Nigeria’s divided heart
I witnessed first hand the deep-seated and seething divisions in Nigeria and realised that after all said and done, our greatest and irreconcilable differences might just be in the attitude to our various religions! This happened at the just concluded national conference on the welfare of the child organised by the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and supported by Global Affairs Canada and Save the Children.
There were over 264 participants, majority of whom came from core northern states that had not passed the Child Rights Act. The Child Rights Act emanated from the Convention on the Rights of the Child and seeks the best possible welfare and protection for the child against the background of abuses and exploitations. It was domesticated in 2003 without any reservations in Nigeria. Several states have further passed the Act into law within their jurisdictions, as it is mainly the constitution that superintends over all jurisdictions but Acts of the National Assembly may have to be made into laws in each state to have effect.
The Child Rights Act of itself is seen by many as superfluous. Although it makes attempts to bring under one umbrella all legal provisions that concern the child, many see it as an unnecessary parrying to whatever comes from the West. For instance, in Section 20 a child is never to be given corporal punishment. The sensitivity of some of these provisions which make it seem that a parent would lose control over his/her child makes it appear un-African. A real case occurred where a man visited his brother in the UK and spanked his nephew when he misbehaved and the child called the police. The brother had to come from work to bail his brother.
It is true the child in Nigeria suffers many abuses. There are at least 32 reported cases of rape every month in Katsina State according to some sources; and this is not limited to that state alone. Uncles rape cousins whether in South South or South West. In Borno State it has been reported that many young boys have severe anal injuries because of rape. This is apart from the uncountable Almajiri boys who roam the streets of most of the states of the North West and North East begging for food, without additional education or skills that would make them economically viable. In some South South states children are branded witches and wizards and thrown out of homes by parents and guardians, while there is the pervading houseboy and house girl syndrome that turns girls and boys into slavish hawkers of goods even at night.
Nonetheless some participants felt that even in states where the CRA had been adopted into a law, there was no significant difference between the conditions of the child and those of children in other states, and therefore that it was better to improve governance and enforce access to universal free basic education as enunciated in the UBE act. Many participants preferred the pursuit of family rights, as the Child Rights Act seemed to rather single out the child whereas the smallest unit of society in Africa is the family.
In no other place was Nigeria’s divided heart laid bare than in the issue of age of marriage. The Muslims were uncompromising in their position that Islam does not recognise 18 as the age of marriage and decried the criminalisation of marriage to someone below the age of 18. While Christians maintained that just as there is respect for 18 years being the legal age one could obtain a driver’s licence or consume alcohol, 18 should also be respected as the legal age of marriage, considering certain complications as Vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF), “a hole that develops between the vagina and the bladder after child birth, resulting in uncontrollable leaking of urine through the vagina;” a phenomenon which occurs a lot among underage girls who give birth. The Muslim group opined that there are other causes of VVF, and a girl’s immaturity may not just be because of age but because of poor care. Early marriage was seen as panacea for parents who want their girls to go out of poverty.
So while the Christians condemned the dual legal system in Nigeria, the Muslims insisted anything that was against sharia was null and void. Incidentally not many people know that the Canon Law of the Catholic Church actually states the age of marriage to be 16 for the male gender and 14 for the female gender. This was to factor in cultures which practice early marriage. However the Catholic Church authorities direct that the Bishops conference in each country is to respect the laws of the land; this is why in Nigeria if you are marrying in the Catholic Church a girl must be 18 years old even though the universal law allows for a lower age.
What disturbs me is, how do we compromise to live together as a nation? Islam has as its first principle the protection of religion; how do we ensure that in a nation state as Nigeria, it is not only one religion that is protected? How does the state ensure that sharia is restricted to Muslims? How do we ensure that the state would be neutral to prosecute men who forcefully abduct underage girls, force them to convert to a religion and then marry them off, claiming they are now converts ? Christians in the North claim that when a Muslim undergraduate girl converts, her age is reduced to under-18 to enable the prosecution of the agent of conversion while law enforcement officers become helpless when the religious conversion card is put forward in the case of an underage Christian girl. Our religions have various expectations of us but how does the state become neutral enough to guarantee the human rights of the weak against the strong? How do we find a meeting point to live together as one humanity ? It is really sad, because at the end of it all, while the rich never have divisions, victims are always the children of the poor.
Fr. Bassey wrote from the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria.