Constitutional review | Nigeria’s 9th Senate has a chance to shine as champions of inclusion

Nigeria has for the longest time paid lip service to inclusion – of women, the disabled, children and gender and sexual minorities. For starters, The Nigerian constitution (1999) as amended is replete with laws that exclude women and adorned with male-centric language. The ongoing constitutional review gives the country a chance at a do-over if we are keen on it.

The African Women Lawyers Association (AWLA)  has taken up the task of being the voice of reason. Yet if previous experiences have taught us nothing else, they have taught us that the voice of advocates, however valuable, can only do so much when the power to accept or reject resides in the hands of a senate and house of representatives that is over 90% male.

This latest attempt at a constitutional review is Nigeria’s 2nd since the adoption of the Nigerian Constitution upon the country’s return to democracy in 1999. The first attempt, undertaken by the Seventh Assembly (2011-2015) ran into a logjam despite the huge amount of state resources deployed into the process.

Despite being the first genuine participatory process in constitution-making since 1999, with public hearings held across the six geo-political zones of the federation at both constituency and zonal levels, former President Goodluck Jonathan vetoed the amendments.

The inclusion problem

Despite clearly providing for the equal treatment of all Nigerians before the law in Section 17 (2) (e) which reads, Every citizen shall have equality of rights, obligations and opportunities before the law, the Constitution is home to many laws that run counter to that at the expense of Nigerian women.

Take for instance Citizenship laws. Section 28, which defines who can become a citizen by naturalisation, holds in subsection (2) (a) that, any woman who is or has been married to a citizen of Nigeria, may be registered as a citizen. The same provision is not made for men married to Nigerian women.

The discrimination of women starts from the cradle and doesn’t let up throughout their lives.

AWLA is calling for the deletion of Section 29 (4) (b) from the 1999 Nigeria Constitution. A piece of legislature I like to call The Senator Yerima Trojan Horse.

Section 29 (4) (a) of the 1999 Nigeria Constitution provides that the age of maturity is 18 years old. However, Section 29 (4) (b) includes an exception for girl children and proclaims that girl children reach maturity when they marry, regardless of the age of marriage, which implies the legality of child marriage, something the senator lobbied for with the argument of protecting the right to freedom of religion of Nigerian Muslims.

Nigeria’s obligation under global and regional laws is counter to maintaining Section 29 (4) (b). Even looking homeward, with Sec 21 and Sec 22 of the Child’s Right Act of Nigeria 2003 (CRA) prohibiting the marriage of a girl child or supporting any such act by an individual, the persistence of Section 29 (4) (b) remains a major loophole for the protection of paedophilia by the Nigerian state.

Speaking in her capacity as researcher and member of the Network of Individuals and Women (Wo-Manifestoes) – a coalition of over 300 Individuals and networks – Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Development Services) of the University of Lagos, Ayodele Atsenuwa, said that, “Section 29 (4) (b) signals to the world indirectly that Nigeria supports child marriages.”

It waits to be seen if this latest attempt at constitutional review finally enshrines the protection of the rights to life and health of the girl child by literally and directly rejecting the marriage of girls below the age of 18.

These are far from the only laws that need to be axed from the Constitution. And there are yet more laws that need to be introduced to protect women in the country.

This is not a drill

In the matter of inheritance, despite passionate advocacy and thousands of documented stories of women losing property and wealth accrued in marriage because the Constitution doesn’t protect the right of women to inheritance, there has been a death-like silence from the senate chambers.

AWLA is calling for a change to that with this review.

Mandy Asagba, President, AWLA, said both male and female children should have explicitly stated inheritance rights.

A constitution encodes a people’s values and aspirations, and Nigeria is better served if those values are inclusive of all Nigerian regardless of gender.

A sensitivity to gender equality, the inclusion of disabled Nigerians in all spheres of governance and the protection of vulnerable groups like sexual and gender minorities should be the guiding principle of the constitutional review. Unless it is another sham window dressing that achieves nothing but a waste of public funds.

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