Author: The Guardian

The tragedy of Nigeria’s child brides

Maimuna Abdulmunini was just 13 when she was arrested for burning her 35-year-old husband to death.

The legal process dragged out over five years. Finally in 2012, when she turned 18, Abdulmunini was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Today, despite a court ruling six months ago that the sentence is a violation of her rights, she is still on death row, waiting.

Wasila Tasi’u is 14 but has been in a prison in Gezawa, outside the city of Kano, for the last five months. She too faces the death penalty for allegedly murdering her 35-year-old husband, Umar Sani, and three others at her own wedding party.

Wasila Tasiu speaks with her defence counsel outside the courtroom during her first day of trial in October 2014. (Pic: AFP)
Wasila Tasi’u speaks with her defence counsel outside the courtroom during her first day of trial in October 2014. (Pic: AFP)

Soon after she was arrested, Tasi’u told her lawyer Hussaina Ibrahim that she had been tied to the bed and raped by Sani on their wedding night. When she appeared in Gezawa high court for the first time back in the autumn, she could barely say her own name, turning her back to the court when the charges were read, breaking down in tears.

Her trial resumes on Wednesday, March 11. A strike by judicial staff, coupled with the customary delays in the Nigerian legal system, has meant that she has been incarcerated since October, with limited access to her mother and father. Tasi’u is struggling to cope with her current situation, according to Ibrahim. Once described as a “jovial” and “intelligent” teenager, Tasi’u is now withdrawn and scared.

Nigeria’s legislation
The Nigerian government made child marriage illegal in 2003, but according to campaigners from Girls Not Brides, 39% of girls in the country are still married before the age of 15. In the Muslim-dominated northwest, 48% of girls are married by the age of 15 and 78% are married by the time they hit 18. In Kibbe state, the average age of marriage for girls is just 11 .

The Child Rights Act, which raises the minimum age of marriage for girls to 18, was introduced in 2003. But the legislation, which was created at a federal level, is only effective if it is passed by state governments. To date, only 24 of Nigeria’s 36 states have passed the act . The legislation is yet to be passed in either Abdulmunini or Tasiu’s home states.

Within Nigerian politics the issue has proved controversial, not least because politicians have a habit of marrying teenagers. Senator Ahmed Sani Yerima, representative for Zamfara West in northern Nigeria, made headlines back in 2010 when he married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl. Three years later he persuaded his fellow Senators to defeat a motion that would have removed a constitutional loophole that means girls under the age of 18 are considered adults as soon as they get married.

Now, with less than three weeks to go before the country goes to polls in the presidential election, the issue has taken on a political edge. Ibrahim says the government doesn’t care about the girls forced into marriage, claiming that politicians could have Tasi’u released if they really wanted to.

A senior lawyer at the International Federation of Women Lawyers in Kano, Ibrahim is currently dealing with 54 cases related to child marriage, including a 12-year-old charged with attempted murder and an 11-year-old who attempted suicide and ran away from home a week before she was due to marry a 45-year-old.

Ibrahim starts her working day at three in the morning, before prayers and taking her children to school. As a woman in a high-powered job, she faces regular harassment from opponents, as well as the general sexism that punctuates her dealings with state officials and members of the police force.

“I am frustrated. There is a real problem with access to education in this region. The government could take steps to address this, but it is yet to do so. Better access to education could have a real impact on child marriage. It’s easy to get the sense that those in charge in the south don’t care about the people of the north. The election has been so focused on terrorism and Boko Haram that other issues are being lost,” she says.

Reluctant politicians
Maryam Uwais, a lawyer based in northern Nigeria, who “grew up watching girls being married off all around” her, suggests that politicians in the north of the country are reluctant to come out against child marriage for fear of losing popular support. “Many of our northern politicians seem to think that taking a stand against pegging the minimum age for marriage would be synonymous with taking a stand against the Muslim faith. The religion has been misinterpreted to convey that child marriage is encouraged in Islam, whereas contextual interpretations would suggest the opposite,” she says.

“Child marriage is prevalent in many of the communities where poverty is endemic. Parents (and fathers especially) actually benefit from the dowry and extras that their daughter’s suitor contributes to the family of the girl child.”

The lawyers representing Maimuna Abdulmunini are equally frustrated with the Nigerian political system. Angela Uwandu works with Avocats Sans Frontières in Abuja. Together with Jean-Sebastian Mariez, who works for the organisation from Paris, she took Abdulmunini’s case to the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) Court of Justice.

