Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then thou shall see more clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. – Matthew 7:5
One may not be enthused by the spectacle of a fifty-four year old man wedding an 18 year old woman. One may even be appalled. But neither that distaste nor disapproval is sufficient to define the union of HRH Muhammadu Sanusi II and Sa’adatu Barkindo-Musdafa as illegal. The bride is not a minor by any definition of the term. As such there is absolutely no need for some of the puerile name-calling and rather personal attacks that have attended this affair.
Beneath many (though not all) of the commentary on this issue is the depressingly familiar rasp of scorn, condescension and that specie of self-delusion that posits a Western-inflected Southern Nigerian sophistication ranged against the backwardness of the Northern Nigerian Muslim. It is a terrible thing. For these commentators, this has been an opportunity to rehash stale clichés and prejudicial stereotypes about Northern backwardness. Some of the remarks have been disgusting.
In an age of democratised access to keyboards and keypads, the price of freedom of expression in our milieu seems often to be freedom from thought. Opinions have never been cheaper to express and disseminate. Informed opinion, knowledge and wisdom have never been more at a premium. Ignorance by itself can be cured but when it is overlaid with arrogance, it becomes a near terminal affliction.
One wonders at the curious reluctance to attribute any agency to the princess. Could it be because she is a Northern Muslim woman? Does it stem from the idea that Northern Muslim women, however educated, are supposed to be by nature docile and subservient? Are 18 year old brides really a rarity elsewhere in Nigeria?
Much of this so-called child rights advocacy on parade recalls the ironic trait of those misanthropes who claim to love mankind and hate actual people. In this instance, it mirrors the absurdity of people who profess a concern for Northern children (“child brides”) which manages to express itself as a toxic contempt for Northerners and the North.
This misguided activism is actually counterproductive for when it is understandably interpreted as an out-of-hand disdain for the Northern Muslim culture it only forces a circling of the wagons, causing the entire culture to go into “lock down” mode and to become even more resistant to beneficial change. It is historically this attitude of Southern condescension that has made it easy for ultraconservative elements in the North to taint all forms of modernity as Westernisation and to slander progressives as socio-cultural traitors and Western lackeys. The Southern conflation of all things Western as the epitome of civilisation does not help matters.
There is a very real problem of child marriage in Northern Nigeria that has nothing to do with the matrimonial fortunes of a young lady of aristocratic pedigree. The use of the #childnotbride hashtag to mobilise opinion against the emir’s marriage actually squanders valuable energy that would be best deployed against the real problem.
As with the almajiris, the exploitation of children (from vulnerable underclass families) has received cultural and theological endorsement from religious groups and the community at large.
Child marriage is a problem in Northern Nigeria but across the broad canvas of our nation, the Nigerian child exists in a vortex of vulnerability that transcends the North-South divide. A sincere and holistic advocacy of child rights would go far beyond the customary identification of child marriage as a Northern phenomenon to highlight the diverse ways in which the extreme vulnerability of the Nigerian child manifests on both sides of the Niger. Child street hawkers, for instance, are fixtures in our urban centres.
The institutionalised destitution of millions of Nigerian children as almajiris in Northern Nigeria is obvious. But so too should the caste system of child labour and slavery that sees millions of children trafficked from poor villages to urban areas to serve as house girls. These children are the invisible slaves of suburban Nigeria, often subject to inhumane physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their so-called benefactors and then demonised as “witches” by Pentecostal evangelists and Nollywood film makers.
In the Southernmost reaches of Nigeria, ritual child abuse and torture superintended by Pentecostal exorcists and witch-hunters feed an industry of child trafficking that sees children branded as witches, abandoned or sold off into obscurity. As with the almajiris, the exploitation of children (from vulnerable underclass families) has received cultural and theological endorsement from religious groups and the community at large. One can easily imagine that several among those in cyberspace inveighing against the emir for marrying a “child” have enslaved minors in their custody as “house helps”.
