– Femi Fani-Kayode
I expressed my concerns about the issue of paedophilia and child brides in Nigeria quite extensively in an essay that I wrote last week titled ”A Nation Of Perverts and Paedophiles” which was widely published and which attracted a lot of rejoinders and commentaries from other writers and commentators from both sides of the divide. I do not intend to cover the same ground or repeat the same arguments here but kindly permit me to make a final contribution to the debate in this piece.
The good news is that no matter what anyone thinks or says and regardless of whichever side of the divide one is on when it comes to this issue at least the Nigerian people are now talking about a subject which, hitherto, had been regarded as being ”off limits” and taboo and which had been essentially swept under the carpet. I commend the Nigerian press, the website magazines, the bloggers and the electronic media for standing firm, rising up to the occasion and bringing the matter alive and one can only hope and pray that they will keep the fire burning by continuing to reflect the heated discussions and various opinions on this issue. I was particularly impressed with and encouraged by the editorials of some of our leading newspapers on this issue including ‘Thisday On Sunday’, ‘The Nation On Sunday’, ‘Leadership On Sunday’ and ‘The Sunday Vanguard’ which were all published on Sunday 28th July and which were titled “In Support Of The Girl Child”, ”No Cover For Paedophiles”. ”Much Ado About Child Marriage” and ”Building Nigeria On Deceit” respectively. With contributions like that from very serious and credible mediums like those there is still hope for the girl-child in Nigeria. I urge all those that have not read these contributions to please find them and do so.
Yet despite the outrage expressed by the overwhelming majority of Nigerians and indeed the wider world about the plight of the girl-child in our country, on Sunday 28th July a deeply defiant and unrepentant Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima, who was the individual that sparked off the whole controversy in the first place by insisting that section 29 of the constitution must not be removed, told the Sunday Trust Newspaper that ”if the vote on the child marriage issue came up in the Senate again” he and his supporters ”would win a million times over”. Sadly, given the nonchalant attitude that has been displayed by a large number of our Senators to the plight of the girl-child, paedophilia and infant marriages in Nigeria and their obvious reluctance to step on Yerima’s big toes and thereby upset his religious sensitivities he may well be right. If not for that how does one explain the fact that two female Senators, Aisha Jummai Alhassan from Taraba state and Zainab Kure from Niger state, both of whom I gather have daughters, actually abstained when that historical vote took place. To drive home the point the Senate President himself, Senator David Mark, only last week admitted that he and the entire Senate had succumbed to Yerima’s ”blackmail” on the issue of the right of the child-bride to renounce Nigerian citizenship and his deputy, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, accepted the fact that the matter ”needed to be revisited” in view of the outrage expressed by the majority of the Nigerian people.
Yet many of us do not expect anything to change in the near future simply because it is clear that the Nigerian Senate and indeed the Nigerian political class generally simply do not have the sensitivity, the courage, the wherewithal or the political will to do the right thing and to not only delete the controversial Section 29 from our constitution but to also revamp and amend it in it’s entirety and insert a clause that specifically, clearly and categorically outlaws and bans any marriages that involve anyone under the age of 18 in Nigeria. Mrs. Roz Ben-Okagbue, in her article titled, ”Is The Removal Of Section 29 The Answer To Eliminating Child Marriage?” has made this point more eloquently than anyone one else. I consider Roz’s piece to be probably the most insightful contribution so far in this debate simply because she made all the relevant points and consistently hit the nail on the head. It is the inability of the Senate and other political stakeholders to introduce a new clause into our constitution and ban child marriages and their penchant for continuously pampering and seeking to accommodate the strange fantasies and perversions of those that enjoy marrying and having sex with 6, 9, 12 and 14 year olds that informed Pastor Tunde Bakare to proclaim, in a characteristically powerful and explosive sermon, that ”Nigeria is suffering from the rulership of ‘PINP’ ” (by which he meant ”Paedophiles in Power”) and that the issue of child marriage has divided our country more than any other issue before it in our entire history. No-one could have put it better.
