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Nigeria: Senate Denies Child Marriage Wrongdoing, Says Law May Be Revisited

Photo: Nigerian Senate
Nigeria's senate

The Senate appealed for calm on Tuesday as it sought to douse days of public fury that has greeted its failure, last week, to delete a controversial constitutional provision which deals with citizenship, but which appears to sanction child marriage.

In its first official reaction to nearly a week of national outrage that has seen an explosive reaction from Nigerians online, culminating in the collection of signatures and a protest to the National Assembly, the Senate said its decision last Wednesday was "wildly misinterpreted, misreported and totally taken out of context".

It denied wrongdoing, but assured the contentious Section 29, subsection 4(b) can always be revisited.

"We can never support child marriage," deputy senate president, Ike Ekweremadu, who heads the constitution review committee, said Tuesday. "Let Nigerians understand with us that these issues have nothing to do with early marriage or Islam. It is purely about renunciation of citizenship."

The controversial clause deals with the procedures to be adopted by a Nigerian wishing to renounce his or her citizenship. The law says for that purpose, the person must be at least 18 years; and if the person is a woman and married, she shall be deemed to be of age.

Ahead of the Senate's vote to amend the constitution last week, Mr. Ekweremadu's committee suggested the definition relating to marriage be deleted, and the Senate needed 73 members to approve that proposal.

At first vote, that benchmark was met. But a dramatic reversal soon followed after former governor of Zamfara State, Ahmed Yerima, protested the decision as un-Islamic, prompting a second vote in which the Senate secured only 65 members this time, meaning Mr. Yerima won and the section could not be deleted.

A fierce public reaction has interpreted the Senate's decision as a subtle way of sanctioning underage marriage.

Angry Nigerians, fed by varied interpretations of that section, have used the social media, blogs and editorials to call for a reversal from a Senate whose member-the same Mr. Yerima-once married a 13-year-old girl. Worse, legal experts, as well as prominent female Muslims have disagreed with Mr. Yerima's interpretation of the Islamic tenet.

On Tuesday, dozens of people marched at the National Assembly in protest of the decision, mounting even more pressure. One Senator, Ayo Akinyelure, who voted in support of Mr. Yerima's argument-that the section be retained-, said on Monday he voted in error.

While the Senate refrained from raising the issue at its session on Tuesday, Mr. Ekweremadu afterwards addressed journalists for nearly half an hour, after the Senate spokesperson, Enyinnaya Abaribe, had separately offered similar explanations.

The Senate said Nigerians had largely misread its good intention at attempting to delist a section that has been in the constitution since 1979.

Mr. Ekweremadu said the Senate's interest in the removing that part of the law was not even informed by what Nigerians are clamouring against in the first place: child marriage. He said the concern was to remove as it did with section 26, subsection 2(a) any aspect of the constitution that mentions woman or girl in a way that appears discriminatory.

"Section 29(4) (a) has already defined "full age" as age 18 and above. We considered it gender discriminatory and imbalance to place the man and woman on different scales in matters of citizenship renunciation," he said.

As the amendment of the constitution is a continuous process, the Deputy Senate president said, that section will be revisited. A quicker window of a reversal would be if the House of Representatives acts on the same subject and passes it, requesting the Senate to concur.

But that section is not part of the House's considerations which was due for voting Tuesday. The House's voting, billed for Tuesday, was however rescheduled for Wednesday due to faulty electronic voting platform.

Members will now have to vote with new computer tablets they received on Tuesday.

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