Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima has come under attack from a cross-section of Nigerians over a debate on “full age” of female Nigerians. In this interview, he insists that he didn’t regret his actions.
You have been the butt of criticisms for the past one week over what is now widely tagged ‘girl-child marriage.’ What actually happened at the Senate and what exactly was your role?
In the first place, a lot of Nigerians are not conversant with the Nigerian Constitution. The Constitution recognises three systems of justice – the Shari’a Law, the Common Law and the Customary Law – and makes ample provisions to protect adherents of all religions – Islam, Christianity and traditional religions. Most of these provisions have been there since the 1979 Constitution. This particularly contentious section was there in the 1979 Constitution and is also in the 1999 Constitution. Section 29 of the 1999 Constitution talks of the rights of a citizen of full age to renounce his citizenship. The core issue is not the renunciation, but the definition of full age. What defines full age? Section 29 (4) (a) of the Constitution says full age means any person who is 18 years old and above. And there is the (b) part which says any married woman is considered to be of full age. Why does it say this? It is because the Second Schedule Part 1, Item 61 of the Constitution clearly ousted powers of the National Assembly to make any law regarding marriages under Islamic Law and Customary Law. The Schedule says the National Assembly can make laws on the formation and annulment of marriages, excluding marriages under Islamic Law and Customary Law. So the issue is the definition of what full age is. Everybody, including Christians, knows there are sources of Islamic Law, largely the Quran and teachings and practice of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBH). Section 29 (4) b conforms with Islamic Law. Under Islamic Law, any girl that has reached the age of puberty is a full-age woman. What is puberty in Islam? Puberty is when a girl starts menstruating or she has extended breasts; she is of full age. Any girl that has started menstruation can be married out. This is a sign of maturity. Therefore, if your daughter starts her menstruation at the age of nine, 13, 14, at whatever age, she is of full age and she can marry at that age, once she is mature as far as Islamic Law is concerned The Child Rights Act today, as it is, has nothing to do with Islamic Law. It only affects those who conduct their marriages under the Common Law. Even if you conduct your marriage under Customary Law, as the Igbos do, and you don’t go for Christian wedding, and you marry a girl of 14 years, nobody cares, because the Constitution says the National Assembly cannot make laws that affect formation and annulment of marriages. We should realise that in this country, the only thing that can guarantee peace is adhering to Section 38 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion. That provision makes me, as a Muslim, to respect the opinions, religious beliefs and aspirations of the Christian, while the Christian should also respect my own religious beliefs. People are just trying to overheat the system. But really, there is nothing there to overheat because this provision is in the Constitution. We didn’t make this Constitution but are only trying to amend it. Those who put it in the Constitution were trying to protect the interest of the Muslims who believe in Islamic Law. Anybody who doesn’t believe in Islamic Law will have nothing to do with it.
But how did your particular remarks spark off a whole lot of controversy?
What really happened was that when the voting was going on, I didn’t notice it. Even when the debate was going on at the committee level, I wasn’t there. I had gone to Lagos and when I arrived there, they had passed that section. It wasn’t discussed in my presence, otherwise I would have raised an observation. But when I saw it in the constitutional amendment, that they wanted to remove it, I raised an observation. By the time I saw it, the election had been conducted and the Senate had agreed to remove the section. Then I got up and said that, “Mr. President, this section was put in there to protect Muslims who believe in Islamic Law, and removing it would be affecting the right of Muslims. Moreover, I pointed out, removing it would not be in conformity with the relevant part of the Second Schedule which restricts the National Assembly from making laws on the formation and annulment of marriages. But he said, “unfortunately, Senator Yerima, we have voted and you should have raised this issue before voting. Now that we have voted, we cannot do otherwise.” So I sat down. It was time for prayers and I went to pray. When I came back from prayers, I met the Deputy Senate president raising a point after voting, trying to explain something in order to reverse voting that had been cast on an issue. It was then the Senate Leader also raised another observation on the next issue. Then, I raised an observation that, ‘Mr. President, you said the observation I raised on my issue cannot be revisited because it has been voted upon, but now that there is revisiting of voting on other issues, I demand that my issue be voted upon again.’ Then Danjuma Goje raised his hand and supported me. Of course, he made some remarks to the effect of double-standard, which the Senate president was not happy about. Maybe he (Goje) should have put it that if he (the Senate president) could allow the other two people to revisit their observations, then he should have allowed Yerima’s observation. Anyway, Mr. President in his wisdom, accepted. David Mark has been a wonderful Senate president since I knew him in his first term as president of the Senate. He is a good listener and tries to ensure he carries everybody along. He is also very sensitive about matters affecting not only religion but every individual. He wants fairness. And so he said, “for that reason, we will vote again.” And when we voted, we won. This is the issue. Before the voting, the Deputy Senate president raised an observation that this issue is not a matter of marriage but on the renunciation of citizenship. But I said that, well, my concern is on the definition of full age. I just wanted the vote because in my religion, under Islamic Law, full age is not defined by age. Once a girl reaches puberty, she is of full age.
