The most controversial issues in Nigeria are probably issues surrounding ethnicity and religion and Nigerian leaders have perfected the art of blurring the lines between right and wrong by leaning towards religious sentiments or traditional ethnic culture a bit too much. A good example would be the events of yesterday’s senate meeting. The Nigerian Senate rejected a bill that would have granted women the same marital rights as their husbands amongst other progressive rights. The bill seeking “gender parity and prohibition of violence against women” was re-introduced by Senator Abiodun Olujimi from Ekiti state, who also sought to end discrimination based on gender. However, it didn’t pass the first reading as a majority of the Senators against the bill gave different religious and cultural reasons why the bill should be removed. And when the vote was carried out, it was no surprise to see that the “Nay” chants surpassed the “Yay” ones (Nigeria’s archaic senate tradition). Naturally, there was backlash on social media as many Nigerians condemned this decision.
The Senate’s decision, yesterday, brings up the question of whether religion and tradition should have such strong roles in the bid to ensure social justice and equity for all. Can religion and ensuring gender equality stand side by side in modern day civilisation? This is the second time this bill has been brought up in the Nigerian Senate, as it was also presented in 2011 and both times, the same results have been achieved. IT is not surprising to note that some of the people that were responsible for its failure then, are still in the Senate today. Yesterday, Senator Ahmed Yerima, the former Governor of Zamfara state and a popular supporter of the Muslim Sharia law in Nigeria’s constitution, claimed the bill was against Sharia and since Nigeria’s constitution supported Sharia law, it should not stand, failing to mention that it’s not only the Sharia law the Nigerian constitution recognises. This was the same reason given the first time it was introduced in the Senate. At the same time, Senator Emmanuel Bwacha of Taraba state also claimed that the bill didn’t support the Bible’s perspective and ethnic historical perspectives, and so should be discarded.
Should religion and tradition play such major roles in dictating what should be or should not be added to Nigeria’s constitution? One of the provisions of the new bill would have raised the legal age for marriage in Nigeria to 18-years old, regardless of religion, a potential panacea to the problem of underage marriage in the country. Of course Senator Ahmed Yerima, who got married to a 13-year old girl in 2009, cannot be expected to proclaim his support for this bill. The kind of constitution that gives backing to such an archaic act needed to be re-visited, to reflect present global realities, especially United Nation’s 2025 Millennium Development Goals. There are just certain personalities who are not expected to allow a bill that promotes gender equality get a second reading in the senate as it constitutes a cognitive dissonance for them. And their tool to battle this bill is to whip up sentiments from religion and tradition which, in themselves, are not wholly against gender equality. Just like the clamour for the Nigerian Senate to be transparent and free from corruption has shown, Senators in Nigeria know exactly when it’s convenient to bring up religion.
The right to practice religion and tradition is a part of Nigeria’s constitution and should be recognised. However, when this right impinges on basic human rights (including gender equality and women empowerment), then something must be done. In a country where women are sometimes treated as barter (as shown by the Nigerian Senate’s attempt last week to legalise polygamy), Nigeria should do better and see beyond what divides us, like religion and ethnicity and focus on what will unite us, like giving women better opportunities to make their own decisions, independent of men’s influence.