Yet the debate continues to rage and only last week the respected Islamic scholar Professor Ishaq Akintola added his voice by saying ”there is no age restriction in Islamic marriage”. Most Muslims would disagree with this because child-marriage is specifically banned by the laws and constitutions of 90 per cent of Muslim countries in the world today but I respect the right of Professor Akintiola to hold his opinion about the tenets of his faith. And regardless of his views and fervency I honestly believe that Islam, like Christianity, is a humane and compassionate faith which seeks to protect the weak and guide its adherents on the path of righteousness and light.
I must however point out that Nigeria is not a Muslim or indeed a Christian state. She is a secular state and she is governed by secular laws. Religious laws have no place in our land or constitution. Our constitution is a secular document which specifically says that the state shall not adopt any religion. This must remain so if we do not want a divided country and if we do not want continued controversy, strife and possibly even a fully blown religious conflagration and conflict. We should all keep our religious sensitivities out of certain matters if we want continued peace.
Paedophilia, child sex, child slavery, child rape and child marriage cannot be justified under any circumstances in any civilised country. It is not a matter of religion. It is a matter of human rights, civil liberties and basic morality. There is nothing more repugnant to the natural mind and wholesome soul than the prospect of a fully grown man mounting, defiling and having carnal knowledge of a child that is between the ages of 6 and 18.
Every child, whether she be a Christian, a Muslim, a pagan, an atheist or an agnostic has the right to be fully protected by the state and by the laws of our land from sexual predators, sexual deviants, statutory rapists, unrepentant perverts and child molesters. That much we ought to be able to achieve and we ought to insist on. We are meant to protect our children and not bed them.
Like I said earlier on elsewhere in this debate, even animals don’t sleep with their own infants. Some may hate me for these words today but I speak nothing but the truth and tomorrow the people will thank me for it. In the heat of this debate my dear wife, Pastor Regina Fani-Kayode, made a pertinent assertion. She said ”knowledge comes to those who seek it”. This is wisdom and I would suggest that our Muslim brothers and sisters that share Yerima’s views on child marriage and that seek to defend those views on religious grounds like my respected sister Dr. Zainab Shinkafi-Bagudu, whose article titled ”Early Marriage?” I read with great interest, learn a little from this deep truism. Perhaps they could also learn one or two things from the following press report in a newspaper just last week which reflects the views of one of the most respected leaders and Islamic scholars in that Saudi Arabia. The report reads as follows-
”Saudi sheikh says child marriages are no longer justifiable -Prophet Mohammed’s marriage to young Aisha “cannot be equated with child marriages today because the conditions and circumstances are not the same”.
A member of Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body has said that Prophet Mohammed’s marriage to a nine-year-old girl does not justify marrying minor children today because circumstances have changed in the intervening 14 centuries. The comments by Sheikh Abdullah al Manie, who sits on the Council of Senior Ulema, follows other recent public criticisms of child marriage, suggesting the government may be preparing public opinion for legislation setting a minimum marriage age.
“They want to prepare the public to understand that the old days are not like today,” said Mekhlef al Shammary, a human rights advocate in Dammam. “It’s a crime to give a 12-year-old to be a mother and wife. “This is ridiculous. Even in Islam it’s not acceptable because the girl is not mature enough. She’s a child – she’s not ready for sexual relations.” The marriage of young girls, often to much older men, has been at the forefront of public debate in Saudi Arabia for a couple of years. It escalated early last year after it was reported that a man had contracted to give his eight-year-old daughter in marriage to a 47-year-old man in order to pay a financial debt. The contract was annulled after a public outcry.
Sheikh al Manie is believed to be the most senior cleric to unequivocally denounce the practice of child marriage. Prophet Mohammed’s marriage to young Aisha “cannot be equated with child marriages today because the conditions and circumstances are not the same”, he said in remarks published in the Saudi Gazette and Okaz newspapers on Thursday. “It is a grave error to burden a child with responsibilities beyond her years,” the sheikh said. “Marriage should be put off until the wife is of a mentally and physically mature age and can care for both herself and her family.”
Sheikh al Manie’s comments came a few days after Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al Obaikan urged legislation making marriage illegal for girls under 18.