You just spoke highly of the Senate president. But he was reported by the newspapers to have said senators voted to support your observation under blackmail. Were senators truly blackmailed, and how?
I don’t see the word “blackmail” as used by Senate president David Mark as negatively used. It’s semantic. I didn’t see it as a negative statement. Whenever I am criticised for my actions by the media or the public, what I try to get from that criticism is where I have gone wrong and I try to correct it. But when I am sure I am doing the right thing, it doesn’t bother me. Praise-singing doesn’t flatter me. I don’t believe in praise-singers who will always tell me I am a champion. The most important thing is that I believe in my faith and I know I would be accountable for my actions when I die. I know I will face criticisms, I will continue to have this problem because I am a Muslim and I cannot change my faith. A committed Christian will face the same problem I am going through. Today, the Western world is losing their values. Churches are being sold because few people go to churches. They are trying to change the world into a free world to give the impression that nothing like God exists. They first started to separate State from religion. In Nigeria, that is difficult because if the Constitution itself recognises religion, then it is part of our political system. When the gay marriage bill came to the National Assembly and the West said if we don’t pass it we would not receive aid and grants, the Senate president said “to hell with aid and grants” if only we have to pass the bill.
The Senate president also hinted the early marriage issue will be revisited? With the barrage of criticisms that attended this voting, do you see a change in the voting process?
That is when there will be another constitutional amendment, not now. But I am telling you, if we revisit this issue one million times, we will not have two-thirds of the votes to pass it. Any constitutional amendment requires two-thirds of the Senate and two-thirds of the House of Representatives. Every Muslim who understands what Islam is will not vote to remove that section of the Constitution. If it is voting to put the clause there, that is a different thing entirely; then I should be accused of bringing something sensitive into the Constitution. But it is already there and I only said, “don’t remove it”, in keeping to my faith. What is wrong with that? The framers of the Constitution knew what they were doing by putting it there.
Are you sure we will not have more of your colleagues who would say they voted in error and ignorance the first time, like Senator Ayo Akinyelure from Ondo State claimed he did, and would vote in the other direction the next time?
He didn’t even know how he voted. That is the power of God and you can’t challenge that power. There were Muslims who wanted to vote in favour of retaining the section, but they voted yes, which meant “remove it”. Maybe that man wanted to vote no against Yerima, but his “no” to the committee meant “leave it”. So he had to face his people back home to cry he voted in error.
Were you expecting the strong backlash that has attended your observation, re-voting and the result?
I have become used to it. As I said, Nigerians are lazy or carelessly unaware of our laws. When I introduced the issue of Shari’a, for example, I was expecting it to be a local affair and my only area of concern was how to address the fears of Christians in my state. So I called for a meeting of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) leaders and explained the issue to them. They have always supported me, especially the Lady of Fatima. They have been strong supporters of my campaign and, till today, they still support me. I explained to them I would be implementing the Shari’a law in Zamfara State. Then, anybody who heard anything about Shari’a was thinking somebody would be killed. But I explained to them that Shari’a is only about the principle and practice of Islam and does not affect anybody who is not a Muslim. I made it clear there was no compulsion about religion. If there is a case between a Muslim and a Muslim, it goes to the Shari’a court. If there is a case between a Muslim and government, it goes to the Shari’a court. I told them if there is a case involving Christians, it goes to a magistrate court. Someone raised an observation that what would happen if it is a case between a Muslim and a Christian and I said in that case, it is the right of the Christian to choose which court to go. To be cautious, we said if a Christian decides to go to a Shari’a court in a case involving him and a Muslim, the Christian should put his application in writing and the CAN signature must be appended on it, so that tomorrow, he would not say he was forced to appear before a Shari’a court. When I came up with that Shari’a law, many people began shouting. I received more than 5,000 letters from Amnesty International from all over the world. It was when I announced I would be implementing the Shari’a law that I knew the enormity of protest that would confront me. Initially, I thought it was a just a local affair. Christian leaders have endorsed, after discussion, the implementation. They said, “go ahead.” They even asked at the meeting what and what I was going to ban. I told them I wasn’t banning anything new. The Northern Nigeria Penal Code, which has been operating since the British colonial era, has banned alcoholism, has banned prostitution and has banned gambling, so these are not new issues. The only issue is that I am bringing in the Shari’a court to provide full jurisdiction cover for the Shari’a law, both criminal and civil. So the Christians leaders said, “no problem then, once it doesn’t affect us.” When the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo called us to a National Security Council meeting, he was shouting, “Yerima o, Yerima o, you want to cause problem for us, you are introducing an unconstitutional matter.” I told him, “No, no, sir, it’s not unconstitutional.” Even late Bola Ige, who was Minister of Justice said, “this is unconstitutional.” And I said no, “your Honourable Minister, you are not the one to interpret the Constitution. I am relying on Section 6, sub-sections 4 and 5 which state specifically that only the Supreme Court can provide jurisdiction. I am also relying on Section 36 sub-section 12 which states that if you are creating any law, it has to be qualified. So I complied with that sub-section by qualifying my law. I am also complying with all the other sections of the Constitution, a fact I mentioned to the Justice Minister. I told him it was not for him to interpret. The same Constitution provides that it is only the Supreme Court that can interpret the Constitution’s provisions. So if he wants, he could take me to court. The federal government could take me to the Supreme Court and if the Supreme Court says I am not doing the right thing, then I would stop it. In fact, I would resign. One of the laws was put to test. I signed a law establishing what I called the Hizbah, which they called the state police. It wasn’t a state police; it was just to support the Shari’a project. The Kano State government then adopted the initiative and the federal government took the Kano State government to court. The Supreme Court interpreted it that it was a right constitutional provision. Till today, Kano State has the Hizbah because the Supreme Court has approved it, correctly interpreting the section of the Constitution that we relied on to enact the law. It is the same thing with this issue; people don’t know the Constitution. In fact, many Nigerians don’t even know there is a provision for the Shari’a in the Constitution. Somebody was telling me the Nigerian Constitution is a secular one. I told him no, the Nigerian Constitution defines Nigeria as a multi-religion society because it recognises Christianity, Islam and traditional religions.
