On mass weddings and matters arising

Mass weddings, especially in northern Nigeria, have generated intense discourse lately for religious and cultural reasons despite constitutional provisions; SUNNY IDACHABA writes.

At last, what almost looked like an unending controversy surrounding the mass weddings for 100 orphaned girls in Niger state has been laid to rest following their collective wedding last weekend.

Initially, when the matter came to light, it assumed a legal dimension because the Minister of Women Affairs, Uju Kennedy Ohaneye, sought a court order to suspend the planned mass wedding over what she said was an alleged violation of the Child Rights Act.

However, while the matter raised dust, interested stakeholders took on the minister to ‘school’ her about the social and religio-cultural setting of northern Nigeria following which she soft pedaled, withdrew her suit and the wedding went as planned.

It would be recalled that the speaker of the Niger State House of Assembly, Abdulmalik Sarkindaji, resolved to take those orphans off the streets by arranging spouses for them in a mass wedding as part of his constituency projects. 

While he had the backing of the state Council of Imams and Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC), the women affairs minister saw it differently; therefore, petitioned the Inspector General of Police, Kayode Egbetokun, and sought a legal injunction to put it on hold. 

Also, in support of the minister, outraged Nigerians took to social media to express their dissatisfaction with the planned wedding, saying it is a misuse of public funds and a violation of the rights of children.

They quoted Article 18 of the Constitution which states that, “Every child shall be entitled to free, compulsory, and universal primary education, free from discrimination on any grounds whatsoever.”

They, therefore, called on the Niger state government to protect the rights of the children, saying, “We urge the Niger state government to uphold its duty to protect the rights of these orphaned girls by prioritising their education and well-being. Rather than subjecting them to forced marriages, we call upon the government to provide adequate support, including access to quality education and proper care in well-managed orphanage homes.

“We demand immediate action to halt the proposed forced marriages and to instead implement measures that will empower these girls to lead dignified and fulfilling lives.”

Despite the opposition, the voices in support overwhelmed the opposing voices and so on Friday, May 25, the wedding was conducted. 

While expressing the ministry’s support for the mass wedding, the minister who was represented by her special assistant in the private sector, Usman Adaji, announced scholarship awards for some of the girls willing to embark on education. She also donated items like wrappers, foodstuff and Point of Sale machines to them, just as she directed that bank accounts be opened for all the 100 intending brides where a stipend would be sent to them for the next six months to enable them to settle down in their husband’s houses.

Uju Kennedy said the media was responsible for the whole misunderstanding as, according to her, “I did not intend to stop the marriage, but to be sure if the girls are of marriageable age and were not being forced into it.

“Every parent will want to marry out of their wards if they attain the right age for marriage. The initial opposition to the planned marriage was misunderstood; hence, the media war between my office and the Speaker’s.”

Overwhelming support

In what looked like a condemnation of the minister’s knowledge of the country, Nasir Aminu, a social critic, said it was disgraceful how polarisation affects the society, especially when coming from a minister of the cabinet.

“If Uju Kennedy-Ohanenye, an Easterner and Christian, made any effort to understand the way of life of the Northern Muslims, she would have appreciated Nigeria’s diverse differences,” he said.

While making clarifications, especially about the mass wedding for the orphaned girls, he said, “For those who are not aware of the cultural practice in Northern Nigeria, particularly among the Hausa-Fulani communities, it is the bride’s family that furnishes the newly-wed’s new home and provides food for the wedding festivities. The bride’s parents often provide essential household items such as food supplies (gara), kitchenware, and furniture like chairs, beds and wardrobes. This helps the newly-weds to start their new life together and demonstrate the support and goodwill from the bride’s family. In the case of those girls, they have no parents. 

“Considering the state of the economy, the level of poverty in the land and the conditions of widowed female parents, it will take a lot of work for them to afford such a burden. If the intentions of the minister were any good, she would have first sought an enquiry into the marriage sponsorship instead of going to court to attract sensational headlines. After all, the point of enquiry is to gather evidence.”

Similarly, Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) noted with dissatisfaction the step taken by the minister. It therefore warned her to drop a lawsuit that challenged the planned mass wedding.

In a statement, the chairman of Kano state chapter of MURIC, Malam Hassan Indabawa, said, “We found as weird the harsh and hasty decision taken by the honourable minister of women affairs over a matter that is entirely beyond the scope of her ministry. The minister’s attempt at media demonisation of marrying off 100 poor and orphaned girls, who were largely traumatised after losing both parents to brutal and bloody banditry and insurgency, exposed her ignorance to the culture and traditions of the Muslim North and has further as well demonstrated her lack of empathy, compassion and respect for other people’s culture and tradition.”

MURIC noted that, “Some simple steps should have been taken before exploding the issue on social media. First was to call the speaker, and initiate a courtesy visit to perhaps some religious and traditional leaders from the state to share ideas and understand their cultural and traditional peculiarity which the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria not only recognised but has guaranteed.”

Journalists benefited too

Niger state is not the first to have arranged a mass wedding for unmarried couples in the past. Even though the matter had generated intense repudiation in the media, it has continued in the northern states, especially Kano.

Not too long ago, the state government allocated 50 mass wedding slots to journalists in the state. The Commander-General of the  state Hisbah Board, Sheikh Aminu Daurawa, said the initiative to allocate the slot  was to extend the programme’s benefits to professional groups, including members of the media as, according to him, “The state’s mass wedding initiative was conceived to promote moral values in the society and reduce immorality among young men and women.

“By involving more professionals, the board seeks to strengthen community ties and provide support to individuals seeking to get married.”

Criticisms

While several Muslim clerics have defended the marriage as a charitable act for orphans, critics said it contravenes Nigeria’s commitment to protect children and women’s rights.

According to a concerned Nigerian, Abimbola Adelakun, she wondered why women are always at the receiving end of the tunnel. She also questioned the rationale behind the use of public funds for mass weddings under the guise of charity.

“What I think needs to be severely discouraged is the culture of public officials using public funds to mass-marry people. Northern governors do it frequently, but it is a misuse of public resources. Other than a mad obsession with seeing women’s heads buried between the laps of domesticity, the men have never advanced any logical reason for mass marriages and why the government should sponsor them. They say marriage is better than waywardness, but why are those only options available to a woman?”

For her, “Being married goes beyond the wedding ceremony. Marriage is a serious business that should be reserved only for those who can afford it physically, emotionally, socially and quite crucially, financially. Those who do not have the money to stage a ceremony can do themselves the favour of getting married quietly in front of a judge, go home and start building their lives. Nobody needs to get married on charity.

“The issue of using public funds for marriage is another reason I see those criticising the minister for her intervention as clownish. You cannot purport to get married with other people’s money and then turn around to tell them they have no business in your private and religious affair.”

Speaking further, Abimbola said, “If Nigeria is the poverty capital of the world today, most of it has to do with the North. They reproduce an ever-growing army of children merely born to give them political victories and decommission soon after every election. Nobody has plans for those children’s future.

“And for a long time, nobody could challenge them because of their propensity for violence. Their leaders’ inability to think of serious means of resolving their social issues outside of frequently tucking people inside marriage to reproduce has created a mass problem for Nigeria, one that will unfold for at least another 50 years.”