LAGOS, Nigeria — After months of legal motions, stop-and-start court proceedings and behind-the-scenes negotiating, prosecutors in northern Nigeria on Wednesday announced they would move to drop charges against Wasila Tasiu, a child bride who was accused of killing her newlywed husband and three others.
Tasiu was arrested in April of last year in her rural village in Nigeria’s northern Kano State. Her attorney said she confessed to police to putting rat poison in the meal of her husband, Umaru Sani, who shared it with three other people. All four died.
Tasiu and Sani had married 17 days earlier, but Tasiu said she didn’t love the man, and was forced into marriage by her father. All this happened when Tasiu was either 14, according to her family, or 11, according to Tasiu’s lawyer. (Official birth records are rare in much of rural northern Nigeria.)
The case sparked uproar within Nigeria and overseas, fueled in part by erroneous reports in some local and international news outlets saying that Tasiu could face death for her crimes (that was never true; Kano State law prohibits the death penalty for minors) — but it also presented a dilemma for authorities in Kano State.
On the one hand, Tasiu had confessed to killing four people. But she is also a young girl raised in a village with no paved roads and no school, where polygamy and child marriage are common. Her attorney says she was forced to marry — and sleep with — a man she didn’t love. She killed, yes, but she was also backed into a corner.
Ultimately, prosecutors opted to drop charges against Tasiu and pay the families of her victims, Tasiu’s attorney and the state attorney general said.
Tasiu’s ordeal is now drawing to a close, but the question lingers: Why was a girl far below the age of consent married, and with her parents approval, no less?
The answer lies in cultural and religious traditions that are prevalent across Nigeria, but pronounced in the country’s northern half. Africa’s most populous nation is also a world leader in child marriage, according to UNICEF. Two out of every five women nationwide have been married by the time they turn 18. In the country’s northwest, 76 percent of women are married by age 18. In the northeast, the rate is 68 percent.
Taking multiple wives is not only a sign of prosperity and success in northern Nigeria, it’s also permitted under local interpretations of the Koran.
Tasiu’s father has two wives. Sani, Tasiu’s short-lived husband, already had another wife when he married Tasiu.
So, while Tasiu’s marriage was unique in how it ended, it wasn’t uncommon.
Nigeria has a federal law that sets the minimum age for marriage at 18, but it’s not in effect in several of the 36 states, including Kano. And even if it were, Kano’s state government holds little hope of enforcing it.
“Marriage and family, they are so private,” the state’s attorney general Maliki Kuliyu Umar, said in November, comments he repeated after the decision was announced this week. “So you cannot fix a date, an age limit and all that. And as I said, only time and education can improve that.”
But education is hard to find in Kaura, Tasiu’s village. Tasiu’s father was wary of her walking alone down the kilometers of sweltering dirt road that led to the nearest school, so he kept her home, where she studied the Koran.
Tasiu has yet to leave the juvenile detention facility, known as a remand home, where she’s in custody. The judge hearing her case asked the prosecution to come back on June 9 and formally request her release.
When she is free, her attorney, Hussaina Aliyu, says Tasiu will stay with a host family, and attend school somewhere away from her village. Aliyu hopes Tasiu will be able to visit Kaura on vacations.
“Maybe in another one year or so, she can move back to that place,” Aliyu said.
But not right away. Aliyu fears if Tasiu returns home, her parents will try once again to marry her off.