio call-in programme on WAZOBIA (99.5) FM. One of the callers, a woman, said the whole idea was about merchandising the girls, wondering what happened to the male orphans in Mariga. “Why is it that marriage is the only thing the speaker can offer the girls? And if it such a good idea, why is he not arranging marriages for the boys as well or are there no male orphans there?” she asked. These are valid questions. When senior state officials hide under the cloak of religion or culture to embark on policies and programmes that exploit the economically handicapped, increase poverty and deepen ignorance, they are only fueling the prevailing inequality in our country.

UBA, Elumelu and The Power of Foresight

When on Monday I received an invitation by WhatsApp to the 75th anniversary of the United Bank for Africa (UBA) slated for Monday, it brought back memories of an encounter I had with five men two decades ago. It was captured in my 4 August 2005 column. From my recollection, that UBA is still a brand today, and a powerful one at that, is testimony to the foresight of Mr Tony Elumelu. Below is what I wrote 19 years ago…


I was privileged to attend a rather crucial business meeting in the morning of Saturday 22 January this year (2005). I had gone to interview Mr Tony Elumelu, then Group Managing Director of Standard Trust Bank (STB) at his Ikoyi, Lagos residence. By the time I arrived, he was already on the dining table, holding what appeared an informal meeting with four men. Those young men with him that day, as I would later identify, were Bunmi Akinremi, an Assistant General Manager with STB, Philip Oduoza, an STB Executive Director, Obinna Ofudo, Elumelu’s special assistant and Kennedy Uzoka, STB Managing Executive for the Lagos Region. The discussion, from an eavesdropping position, centred on the merger between the STB and the United Bank for Africa (UBA) that was then just evolving.

Apparently having realised that I was hearing what they were saying, Elumelu beckoned that I should come to the dining table. “Segun, come and join our discussion. Perhaps, we can benefit from your insights,” he said. The discussion was about what name to give the new bank. It was apparent that Elumelu preferred a retention of the UBA name while the four men were opposed to the idea. I was persuaded by their argument. But from his interjections, often laced with humour and banters, Elumelu told his men he could see beyond the surface. “Let us look at what we are gaining from this merger. UBA is already a global brand. That is an advantage for us and that is the way I want us to look at it.” His men were not persuaded.

When he realised that he was losing the argument Elumelu turned to me: “Now, let’s hear from Segun. Don’t you agree with me that UBA would be the ideal name for the bank?” Put like that, I knew I was being set up to play a supporting cast to a predetermined position. But it was a role difficult for me to play because I shared the sentiment of the four other men in the room. I made my point: “From what I have heard here, it would appear you are going for a merger between STB and UBA as equal partners. If I were told that STB and UBA merged and the new name is UBA, I would simply conclude that it is not a merger but an acquisition by the latter.”

At this point, Elumelu became rather uneasy. Then he turned to one of his men who had a laptop. They had apparently been toying with some ideas. He asked that the STB logo be put before the name UBA. “Gentlemen, you know that on our logo is letter ‘S’. What if we put the logo before UBA? That would still, in a way, give us Standard United Bank for Africa.” That concession appealed to his men but when it was done on the computer, what came out was somehow incongruent. Putting a logo before a brand name did not quite make sense. Besides, the colour of STB logo (red) and UBA name (written in amber) looked riotous. While that was the compromise achieved that day before their session ended so I could have my interview, it was also evident that Elumelu was merely buying time. He wanted the UBA name. It was part of his strategic calculation, a new phase in his banking journey.

In retrospect now, especially as we move towards the December (2005) deadline for the N25 billion bank recapitalisation as directed by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), I concede that Elumelu could see what his subordinates and this reporter could not see and that precisely is what sets him apart from the rest. Within the banking industry, Nigeria is steadily moving to fewer but more financially robust banks that are better able to compete in the local and international markets. Elumelu could see that in the emerging scenario, the banks that will survive and prosper are those that can meet the expectations of depositors and investors for better returns and security. And sentimental attachment to a brand name would not matter.

What I took away from the session that day was Elumelu’s man-management style. One, all the young men who happened to be his subordinates were treated as equals with him as team captain and motivator. He was also addressed as Tony (his first name) by all of them and this created a relaxed atmosphere that allowed each person to air his view without any inhibition or fear. Elumelu equally did not force the issue as most bosses would do even when he felt a strong conviction about the benefit derivable from retaining the UBA name. 

However, while the tenor of the conversation may have been friendly, there was no doubt about who was in charge and that explains why Elumelu ultimately had his way. The result of what transpired that day and the compromises that may have been reached by both sides along the way became evident when the new bank was unveiled on Monday. The name UBA was retained but it also comes in STB colour (red) rather than the UBA amber. The bank also retained the STB logo, a testimony to the negotiating skills of Elumelu and his men.

That Elumelu has become one of the biggest bank chiefs in Nigeria today is no longer in contention. But industry watchers would argue he is only reaping from his long-term vision that the future of banking would be in the retail market. That explains why STB was opening real time online branches, penetrating the whole country at a time when most banks preferred to stay just in one little corner of Lagos, content with accepting cheap government deposits…

ENDNOTE: As UBA marks its 75th anniversary with Elumelu as chairman, I can now see what he saw 19 years ago. He was not just interested in building a bigger bank, Elumelu was also buying into a legacy by retaining the brand name. Foresight!

• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on   

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