By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
Sometime around 19 April, Kano State’s Governor Umar Ganduje took time off his expensive preoccupation with denying the ravages of the Corona Virus on his state to stage the “conversion” to Islam of two adolescent females. The Governor, who is infamous for having been caught on camera stuffing what appeared to be wads of foreign currency into the capacious pockets of his traditional gowns, is not exactly known for his religious learning or piety. Why he felt qualified to become the vulgar face of this ostentatious proselytizing may, therefore, remain a mystery. There are suggestions, unverified at the time of writing, that these girls may have been married off or about to.
One month after Governor Ganduje’s venture into “Conversion TV”, on 21 May, at the opposite end of the country, Jane Iyang, a judge of the Federal High Court sitting in Yenagoa, capital of Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta, convicted Yunusa Dahiru (also known as Yunusa Yellow) for the crimes of trafficking in and rape of Ese Oruru, a 14-year-old. In August 2015, Yunusa had taken school girl, Ese, from the family home in Opolo, Yenagoa, without the consent of her parents to his home state in Kano in the north-west, where he claimed to have converted her to Islam before “marrying” her. Thereafter, he impregnated the teenager. She was returned to her parents in February 2016, where she gave birth in May of the same year.
At the trial, the state charged Yunusa Dahiru with five counts of criminal abduction by means of coercion, transporting and harbouring Ese in Kano, illicit intercourse, sexual exploitation and rape of a child. When he took Ese from her family, Yunusa was 22.
At its beginning in 2015, the Ese Oruru case degenerated quickly into the usual Nigerian polarities of north against south and Christians against Muslims, which did profound injustice to the facts. The Kano Emirate Council was dragged into the matter, when it emerged that the teenager may have been hidden inside the palace. It took public pressure to force Muhammadu Sanusi II, then Emir of Kano, to direct the Emirate Council to release the child to her parents. On all sides of the advocacy and the debate that ensued, the full panoply of Nigerian inartfulness was on display with religious, ethnic and other epithets freely traded. Conveniently, much of this noise was designed deliberately to avoid the issues or wield disgraceful trumps to mask over them.
The case of Ese Oruru clearly raised profound policy issues of social, legal and moral significance that go to the heart of Nigeria’s coexistence. Let’s begin with the social. Marriage is at the foundation of the family as a basic unit of society. However, the parties to a marriage must be people with the capacity to consent to it. In Ese’s case, she was 14 when she was taken from her state, Bayelsa, which defines the age of consent as 18. It should be clear all but a pervert that a 14-year-old is hardly a position to consent to marriage nor to bear the physiological, emotional or psychological burdens that come with it.
To avoid these strictures of social policy, Yunusa decided to relocate Ese in three ways. First physically, he removed the child from her family and from her state to Kano where there is no Child Rights Law. Second, he re-located her in terms of her civic rights from a statutory regime to a theological one. Third, to complete her metamorphosis for the purposes of his carnal pursuits, Yunusa purported to relocate Ese’s faith identity from Christianity to Islam. So, to avoid a clear legal prohibition against child marriage, he willfully undertook the crime of trafficking in a child in order to facilitate the invention of a theological trump that excuses child marriage. But this scheme ran into a problem: Ese was a minor. She did not have capacity to change her faith identity. If she could not, then the invented trump was fantasy. The response of the Yunusa camp to this was to try to change her age and claim she was above her real age of 14 in order to confer on her a legal capacity that she could not have.
For the people advertising this sequence of bizarre moral contortions, their plea was that they were on a mission win souls for the Almighty with what must be a holy penis. Yet, nowhere in the Holy Books of any of the great faiths is there any support for a project of genital conversion of minors or, indeed, of anyone.
What happened in Ese Oruru’s case was quite plainly the trafficking of a child for the purpose of sexual exploitation under the artifice of faith. Every person of true faith should be appalled at this counterfeiting of theology for child abuse. Religion is not a defence to child abuse and cannot be.
In Nigeria, however, otherwise enlightened people are willing to be corralled into this debasement of faith. The day after the conviction of Yunusa Yellow, on 22 May, presidential aide, Bashir Ahmad, promised an admirer on Twitter, that he would “try to contact those” who could help to change the verdict of the court against Yunusa, presumably, on appeal. The response of the Presidency to this was eloquent silence. Mr. Ahmad’s foray into the realm of rigging the courts ranks second in infamy only behind what must be taken as his confession of support at the highest levels of power in Nigeria for a notion of child abuse in the name of the Almighty.
This is why the conviction of Yunusa Yellow is a signal moment for legal and social policy and for the protection of coexistence in the enjoyment of the right to freedom of conscience and religion in Nigeria. Those who don’t get this may need to be reminded: the Almighty may be a lot of things but one thing he clearly is not is a child molester.
Odinkalu, a lawyer, is co-convenor of Open Bar Initiative (OBI). He writes in his personal capacity.