Yerima’s original sin by Abimbola Adelakun

Nigerians worship two gods in their political affairs: tribe and religion. Both are more vengeful than Soponna, the Yoruba god of smallpox, but religion is more easily provoked and invoked. So, in 2010 when Sani Yerima — the man who kick-started the Sharia law controversy in Nigeria — married a minor, he reached for a choice armament: religion.

When he was questioned on the illegal –and immoral- act of snagging a child from the cradle, he claimed it was consistent with his religious beliefs. From painful experience, we know when someone like Yerima yells that his religion is threatened, the almajiri army in his constituency would need no further prompting before they commence burning anyone and everything. Yerima was thus left alone with his bride. Until the fury that the failed constitution amendment generated last week, Yerima’s marriage was a latent issue. It is remarkable that the ongoing debate did not even start with the malignant problem of child marriage, yet, it has become that all the same. Yerima is the face of the hoopla because of his original sin.

The Senate has feverishly explained, understandably though, that Nigerians misunderstood them but I am afraid it is too late. They will be hardly heard above the din. Another interesting dimension to the whole affair is how the good people of Ondo State have descended upon their lawmaker, Ayo Akinyelure, who has since been hashtagged as “the only Yoruba man who voted an obnoxious law.” The collective Ondo rage reduced Akinyelure to weeping like a wet puppy. He apologised and claimed he voted in error because he was not technologically savvy –a story that can be told only by politicians. It is almost comical. If only this wrath were directed at issues of corruption or bad governance too!

For the records, I support the removal of the problematic clause. If Section 29 4 (a)(b) of the Constitution says that a married woman of any age is of “full age,” it presupposes that a marriage to a female-minor is valid, and that the minor is married to someone older than 18. Otherwise, if a 16-year-old woman marries a fellow 16-year-old, does that mean she is considered of full age and he is not? How does “full age” account for the possibility of, say, a 19-year-old woman marrying a 17-year-old? There are various grey areas, some of which have been vigorously expounded in the media. It is best the Senate sits down and makes this a more extended conversation. And before it votes again, it should show the Akinyelures where to press their hand. This is a social discourse that should not be drowned under the usual debate-killing notions of “African culture” and various religious precepts.

Since the conversation turned to early marriages, there has been support for the practice, even among very educated people. Most of the proponents of child marriage plank the major parts of their discourse on what they termed women’s “sexual immorality.” To these unscientific theorists, preoccupied as they are with their standards of feminine morality, marriage becomes the ultimate solution; a fallacy passed down through the ages via the scions of patriarchates.  Their model of social redemption is so phallocentric that it does not stop to ask why things are the way they are. Rather, it assumes that young women have sex because of an itch between their legs and, they –mostly men — have just the right instrument to scratch it. Their fallacious paradigm does not seek to tease out why boys too indulge in pre-marital intercourse; they cannot spare time for such extended thinking because they are too fixated on women’s bodies. To them, early marriage is convenient and that is why they shag it to death.

The debate — and surrounding misunderstandings — is actually a very good one. It exposes the underbelly of the Nigerian situation. It shows there is disconnect between the ruler and the ruled in Nigeria. Those who give out their baby girls in marriage do not care about the law; to them the Constitution might as well be written for the members of the elite and a contented middle class. While the Constitution provides a good reference point, I do not see how it stops people who marry their daughters off at puberty because of poverty, culture and religious dogma. The reality of the Nigerian underclass differs from what exists in Abuja.

The controversy also shows the question of patriarchy in Nigerian politics. The 35 Senators who voted for this contentious clause to remain unchanged were men. If there had been more women in the House, perhaps things would have been different? Thanks to this debate, we can also confirm that some of our lawmakers are in Abuja to do nothing but earn outrageous fat salaries (that is why they yawn on live TV!) and they have zero understanding of what they do in the hallowed chambers. Otherwise, why would Akinyelure ask for forgiveness for a sin he did not quite commit?

The ongoing debate, however, reechoes Yerima’s original sin. In 2010, he declared he was within his fundamental religious right to marry a 13-year-old and, instructively, added that as a Muslim, he regarded the Islamic law and precepts above any other laws in the world. The question then and now is, if Yerima believes in the primacy of Islamic law, why is he in the Senate? Is he pretending not to know that the Senate is a tradition founded and evolved on Roman/ Western traditions? So, why did he not stay in Zamfara State and start his madrassa?

The point is not that a religious person should not participate in modern political systems since the laws of even secular countries evolved from religious cultures. The problem is that when people like Yerima straddle secular and religious laws, they do so not to reconcile their contradictions for social development. Rather, they exploit the opportunities and shortcomings inherent in both. When it suits Yerima, he reaches for Islam. When it is too stifling, he becomes a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

This ideological two-timing is Yerima’s original sin and the ongoing rage –largely misplaced as it is — sees him as the face of a sickening hypocrite. His Janus-faced behaviour, by a curious twist of fate and the power of social media, has returned to haunt him.

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