Waivers might be given in some cases by judges or the royal court, he added, according to reports in the same newspapers. Sheikh al Obaikan said the marriage of minors was a “grave error” and cautioned parents to “fear Allah and not marry their daughters by force” to men they do not want to wed”.
Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima, Professor Ishaq Akintola and all those that continuously give the impression that child marriage is acceptable in Islam and who erroneously believe that the honest criticism of such an abominable practice is an attack on their faith surely have much to learn from the contribution of this erudite Saudi Arabian leader and scholar. As a matter of fact we all do and it is contributions like that that make the rest of us appreciate what a beautiful religion Islam really is when its tenets are properly understood and applied. Permit me to end this essay by sharing a few poignant words that my dear sister Mrs. Toyin FaniKayode-Bajela wrote in a moving piece titled ”You Who Support Child Marriage” from London just last week. She wrote-
‘You who for whatever ‘solid and noble’ reason have chosen to agree with legitimised child slavery, sexual abuse, psychological, emotional, physical and financial abuse under the guise of marriage. You who are silent about it or couldn’t care less as it’s not a topic worthy of inclusion in the constitutional review. All of you have freedom to choose your position on this issue- the freedom to wax lyrical, or not so lyrical, as is most often the case, on this issue. You enjoy the freedom to hold and have your own opinion. The freedom to air your opinion irrespective of whether l care for that opinion or not.
A girl child has no choice. A girl child has no opinion that anyone will listen to – a girl child learns quickly the horrific consequences of her unwanted opinion and her only goal is silent survival or only choice suicide. There is no point in appealing to an iota of empathy in you that agree with child marriage for whatever ‘noble’, ‘altruistic’ or patriarchal ‘reason’ as time and time again, on issue after issue, day after day, we are reminded that you have none. Everything is reduced to politics, religion and gain – financially or otherwise. For those of you who think we have spoken-‘too much grammar’ on this issue- you are darn right. I have just enough (grammar ) to speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves or those for whom the consequences of speaking out would be unspeakable, but not too little grammar that l might be tempted to stay silent”.
My heart missed a beat and a tear came to my eye when I read this and I commend Toyin for her admonitions to us all and for her touching words. I also commend Roz Ben Okagbue, Hanatu Musawa, Maryam Uwais, Stella Damasus, Aisha Osori, Helen Oviagbele, Oby Ezekwezile, Bisi Fayemi, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, Gbemisola Saraki and the many other leading women that have stood up and made their voices heard through their articles, actions, concerns and various commentaries on the girl-child and child marriage issue in what is essentially a deeply conservative, insensitive, anti-progressive and male-dominated country and society which really does not offer much sympathy or hope to the plight of women generally let alone that of the girl-child and infant bride.
Let me give a couple of examples of that insensitivity and our misplaced priorities. In Yerima’s own northern region no less than 93 per cent of girls do not complete secondary school education and 70 per cent of women between the ages of 20 and 29 cannot read or write. Worst still the region has no-less than 47 per cent of the recorded vesico vagina fistula (VVF) cases (a terrible disease which is caused by child-sex, child marriage and child-pregnancies) in the entire world. According to our Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Mrs. Zainab Maina, Nigeria has 800,000 cases of VVF and we are adding 20,000 cases each year. All these cases are situated in the northern part of the country. Such a disease, such suffering, such illiteracy and such high levels of poverty of the mind and soul should have no place in any part of our great nation in this day and age. Our people, whether they be from the north or the south, Christian or Muslim, young or old and men or women, surely deserve better than that. After all we are living in the 21st century and not the 6th. Yet sadly these vices are more rampant in Yerima’s own northern region and constituency than anywhere else in the country and instead of attempting to improve on the lot, the education and quality of lives of the good people of the north all he thinks about is marrying little girls and bedding them. What a man and what a country. Outside of this contribution I have nothing more to say on this vexed and contentious issue of the horrendous plight of the girl-child and child marriage in Nigeria.
Femi Fani-Kayode is a former Minister of Aviation