by Ayisha Osori
For instance, senator (ex-governor) Abdullahi Adamu voted to keep the provision but he has at least two daughters, educated and over 20 years of age who are still unmarried.
There are many interesting angles to the Senate vote on Section 29(4)(b) of the 1999 Constitution on July 16, 2013, and the reaction from Nigerians – issues to raise, questions to ask and lessons to learn.
Chapter 3 of the constitution (sections 25-32) is about citizenship and covers everything from the criteria defining citizenship to how to become a citizen. It is also home to some of the most blatantly discriminatory provisions against female citizens. First, S. 26 says that while Nigerian men can confer citizenship on their foreign wives, Nigerian women cannot do the same for foreign husbands. Then S. 29(4)(b) provides that while Nigerian men cannot relinquish their citizenship until they are 18 (the age when Nigerians can legally vote and drive), any married woman – by implication even if she is 13 – can relinquish her citizenship. Last week, the Senate voted to keep this clause in the constitution.
The most serious implication of the reaction to this vote is that Nigerians do not know what is in their constitution. It is a damning indictment on the education system, legislators, ministries of information, political parties and the National Orientation Agency – to name just a few. When the news filtered out that the vote to delete S. 29(4)(b) did not get the required two-thirds majority vote, the issue was framed as the Senate legitimizing child marriage and in typical Chinese whispers fashion, as the news spread, the facts became increasingly distorted. There is a marriage bill. The Senate wants to include a provision to make it easier for men to marry children. Too few, leading the discussions, seemed to realize that we have lived with this provision for 14 years.
The second angle to consider is why Senator Yerima decided to use religion as the basis of his objection to the removal of this provision. S. 29(4)(b) is not the foundation upon which those who marry under-aged girls build their defence. The constitution clearly recognizes in S. 262 and Clause 61 of the Exclusive Legislative List that for personal law issues (marriage, inheritance, child custody etc.) those who want Sharia law applied are exempt from common law and other laws arising from the constitution. Why, in a country plagued by years of religious conflict, did Yerima decide that he needed to play the religion card? Could it be connected to his political ambitions and a desire to be seen as a ‘defender’ of the faith as a 2015 strategy? Or is this the usual smokescreen specialty of Nigerian politics? Instead of interrogating his motive, many Nigerians are furiously chasing him down the rabbit hole without a thought for where it leads or how to get out.
The third interesting issue is clarity around the rules of procedure within the Senate. According to eyewitnesses, including Senator Femi Ojodu of Ekiti State, the Senate had to vote twice on S. 29(4)(b). Why? The first vote showed that two-thirds of the senators present and voting wanted the provision out of the constitution. Why did Senate President Mark decide to call for another vote? What happens when one issue has two different voting results? Is there a need for a third?
The fourth issue is that, despite claims to the contrary, there is a legitimate connection between concern about child marriages and S. 29. It is the one place where ‘full age’ is defined in the constitution as such while the provision is about ‘citizenship’; it does imply recognition for child marriage and the history of Yerima who raised objection to the deletion of (4)(b) cannot be removed from the context of the reaction.
The power of information to spur innovative advocacy is another interesting angle. We now know who voted in the Senate and how – wonderful intelligence that should be the norm so that we get to track our legislators’ voting records. This is especially important in a country where the political parties have no ideology – so only by their votes shall we know them. For instance, senator (ex-governor) Abdullahi Adamu voted to keep the provision but he has at least two daughters, educated and over 20 years of age who are still unmarried. The Senate’s voting records tell us about the women who decided to sit on their votes – senators Zainab Kure and Aisha Al-Hassan — and we have cause to ask Senator Helen Esuene, the chairperson of the Senate Committee on Women Affairs, why she was not registered during this historic vote. Equally important, we also know the 60 senators who voted to have S. 29(4)(b) deleted and we can applaud and appreciate them.
Finally – ‘with enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.’ This is one of the most important lessons Nigerians need to take from this episode as we finalise the constitution review process and move on to electoral reform. This is the maxim of the Linux operating system developers and refers to the fact that when we are open and we share freely (information, data, evidence), we are all better off for it because all mistakes/problems will be found. This is the story of our constitution – we have not put our eyes on it –but we can change that. S. 29(4)(b) has shown us that we do not know all the cracks in our constitution and that is why they have not been fixed. But we know now – with millions of questioning, critical Nigerian eyes on the constitution, we should be able to speak for varying issues in one direction – at our legislators – letting them know that we want all the bugs out of our constitution and we want the right coding in to meet our vision for the country we want to be. ‘People will work best on what they are interested in,’ says Eric Raymond in The Cathedral and the Bazaar. We don’t all have to be focused on the same bugs – find your bug and do something about it. Nigeria is your country too – own it.
Read this article in the Leadership Newspapers
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.