Senate denies endorsing underage marriage

…as senator weeps, says ‘I voted in error’

Senators Atiku Bagudu and Akin Odunsi yesterday denied that the upper legislative house had endorsed child marriage, insisting that what they voted for was the process of renouncing Nigerian citizenship.

But another senator, representing Ondo Central Senatorial district, Ayo Akinyelure yesterday wept publicly over his role in voting in favour of child marriage just as he explained that he voted in error.

Reacting to the controversy generated by the voting on some of the proposals contained in the draft amendment bill of the 1999 Constitution last week, the senators said that the matter had been blown out of proportion. “What the Senate voted for was not child marriage but renunciation of Nigerian citizenship,” they said.

Answering questions from newsmen at the National Assembly, Bagudu, who is the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Interior regretted that the ongoing debate were devoid of the facts.

According to him, by the reaction of Nigerians, the Senate has been wrongly drawn into a debate that the lawmakers were not allowed to express their opinion on. He said: “The essential element of the voting was on Section 29, clause 4(b), which deals with the renunciation of Nigerian citizenship.

There was an attempt to remove the element, which allows marriageable women to have the right to decide to renounce their citizenship and define the age of marriageable women as those who have attained the age of 18 years.”

He stated that marriage in Nigeria is regulated by the Marriage Act, Matrimonial Act, communal laws etc, and that none of these statutes contains any definitive age for marriage. The lawmaker stressed that at no time did the Senate try to lower the age threshold of people wishing to marry.

He observed that in most countries of the world, marriage below the age of 18 years is allowed but with parental consent. Senator Odunsi, in his own reaction, also expressed disappointment that the debate was uncalled for since it was never the issue the Senate voted for.

“What the Senate voted for was on citizenship,” he said. According to him, the said section 29, clause 4, which is generating the outrage merely defines the persons that can renounce their citizenship and that was where the issue of women and marriage was mentioned.

He said the section states that any woman that is married in Nigeria is of full age. “Section 29 of the 1999 Constitution is still the extant or existing law and what the Senate attempted to do that day was to expunge that clause but could not do so due to the shortage of 13 votes because 60 senators voted for its removal as against the constitutionally required 73 votes, while 35 voted for its retention,” Odunsi said.

According to the lawmaker, from what happened last Tuesday, the Senate merely attempted to expunge the somewhat archaic clause and not in any way created the law as now wrongly portrayed by Nigerians.

But, Senator Akinyelure, while speaking to his community leaders and the people of his constituency in Akure, the Ondo State capital, yesterday said there was a misinterpretation of voting on his part. The senator, who was the only lawmaker from the South-West that voted in favour of the child marriage, was summoned by the people and the leaders of the Labour Party, LP, in the state over his role in the matter.

He burst into tears when he realised how angry the people were about his action. Prior to the commencement of the meeting, youths, who were aggrieved by the position of the senator barricaded the venue of the meeting, displaying placards with various inscriptions and clashed with the senator’s supporters, who also mobilised to the venue. It took the timely intervention of policemen to save the situation from degenerating into a free-for-all as the belligerents hauled stones at each other.

The senator however explained that what the Senate considered was the provision of the Constitution for renunciation of citizenship contained in section 29 (4b) which provides that any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.

He, however, said what he voted in favour was whether a married woman is deemed to be of full age to renounce her Nigerian citizenship and not whether a woman can marry before attaining the age of 18 years. Akinyelure said he cannot vote in support of the child marriage, saying “I cannot vote in support of child marriage, I cannot support an underage to go and marry; it is against our culture and customs.

“My voting NO was in error of misrepresentation and I had no opportunity to correct what is deemed to be my error now, because voting was done electronically. “If voting were to be done by show of hands, I would have been able to correct my error before the voting was concluded by the Senate,” he said.

He, however, apologised to the leaders of the party in the state and the people of his constituency for the error, saying he regretted his action. Women leaders across the six council areas representing the Ondo Central Senatorial District disowned the lawmaker and asked him to renounce his position.

