Nigeria Nobel Laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka and Femi Falana, a human rights activist and a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, have strongly criticized the Nigerian government for permitting the practice of child marriages to thrive in the country and also condemned silence of the Federal Government over its failure to prosecute Senator Ahmed Yerima, the former governor of Zamfara state who allegedly married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl.
According to Soyinka,
Until we make an example of people like (Senator Ahmed) Yerima, there will be thousands of Yunusa.
The duo made this disclosure during a press conference held on Sunday titled, “Justice at Bay: The Long, Twisted Road to Ese”, where they both revealed that the abduction of the 14-year-old girl was a criminal act that must not be allowed to go without punishment.
As Prof. Soyinka said, other people have been encouraged to engage in the act as a result of the government’s failure to bring previous perpetrators to book. He also spoke against attempts to justify the kidnap and conversion of Ese Oruru to Islam.
Soyinka opposed a professor of Islamic Eschatology and Director of Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), Ishaq Akintola, who put up a defence in a national newspaper over the controversy arising from the abduction of Miss Ese Oruru claiming that Islam has no age barrier in marriage. Soyinka said,
I want to ask him (Akintola), who invoked religion in the first place? What everybody was screaming was that this was a crime, a criminal act. Who brought religion into a purely criminal act? People should be very careful when they speak. They should take care not to worsen an already inexcusable situation by dragging religion into it.
So, who exactly brings religion into issues of governance, of constitution, of law? We’re saying that there’s something higher than the protocols of any religion, and has to be higher simply because those who inhabit this border called Nigeria belong to more than one religion.
There has to be a commonality which directs our conduct, which organises our lives. As inadequate as it is, it is the Constitution.
For me – I don’t know about you – the welfare of a child is even more important than money that is stolen. You can always retrieve the money, but when you damage a child with a fistula, which ruins a child for life, if you believe in God, you’re committing a crime against God.
If you steal money, you commit crime against the circular society, but when you damage a child because of your own depravity, you ruin that child for life, you traumatise that child, so don’t come and tell me that you’re religious and pious.
Soyinka recalled that during the Yerima child-marriage saga, scholars highlighted tenets from the Quran, which proved that Yerima was wrong, adding that such acts of indemnity was responsible for the birth of problems like Boko Haram. In the words of the renown literary writer,
A governor, now senator, boasts that he has a right to marry and consummated a marriage with a 13-year-old, when it’s proven that he actually paid the father who was a driver in Egypt, and we screamed at the time that this was a crime, not only in Nigeria but in a Moslem country – Egypt; that this was cross-border sex trafficking, in addition to flouting the laws of this nation and Egypt.
He took the girl from school and then announces his right to consummate the marriage – that his religion permitted him to do so.
When you invoke religion, there are others who will say: ‘O, you say you are pious, but I am holier than you, therefore I can interpret that same source the way I want to authorise me to kill you, your wife, your brothers, your family; because I say you’re not holy enough and I can prove it.’ That is what happens when we allow people to get away with impunity based on religion.
So, let’s take religion out of this. We’re talking about pure criminality and it is my demand, and will always remain my demand, that until you make an example of people like Yerima, there will be thousands of Yunusa, the man who abducted Ese.
Soyinka further stated that making a demand for justice for Ese does not mean being against the Islamic religion. Hear him:
I sympathise with his (Akintola’s) feeling that his religion is under siege. But he should look for other reasons. He shouldn’t try and suggest that people hate Islam. Don’t say that people are Islamophobic. That’s rubbish.
We’re against crimes, defined by the Constitution, the legal structure that bind us all together, and we say leave religion out of it. Any religious practice involves a continuous debate. But when we’re talking about crime please don’t diffuse the subject. When we say Yerima should be prosecuted, don’t diffuse it.
In his speech, Mr. Falana, who spoke particularly concerning the issue of the abducted Ese, maintained that under Section 38 (2) of the 1999 Constitution, no child of school age should be forced to convert to another religion other than that of his/her parents.
The section says:
No person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if such instruction ceremony or observance relates to a religion other than his own, or religion not approved by his parent or guardian.
Falana, who recalled that Yunusa’s father had revealed that he warned his son not to bring Ese to Kano, said the Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, had even directed security agencies to return Ese to her parents on learning of the incident.
Falana, who cited several laws and conventions, also maintained that it an offence not to allow one’s child to be educated.
Falana said “it is a violation of Section 38 of the Constitution,” for Ese who was attending a school in Bayelsa State to be kidnapped by Yunusa and taken to Kano State for a forceful conversion to Islam without the approval of her parents. According to the Senior Advocate Of Nigeria,
There is a United Nations convention for the rights of the child. Nigeria as a UN member ratified the convention and domesticated the law in 2003. Since 2003, we have had the Child’s Right Act. Under Section 15 of the Act, every child in Nigeria shall be educated at the expense of the state from primary to junior secondary school.
For the avoidance of doubt, in 2004, we also enacted the Compulsory Universal Basic Education Act that has also imposed a duty on the state to ensure that every child is educated from primary to junior secondary school.
In fact, under that law, it is a criminal offence not to allow your child to be educated. What Yunusa has done by taking that girl from her school in Yenegoa is a violation of that law.
About 24 states have adopted the Child’s Right Act, and under the law, which is applicable in Bayelsa State, what Yunusa did is purely criminal – kidnapping, forced marriage, rape, sexual assault on a girl who was 13 last year. Now she has been put in a family way. You can imagine the danger to the health of that girl.
That is why all Nigerians must rise to retrieve all under-age children that have been forced into illegal marriages. We need a national movement against child marriage in our country.