One cannot help but notice that these terrible instances of objectification and victimisation of women elicit only stone-cold silence from some otherwise assertive feminists and liberals.
The psychosis of Southern sophistication will not admit of the existence of these evils much less perceive the moral equivalence between the almajiris of the North and the Child slaves of the South or even the tragic convergence of their fates in a mosaic of misery. It is this faux superiority complex and its ancillary bigotry that blinds us to the startling increase in cases of paedophilia and familial abuse of minors, even in places that profess to be too sophisticated to entertain child marriage.
Reprehensible and unconscionable things happen to the vulnerable and the weak all over Nigeria. But those who claim to be saddened by the condition of “women in purdah”, for example, rarely express similar outrage at the industrial herding of pregnant young girls (some of them teens) into “homes” in the South-East where their babies are harvested for a fee. There is not much hand-wringing over the trafficking of legions of young women from Edo State (some of them teens) to foreign lands for the purpose of prostitution. This form of organised crime has become so institutionalised that it is now fortified by a network of shrines, churches and prayer houses where the girls are forced to swear oaths of secrecy and allegiance to their masters and mistresses and terrorised into silence. One could plausibly argue that this crime is, for all intents and purposes, now religiously and culturally sanctioned.
This is to say nothing of the subjection of widows in certain parts of this country to trial by ordeal to ascertain their culpability for their husbands’ deaths or their inheritance as chattel by their husbands’ relatives. One cannot help but notice that these terrible instances of objectification and victimisation of women elicit only stone-cold silence from some otherwise assertive feminists and liberals. Perhaps, theirs is a brand of feminism and liberalism that slumbers in the face of Southern pathologies and is roused into confrontational ardour only by the prospect of bashing Northern Muslims.
When certain practices are deeply embedded in a culture, it takes far more than trending hashtags, virtual bullying and shaming, and celebrity advocacy to turn the tide. It requires painstakingly winning hearts and minds within that culture – something that cannot possibly be accomplished by those who demonstrate nothing but utter contempt for that culture and its denizens.
The illusion of Southern sophistication renders these evils “non-stories” airbrushed from the prejudicial portrait of a country where backwardness is allegedly an exclusively Northern phenomenon and where all our atavistic instincts are warehoused in the problematic North. The propagation of these canards only degrades the potential that inheres in our diversity. Of course, not all Southerners subscribe to this prejudice but it certainly exists, warping perceptions, injuring sensibilities, poisoning communal relations, weaponising our differences and creating a world of hurt.
Our overwrought emergency child rights activists would do well to realise that however sophisticated we claim to be we must accept that there are contexts that require us to first listen and learn before letting fly with volleys of uninformed judgments. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to admit that we really have no idea what we are talking about; that we are not sufficiently intellectually or even emotionally vested in a context to make pronouncements about it with the sort of authority we so casually claim. It is also often the necessary thing to do.
In an age of democratised access to keyboards and keypads, the price of freedom of expression in our milieu seems often to be freedom from thought. Opinions have never been cheaper to express and disseminate. Informed opinion, knowledge and wisdom have never been more at a premium. Ignorance by itself can be cured but when it is overlaid with arrogance, it becomes a near terminal affliction. Elementary social intelligence tells us that you cannot change a people if you despise them, if you deny them their right to cultural uniqueness and refuse to interrogate their values before dismissing them out of hand.
When certain practices are deeply embedded in a culture, it takes far more than trending hashtags, virtual bullying and shaming, and celebrity advocacy to turn the tide. It requires painstakingly winning hearts and minds within that culture – something that cannot possibly be accomplished by those who demonstrate nothing but utter contempt for that culture and its denizens. It certainly will not be achieved through cyber-hooliganism. These sort of transformative engagements call for a tactful sensitivity to cultural differences, empathy, emotional intelligence, public diplomacy and a willingness to learn that equals, if not surpasses, our zeal to educate. These are the disciplines we must embrace if we are to build durable bridges of fraternity over our divergent rivers.
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, analyst and consultant.