In Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, a Senator of the Federal Republic and former Governor of Zamfara, Ahmed Sani Yerima has done something that should infuriate all right-thinking members of our society. He travels to Egypt to procure a 13-year old girl as bride for a sum of $100, 000 and he organises a public wedding at the Abuja National Mosque.
The 13-year old girl is his fourth wife, a replacement for an earlier 15-year old who had to be divorced so the Egyptian child bride could take her place. This has attracted appropriate public outrage, but now Senator Yerima has spoken on BBC Hausa Service and he insists that he has not violated any law. The Child Rights Act does not exist in his home state of Zamfara and his marriage to the lady in question does not violate any Islamic law, he says. He has told us that his marriage is a private matter. And asked how old the girl-child now his wife is, Yerima says he has not done anything that the Koran, Islam and the Sharia do not approve of. What kind of man is this fellow? Clearly his conduct brings Nigerians to ridicule; outsiders may be tempted to believe that cradle-snatching is standard practice among our kind.
He further raises questions about the quality of persons who get elected/appointed to high office in Nigeria. Will anyone please help tell Yerima that the Child Rights Act exists in the Federal Capital Territory where his marriage to the Egyptian girl-child was contracted, and so he has violated the law? And will the police proceed to arrest him and enforce the law, as there are other laws in the statute books which criminalise girl-child marriage, child abuse, child trafficking and peadophilia? As a member of the National Assembly of Nigeria, is Yerima making laws for the Sharia or for the good governance of Nigeria in line with the Constitution? It is the country's Constitution that is the grundnorm, not the Koran. He doesn't know this and yet he has been a Governor and now a Senator? Yerima insists that his marriage is a private matter, the same silly excuse that was initially given by the leadership of the Senate, whose members we would be right to believe were witnesses at the wedding, and who must have sent messages of congratulations to their colleague on his achievement. Well, let them be told that this matter is not private, for it goes right to the heart of the quality of our society's value system, the dignity of man, and the rights of children.
This has been the bane of the development process in Nigeria: this reduction of everything to a private matter. When politicians commit an offence and they are indicted, the traditional rulers and the youth in their communities insist that their kinsman cannot be touched because whatever he may have done is a "private matter." When politicians behave badly and there is a clamour that they should be sanctioned, the political parties to which they belong hijack due process by proclaiming that it is "a family affair." When a lawmaker breaks the law with impunity by marrying an under-aged girl, he and his colleagues insist also that it is "a private matter." Rigged elections, stolen public funds, misgovernance have all been explained away as private matters in the last eleven years and see where that has left Nigeria. The leadership recruitment process has also been turned into a private affair, it is never about the common public interest, as Godfathers in different parts of the country and at different times select who gets into what elective position. The Godfather is of course not interested in public service or quality, or merit. He wants to exercise power and authority by proxy, and control the treasury from a distance. The choices he makes could range from the sick and incapacitated to an over-pampered son or daughter, a favourite wife or concubine or an idiotic protégé whose only relevance is that he must never forget that he got to office as another man's private representative in power.
There are two classic descriptions of this phenomenon in contemporary Nigerian history. In his book, From Third World to First, the story of the Singapore miracle of transformation, Lee Kuan Yew, the miracle worker, refers to how he once met a Nigerian Federal Minister, the Hon Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh at a conference in Accra in January 1966 and the latter spoke about introducing a special policy as Minister of Finance to help the manufacturing industry. It turned out that the Nigerian Minister was introducing the policy because he had plans to set up a shoe factory. When state policies are thus converted to private matters, the stage is set for the failure of public interests. And so in a memorable passage, Lee Kuan Yew reports as follows: "I will never forget Chief Festus. We had sat opposite each other at a formal dinner at the hotel where we were all staying and where the Conference was held. He said he wanted to leave politics soon to devote more time to his business, that of a shoe factory, He also said that he had increased taxes to protect the viability of the shoe factory." The second classic example may be apocryphal but typical all the same, occurred in the Second Republic when Alhaji Sabo Barkin Zuwo, Governor of Kano state was asked why he chose to keep government funds in his bedroom. His simple explanation was that he saw no problems whatsoever with government money being kept in a government bedroom in government house and with the chief government official, the state Governor in charge of it! He was talking about his own private bedroom as public treasury.
When Nigerians get into public office, this is considered a major private achievement for their immediate families and also for the clan, the religious group or the societies to which they belong. Chinua Achebe, the distinguished writer has written that the problem with Nigeria is leadership. This is true, but the leadership crisis is rooted in this conversion of public responsibility to private affairs: religion, traditions, culture, which have become ready excuses for impunity. The politics of self, of individual interests and the clash of private ambitions have negated Nigeria's development process. No country can be great when everyone is locked in the private zone without a sense of public responsibility.
Even security officials who are supposed to protect lives and property have turned their uniforms into private matters, a vehicle for the collection of bribes: when interrogated, they are wont to confess that they are left with no option because they also have rent to pay, schools fees to pay also and a life to live. Private matters. The only thing that is supposed to be completely private- religion is however perpetually thrust into the public arena with tragic consequences: a sect kills members of another and claims it is defending religion, a lawmaker puts himself in the line of accusations of rape, child trafficking and paedophilia and he says the law is not important, it is his religion that matters. A leader falls sick and he needs to go for medical treatment but he would rather not go on leave or ask for one, in order to prevent his deputy from acting on his behalf. The reason is obvious: he considers his position a private matter! We can only exclaim as Kunle Ajibade has done in a book of the same title: What a Country!
As for Ahmed Sani Yerima, he should not be allowed to get away lightly. Hopefully, one of these days, it would be possible to lay hands on a photograph of him and his child-wife, the publication of that would be a major public exposure of his guilt with all its attendant ridiculousness. And those friends of his who witnessed the wedding, who are they? What is their sense of morality? Surely, Ahmed Sani Yerima is not the only man involved in this private business of catching them young for bedroom services, and it is a shame that he is shameless about it. What does he expect us to do with that his arrogant response? Clap for him? His current exposure in the public arena is not in any way distinguished.