Nobel laureate Prof Wole Soyinka and activist-lawyer Femi Falana (SAN) yesterday condemned the Federal Government’s failure to prosecute Senator Ahmed Yerima who allegedly married an Egyptian girl of 13.
Soyinka said failure to punish such acts embolden others to engage in them.
He also faulted attempts to justify Ese Oruru’s abduction and conversion to Islam.
At a joint briefing in Lagos, Soyinka and Falana said Ese’s abduction was an act of criminality that must not go unpunished.
Soyinka disagreed with a professor of Islamic Eschatology and Director of Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), Ishaq Akintola, who claimed that Islam has no age barrier in marriage.
“I want to ask him (Akintola), who invoked religion in the first place? What everybody was screaming was that this was a crime, a criminal act. Who brought religion into a purely criminal act? People should be very careful when they speak. They should take care not to worsen an already inexcusable situation by dragging religion into it,” Soyinka said.
According to the Nobel laureate, specialists in human physiology had declared that at a certain age, a girl-child is not fit for sexual intercourse with “a grizzled, Hot adult”.
“So, who exactly brings religion into issues of governance, of constitution, of law? We’re saying that there’s something higher than the protocols of any religion, and has to be higher simply because those who inhabit this border called Nigeria belong to more than one religion.
“There has to be a commonality which directs our conduct, which organises our lives. As inadequate as it is, it is the Constitution.
“For me – I don’t know about you – the welfare of a child is even more important than money that is stolen. You can always retrieve the money, but when you damage a child with a fistula, which ruins a child for life, if you believe in God, you’re committing a crime against God.
“If you steal money, you commit crime against the secular society, but when you damage a child because of your own depravity, you ruin that child for life, you traumatise that child, so don’t come and tell me that you’re religious and pious.”
Soyinka noted that during the Yerima child-marriage saga, scholars highlighted tenets from the Quran which proved Yerima wrong.
“A governor, now senator, boasts that he has a right to marry and consummated a marriage with a 13-year-old, when it’s proven that he actually paid the father who was a driver in Egypt, and we screamed at the time that this was a crime, not only in Nigeria but in a Moslem country – Egypt; that this was cross-border sex trafficking, in addition to flouting the laws of this nation and Egypt.
“He took the girl from school and then announces his right to consummate the marriage – that his religion permitted him to do so,” Soyinka said.
According to him, acts of impunity inevitably lead to problems such as Boko Haram.
“When you invoke religion, there are others who will say: ‘O, you say you are pious, but I am holier than you, therefore I can interpret that same source the way I want to authorise me to kill you, your wife, your brothers, your family; because I say you’re not holy enough and I can prove it.’ That is what happens when we allow people to get away with impunity based on religion.
“So, let’s take religion out of this. We’re talking about pure criminality and it is my demand, and will always remain my demand, that until you make an example of people like Yerima, there will be thousands of Yunusa, the man who abducted Ese,” Soyinka said.
Soyinka said demanding justice for Ese does not mean being against Islam.
“I sympathise with his (Akintola’s) feeling that his religion is under siege. But he should look for other reasons. He shouldn’t try and suggest that people hate Islam. Don’t say that people are Islamophobic. That’s rubbish.
“We’re against crimes, defined by the Constitution, the legal structure that bind us all together, and we say leave religion out of it. Any religious practice involves a continuous debate. But when we’re talking about crime please don’t diffuse the subject. When we say Yerima should be prosecuted, don’t diffuse it,” Soyinka said.
He also faulted the idea that it is culturally acceptable to marry under-age girls. According to him, culture changes.
“Culture is not static. It’s dynamic. It constantly evolves. There are hard-core materials in any culture, but culture itself, especially the practice, in view of greater knowledge, discoveries, even as a result of learning from other cultures, we adopt what we have always considered sacrosanct, because at the bottom of it all, at the heart of it all, culture is about human beings, about humanity.
“There’s no culture without humanity. It’s human beings who create culture and who are guided by it and who adapt them.
“So, when I read anything which suggests that a culture is sacrosanct, I just wonder on what planet they are living, because history contradicts this absolutely.”
Falana said under Section 38 (2) of the 1999 Constitution, no child of school age should be forced to convert to another religion other than his parents’.
The section says: “No person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if such instruction ceremony or observance relates to a religion other than his own, or religion not approved by his parent or guardian.”
Falana said Ese was attending a school in Bayelsa State when Yunusa allegedly abducted her to Kano State and forcefully converted her to Islam without her parents’ approval.
“That is a violation of Section 38 of the Constitution,” Falana said.
Falana noted that Yunusa’s father had spoken out that he warned his son not to bring Ese to Kano, adding that when the Emir learned of it, he directed security agencies to intervene.
“There is a United Nations convention for the rights of the child. Nigeria as a UN member ratified the convention and domesticated the law in 2003. Since 2003, we have had the Child’s Right Act. Under Section 15 of the Act, every child in Nigeria shall be educated at the expense of the state from primary to junior secondary school.
“For the avoidance of doubt, in 2004, we also enacted the Compulsory Universal Basic Education Act that has also imposed a duty on the state to ensure that every child is educated from primary to junior secondary school.
“In fact, under that law, it is a criminal offence not to allow your child to be educated. What Yunusa has done by taking that girl from her school in Yenegoa is a violation of that law.
“About 24 states have adopted the Child’s Right Act, and under the law, which is applicable in Bayelsa State, what Yunusa did is purely criminal – kidnapping, forced marriage, rape, sexual assault on a girl who was 13 last year. Now she has been put in a family way. You can imagine the danger to the health of that girl.
“That is why all Nigerians must rise to retrieve all under-age children that have been forced into illegal marriages. We need a national movement against child marriage in our country,” Falana said.