Were you ever embarrassed by scathing articles and cartoons attacking your name on this marriage age controversy?
No. If you are doing the right thing and your conscience is very clear, you won’t be embarrassed by people abusing you. Most of these abuses arise either out of ignorance or out of sheer deliberate mischief to cause embarrassment. Some Muslims who abuse me are either being hired or sponsored by non-governmental organisations. I have been taught to be patient. This is a matter of belief and faith.
The argument by civil society groups is that there is no way the educational progress, health and true love feelings and emotions of a girl will not be affected if she is given out in marriage at 13 years. How wrong are they?
Civil society groups just say what they are not informed about because their projects are being funded. And they keep silent when it suits their interests. Look at the issue of gay marriage. Religious organisations in Nigeria have been condemning gay marriage, but civil society groups here are either silent on it or even saying it should be approved. In the United Kingdom, they say the marriageable age for a girl is 18 years. It was 16 then they changed it to 18. But a girl, in current UK laws, is of full age when she is 14 years. At 14, she can buy contraceptives, she can have sex, but she cannot marry. I saw a bill by one of their parliamentarians saying because of the growing number of their girls getting pregnant and delivering at 10, 12, 14 years, they should reduce their marriageable age to 12 years. They are Christians but they accept that a lady can buy contraceptives at the age of 14 because that is their own definition of full age. In the United States of America, their problem now is teenage pregnancy and birth. Why? Because they allow girls to have sex at 12, 13 years but they don’t want early girl marriage, they don’t want a family arrangement My religion, Islam, and even Christianity, does not accept sex out of marriage. Those who are marrying at 12 years, are they not going to school? My wife has just completed her Master’s degree at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. She is a medical doctor. The Egyptian I married recently is in school. Yes, she has a child, she is 17 years, but she is in school. They said I married her when she was 13 years but actually she was 14. Her family status does not affect her education. It depends on the particular family values. I believe in education. All my children are educated. I have three daughters who have graduated from the university. One is an accountant, one a pharmacist and one is on her own. I have a 16-year-old daughter who will be marrying in September and she is in 200 Level in the university. Somebody was asking me: Can you give your 13-year-old daughter out in marriage? If she has a husband at 10 years old, I will give her out in marriage if she is mature enough. I will highly celebrate the marriage of my 16-year-old daughter in September and let me see who will tell me I am doing something unlawful or wrong in any way. It is nobody’s business. The husband is also doing his Master’s and they will continue their lives from there. I also married my first wife when she was 16 to 17 years. It is a shame in my family to see a girl having sex without being married. But some families don’t care. Beyond Islam, there are some strict Christian families who will not allow men to come near their daughters unless those two children are married. But some families don’t care. Some parents, both in Islam and Christianity, will even go in and call their unmarried daughters for boyfriends because they want to claim they are westernised. That is their life. But I value my religion. But then, that is my religion. I won’t foreclose the fact that Christians can equally do it their own way. In my youth service days, there were NYSC ladies who were Scripture Union members living in the same compound with me. My room adjoined theirs. Many days and nights, they would be conducting their programmes, praying, shouting “Alleluyah” and other Christian songs, but that didn’t bother me. Sometimes, I would sleep off. They preached to me and I preached to them. They would cook food, invite me to eat; I would also cook food and invite them to eat. We spent about six months together before I left the house. So, this religion thing should not divide us in Nigeria. But some people are using it as a weapon to divide us.
Courtesy: Sunday Trust
Published on Sunday, 28 July 2013 06:00
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