There has been a lot of talk recently about the issue of child marriage in Nigeria and a lot of prominent Nigerians, Femi Fani-Kayode, Omotola Jalade Ekehinde and Stella Damascus have openly criticised the decision of the Nigerian Senate to legalise Child Marriage.
This editorial is in response to an article published in a Nigerian online publication yesterday titled, “NIGERIA: CONSTITUTIONAL AMMENDMENT: SENATE DID NOT MAKE MARRIAGE LAW.” The writer sought to clear the air over the popular opinion that the Nigerian Senate recently passed a legislation legalizing child marriage. He disagreed and went on to point out that the amendment in question was about citizenship and not marriage.
He also criticized Eme Awa’s petition, which a lot of Nigerians have been signing over the weekend. He put the petition down to a display of ignorance and a lack of understanding of what exercise the Senators were embarking upon.
Urnaija completely disagree with this writer.
We agree with him to the extent that the Senate did not actually pass a legislation validating child marriage. What Senator Yerima and the 34 other Senators did was block the Senate from removing the clause from the Nigerian Constitution that validates child marriage. In other words, the Senate didn’t recently validate it because it had always been valid. What the 35 senators did was block an opportunity to invalidate it. That, in our opinion provides justification for the petition and the outcry that has followed.
Secondly, the writer claimed that the amendment has nothing to do with marriage but citizenship. We also agree with that. We will, however, with due respect to the writer, point out what he’s missing.
The Senate has been meeting over the past couple of years to amend certain parts of the 1999 constitution and the present crisis has been over Section 29 of the constitution, which deals with citizenship.
The constitution provides thus:
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.
Section 29(4)(a) defines what “full age” means. According to the Nigerian constitution, “full age” means eighteen years and above.
Section 29(4)(b) however, overrides 29(4)(a) by saying, “any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.” By implication, whatever age a woman is once she’s married she is deemed to be of “full age” thereby making the marriage legal and valid.
What the writer of the article referred to above failed to mention is “The Nigerian Child Act of 2003”, which makes it illegal to go into marriage with anyone under the age of eighteen.
Section 21 of that Act says,
21. No person under the age of 18 years is capable of contracting a valid marriage, and accordingly, a marriage so contracted is null and void and of no effect whatsoever.
22.—(1) No parent, guardian or any other person shall betroth a child to any person.
(2) A betrothal in contravention of Subsection (1) of this section is null and void.
Section 23 goes on to prescribe penalties for anyone who contravenes section 21:
23. A person—
(a) who marries a child; or
(b) to whom a child is betrothed; or
(c) who promotes the marriage of a child; or
(d) who betroths a child commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of x500,000 (five hundred thousand Naira) or imprisonment for a term of five years or to both such fine and imprisonment.
So, the question is, why are people who have married children not in jail? Senator Yerima is said to have married a 13yr old Egyptian girl a couple of years ago in contravention of Section 21 of “The Nigerian Child Act”. Why is he not in jail?
The answer to that question is simple, by virtue of S.29(4)(b) of the 1999 constitution, Section 21 of “The Nigerian Child Act” is irrelevant. It conflicts with the constitution. Any law or Act of the National Assembly, which conflicts with the constitution is unconstitutional therefore null and void. If the Senate had succeeded in removing S.29(4)(b) of the 1999 Constitution like they sought to Senator Yerima would have found himself in hot water. Blocking the amendment was purely for selfish motives and it has put a lot of Nigerian girls in jeopardy.
Nigerians are angry and there is justification for Eme Awa’s petition.
We appreciate the effort of the writer of the article referred to above in trying to set the records straight but he totally missed the point. Failing to amend the 1999 constitution to make child marriage illegal is as bad as passing a law to make child marriage legal.