Marriage is full of surprises, and weddings are cliche, but legally certifying a marriage in Nigeria can be misleading. What follows exposes a prevalent misdirection, so that Muslims, and others with similar issues, don’t fall for the (unintended) booby traps.
Like many traditions, marriage is fundamental to building a sound society for Muslims. For that reason, family law is one of the most prominent section ever-present in books of Islamic law (Fiqh). The Shariah regulates several aspects of the family life through family law. Unfortunately, the constitutional process of certifying Muslim marriages in Nigeria can be misleading; especially due to the officers one encounters. At the risk of stating an irony, Nigerians rely on other Nigerians for much information from directions to locations, to whether President Buhari controls Boko haram, but rarely from officially verified documents and instructions. Not that government agencies make these documents and instructions available.
So you have had a stressful week engaged in your wedding activities. You barely kept your cool to make it through the countless events. You don’t wish to go through another ordeal like this. Relief settles on your mind simply knowing that those last few months of stressful planning are over. Now you know why fairy tales end with “happily ever after”, because there is always a wedding at the end even if the author doesn’t mention it; anything after the stress of wedding seems like “happily ever after”. The Nigerian constitution laughs at you when you feel accomplished that you are married, because it is not legal yet! You need to have a Marriage certificate!
There is hardly any Muslim, faithful to Islam, who would have their marriage regulated by anything other than the Shariah. To be regulated by the Shariah, it is sufficient to have any legal framework that does not contradict the Shariah’s position, or that which allows for Muslims to live according to Shariah. It is a matter of compatibility/accommodation of Shariah rather than exclusively identifying a homogeneous rule-book called Shariah Marriage. Fortunately, Nigerian constitution allows for Muslims to opt to have their marriage legislated by the Shariah. But unfortunately, the Marriage registry staff can be misleading , and often successfully, even if unintended.
Basically, there are two main options to certifying marriages in Nigeria. One is “marriage according to the Act”, and the other is customary (Native Law and Custom) marriage; at least these are the two options we were exposed to. For either, the process begins with obtaining a declaration documents from a court. At this point, the couple is often not aware of the two options for certifying a marriage. So they proceed to the next stage which is the marriage registry. This is where the couple is often presented with the two options to marriage certificate; those that have an idea beforehand probably are just as misinformed as those who are unaware at this point. This second step is also the step of possible misdirection.
Steps to Certifying a Marriage in Nigeria
1. Obtain Marriage Declaration from court
2. Obtain Certificate at Marriage Registry
Do you want blah blah certificate or the flah flah certificate? This is the first question thrown at the couple, or at least the way they hear it. The registry officer who is used to couples being puzzled by the names of the options mentioned, goes on to clarify. If the couple looks Muslim, the officer knows just the right way to break it down to them. Do you want the one-wife certificate or the many-wives certificate? The latter allows for the man to marry more than one wife. The officer might elaborate by saying the one-wife certificate is a more tedious process than the other. All the while with the smile resembling a mischevious smirk. Not all civil servants are devoid of customer service after all.
Actually that is Customer Disservice! Based on an episode I witnessed, when you ask a newly married couple whether the husband would want to take another wife, what do you expect? This is how many Muslims end up taking the option of one-wife certificate. Only a few are bold, or insensitive, enough to go for the many-wives certificate. While polygamy hardly fails to attract interest, that is not the issue at stake when making that decision. By misrepresenting the issue, the registry officer has done a disservice to Muslim couples, probably without intent.
The issue is not whether the marriage can accomodate more wives or not. It is about whether the Shariah court would adjucate and regulate the marriage, or other courts. The one-wife certificate is actually marriage according to the 1990 Marriage Act, whereas the many-wives marriage is marriage according to customary laws; and Shariah courts fall under customary laws. Marriage according to the Act, which means no Shariah court, also means the marriage would be regulated by other acts like the accompanying 1990 Matrimonial Causes Act which conflicts with the Shariah on matters such as divorce (dissolution of marriage). The 1990 Marriage Act already conflicts with the (default) Shariah in restricting number of wives to one; without a valid justification for sidelining the options provided by the default. Other areas of interest would be the process of re-marrying and child custody, etc.
Basically Muslims are mislead into regulating their marriage using a document that contradicts the Shariah, though unintentionally. Seeing that many Muslims only acquire marriage certificates for official reasons and conveniences, it is no wonder that the many Muslims who have been misdirected to the one-wife certificate are not necessarily affected by the certificate in practice. These same Muslims, follow the Shariah but not via a court, often through family and community. Nonetheless, any of the spouse could insist on taking the other to court for violating stipulations of the marriage regulating acts; which is forseeable when passions are high and one feels the Shariah is to their disadvantage.
Nigerian Muslim couples, new and old, should be aware of this likely pitfall during marriage certification. Do not be baited into thinking the issue is polygamy, the issue is the regulatory framework of the marriage.