Yerima makes Senate back underage marriage, as lawmakers oppose local government autonomy

Senator Ahmad Yerima

Yerima married a 13 year old in 2009.

The former Zamfara State Governor and current Senator, Sani Yerima, whose marriage to a 13-year-old girl drew widespread outrage in 2009, literally pressed the Senate to reverse a vote that appeared to outlaw underage marriage, almost marring a crucial constitution amendment vote Tuesday.

Mr. Yerima contested and won the reversal despite a Senate policy barring repeat votes on clauses, arguing that an earlier decision was un-Islamic and biased.

The contentious provision, Section 29, allows citizens who are of age to renounce Nigerian citizenship if they wish. For that purpose, the constitution says, 18-year-olds and above shall be considered to be “of age”.

In addition, a woman or girl who is married, shall also be considered to be of age-a section that could be interpreted to imply that even a day old child, once married, shall be considered to be of age.

The Senate’s amendment committee had proposed that definition be deleted.

At first voting Tuesday, Senators overwhelmingly backed the recommendation that it be removed, leaving the prospect of final passage if accepted by the House of Representatives and Houses of Assembly.

But late into vote of dozens of clauses, while other Senators intermittently contested matters such as health, single election term and the separation of the offices of the Minister of Justice from the Attorney General, Mr. Yerima questioned why the section dealing with age of a married woman was deleted, describing the move as un-Islamic.

He demanded a revisit, a call that was turned down by Senate president, David Mark.

Mr. Mark ruled that as a member of the constitution review committee, Mr. Yerima had every opportunity to have sought a review and was against the chamber’s rule in seeking an amendment while the votes were on.

Mr. Yerima, backed by Danjuma Goje, former Gombe State Governor and current Senator, insisted that under Islamic tenet, a woman is of age once married and countering that order as already stated in the constitution would be discriminatory and in violation of another section of the constitution directing the National Assembly to steer away from Islamic marriage.

“The constitution says the National Assembly shall legislate on marriage except those under Islamic rites,” said the former governor whose marriage to the teenager triggered months of controversy. “Islam says once a woman is married, she is of age.”

Mr. Mark however conceded to a second vote after other proposed amendments had been concluded, saying he had to act due to the “sensitivity” of the matter as it concerns religion.

Still, Mr. Yerima’s demand was again thrashed 60 to 35 at a repeat vote but the section could not be deleted as constitution amendments require two thirds of the entire members-73 for the Senate- for a proposal to pass.

Separately, the Senate delivered a voting that appeared markedly different from its debate last week.

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While the lawmakers overwhelmingly voted against a single term of six years as they earlier demonstrated during debates, they rejected autonomy for the local governments, surprising predictions of an easy win for the third tier of government.

Only 59 members-less than the required 73- voted for a direct funding to the local governments. As it stands, such funds can only be routed through the state governments, long accused of abusing such rights.

The Senate also approved pension for its leadership despite criticisms from members last week.

Again, while Senators approved independent funding for the office of the nation’s Auditor General, they rejected a similar plan for the Attorney General, an office proposed under the amendments to be separated from the Minister of Justice.

Lawmakers also turned down a proposal to remove the word “Force” from the Nigeria Police Force, rejected the creation of the office of a Mayor for Abuja and somewhat unpredictably, removed Labour from the constitution’s exclusive list.

The removal implies that the federal government will no longer decide on a uniform National Minimum Wage. That decision will be open to the states.

The approvals are not yet laws, as they have to be adopted by the House of Representatives, and at least 24 state Houses of Assembly.

The House began its debates Tuesday ahead of voting later in the week.


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