Saturday, July 20, 2013

Section 29 and the Personhood of the Nigerian Womanhood

Nigerian lawmakers have lobbed a curveball, and the citizens have responded by swinging in anger. Sen. Yerima, in a coup at the Senate during a routine vote on renunciation of citizenship, managed to argue successfully to maintain subsection 4(b) to our constitution (Do forgive the relative absence of links and wording of the constitution on this piece; I’m writing from an offline laptop and uploading the post on Blogger through my phone). Currently, Section 29 allows Nigerian citizens 18 and over to forsake their citizenship. At Sen. Yerima’s insistence, subsection to Section 29, 4(b) has been left in, stipulating that any woman married is to be deemed of an adult, and thus of age, using the justification that putting so high an age of adulthood is against Islam.

This, as you can imagine, is problematic for many reasons. My first thought was: how can one man hold the Senate to ransom and force a repeat vote, even with a constitution? His insistence on this provision in the constitution did not pass on the first round of votes, but did on the second. Mercifully, Nigerians have kicked themselves into gear; organizing petition drives and open letters and press statements, mobilizing to find ways to take the online passion offline, and reaching out to more and more people. I am encouraged by the attention that we have managed to sustain over the last few days, but I fear a missed opportunity to address the more pertinent issue of Nigerian women’s citizenship rights.

From the very beginning, politically-aware Nigerians on social media used the easiest, more emotional topic to rally around, with a ready-made hashtag that has been around for a while -- #ChildNotBride. I don’t think the discussion on child marriages was unnecessary, mind you; we all know Sen. Yerima’s antecedents as one not opposed to marrying minors and it is correct to point out that one of the implications of such a provision as Section 29, sub-section 4(b), passing muster is that the window within which one could persecute a man for marrying a young girl-child is only open in betrothal, after which she will be, according to the constitution, legally an adult. But if we are to properly focus this discussion, we will do well to take this as an opportunity to address the personhood of the Nigerian woman.

There are entirely too ways in which the Nigerian constitution shuts women out. The current iteration of the constitution does not allow women to pass on citizenship rights to foreign spouses. Even the federal character argument that seeks to balance ethnic diversity in political office does not extend this logic to gender balance. All this, and never mind there being no constitutional protections for women against prejudice and violence. Women are not alone in being without constitutional protections, though; youth and persons with disability are not either. There is no clearer indication that Nigeria sees itself politically as a collection of different ethnicities, and not a nation of men and women. We are then looking for our constitution, a document that does not recognize the individual as a political entity, for our protection. IF this is to be feasible at all, we would need to make the argument more broadly seeking the protection of personhood as a general matter. 

The Nigerian constitutional review process has not been as well covered as that of recent constitutional review efforts by our counterparts in Kenya and Ghana, so a lot of groundwork needs to be done in order to ensure that folk are aware and on message. Civil society groups focusing on gender wrote memorandum after memorandum on how best to make for a more woman-friendly constitution, very much in the shadows of larger issues such as state police and local government autonomy. One of the main problems observable with mounting a social media awareness campaign is just how easily the message can veer off in a direction that you don’t want it to take. We do not have a Melissa Harris-Perry on TV every Saturday morning to help us guide multi-media conversation in traditional media. We do not have a press corps that is always dogged in its work to champion the cause of the most vulnerable of Nigerians. Indeed, most of our media-houses would rather tell the stories of political soap operas in Rivers State than hard-hitting, insightful reportage on issues affecting vulnerable populations. What we have are strong opinions from an impatient people that are understandably cynical about their ability to change anything. Watching conversation on Section 29 has been instructive about how we can better channel our collective energy and the importance of finding ways to drive conversation in a manner that carries us all along. 

Given the context, then, Section 29 of the constitution to be amended with the offending subsection only adds further insult to injury on the question of Nigerian women’s citizenship. Generally, if a law pertains to only one slice of your population, a government’s job of ensuring an equitable society within which its citizens can thrive must be called to question. This troubling notion of “full adult” (as opposed to “half-adult”?) holds so many implications, most egregious of which is that a woman can be “half an adult” for the sake of the man that intends to use her. Aside from being at odds with Child Rights Act which has the age of consent for a child at 18, subsection 4(a) does not make clear what rights these half-adults have rights to. They cannot enter contractual agreements without parental consent, legally vote, or legally obtain a drivers’ license. These “half adults” are, in effect, not adults at all. If a half-adult enters a marriage, can she even dissolve it on her own, given that she does not have contractual consent? What is this half-adult citizen’s right, then? Who determines that? And where does this slippery slope lead to? These are the questions that our government must answer in this constitutional review process. 

I love that Nigerians are taking the activism offline at organizing; frankly, we need the practice for the greater battles ahead in the 2015 elections. I’m just concerned that we have allowed the question posed by the Senate’s actions (however reluctant) on Section 29 to be framed by something not directly linked to the topic at hand. If we’re going to win battles on issues that matter, we need to focus, ask for concrete, achievable things, and orient our message the right way. Taking on a topic that ever so slightly enters the realm of religion at the height of Ramadan in a politically and religiously polarized environment is not a good idea. But the important thing is this: we are right, and this battle can be won.


  1. Like the way you have expanded the discussion to cover the position of women in the constitution in general - but 1 major area of correction - Sec 29(4)(b) is already in the constitution- we were trying to get it deleted.

    1. Hey! Thanks for yr note,Ayisha. Noted and fixt.

  2. I'm now officially your fan Saratu.
    Thanks for pointing out the many troubling dimensions to the section 29 debate. I'm surprised this post hasn't gone viral. I'd rank it up there with Mariam Uwais' timely rejoinder to Yerima's misguided (but potent argument). We have work to do!
    Thanks again!