By SAM EYOBOKA, SOLA OGUNDIPE, HENRY UMORU & JOSEPH ERUNKE
ABUJA— SENATE President, David Mark, yesterday, said proponents of Section 29 (4)(b) in the constitution hid under religious guise to get the section sail through during last week’s clause-by-clause voting in the on-going constitution amendment process.
He said it was time Nigerians shunned religion when dealing with sensitive issues if the country must forge ahead.
Already, the Christian Association of Nigerian, CAN, has concluded plans to mobilize Nigerians to protest the non-amendment of provisions of the Constitution, just as the Paediatric Association of Nigeria, PAN, has called for immediate reinstatement of the age of marriage to 18 years.
Mark, who said but for religious sentiment that was injected into the voting period, the section in question which tends to give support to underage marriage, would have been completely deleted from the nation’s constitution.
He regretted that rather than being praised, the upper legislative chamber was being vilified over its bold attempt to have the controversial clause removed from the country’s law book.
Speaking yesterday, while hosting the leadership of some women groups, under the aegis of Gender and Constitution Reform Network, GECORN, which stormed the National Assembly in protest over the controversial section, the Senate President lamented non-appreciation of the Senate for attempting to delete the said portion which he noted had been in the Nigerian Constitution since 1979.
“The good of the country is for everybody and not for a particular religious sect. Let me also talk to my own brothers and sisters who are senators, who were probably blackmailed. That is the fact, because it is in the open that I cannot also hide it and nobody can hide it. They were simply blackmailed, and on that day, if they didn’t do what they did, nobody knows the outcome or how the consequences will be today, because the people outside can say this man, you are Muslim and didn’t vote for something that is of Islamic interest, because if we don’t hit the nail squarely on the head, we may never get it right,” he insisted.
Even as he regretted that the Red Chamber could not secure the 73 votes required to delete it, he, nonetheless, assured that it was not yet over with the controversial clause, saying in no time, the Senate would revisit the issue with a view to getting it expunged from the constitution.
Mark stated: “It didn’t go through because of other tangential issues that were brought in on the floor of the Senate, total inconsequential issues, unconnected issues that were brought in. We wanted to remove it but it failed, we were a total of 101 and 85 voted and I think about six or so abstained. There was hardly any dissenting votes but once it got mixed up with so many other issues, it didn’t get the required 73 votes anymore”.
Noting that the public was castigating the Senate over the issue based on ignorance, he said: “So, first of all, I think the castigation outside is done out of misunderstanding. Because a religious connotation was brought into it, which is a very sensitive issue and you must agree with me that in this country, we try as much as possible not to bring issues that involves faith to the floor of the Senate and indeed the chamber, we keep religion completely out of it because what is good for a Christian is also good for a Muslim.
Earlier, leader of the spokesperson of the group and Executive Secretary of Women’s Right Advancement and Protection Alternative, WRAPA, Mrs. Saudautu Shehu Mahdi, said they were in the Senate not only to register their displeasure over last Tuesday’s Senate’s voting supporting the retention of Section 29 (4)(b), but to call on the National Assembly, as a whole to revisit the issue with a view to deleting it completely from the constitution.
Sandwiched between Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Hajia Zainab Maina, and the former Minister of Education, Mrs Obiageli Ezekwesili, Mrs Mahdi said “citizenship is and must remain gender-neutral and safeguarded from any cultural, religious or social interpretations or connotations”. She added: “The harm of maintaining Section 29(4)(b),which is open to manipulation arising from its ambiguity, far outweighs any arguable benefits a few females might arguably obtain”.
CAN plans national protest
Meanwhile, attempts by the Senate to placate Nigerians notwithstanding, the Christian Association of Nigerian, CAN, is planning to call out Nigerians to protest the non-amendment of the controversial provisions of Section 29 (4b) of the 1999 Constitution, just as the Catholic Archbishop of Lagos describes the endorsement of child marriage as inhuman.
National President, CAN, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, who spoke to Vanguard in Lagos before he jetted out of the country, described the Senate’s endorsement of child marriage as a shame, adding “the only solution is for Nigerians to cry out.”
He wondered whether Nigerians had been too brutalized “that we have no voice anymore to cry out, because it’s like we are so used to wrong things that everybody just accepts it when it comes. So is this the way we are going to accept this again? I hope not, honestly. It’s a great disappointment. It’s totally against normal human justice. Children don’t know anything; they can’t fight for themselves. So we’ll fight for them. If the National Assembly of a country can vote for adults to sleep with children, your own children; it just reflects and shows the condition of the nation.
“If it is true that the Senate first voted to say that only girls above 18 should be married; and then that vote was turned down by Mr. Yerima, and that was overturned; and later they now voted that even children should be married…if it is true, I think it is one of the greatest shames of the century for Nigeria as a nation. Not just the National Assembly because the National Assembly is a reflection of Nigeria; it is a shame. It’s a disgrace. I feel ashamed to call myself a Nigerian. There are places I will go into right now and I don’t know what I’m going to do, especially those of us that travel around the world.”
Also speaking through the Director of Social Communications, Very Rev. Msgr. Gabriel Osu, the Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, Archbishop Alfred Adewale Martins, called on the law makers to quickly rethink and rescind their decision and show some respect for the wishes of the people. He said: “Failure to do this would lend credence to the popular belief that their junketing around the nation under the guise of receiving grassroots opinion on constitutional amendment was another ruse for wasting time and the nation’s resources.”
Archbishop Martins added that any attempt by the Senate to hold on to its present position would mean giving consent to an obnoxious provision that found its way into a military-engineered constitution which deprive many a girl-child the right to grow into healthy and productive adults. Retaining that provision of the 1999 constitution would amount to endorsing a provision that robs children of their childhood.
Leave marriage age at 18, PAN pleads
In a related development, the Paediatric Association of Nigeria, PAN, has called for called for immediate reinstatement of the age of marriage at 18 years in the country.
Expressing shock over the retention of the controversial Section 29 (4b) of the 1999 Constitution, in the new Federal constitution proposal, to the effect that the age of marriage which has been traditionally put at 18 years has been expunged, PAN National President, Professor Adebiyi Olowu and the National Secretary, Dr. Jerome Elusiyan, argued that the according to the United Nations convention to which Nigeria is a signatory, 18 years remained the age of maturity.
“It is no surprise that the age of 18 years is also the age that adulthood begins and the age at which an individual is allowed to vote, drive and own bank account among others,” the duo noted in a signed statement..
PAN stated: “Our Association takes this as an abuse of the right of the child to which our country Nigeria is a signatory and expresses its readiness to join forces with well meaning Nigerians and other interest groups to see to the reinstatement of 18 years as the age of marriage in Nigeria. This amendment in the marriage act if allowed will make Nigeria a laughing stock in the comity of nations.”
It warned that the medical consequences of Girl Child Marriage which includes development of Vesico-Vaginal Fistula,VVF, low birth weight, birth asphyxia among others should strongly be a deterrent to this act that is universally condemnable.