By Rotimi Fasan
The cesspool of corruption that is drowning electoral practice in Nigeria is being further muddied by the clearly self-serving antics of our national legislators in Abuja. Recently the Senate came up with the hairbrained idea of lowering the voting age for underaged girls who happen to be married. This legislation is tailored to address the peculiar needs of a section of the country, namely the North, where child marriage is rife. There is nothing altruistic about this proposed law. If anything, it is meant to legitimise a morally reprehensible, unconstitutional and possibly criminal act.
After the outrage against the Independent National Electoral Commission following the initial proposal by the Senate, it all looked like the National Assembly had dropped the idea. But a joint committee of the House of Representatives and the Senate has revived the idea and is dead set to follow through with it. As I mentioned above, the legislation is tailored to the needs of supporters of child marriage, unrepentant child abusers, in the North.
But it would be wrong to imagine the beneficiaries are only from the North. Evidently, members of the joint committee of the National Assembly that worked on the legislation couldn’t all be Northerners. Which goes to show that where it’s a matter of their common interest our legislators are always united irrespective of any ethnic or sectarian divide. Some of them are known to have boasted about their harem probably peopled with underaged girls who are seen as trophy wives. Perhaps, it’s also a case of these legislators doing one another a favour. Today it’s the turn of the North, tomorrow it would be the turn of the South or any other region whose legislators need special favours.
The unity of purpose that underpins the making of this legislation is baffling. Does it mean no single legislator saw anything wrong with it? This is not only about legitimising child marriage. It is also about perpetuating electoral fraud, if girls who would not otherwise be eligible to vote on account of their age are given special but grossly unfair dispensation to allow them to vote. Yet, if the law makers from the North are united in proposing the law, how come none from the South or across the party divide is known to have raised any objection to it?
How come it’s all silence from the legislative chambers? This reminds one of what happened during the processes that led to the enactment of the Companies and Allied Matters Act, CAMA, that got Nigerians exercised after the fact of its promulgation. Many church leaders and other Christians felt it was a law meant to curtail the activities of Christians or church leaders perceived as critical of the Muhammadu Buhari administration. But the fact remains that the bill went through all legitimate stages and committees of the National Assembly made up of both Christians and Muslims. Yet none of them complained until things had come to a head.
This legislation to lower the voting age is a clear endorsement of rape that is embodied in child marriage. It is also a discriminatory attempt to open the electoral field to ineligible people to vote. The legislation is an indictment of the Nigerian legislature as a whole. More importantly, it is proof that the Northern leadership establishment is yet to learn critical lessons from the social turbulence and upheaval that have made life in that region impossible in the last few years. The criminal activities of the domestic terrorists called bandits, if not Boko Haram, arguably has its roots in the egregious policies of Northern politicians that have impeded the growth and development of the youth demographics.
After many years of wielding and exercising political power, the Northern leadership establishment has very little to show for it in terms of human and infrastructural development. The region has the record for out-of-school youth. Many children who should be in school are part of the armies of so-called almajirai: deprived, exploited children who wander from place to place in the name of obtaining a religious education. It is also in the North that the practice of giving out young girls in marriage to men old enough to be their grandparents is actively promoted by people who ordinarily should be opposed to it.
Aside the health risk that such early marriages constitute for the girls whose youth is taken away from them in addition to the difficulty of childbearing, it also presents a social risk that denies the girl-child the right to education. There is no doubt that the average Northern girl carries risks additional to those to which Nigerian girls and women are generally exposed. They have no access to education and the few who do are soon victims of violent abductions even in their school environments or are forced into early marriage.
In the case of the Northern male youth, they have found a way around the problem by taking to banditry. The wicked policies and actions of political leaders that have excluded many Northern youths from the gains of a rewarding future is one of the reasons why the entire region has been turned into an enclave of kidnappers, cattle rustlers and religious extremists. If life in the North has become a short, nasty and brutish struggle, it is only because of criminal policies like the present age-lowering legislation that are designed to further enthral the female child in the North. It bodes no good for Nigeria’s electoral system that is struggling with all kinds of criminal practices such as violence and ballot-stuffing, among others.
It would seem like some Northern politicians are so desperate for the power they would do just about anything to get it, including sharp, unfair, and, therefore, unacceptable electoral practices. What’s the point in seeking to lower the voting age for underaged but married girls if not to increase the vote tally of the politicians concerned? Many down South already believe that the North has for long been falsifying figures of national events like the national census and elections in order to boost the chances of the North.
Just this last weekend the local government election in Kano was marred by allegations of fraud as many underaged people were seen voting. The same allegation dogged the election that brought President Buhari into office in 2015. Is it coincidental that Kabiru Gaya, a key mover of the proposed age-lowering legislation is from Kano?
Why should anyone be scheming for a separate law for a part of the country? What purpose would such a law serve? This legislation would only undermine confidence in the country’s electoral system and in the North’s commitment to fair play. It should be junked as it does not make for national harmony.