In 2010, the then 49-year-old polygamist ex-governor of Zamfara State and currently a senator of the Federal Republic, Alhaji Sani Yerima, married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl, for whom he paid $100,000 bride price.
The Nigerian constitution pegs the age of consent at 18; while the Nigerian Child Rights Act 2003 forbids marriage to anyone under 18.
Though Nigerians no longer talk about the incident, the senator seems to still have an axe to grind with his critics and he chose the ongoing constitution review exercise to get even.
As the members of the National Assembly prepared to vote on certain sections of the constitution last Tuesday, the two-time governor attempted to arm-twist the Senate to reverse a vote that had sought to outlaw underage marriage.
Section 29(1)(a) of the constitution provides that “full age” means 18 years up; and the constitution review committee had proposed the removal of S.29(4)(b) that says “Any woman that is married shall be deemed to be of full age.”
Senators overwhelmingly backed the recommendation for its removal, giving the prospect of final passage if accepted by the two-thirds members of House of Representatives and two-thirds members of each state House of Assembly.
Yerima would have none of that and he questioned why the particular section should be of interest to his fellow lawmakers. He introduced religious sentiment, describing the senators’ move as “un-Islamic.”
He argued that under the Islamic tenet, a woman is of age once married; and that if the senators expunge the clause, they would be in violation of another section of the constitution — Second Schedule, Part 1, Item 61 — asking the National Assembly to steer clear of issues relating to Islamic marriage.
“The constitution says the National Assembly shall legislate on marriage, except those under Islamic rites. Islam says once a woman is married, she is of age,” Yerima argued.
Senate President, David Mark, initially rejected Yerima’s argument, but he allowed a second vote after other proposed amendments had been concluded, acknowledging the “sensitivity of the matter, as it concerns religion.”
At the repeat vote, Yerima’s camp lost, 35 to 60. But there’s no cause to cheer, as the controversial section stays, since constitution amendment requires two-thirds of the entire members’ vote, which would have been 73 of the 109 senators.