Attempts to have Abdulmunini released
In June 2014, after granting her an injunction to prevent her being executed four months earlier, the court said the decision to sentence Abdulmunini to death for a crime committed when she was a minor was a violation of her rights. In its judgement, the court also noted a number of flaws in the original trial. The issue of her age had been ignored by both sides, while lawyers for the prosecution argued that Abdulmunini’s desire to keep her newborn baby with her while she was incarcerated was just a cynical attempt to gain sympathy.

Lacking the authority to order her release, the Ecowas court can only urge the Nigerian government to follow its judgment. ASF’s lawyers have been lobbying to ensure this happens but so far their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

A separate criminal appeal has been filed by Abdulmunini’s lawyer at the national level challenging the death sentence conviction by the High Court.

Abdulmunini, who Uwandu described as being “overjoyed” when she heard the regional court had decided to strike down her sentence back in June, is now dejected.

She is currently separated from her three-year-old daughter – the result of a relationship she had while out on bail – and is living in an overcrowded cell with six other inmates.

Françoise Kpeglo Moudouthe, head of Africa engagement at Girls Not Bride, is calling on the Nigerian government to do more to tackle child marriage.“If nothing is done, it’s clear that Nigeria – and other countries where child marriage is prevalent – will continue to fall short in its efforts to improve the education, health and wellbeing of millions of its citizens.“It’s important to remember that many parents marry off their daughter as a child because they believe it is the best and safest option for her future. The government of Nigeria must do more to empower girls and ensure their access to safe secondary schools, and other services, if parents are to see that they and their daughters have other options to child marriage.”

Let’s be honest. The West ignores Congo’s atrocities because it’s in Africa

Ugandan police trucks carrying refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) travels from Busunga border post to Bubukwanga town in Uganda on July 14 2013. More than 30,000 refugees from the DRC crossed the border into Uganda’s Western District of Bundibugyo, about 430km from the capital Kampala, following a rebel attack on the town of Kamango in North Kivu province. (Pic: AFP)
Ugandan police trucks carrying refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo travel from Busunga border post to Bubukwanga town in Uganda on July 14 2013. More than 30 000 refugees from the DRC crossed the border into Uganda’s Western District of Bundibugyo, about 430km from the capital Kampala, following a rebel attack on the town of Kamango in North Kivu province. (Pic: AFP)

Some lives matter more than others: the “ hierarchy of death ”, they call it. The millions killed, maimed and traumatised in the Democratic Republic of Congo are surely at the bottom of this macabre pile. The country was the site of the deadliest war since the fall of Adolf Hitler, and yet I doubt most people in the west are even aware of it. No heart-wrenching exclusives at the top of news bulletins; no mounting calls for western militaries to “do something”.

We are rightly appalled at a barbaric conflict in Syria that has stolen the lives of 200 000 civilians; and yet up to six million people are believed to have perished in the DRC. Not that the mainstream media alone can be berated for this astonishing lack of attention. The left have rightly championed the cause of a Palestinian people subjected to decades-long occupation and subjugation: surely the misery of the DRC does not deserve this neglect.

Although the murderous intensity of the war peaked between 1998 and 2003, the misery has persisted. According to Oxfam , civilians in the east of the country still face exploitation at the hands of armed groups. The UN has labelled the country“the rape capital of the world”. Women, girls and boys have been systematically raped as a weapon of war. Back in 2011, it was estimated that 48 women were raped every hour in the country. Men were raped, too: there are stories of men being raped three times a day for three years. Then there’s the cannibalism: at one point, pygmies in the north east were being killed and eaten by rebels.

It was a war that was remorseless when it came to the innocent: when 45 000 people were being killed every month , around half of them were small children, even though they only represented a fifth of the population. The war triggered devastating waves of starvation and disease which claimed the lives of millions.

Armed militias continue to commit atrocities, and the aftermath of the war has left the country impoverished and devastated. According to the International Rescue Committee , this is “the world’s least developed country in terms of life expectancy, education, standard of living and key health indicators”. And yet this vast country of nearly 80 million people barely punctures our consciousness. Why?

