YERIMAGATE: CAN WE FILTER THE DISCOURSE?

YERIMAGATE: CAN WE FILTER THE DISCOURSE?

The inability of the Senate to successfully push through a constitutional amendment on July 17, 2013, has led to so much uproar all across the nation. Many advocacy groups have risen to bare their minds on the failed constitutional amendment. Social media is abuzz with the subject and the level of angst and agitation is high. In the melee that has ensued in the social space, much of the issue has been muddled up and we are increasingly confronted with extreme positions.

I think the first thing is to break the issue down so everybody can be on the same page. If we are fighting a cause, it is important that we understand the cause we are fighting. I have heard some analysts cum activists say that the Nigerian Senate has passed a new law permitting child marriage. For the records, the Nigerian Senate has NOT passed a new law allowing for child marriage. What the Senate tried to do was to amend S.29 (4) (b). This section is in Chapter 3 of the 1999 constitution which deals with the subject of Citizenship. Section 29 is specifically on Renunciation of Citizenship. Here’s what’s contained in the section:
“29. (1) Any citizen of Nigeria of full age who wishes to renounce his Nigerian citizenship shall make a declaration in the prescribed manner for the renunciation.
(2) The President shall cause the declaration made under subsection (1) of this section to be registered and upon such registration, the person who made the declaration shall cease to be a citizen of Nigeria.
(3) The President may withhold the registration of any declaration made under subsection (1) of this section if-
(a) the declaration is made during any war in which Nigeria is physically involved; or
(b) in his opinion, it is otherwise contrary to public policy.
(4) For the purposes of subsection (1) of this section.
(a) “full age” means the age of eighteen years and above;
(b) any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.”

The contentious section which the Senate tried to amend is that last bit in highlight. What the Senate wanted to do was to remove it altogether. To successfully do that, it needed a two-third majority or at least 72 senators voting “Yes”. Unfortunately, only 60 senators voted “Yes”. 35 Senators said “No”. The remaining senators abstained from voting or were not registered to vote on the matter. That’s 13 senators minus the Senate President. If among those 13 senators, 12 had voted “Yes”, the amendment would have succeeded. The full list of how the senate voted can be found here: http://www.thescoopng.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/how-senators-voted1.jpg. So, the senate did not enact a new law. It was only unable to amend an existing constitutional provision.

The next question, naturally is, had the Senate been able to push through the amendment, would it have amounted to setting the minimum age for marriage? NO! This is because (i) this section only applies to renunciation of Nigerian citizenship by a Nigerian woman (obviously married to a foreigner) and (ii) marriage is on the residual list (meaning it is only state houses of assembly that can legislate of the minimum age for marriage). What the deletion of this subsection would have done at best is depriving an under-aged married Nigerian girl of an opportunity of renouncing her citizenship before the age of 18.

I subscribe to the #ChildNotBride initiative. However, I think we are taking the battle to the wrong quarters. Perhaps the distraction is due to what we think Ahmed Sani Yerima stands for. I am aware that in 2009, he was reported to have married the 13-year-old daughter of his Egyptian driver. But the greater challenge is with the system that allows that. The critical legislation that will stop child marriages in the north is the Child Rights Act. Nigeria adopted the Child Rights Act in July 2003 but it must be passed by a state’s house of assembly to be effective in that state. Ten years down the line, only 24 states have domesticated and signed it into law. In otherwords, 12 states have not approved the Child Rights Bill. These states are said to be Enugu, Kaduna, Kano, Sokoto, Kebbi, Borno, Yobe, Gombe, Adamawa, Bauchi, Katsina and Zamfara. In case you have forgotten, Yerima is from Zamfara State.

We may not like Yerima. We may not like his actions. However, we cannot recall him from the Senate. The UN cannot do that. Only his constituents can do that if they think he has not represented them well. Allowing the debate to degenerate into name-calling, religious posturing or even a north-versus-south thing will not result in any tangible achievement. Afterall, Niger State is a northern cum predominantly muslim state but has legislated against child marriage through the Child Rights Act whereas Enugu State, a southern and predominantly Christian state is yet to do same. What is required is a serious lobby of the lawmakers in the 12 state houses of assembly that are yet to pass the Child Rights Bill into law.

The provisions of the Child Rights Act provide enough protection for the child. Among other things, it provides as follows:

1. It prohibits child marriage (S. 21)
2. It prohibits child betrothal (S. 22)
3. It prescribes punishment for child marriage and betrothal (S. 23)
4. Bans tattoos and skin marks on a child (S. 24)
5. Prohibits the employment of under-age children (S. 28)
6. It prohibits sexual intercourse with a child (S. 32)
7. It outlaws all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation against a child (S. 33)

For example, if you live in a state that has passed the Child Rights Act has been passed, you cannot marry or marry off a child. You cannot betroth your child to a man and cannot keep someone that is less than 18 years old as a domestic servant. So, if you have a nanny or house-girl that’s not up to 18 years of age, you are in breach of the law.

In summary, I say the battle is not to the UN or the Nigerian Senate. Medical experts have educated us on the dangers of child marriages, one of which is versicovaginal fistula (VVF), a medical condition associated with teenage child-birth resulting from prolonged labour (see http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Versicovaginal_fistula, or http://www.forwarduk.org.uk/key-issues/fistula/definitions or http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/12318635/). I would thus recommend first, an intense lobby for the passage of the Child Rights Bill in the remaining 12 states of the federation. The next step would then be a series of sustained enlightenment campaigns for a change of mindsets. Whether we believe it or not, certain practices are rooted in the cultural and religious ways of certain people and would require more than a law to change such attitudes.

Now, I digress.

On the same July 17, 2013 that the Senate was unable to delete the troublesome S.29(4)(b), it successfully approved a recommendation seeking life pension for principal officers of the National Assembly. The alteration of Section 84 (new subsection 5a) of the constitution (clause 8) reads: “Any person who has held office as President or Deputy President of the Senate, Speaker or Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, shall be entitled to pension for life at a rate equivalent to the annual salary of the incumbent President or Deputy President of the Senate, Speaker or Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives.” (See http://thewillnigeria.com/politics/21999.html ). And in a survey published by The Economist, Nigerian lawmakers emerged as the highest paid in the world earning as much as $189,500 which is almost 116 times the GDP per head. (http://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2013/07/daily-chart-12). This is the same National Assembly that voted against the payment of social security stipends for unemployed Nigerians. Now, this is a battle to take to the National Assembly!

Follow the author @ehissman.

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