by Ayo Sogunro
What the law tries to do is simple: it tries to give a woman who finds herself in an early marriage the same rights and freedom as a person of “full age”. This is possibly, so that she does not lose both ways…
Fighting the Good Fight
Mass hysteria is a wonderful thing to experience in a lifetime. That overwhelming sense of being a part of a larger emotion is one of the traits that particularize the human as a social animal. You will find it in prayer grounds, election rallies, football matches and popular protests. I have been a consistent partaker of that last category, considering myself a “barricade mounter” of sorts. However, sometimes, it is necessary to step back from the alluring hysteria and examine an issue with a dispassionately critical perspective, and maybe even—protest against the protests, not because the intentions are wrong, but because the direction is incorrect. The current problem and its attendant emotions is one of such incorrect directions.
The Hue and Cry
I have assumed that, at the time you are reading this, you are acquainted with the current social palaver manifesting in the form of a general outrage at the seemingly support of female child marriages by some not-quite-honourable members of the Nigerian Senate. At first blush, the very proposition of such an idea should propel you to exclaim in horror at the pedophilic tendencies of the average lawmaker. However, a proper understanding of the set of circumstances that led to—for want of a better word—this palaver, will show just how complicated the circumstances are. I will, however attempt to discuss the problem as briefly as possible.
The Nature of the Problem
In discussing citizenship issues, a generally unremarkable provision of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (“CFRN” for short) states that, should you be inclined towards that idea, you have to be of “full age” to be able to renounce your citizenship of Nigeria. “Full age”, not being a phrase whose specification is universally agreed on, the CFRN in it’s wisdom set the bar at 18 years of age—with a condition: a married woman (whether or not she has attained said 18 years, the provision could have added) will be considered (“deemed” was the word used) to be of full age. This provision, along with the rest of the CFRN, was drafted and set into law in 1999—and life went on as usual.
The Entertaining Part
Life would have continued on its journey, but for an attempt a few days ago, by the Senate, for some undisclosed rationale, to remove this “married woman” addendum from the CFRN as part of the perennial and often ignored charade of constitutional amendment. At the first roll of the voting dice, the Senate obtained the two-thirds majority vote (compulsorily required for an addition to, or deletion from the CFRN), the addendum was deleted and the worthy members moved on to other unworthy matters. Again, life would have progressed uneventfully, but for the sudden lightbulb that went off in Mr. Sani Yerima’s head on the deletion of this “married woman” provision
Yerima’s Meddlesome Interloping
You may recall that our main antagonist, Yerima, had had the unprecedented effrontery to publicly marry a girl, who chronologically, was nearer to 10 years than 20. Somehow, Yerima made a tenuous connection between the “full age” addendum in the CFRN and Islamic matrimonial principles in general and his own peculiar lifestyle in particular. Never too slow to exert his opinion over others, he forcefully required that, unconventionally, the Senate should take a vote again over this matter that had already been decided.
Somehow convinced by Yerima’s dubious argument, the Senate President rolled the dice a second time, and even though the majority of the lawmakers voted again to delete the addendum, the required two-thirds magic was not performed—possibly because some Senators had, understandably, washed their hands off the proceedings in disgust at this waste of taxpayer time. How and why the voting pattern changed at this second round may remain a mystery, but the result was the continued retention of the “married woman” provision.
The Alternative Scenario
Now, by virtue of Yerima’s agony over the proposed deletion, it is generally assumed that this provision was what gave him permission to indulge in his proclivity. But, sentiments discarded, what is the importance of this provision, in the first place? Let me explain through this roughly drawn up scenario. Take an Egyptian girl, fourteen years of age, forcefully handed over in marriage to an older man, let’s say a Nigerian. Preferably, our Nigerian suitor is a former state governor with plenty of cash for the girl’s parents and plenty of influence to silence critics. By general law, our Egyptian girl attains Nigerian citizenship as soon as she marries our man. However, she lives a life she hates, this barely mature girl, and every night she plots an escape from her horrible marriage.
Within a year, she manages to execute her plans, and she escapes to the United Kingdom, far from her husband’s grubby fingers. But, fifteen years and alone in the UK is not joke, and the English authorities are not too kindly disposed to this funny state of affairs. The English want to send her back to Nigeria. She pleads with them that she’s not a Nigerian. Well, your husband says you are, they reply her. Then she says, No! No! I renounce my Nigerian citizenship. Take me to Egypt, instead. She begs.
Now, the white folks are confused. So they call up their favourite Nigerian lawyer: You can only renounce citizenship if you’re 18, the lawyer says clearly. Sorry, girl, they tell her. You can’t renounce Nigeria, till you’re of full age. Now, off you go.
And so they get ready to bundle her back to Nigerians. To the waiting whips of her grubby husband. Wait! The lawyer calls back on the phone. There’s an addendum, he explains, as a married woman, she’s deemed to be of full age and she’s therefore free to renounce her citizenship. She doesn’t have to go back to Nigeria, it’s right there in the law.
Here’s The Sense In That
What the law tries to do is simple: it tries to give a woman who finds herself in an early marriage the same rights and freedom as a person of “full age”. This is possibly, so that she does not lose both ways—being married like and adult and yet being denied the freedom rights of an adult. This, you will agree is a noble intention. However, like all noble intentions, this one also paves the broad road to hell, and the law, inadvertently, gives the nod of legal recognition to child marriages. Maybe this was a deliberate ambiguity; it’s impossible to say without exploring the mind of the drafters. However, at the very least, it is a case of terrible drafting.
One thing is clear, though, there is no purported Islamic, Christian or customary right to marry young girls being protected or granted through that provision. In fact, the girl in question does not have to be Muslim or belong to any custom to rely on its freedom. For Yerima to appropriate the addendum to the protection of the Islamic faith is therefore, gross ignorance at best, calculated misrepresentation at worst.
Bad Company and Good Laws
But Yerima relied on it—and this has made all the difference. His reliance on, and the interpretation he decided to draw from the provision—that is, that the law allows him to marry young girls—is simply unfortunate. The Nigerian law protected no such rights, but it was too late. The sensational media picked the previously innocent provision, widened its loophole, attacked it as a tool of Yerima and forever ruined its reputation.
The Moral of The Story
But what is the lesson in all these? This is the part that has mostly been overlooked by the outraged Nigerians: that we have a legislature that does not know its own laws. Let us count the mishaps of our fumbling lawmakers: First, a legal provision that ought to protect girls forced into early marriages was badly drafted to resemble an approval of early marriages; Second, ignorant of its purpose, the Senate tried to delete this legal provision, instead of refining it to be clearer in intent; Third, and worst, the Senate allowed a self-serving Yerima to hijack the law and declare it as a protection of pedophiliac intents, even allowing him to drag his religion into the fray, when he should have been quieted and educated.
We may call for the removal of the provision, ambiguity and all, but we would only succeed in throwing away the baby with the putrid water. Deleting the provision will not stop Yerima and his type—they will merely find some other excuse—in fact, a deletion will only deprive victims of child marriages from claiming certain rights. Public outrage should be geared, therefore, at refining the legal provision so that its true intent is clear, imposing stiff sanctions on people who commit pedophilia in the name of religion or custom, and setting a legal limit for the consensual consummation of any betrothal or marriage. Only then, would our current mass hysteria be properly channeled, and possibly effected.
Read this article on Ayo Sogunro’s Blog
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.