Being generous, perhaps the war was just too complicated. Some described it as Africa’s own “world war”, the spill-over from the Rwandan genocide that involved the armies of nine African nations. Many different, complex conflicts have intersected with each other. The country is awash with precious minerals that should be a source of huge wealth, but instead have proved magnets for armed profiteers. It is a misery that goes back generations: under the rule of the Belgian King Leopold II in the 19th and early 20th centuries, up to 10 million were killed in one of the greatest acts of mass murder in human history.

But we should perhaps just be more honest. On another continent, such a devastating war would never have been allowed to rage for so long. African lives simply do not matter enough: a death toll of up to 6 million would surely not have been tolerated elsewhere. For the West, it is a country of little strategic importance. As for the left, the complexity of the war was no excuse. It is a cause that should have been championed. It wasn’t, and millions died amid near silence. It must not happen again.

Owen Jones for the Guardian

Assia Djebar, acclaimed Algerian novelist, dies aged 78

Assia Djebar at the Academie Francaise in Paris on June 22 2006. (Pic: AFP)
Assia Djebar at the Academie Francaise in Paris on June 22 2006. (Pic: AFP)

The acclaimed Algerian novelist Assia Djebar, who explored the lives of Muslim women in her fiction for more than 50 years, has died.

Djebar, who was born and raised in Algeria and who was regularly named as a key contender for the Nobel prize in literature, died on February 7 in a Paris hospital, French press reported . She was 78.

French president François Hollande paid tribute to the writer on learning of her death, with a statement describing her as a “great intellectual” and a “woman of conviction, with multiple fertile identities which fed her work, between Algeria and France, between Berber, Arab and French”.

Djebar’s American publisher Seven Stories Press, which released three of her works in English translation, Algerian White, So Vast the Prison, and The Tongue’s Blood Does Not Run Dry, called her an “admired and beloved author, translator and filmmaker”.

“It is with extreme sadness that we mourn the great Assia Djebar, who passed away this week,” said the publisher in a statement . “Her novels and poems boldly face the challenges and struggles she knew as a feminist living under patriarchy and an intellectual living under colonialism and its aftermath. Djebar’s writing, marked by a regal unwillingness to compromise in the face of ethical, linguistic, and narrative complexities, has attracted devoted followers around the world.”

Djebar was born Fatima-Zohra Imalayan, but adopted the pen-name Assia Djebar after publication of her first novel in 1957. La Soif, which translates literally as The Thirst but was published in English as The Mischief, tells of a westernised young woman growing up in Algeria. Djebar would go on to write more than 15 novels in French, with her works translated into more than 20 languages. Les Enfants du Nouveau Monde (The Children of the New World), published in 1962, looked at the lives of women in a rural Algerian town drawn into the resistance movement

In 2005 Djebar became the fifth woman to be elected to the Académie Française. An academic, most recently at New York University, where she held the position of French literature professor, the author was also a playwright and filmmaker. She won a number of awards for her work, including the International Prize of Palmi, the Peace Prize of the Frankfurt Book Fair and the International Critics’ Prize at the Venice Biennale for the film La Nouba des Femmes du Mont Chenoua.

She was also the recipient of the International Literary Neustadt Prize, William Gass writing at the time that “Assia Djebar is not being celebrated here because she has brought us more bad news, or exotic treats, or even her eloquent imagination, worthy as much as that may be; we are lauding her here because she has given weeping its words and longing its lyrics”.

Kenya offers fully-paid holiday to US teenager mistaken for ‘white widow’

A 'Red Notice' for the arrest of Samantha Lewthwaite issued by Interpol. (Pic: Getty)
A ‘Red Notice’ for the arrest of Samantha Lewthwaite issued by Interpol in September 2013. (Pic: Getty)

Kenya’s government has offered an all-expenses-paid holiday in Kenya to a 15-year-old American teenager and her family after police mistook her for Samantha Lewthwaite, the British terrorist suspect nicknamed the “white widow”.

The teenager was “harassed by police in Mlolongo”, outside the capital Nairobi, “on accusations of looking like” Lewthwaite, the government said.

Joseph Ole Lenku, Kenya’s interior minister, announced that “the government will sponsor a fully-paid holiday for the family” to make up for the incident and that police were also investigating.

Lewthwaite was married to Germaine Lindsay, one of four Islamist suicide bombers who attacked the London transport network on 7 July 2005, killing 52 people.

The 30-year-old Muslim convert has been linked to Somalia’s al-Shabab rebels, who have launched a string of attacks in Kenya including the assault on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre that claimed at least 67 lives a year ago on Sunday.

