Alleged child-bride marriage stuns Nigeria, home to uneasy population split between faiths

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — The marriage took place at one of the Nigerian capital's most recognizable landmarks, under the golden dome of the National Mosque in front of an audience of the elite.

But the recent wedding of one of the Muslim leaders who brought Shariah law to Africa's most populous nation is under scrutiny as human rights groups say he married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl.

As authorities investigate Senator Ahmad Sani Yerima, the marriage is drawing fresh questions about the role of religion in a country of 150 million people split between Christians and Muslims.

Yerima, 49, arranged the marriage with the girl after paying her family a $100,000 dowry, according to a complaint filed by the Nigerian Human Rights Commission in April. Initially, Yerima couldn't arrange a visa for the girl to travel from Egypt to Nigeria, so he instead brought the girl through neighboring Niger, said Chidi Odinkalu, a lawyer for works for the open Society Justice Initiative.

That leaves Yerima open to human trafficking charges, as well as possible child-sex and endangerment charges, the lawyer said.

"You don't need the Quran or the Bible to get this," Odinkalu said. "I think most people, irrespective of the cleavage between the two faiths, wouldn't marry off their 13 year old."

Yet 30 members of the girl's family attended the ceremony at the National Mosque, the human rights commission said. It's unclear who else attended the wedding. Ustaz Musa Mohammed, the chief imam of the National Mosque, could not be reached for comment.

Under child protection laws enforceable in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, a woman must be 18 before being able to consent to marriage. However, those laws aren't enacted in all of Nigeria's 36 states and activists say child brides have been married off in Muslim communities after their first period.

It also isn't the first time Yerima has apparently married a child bride. The right commission alleged that he married a 15-year-old girl, only to divorce her at 17 as she nurses his child.

"The senator is in the habit of marrying minors and has gained notoriety in enticing girls to marry him," the commission said.

Yerima himself appears unrepentant in recent interviews, though he has declined to say how old his new wife is.

"As a Muslim, as I always say, I consider God's law and that of his prophet above any other law," Yerima told the BBC's Hausa language radio service. "I will not respect any law that contradicts that and whoever wants to sanction me for that is free to do that."

Religion has played an integral part in Yerima's political career. As Nigeria came out of a string of military dictatorships and into democracy in 1999, Yerima was elected as governor of Zamfara state in northern Nigeria. There, Islam has been the dominate religion since Muslim warriors on horseback claimed the territory in the early 1800s.

When he became governor, Yerima was one of the first politicians to champion the idea of putting a Shariah court system in place, which rules based on Islamic civil law. Now, more than a dozen northern states allow Shariah law, something that Nigeria's Christian south warily accepted — if at all. Rioting and violence over the introduction of Shariah law left thousands dead.

Yerima himself blames the attention on his marriage to that, though it sealed his political fortunes.

"I consider all those complaining about this issue as detractors, because since 1999 ... many people have been waging different kind of wars against me," he said.

But those who have brought the allegations against Yerima are struggling not to make it a religious debate in a nation where killings over faith still happen. The Senate is investigating Yerima over allegedly breaking the law, while other agencies are examining whether he illegally brought the child bride into the country.

"He's breached the law. It's not about faith," said Iheoma Obibi, executive director of Alliances for Africa, a human rights group. "In the campaign with the sisters from the north, we've been very careful not to address this in the religious situation."

The whereabouts of the Egyptian girl remain unknown.

"She should be in school," Obibi said. "She shouldn't be rolling off your bed."