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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Uwais’ wife tackles Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello over tobacco bill

By Yusuf Alli

The wife of a former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mrs. Maryam Uwais, yesterday faulted the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Senator Iyabo Obasanjo-Bello, for barring school pupils from contributing to the debate on the National Tobacco Control Bill before the Senate.
She spoke through a protest letter to Senate President David Mark on the alleged prohibition of pupils from contributing to the bill on July 20 and 21.
The letter reads in part: "You may recall that a public hearing was held on the 20th and 21st of July on a proposed National Tobacco Control Bill, sponsored by Senator Olorunnimbe Mamora, which proceedings were held under the auspices of the Committee of Health, chaired by your good self.
"Several stakeholders, representing different organisations, interests and various jurisdictions of Nigeria participated in the hearing, which fact in itself, demonstrated the significance and timeliness of the contents of this very important piece of legislation.
"Being a member of the African Union Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, I was delighted when I noticed that there were young persons (from a senior secondary school class, as I was made to understand) in the audience, who signified that they intended to contribute to the discussions at the hearing.
"To my consternation, however, they were roundly rejected by no other person than you.
" Indeed, you proceeded to state, four times, what your reasons were for puncturing their enthusiasm in such a dismissive manner, even though from the first time (and each time) you spoke to the issue, you ended your statement with ‘no more will be said on this matter’.
"You declined any observations or contributions on the issue from the floor (or indeed, as I noticed, from your distinguished colleagues), concluding that you were correct in your assertions that pupils could not be permitted to participate in the discussions on the merits and demerits of the provisions of that bill.
"Your reasons, if I may recall, were that you were a mother yourself, and so felt the need to ‘protect’ children.
"You stated that you would not allow children to be ‘used’ or ‘paraded’ before the committee; and that even in the law courts, the evidence of a child would need to be corroborated during a trial.
"Besides, in your view, since adults were present and knew what the issues were, there was absolutely no need for a person under the age of 18 to participate in the proceedings.
"To further support your assertions, you added that at hearings in the Senate, persons who intended to contribute could be compelled to swear oaths on the scriptures relevant to their faiths, which in your understanding, was another excuse for denying them the right to be heard on an issue that concerns them.
"In conclusion, you mentioned that the Child Rights Act did not allow for children to speak at such forum. I am constrained to join issues with you on your position, even because your assertions run contrary to known laws, norms and emerging trends when it comes to children and young persons, their freedom to express themselves and their participation in matters that concern them.
"The unfortunate statement that those young persons were ‘brought along’ to the hearing for the purposes of being ‘used’ or ‘paraded’ was presumptuous, to say the least, as they certainly did not look like they were coerced, uncomfortable or were present in the hearing room against their wishes.
But I will not say more on this point, as it would only distract from the aim of this letter.
"The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria guarantees every citizen, children inclusive, their freedom of expression under Section 39.
"The Constitution certainly does not preclude children from the enjoyment of this fundamental right, as I am certain you would agree that children are also persons. Indeed, the Child Rights Act, 2003, fortifies this position clearly by its Section 3.
"Moreover, S. 19 of this same Child Rights Act, 2003, categorically provides that:
(1) ‘Every child has responsibilities towards his family and society, the Federal Republic of Nigeria and other legalised communities, nationally and internationally. These responsibilities include, under (2) (c) & (d), placing his or her physical and intellectual abilities at the service of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, contributing to the moral well-being of the society and respecting the ideals of democracy, freedom, equality, humaneness, honesty and justice for all persons.’
"About 200 child rights clubs have been established all over the country, to promote representation, association and participation by building children’s capacities and competencies. This, it is hoped, would enable them act effectively as peer educators and would further boost their confidence and self-esteem preparatory to holding the sundry responsibilities of citizenship and adulthood. Children’s views on national issues have been encouraged through debates, essay competitions and art exhibitions, while special events and programs have been designed and supported by the Government, all with the aim of ensuring their effective participation in National life.
"Children and young persons have been involved in many governmental and non-governmental activities, including the promotion of the awareness of HIV/AIDS, reproductive health and the development of life skills among adolescents, while the electronic and print media have created specific spaces for children to express themselves.
None of the aforementioned efforts are considered harmful exposure, neither has any organisation or government body which involves children in its constructive activities, been accused of ‘parading’ children in pursuance of some unsubstantiated motive."
On oath taking, Mrs. Uwais said: "As a senator, you do know that a public hearing is an opportunity for interested stakeholders to participate in the business of lawmaking, even so that laws are made with input from those in whose interests the laws are made.
"A public hearing is, therefore, not a court of law, as you so strenuously sought to affirm. Indeed, heavy weather was made of proceedings relating to children in a courtroom, which points were not quite clear, despite your repeated references to that scenario.