Marrying minors: The case of Habiba Isyaku

THE parents of a 14-year old, Habiba Isyaku, are currently agonizing over their yet unsuccessful efforts to rescue their daughter from the custody of her abductors.  Ironically, the captors are well known and they are not asking for any material ransom to secure the release of the minor. Rather, they want the parents of their victim to accept a warped reality that their daughter has embraced a new religion and been married off to a husband who never sought their consent. And in apparent support of this dastardly act, the alleged initial reaction from the palace of the Emir of Katsina is that the forced marriage was irreversible, a most twisted line of reasoning that diminishes the authors.

Alhaji Abdulmumin Kabiru Usman, the Emir of Kastina, was initially reported to be the abductor of Habiba but later reports showed that the Emir only facilitated her  ‘marriage’ to a palace aide, one Jamilu Lawal. In any case, this latest information does not by any means make the sordid action less offensive nor the respected Emir less culpable because nobody gave the Emir the authority to approve of someone else’s child and a minor for that matter.  In his own account, the Emir even confessed to receiving N50,000 bride price from Lawal! It is rather unsettling that the illegal action took place under his watch and rather than dissuade the palace official from engaging in illegality, he gave his royal blessings.

Quite a few questions arise in this less than morally and even legally correct act. For instance, why would a person of a traditional ruler’s status approve of a pedophilic action?  Why would an Emir encourage the conversion of a minor from Christianity to Islam when he is aware that under the law, a 14-year-old girl-child cannot make legally valid choices whether in terms of religion, matrimony or political leadership recruitment? And if the motive were pure and altruistic, why should the conversion of a minor from one faith to another culminate in abduction and illegal marriage? Critical decisions are ordinarily made for minors because persons under 18 years cannot make legally valid choices.  And the appropriate persons to assist in making those choices, if at all, are the parents, not the traditional rulers or any other meddlesome usurpers.

The alleged involvement of some Emirs in cases of abduction of minors in the country is a source of serious concern. The traditional rulers are very important leaders in the society and, as such, many of their subjects see them as role models and paragon of virtues. Consequently, when their conduct and worldview detract from this high expectation, there is a serious problem because not a few uninformed subjects will be misled. Habiba’s abduction and forced marriage suggest that no lesson has been learnt from the ordeal of Ese Oruru and this is rather worrisome. Perhaps, if sanctions had been swiftly meted out to those who were complicit in Ese’s case, the perpetrators of the current scandalous act would not have been buoyed by a sense of impunity.

The point should be made, and in clear terms, that Habiba’s conversion from Christianity to Islam is offensive and constitutes a provocative affront on her parents and their religion. Nigeria is a multi-religious country where leaders at all levels—whether political, traditional or religious—are expected to exhibit reasonable sensitivity in their conduct, actions and pronouncements in the interest of harmonious and peaceful co-existence.Evangelism is good and welcome to the extent that the subject being evangelized has the capacity to make a critical choice, otherwise it becomes indoctrination or coercion. And to marry off a minor without her parents’ consent is abduction; because a crucial ingredient of customary or Islamic marriage is payment of bride price and who do you pay this to if the parents disapprove of the union? The truth is that Nigerian law forbids abduction and pedophilia but diligent enforcement has been lacking because religious cards and façade of regional and cultural practices are played by the high and mighty to obfuscate the criminality that abduction and violation of minors represent.

The shabby treatment allegedly meted to Isiyaku Tanko, Habiba’s father, who was reportedly deceived to come to the palace to pick his daughter, is highly condemnable. But that would continue to be the lot of many parents in the hands of their oppressors until the state takes firm and decisive action on the matter at issue. And the downside is not even limited to this: there is the serious health issue such as Vesico vaginal fistula (VVF) resulting from early marriage and child bearing by a girl-child. There is also the disruption of the education of a girl-child married off, a veritable social challenge that is bound to confront the family sooner or later because an educated woman is a better economic actor and arguably even a more effective and efficient home maker than an uneducated one.

We enjoin relevant state agencies, including the police, Ministry of Women affairs in Katsina State and the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs to stand up to be counted. They should take necessary steps that will not only ensure speedy and safe release of Isiyaku Habiba to her parents but also ensure that all persons involved in this dangerous, illegal and morally reprehensible act are punished.