The social media was agog with so much frenzy when news of what transpired in the Senate in the past week hit the media streets. I have received not less than 50 broadcasts on bbm from people claiming to be massively involved in the fight against the passage of a bill to legalize under-age marriage. I was shocked when I read most of these broadcasts and was greatly depressed because I realized that we Nigerians are an ignorant lot!

If people spent half the time they do reading newspapers, listening to the news on the radio and watching news on TV or actually visiting google more often for current news headlines rather than reading gossip columns like Linda Ikeji’s blog and other gossip media, they would be more informed. For Linda Ikeji’s teeming fans, this is not a swipe at Linda Ikeji but a swipe at those of you who take her stories as the gospel truth. Y’all need to learn the difference between gossip and fact!

Contrary to what many people think as regards the issue, there wasn’t an actual bill to legalize under-age marriage. What happened was during the on-going constitutional amendment carried on by the National Assembly, with specific regard to Section 29 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Senate Committee sought to amend the subsection.

Section 29 (1) provides thus;

“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”

Section 29 (4) further states thus;

“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.” (Emphasis mine).

A probable but unwise implication of this subsection is that a girl who gets married at the age of 13 or less is of full age and can decide to change her citizenship regardless of her mental capacity. The Senate Committee was of the opinion that the provision should be expunged because of this ambiguity. This is where the problem started.

Senator Ahmed Yerima who we all know as a “staunch” defender of Sharia Law swung into action saying that the section was against the tenets of Islam. I am no expert in Islamic affairs, but this in my opinion however, was no defense of Islam but the defense of his lecherous whims especially in the light of his condemnable marriage to a 13 year old Egyptian girl in 2009. His view is that once a girl is married, she has full mental capacity to renounce her citizenship and understand the implication thereof.

This, my friends, is a shitload of bollocks! I’ll tell you why.

In all the hue and cry that followed, we all forgot something – and this is often the case when religion and emotions get involved in arguments; we skip the salient points; the subsection said “woman” and not “girl”. The wording of the sub-section is clear and unambiguous. Except “Hon”Yerima and the other Senators who missed this are trying to tell me that the word “woman” is a synonym for “girl”, what’s all the fuss about?

For the “unlearned”, any question of statutory interpretation begins with looking at the plain language of the statute to discover its original intent. To discover a statute’s original intent, courts first look to the words of the statute and apply their usual and ordinary meanings. Only when that fails, can we deem such a statute to be ambiguous before recourse can be had to the intent of the legislature when making the law or other methods of statutory interpretation.

Amazingly, Ahmed Yerima gathered a few followers with this warped sense of logic and when it came up for a second vote, though the majority of senators voted that the subsection be expunged, they couldn’t get the required two-thirds majority to expunge as provided for by Section 9(2) of the constitution which states thus; 

Section 9(2)  “An Act of the National Assembly for the alteration of this Constitution… shall not be passed in either House of the National Assembly unless the proposal is supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds majority of all the members of that House and approved by resolution of the Houses of Assembly of not less than two-thirds of all the states.”

Therefore, in this regard, the majority of the Senate only failed to expunge the subsection because of the requirement of the above mentioned Section 9(2) which basically gave Yerima and his cohorts the power to hold the rest of the Senate to ransom. However, this attempt to expunge the subsection, though noble is misguided.

That being said, The Child Rights Act was passed into law in 2003 and Section 277 defines a child as anyone below 18 years of age. Also, Sections 21 and 22 of the Act effectively criminalizes child marriage and betrothal in Nigeria. What needs to be done is to push for The Child Rights Act to be domesticated in every one of the 36 states in Nigeria.

As at today, 12 states are yet to domesticate The Child Act and apart from Enugu State, the rest of them are states from the North. This in my opinion, is a deliberate ploy to undermine the efficacy of the Act. 

Furthermore, any court that makes the mistake of towing the line of the thoughts of our obviously “unlearned” senators who sought to expunge the Section 29(4)(b) of the Constitution poses a serious threat to the applicability and enforceability to the Act as all enacted laws that are inconsistent with the constitution are void the extent of their inconsistency because the Constitution is the grund norm of the nation and is supreme to any other law enacted.  

 Section 1(1) provides, “This Constitution and its provisions shall have binding force on all authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria”.

In addition to this, Section 1(3) provides, “If any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of this Constitution, this Constitution shall prevail and that other law shall to the extent of the inconsistency be void.”

For avid social media users, please be selective in the information that you consume and take as fact.

This is my two kobo on the issue.

Malcolm O. Ifi.