So recently Nigeria’s twitter and blogosphere has gotten heated up because of the recent revelation that the Emir of Kano, and former Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi has taken as a bride, an 18 year old, soon to be university student. Apart from the obvious controversy about the disparity of their respective ages, once again, the issue highlights Nigeria’s on-going culture wars, with many ‘progressive’ voices divided over how to respond, or more accurately, divided in the cultural difference of their responses. Certainly, it’s not illegal for SLS to marry a woman of 18 years of age; the legal age of marriage in Nigeria is not clear, though below 21 years of age requires the consent of a parent or guardian. Of course, the whole issue turns on two matters: the matter of consent and the ability to exercise free will, and the detrimental effects of early marriage for women. Many ‘progressive’ Nigerians see in this action a repeat of the marriage of Senator Ahmed Yerima to a 13 year old Cairene – though the characterisation is perhaps a little bit unfair – the central tension over cultural values remains. It’s at moments like this that Nigeria’s identity and cultural wars seem to be at their most visceral. Perhaps for many ‘progressives’ – some of the anger expressed has something to do with the fact that SLS is a hero; we have a paucity of heroes in Nigeria – a situation disastrous for a nation so addicted to hero worship, be it of invisible deities or visible big men. In a field of Lilliputians, many see Sanusi Lamido Sanusi as a hero of progressive values, a reformist, and almost, by dint of his previous actions, a secular saint. But these events have shown that perhaps, regardless of the claim to change, tradition is not easily transformed, even for a newly made king with a penchant for natty dressing and a good handle on the well-crafted sound bite. It’s a shame that SLS has been castigated and compared to Ahmed Yerima; there is certainly nuance to be found in his situation – and there is a world of difference between a dynastic marriage, contracted and delayed, so that the aforementioned princess can complete her studies – and a grasping old man, eager to consummate a relationship with a pre-pubescent girl.
It’s a distinction the emir wants us to make, and despite suggesting a public response is beneath him, he has let his opinion be known to us, in a less than oblique way – sharing comments on a social forum, that he surely knew would circulate further and wider than the original audience. It seems clear, though it is never explicitly suggested that the Emir is caught up in what seem like barely inescapable cultural bonds, which he goes to great lengths to explain; there are certainly forces stronger than the charismatic emir in the matter of this marriage. Be that as it is, one can’t help feeling that an opportunity to be the cultural and social bridge that his elevation to the emirate promised has been lost; instead, one of the more sensible figures of Nigeria’s socio-cultural landscape has diminished himself by invoking one of the most invidious defences open to those who want to defend conservative and contested social practices – by invoking the bogeyman of Nigeria’s cultural imaginary, the prospect of same-sex marriage. Curiously, the Emir says his views do not matter on the issue – when plainly they do – and suggests they are cultural issues, which palpably they are not; these are legal issues. The age of consent for marriage is a constitutional issue. It may have been wiser for the emir to maintain a dignified silence, or at the least kept to a simple statement clarifying that his bride would for sometime remain in education, and used this as an opportunity to affirm his belief and support for the education of women – regardless of which age they get married. Instead the emir suggests that his new bride is nothing but a breeding machine for creating new princes (curiously, princesses are not mentioned). By playing purely to the gallery of conservatives who view women merely as breeding machines for ‘new princes’ – his royal highness, may have irreparably damaged some of the unique, moral authority he has acquired through his legend of being a secular saint, and traditional, figure. More tragic still, for a leader who has been an advocate of women’s empowerment – to the extent of introducing gender training in his role as governor of the Central Bank, he reduces the critique of his actions to the influence of ‘western feminism’ – missing the point that Africa has always had a tradition of strong female leadership and thought – often critical of men and patriarchy – not least in the northern Nigerian example of Queen Amina of Zaria, and Nana Asma’u, the poet, teacher and daughter of Uthman Dan Fodio, founder of the Sokoto Caliphate. That said, Nigeria’s progressives should have sympathy for those in positions of traditional authority who have to navigate new cultural norms, as well as the pressures of old ones; but SLS has done himself no favours either, in setting up a false distinction between being modern (urbane and western educated, as he wrongly says) – and being a Nigerian Fulani Muslim. There is no tension between these two states of being, or at least there should not be – and if there is, for the good of Nigeria’s great society, leaders like SLS should be at the forefront of reconciling such tensions. So indeed, he should have (or can still) respond publicly to this issue of marrying such a young woman. The past may be another country, the present a frustrating one, but the future is both a terrifying one and a terrain that no one knows. In times like these, leaders like the Emir of Kano should be more aware of the impact they can have in pushing culture in a particular direction – even if your young bride passionately says yes.
Some of us maybe incredulous that an 18 year old will know her own mind enough to consent to marrying a 54-year-old Emir – no matter how dashing; but this is a dynastic princess presumably groomed for her role; and who has factored her dynastic obligations into her consent; such a sense of noblesse oblige is perhaps quaint and pre-modern to many, but nonetheless, we will it seems for a long-time yet want to cling to these institutions of monarchy in Nigeria and elsewhere as symbols of identity – the people who fill these roles will often have rules they can bend, but not break. Sometimes, that is to pitied – not pilloried. Besides, similar traditions and occurrences exist in the west – just look at the case of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, 19 at the time of marriage – it’s only when we speak of Africa that the vitriolic accusation of primitivism seems to apply. So, unless we are going to abolish these institutions – there is a silence that has to be kept; because we can’t debate the consent issue – around whether the princess said yes – we’ve been told she did. That said we know how badly such things can go, look at the late princess Diana; so it’s heartening that the princess will continue in education, and can perhaps serve as a role model for other young women. There will continue to be cultural pressure for young women to marry relatively young in parts of Nigeria for some time – it would be disingenuous to assume otherwise. Those campaigning for more female emancipation in Nigeria should be mindful to not win a battle, but lose an ally in efforts to ensure more female emancipation in the country. On this point, SLS is right, Nigeria does have a profound gulf of ‘cultural sympathy’ – sadly he then demonstrates his own point by implying that the cultural values of parents in other parts of the country have degenerated – and suggesting the rest of us just don’t get it. Those comments, and the petulant, combative response to public criticism, including an attack on an already vulnerable group of Nigerians, is unfortunate – and sadly they reduce Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, Emir of Kano, from a role as a wise and sensible mediator in Nigeria’s culture wars into a mere combatant. Most unfortunate of all, once again Nigerians are disabused of the idea that they can have any heroes at all.