The Senate, Yerima and the Child's Right

The Senate, Yerima and the Child's Right

The social media - Twitter, Facebook, different yahoogroups and what-have-you are all buzzing, my in-boxes on all my email accounts have been busy, text messages have not been spared, it has gone spiral that the Nigerian Senate has passed a law that made it right to sexually abuse our minors through forced and premature marriages. Some say the law relating to marriageable age in our Constitution has been removed. Petitions are flying right, left and center to the United Nations, Human Rights organizations across the world and anyone that may care to listen, all requiring me to sign in on the petitions, when I could not ignore the deafening intrusions again and when the name of that guy that bought a baby girl from Egypt for a wife (I mean he is old enough to be her ancestor) keep popping up in all the messages, I decided to get off my butt and get involved and informed.

But then it took me just a few phone calls and a quick check on the content of our Constitution to discover that it is just a storm in a tea cup. It turned out that what happened on the floor of the Senate has absolutely nothing to do with a child’s right or marriageable age. Now what really happened; a Senate Committee made recommendations for the amendment of Sections 26 and 29 of the Constitution that dealt with Citizenship and Renunciation of Citizenship respectively.

Section 26 of the 1999 Constitution states as follows:

26. (1) Subject to the provisions of section 28 of this Constitution, a person to whom the provisions of this section apply may be registered as a citizen of Nigeria, if the President is satisfied that -

(a) he is a person of good character;

(b) he has shown a clear intention of his desire to be domiciled in Nigeria; and

(c) he has taken the Oath of Allegiance prescribed in the Seventh Schedule to this Constitution.

(2) the provisions of this section shall apply to-

(a) any woman who is or has been married to a citizen of Nigeria; or

(b) every person of full age and capacity born outside Nigeria any of whose grandparents is a citizen of Nigeria.

For gender balance, the word “woman” @ section 26 (2) (a) was recommended for removal to cover “men” as well, the amendment passed without an incident.

It was recommended that Section 29 (4) (b) of the Constitution be removed as infringing the right of a child because it purportedly remove the maturity age for a child to marry, I do not think so.

Here is what Section 29 of the Constitution says: (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 clause that is really causing this unnecessary hullabaloo is Section 29 (4) (b). That clause has always been part of our laws, but the Senate moved to remove it as infringing on child's right by making every married woman an adult. At the taking of the vote for the first time, they got two-third to remove it from the Constitution. But Yerima stood up and whipped up religious sentiment by galvanizing his Muslim brothers who ignorantly believed him into action. When the peace was threatened, David Mark, the Senate President capitulates and asked that the vote be taken again, at this point they were no longer able to garner two-third votes to remove the provision from the Constitution, so it remains.

Now to the legal issue: Section 29 (4) CLEARLY states: "for the purposes of subsection 1" Section 29 subsection (1) CLEARLY states: "Any citizen of Nigeria of full age WHO WISHES TO RENOUNCE HIS NIGERIAN CITIZENSHIP (emphasis mine) shall make a declaration in the prescribed manner for the renunciation"

This is called "narrow definition” Subsection (1) narrowly defined under what circumstances the definitions stated at clauses (a) and (b) would be applicable. Therefore clauses (a) and (b) of section 29 (4) are only relevant to "renunciation of citizenship" alone. What made this clearer and should leave no one in doubt is the fact that clause 29 (4) (a) re-emphasized that “full age” shall be 18, but if you are already married, for the purposes of renunciation of citizenship you shall be automatically qualified to do so even if you are not 18 yet. Because you are deemed of "full age" for renunciation reason based on the unambiguous definition given by subsection 29 (1) In any case S. 29 (4) (b) is referring to someone already married not about-to-marry.

As a matter of fact, if you ask me, the Constitution as it is, threatens Yerima status than support it. He is married to a baby-girl from Egypt. If that girl suddenly realizes that she has been forced into a marriage with a man old enough to be her ancestor, she can independently renounce her citizenship and take the next train to Egypt. But then, we should seize on this opportunity to pressurize our Senators to make express laws against child’s marriage and abuses. The statistics with regards to cases of Vesico-Vagina Fistula (VVF) in the part of the country where childhood marriage is practiced is not encouraging at all. Let us properly redirect our anger to achieve the desired result, because it is apparent that even the Senate is lost on this, if they think that removing S.29 (4) (b) would take care of a child’s right, they have got another think coming, they need to consult their lawyers more. That section is more useful for a foreign child that has been forced into a marriage than it can benefit anybody when removed.

Ayo Turton is a USA based lawyer.