Mark: Senators blackmailed to vote on child marriage -As women groups demand reversal of decision

SENATE President, David Mark, on Wednesday, broke his silence on the dust raised over the retention of the controversial Section 29(4)(b) of the 1999 Constitution, as he said some of his colleagues were blackmailed to vote against its deletion as recommended by the Senate committee on the review of the constitution.
He made this known when he played host to some women organisations and civil societies that visited the Senate leadership to press home the need for the lawmakers to revisit the voting exercise, with a view to deleting the section.
The women organisations were led by the Minister of Women Affairs, Hajia Zainab Maina; former Minister of Education, Dr Oby Ezekwezelie; a former Minister of Women Affairs, Mrs Josephine Anenih; the wife of former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mrs Maryam Uwais and the chairperson of the Gender and Constitution Reform Network (GECORN), Mrs Saadatu Mahdi.
It will be recalled that 35 senators, led by Sani Ahmed Yerima, had, last week, voted against the recommendation by the Senate committee on review of the constitution that the sub-section, which stated that a woman that is married shall be deemed to be of full age, be deleted, as it was discriminatory against women in respect of renunciation of the Nigerian citizenship.
Senator Mark said Nigerians should understand that the Senate was on the side of the people, as he said this was demonstrated in the fact that 85 senators, out of the 101 present at the exercise, initially voted for the deletion of the controversial section.
He said some senators, however, got things mixed up as they introduced religious connotations and thus making the deletion of the section a sensitive issue, adding that it was subjected to voting for the second time to avoid religious crisis.
“Why we voted publicly was that everybody will know the stand of every senator on every issue. I think the problem is not whether we can delete this Section 29(4)(b) or not. That is not the issue; it is whether we can get the number to be able to delete it.
“With all due respect, the entire Senate is being castigated because there was and there is still a complete misunderstanding of what the Senate had tried to do. We are on the side of the people, that was why we put it that we should delete it (because) that was what the people wanted.
“We, in fact, are the first people that put the step in the right direction of deleting it. It didn’t go through because of other tangential issues that were brought in on the floor of the Senate, totally inconsequential issues, unconnected issues that were brought in.
“We wanted to remove it but it failed. On that day, we were a total of 101. Eighty five voted and I think about six or so abstained. There was hardly any dissenting votes, but once it got mixed up with so many other issues, it didn’t get the required 73 votes anymore.  So, first of all, I think the castigation outside is done out of misunderstanding.
“But because a religious connotation was brought into it, which is a very sensitive issue and you must agree with me that in this country, we try as must as possible not to bring issues that involves faith to the floor of the Senate and, indeed, the chamber. We keep religion completely out of it because what is good for a Christian is also good for a Muslim,” he said.
Mark, however, said the controversial issue might be revisited if there was enough enlightenment, adding that what was good for the country was for everybody and not for a particular religious body or sect.
“I think the bottom line is, when people get more educated, then we can do a re-think and probably, if the Senate agrees, go back and see whether we can get the required number once more, because that is the solution.
“Let me also talk to my own brothers and sisters who are senators, who were probably blackmailed. That is the fact, because it is in the open; that I cannot also hide it and nobody can hide it.
“They were simply blackmailed, and on that day, if they didn’t do what they did, nobody knows the outcome or how the consequences will be today, because the people outside can say this man, you are Muslim and didn’t vote for something that is of Islamic interest. If we don’t hit the nail on the head, we may never get it right,” he said.
Speaking earlier, the chairperson of GECORN, Mrs Mahdi, while calling for the deletion of the section from the constitution, said from the moment of birth, the first gift every Nigerians would receive from the state was citizenship.
“To protect this sacred gift of citizenship, we advocate for the deletion of Section 29(4)(b) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“It is the desire of all Nigerians, who treasure our citizenship, to remove this provision that provides that young Nigerian girls, who are not old enough to vote or to obtain a driver licence, are somehow old enough to renounce their citizenship.
“Citizenship is and must remain gender-neutral and safeguarded from any cultural, religious or social interpretations or connotations,” she said.
Mrs Ezekwezelie, who also spoke at the meeting, commended the Senator Ike Ekweremadu-led committee on the review of the constitution for deeming it fit to recommend the removal of the controversial section of the constitution.
She, however, said the Nigerian society was still rudimentary in following legislative procedures, noting that the impression the people had was that the attempt to remove the offensive section was a new bill giving the senators the liberty to marry underage children.
 She promised to educate Nigerians on the issue, adding that the controversy had become advantageous, as women and gender issues would now take the front burners in legislative business.

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