Nigeria is one of the countries where polygamy is prevalent. Only four other countries have more people living in polygamous marriages than Nigeria. If you’ve ever gone through the Constitution of Nigeria, you might have seen that marrying more than one wife under civil law is bigamy, a punishable offence. With an estimated 28 percent of the Nigerian population living in polygamous marriages, you may wonder if polygamy is legal in Nigeria. Read on to find out.
Is Polygamy Legal in Nigeria?
Polygamy is not recognized under the Nigerian Marriage Act, the federal law that governs the marriage between one man and one woman. However, under customary law (including Islamic law), a man can marry multiple wives, whether simultaneously or in succession. Hence, polygamy isn’t illegal in Nigeria.
What is Polygamy?
There are several definitions of polygamy. But to put it in simple terms, polygamy is a type of marriage system whereby a man is permitted to marry more than one wife as life partners. Polygamy is the opposite of the statutory marriage system of Nigeria which permits a man to marry only one wife. A man who wishes to marry multiple wives can do so simultaneously, by marrying two or more spouses at a time, or in succession, that is, marrying one spouse after the other.
What is the Legal Framework for Polygamy in Nigeria?
Monogamy and polygamy are essentially the two types of marriage systems under Nigerian law. These two types of marriage systems are regulated by different types of legislation. Monogamy, which is regarded as statutory marriage in Nigeria, is regulated by the Nigerian Marriage Act. After a Nigerian man might have contracted a statutory marriage (monogamy), he cannot marry another wife at the subsistence of the first marriage.
On the other hand, polygamy, which this article is geared towards, is the marriage system that allows a man to marry more than one wife. The man may marry multiple spouses at a time or successively. In Nigeria, the legislation that regulates polygamy is the native laws and customs of the man. That is to say, polygamy in Nigeria is strictly a customary law institution.
However, in Nigeria, polygamous marriages can further be subdivided into Islamic marriage and traditional marriage. Read on to learn about the two subcategories of polygamous marriages in Nigeria.
Overview of Islamic Marriage in Nigeria
Islamic marriage, which is one of the two subcategories of customary marriage, is practised in the twelve northern States governed by Sharia law. The States that are governed by Sharia law in Nigeria include Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Kano, Kaduna, Niger, Yobe, Sokoto, Zamfara, Katsina, Kebbi and Jigawa.
Although in Islamic marriage, a Nigerian man can marry multiple wives, there is a four-wife limitation according to the Sharia law. This means, at every point, a man is not allowed to have more than four wives. Despite this four-wife limitation per the provisions of the Sharia law, there are several indications that many Nigerians have defied this law and gotten married to more than four wives. A popular example is Muhammadu Bello Masaba, a Niger State native who married 86 wives. Although the Niger State Sharia Commission had once accused Bello Masaba of illegal marriage as he’d exceeded four wives, the charges were later dropped, and he kept his 86 wives.
According to the Sharia law, not only Muslims are legally allowed to form polygamous unions. Christians, and adherents of other religions, are also allowed to marry more than one wife, as long as they are from the above-mentioned States where Sharia law is practised. However, many Christian church leaders have criticised Christians in Sharia law-controlled States who go ahead with polygamy.
Overview of Traditional Marriage in Nigeria
Traditional marriage is the second subcategory of polygamous marriage that is practised in Nigeria. Unlike Islamic marriage which limits the number of spouses a Nigerian man can marry to four, there is no limit on the number of wives a man can marry under the traditional form of customary marriage.
A Nigerian man, under the traditional form of customary marriage, can marry multiple spouses as life partners simultaneously, or marry one spouse after the other. There are certain requirements to be met before a traditional polygamous marriage can become valid. These requirements vary from one ethnicity to the other, however. Some common conditions are that the potential new spouse must have consented to the union, and the man must possess the capacity to marry and care for the woman. In addition, the payment of dowry or bride price and formal giving away of the woman are other conditions that must be satisfied to give life to the union.
Apart from the requirements to be met as discussed in the trailing paragraph, the husband does not have to perform any special obligation when he wants to add to his tally of spouses.
From what we’ve discussed above, you can see that it is illegal to marry more than one wife under the customary law of Nigeria. However, after a Nigerian man might have already married multiple wives under the customary law of the land, he can’t contract a statutory marriage later on while the polygamous marriage is still in force.
If a Nigerian man who initially contracted a statutory marriage backed by the Marriage Act goes ahead to marry other spouses while the first marriage still subsists, the offence of bigamy is thus committed. And bigamy is a punishable offence in Nigeria.