The women leaders, including Mrs. Ade Ajiboye from Akure North, Mrs. Iyabo Ojo from Ifedore, Fadoju Bunmi of Ondo East, Bimbo Bakare from Ondo West, Kikelomo Adeniyi from Idanre unanimously described the amendment on child marriage as inhuman. “We say no to child marriage, it is worst than child abuse.

We wonder why he would support the action. Can 10-year-old girl face the challenges of marriage,” the women leaders said.

In a related development, the wife of the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, who is also the Chairperson of a Kanobased non-governmental organisation, Isa Wali Empowerment Initiative, Mrs. Maryam Uwais, has criticised the report credited to the former Governor of Zamfara State, Senator Ahmed Yerima that Sharia supports giving out underage girls in marriage.

Uwais, who made his position known via an online resource, Sahara Reporters, insisted that there is nothing under the Islamic law that stipulates or recognises child marriage or that says that any girl that is married shall be deemed an adult.

Uwais said: “Once again, Senator Yerima is in the news, claiming Islam as the basis for his argument that a girl automatically transforms into an adult of ‘full age’ once she is married, with the attendant responsibilities that relate to the renunciation of citizenship, irrespective of her age or mental capacity.

Because the Senator from Zamfara State has gone public with his personal comprehension of the Shari’a, it has become necessary to respond publicly to his utterances.

“It should be pointed out, however, that several media reports on the constitutional review debate at the Senate give the impression that underage marriage has been endorsed by the Senate Chambers. Facts are that S.29 of the 1979 Constitution permits a Nigerian citizen of ‘full age’ to renounce his or her citizenship by declaration in a prescribed manner, for which purpose ‘full age’ was stated to be 18 years and above.

The subsection also provides that, ‘any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age’. In its current efforts to review the Constitution, the Senate Committee had determined that the particular subsection should be deleted, basically because citizenship has no bearing on gender, as for example, voting, the right to drive a car, possess a weapon or such similar social interactions that are evolving or are germane to a democratic nation.

“Senator Yerima, however, vehemently argued (and lobbied) against the removal of the clause, on the grounds that deleting that clause was against (his understanding of) Islam. In his understanding, a girl, once married, automatically assumes the full mental capacity and responsibility to consciously make the prescribed declaration of renouncing her citizenship.

“This position needs to scrutinise carefully, against the backdrop of similar positions that obtain under the Shari’a and in our context, as a nation?

“Contrary to the position conveyed by the Senator from Zamfara, there is certainly no unanimity of positions on such contemporary matters of social interaction, within Islamic jurists or the various Schools of Thought.

“Surely where there is ‘silence in the texts’ (i.e primary sources) or lack of unanimity as regards a particular practice, that opening allows for a society to determine for itself what is in its best interest (maslaha), in its own context.” Meanwhile, Nigerian students have condemned the move to legalise underage marriage, describing it as a step to debase womanhood.

The students, under the aegis of the National Association of Nigerian Students, NANS, who urged the Senate to reverse the move, also sought the prosecution of Yerima at the International Court of Justice, ICJ, Hague, for alleged child abuse, having married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl. In a statement in Ado Ekiti, the Ekiti State capital, yesterday, NANS Chairman, Ekiti Axis, Comrade OluwadamilareBewaji, described as sad and unprogressive, the annulment of constitutionally recognised age for adulthood by the Senate.

The students said the step by the Senate had brought serious ignominy to the nation in the eyes of the international community, adding that the action must be challenged by all rightthinking Nigerians. The students called for the immediate reversal of the action, saying: “We hereby pass a vote of no confidence in the upper chamber of the National Assembly over this un-progressive action and dishonour they had brought to our culture.

“How can the Senate of the most populous nation in Africa debated and passed such action? We want to say that children under age 18 and below must be constitutionally protected and accommodated in our constitution. “We also believe that Senator Ahmed Yerima must be tried at ICJ. We believe the distinguished senator must be tried for child abuse having taken a 13-year old Egyptian as a wife”, they said.

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