There has been no confirmed sighting of Lewthwaite since she gave Kenyan police the slip in Mombasa in 2011, reportedly using a false South African passport. Last month Kenyan detectives hunting her said the trail had gone cold.

She is wanted in Kenya on charges of being in possession of explosives and conspiracy to commit a felony dating back to December 2011, and is the subject of an Interpol “red notice” warrant for her detention issued at Kenya’s request.

David Smith for the Guardian

Egypt delays shut-down of rights groups

The Egyptian government has delayed plans to shut down dozen of rights groups if they refuse to accept restrictive regulations.

Rights defenders had until Tuesday to agree to government interference or face closure. But after a fierce international backlash, the deadline was delayed on Sunday until November.

The temporary reprieve is of scant comfort to the threatened parties, who fear it merely delays the inevitable. Local and international human rights defenders, including Amnesty International, say the ultimatum is the finishing touch to a year-long crackdown on dissent and an attempt to silence Egypt’s remaining opposition voices.

Ahmed Salamah, who is in charge of a humanitarian non-governmental organisation (NGO), talks to Reuters in front of his office in Alexandria June 2 2013. (Asmaa Waguih, Reuters)
Ahmed Salamah, who is in charge of a humanitarian non-governmental organisation (NGO), talks to Reuters in front of his office in Alexandria June 2 2013. (Asmaa Waguih, Reuters)

“This is still a declaration of war against the independent human rights organisations,” said Mohamed Zaree, programme director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), one of the groups under threat. “The aim of the government is to shut down the public sphere and the horizons that were opened by the revolution in 2011. They want to shut down the last voices calling for accountability for human rights violations, and the last critics of the narrative the government puts forward about Egypt to the international community.”

Since 2002, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Egypt have been regulated by a law that gives the government the right to oversee and veto each project that an NGO carries out, and to block any overseas donation or grant. Critics say the law exists to obstruct the work of rights groups, whose work is often unfavourable to the government, and which are largely funded by international organisations. To circumvent the legislation, many would-be NGOs register as law firms or research groups, to give themselves more freedom.

Death sentence for NGOs
In July, the government moved to end the loophole and ordered groups whose work was in any way connected to NGO-type activity to re-register under the 2002 law within 45 days.

“The looming deadline sounds very much like a death sentence for independent Egyptian NGOs,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and north Africa, in a statement. “The authorities’ ultimatum is not about enabling NGOs to operate, and instead paves the way for the closure of those that are critical of the government.”

The Egyptian government denies it is trying to curb dissent, and says it is trying to end a legal ambiguity. “This doesn’t have anything to do with [cracking down on] the opposition,” said Ayman Abdelmawgud, from the ministry for social solidarity, the state body that issued the order. “Any entity practising the work of NGOs should be registered as one. I don’t know why they have concerns about registering.”

But the rights groups say their concerns are obvious: by registering under the 2002 law, they are submitting to the whim of a ministry that could freeze their programmes, or reject their application.

The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) is one group that has already applied to re-register. But its executive director, Mohamed Lotfy, fears the ministry will unnecessarily prolong its assessment of the ECRF’s application, and ban it from working in the interim period. “They could actually come and stop our activities and say that we’re doing work that should be monitored by the ministry, and therefore we should stop working until our application is processed,” said Lotfy. “That’s a real threat.”

Once the deadline finally passes, some threatened groups may ask their employees to work from home, fearing a repeat of the raids on NGO offices that took place in December 2011. Those raids resulted in the arrest and conviction of 43 democracy advocates, and were the start of a counter-revolutionary attempt to undermine an emergent civil society that had been strengthened by the 2011 uprising that toppled former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Restrictive law
The election of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012 did little to stem the tide, as the group attempted to force through a new NGO law that was even more restrictive than the 2002 version. The Brotherhood’s efforts were thwarted by their overthrow last summer, but their military-installed successors have continued along a similar track, drafting yet another harsh NGO law that could be enacted as soon as a new parliament is elected.

Rights groups are the last significant source of opposition to the current government, which has muted dissent by banning street protests, arresting journalists killing more than a thousand protesters, and jailing tens of thousands of political prisoners.

“The only people exposing the violations right now in Egypt are the rights organisations,” said Mohamed Zaree, the CIHRS campaigner. “And the government does not welcome that criticism.” – Patrick Kingsley for The Guardian