Polygamy and High Divorce Rates in Northern Nigeria


Dr. Bala Mohammed Liman




The recent remarks by HRH Mohammed II, the Emir of Kano regarding the operation of polygamy in Northern Nigeria and the need to review it, has come under a lot of criticism but highlights a major cultural problem bedeviling the region. This is a crisis that must be addressed because it remains an impediment to its development and progress. The issue of polygamy is something that needs to be examined due to its negative effects that includes high divorce rates and the neglect of children produced in such unions.


Muslims who form the majority of the population of the north are permitted to marry more than one wife and it is estimated that over one third of most marriages in the three northern zones of the country are polygamous in nature, with 38% of those in rural areas and 22% of those in urban areas in polygamous marriages. It is ironic that even though these three zones have the lowest income levels and the highest number of the unemployed, the DHS data for 2008 shows that polygamous marriages are more likely to be found in there. The fact that poorer families are more likely to be polygamous and the lack of a social security system to cater for children create social problems where children are kept out of school so that they can hawk or beg to help their families out. Some of these children also form part of the numerous almajiris found in the urban areas because, due to the inability of their parents to take care of them they are they are shipped off to Islamic schools in faraway places where they end up begging on the streets.  So how do we address this issue? One way as being suggested by HRH is to revisit the marriage laws in the country particularly those that pertain to Muslim and customary marriages. But will changes in the marriage laws especially as regards polygamous marriage and registration of all marriages help to check this problem?


Nigeria has a large Muslim population that is estimated to be 50% of the country’s estimated population of 180 Million, with a large proportion of this in the northern region. The country has a three-tier legal system with civil, Islamic and customary laws, with Muslims in many of the states in the northern region operating the sharia legal system. Men tend to abuse their rights under Islamic law especially in terms of divorce and provision of maintenance to the wife and any kids after divorce putting a huge burden on women. The right of men to marry up to a maximum of four wives under Islamic law allows them to see this as a free pass even when they are incapable of adequately providing for the expanded families. Also with no provision for marriage contracts, women enter these unions without anything to fall back on in case of its dissolution.


In 1970, the Nigerian government enacted the Matrimonial Causes Act as a way of addressing the differences in dissolution of marriages under the three separate laws in operation in the country. This is similar to the attempts by Pakistan in 1961, and the sahel countries of west Africa, namely Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Mali to streamline the differences between the civil laws as introduced by the French colonialist and Islamic and traditional customary laws that had been in existence prior to their arrival. The issues that these countries tried to address focused on the registration of marriages, what is required if a man wants to take a second, third of fourth wife and the manner of dissolution of marriages under the Islamic system.


The current situation in Nigeria is that many Muslim marriages are not registered and there are no marriage contracts. Also, the man does not have to get his wife’s permission nor have to inform the authorities of his desire to take a second wife, which differs in many other Muslim majority countries where there are certain requirements before a man can get married or take another wife. In a publication ‘Knowing Our Rights: Women, family, laws and customs in the Muslim world’ by Women Living Under Muslim Laws, it noted that in Algeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco and Pakistan, a husband is required to obtain the permission of a governmental authority, court or quasi-judicial body, or other forum to contract a polygynous marriage’ while in Morocco it is required that ‘the court consults both the existing and proposed wives before the proposed marriage can go ahead’. The husband must also show that he can provide equitable treatment in terms of economic support (though some want it to go further by taking the sexual and emotional needs of women into consideration).


Unfortunately, the current situation in marriages conducted under Sharia law in northern Nigeria does not take a lot of these into consideration especially regarding marriage registration and contracts. Men also divorce their wives by abusing the talaq, which is the pronouncement of divorce that a man makes when he wants to dissolve his marriage. They abuse this by making the pronouncement three times at once, giving no room for reconciliation and can then simply get married again, starting the cycle once again. 


BOABAB which is a not for profit, non-governmental organisation that focuses on women’s legal rights that examines their rights under the three legal systems operational in Nigeria, in a paper on the validity of divorce under the sharia, noted the following conditions for a valid talaq;

1. The husband must
(a) be an adult
(b) be sane
(c) not acting under any sort of coercion (external pressure).

2. The woman must be in a ‘state of purity’ (free from menstrual blood and the blood of child birth)

3. There should be no cohabitation between the two after being ‘clean’

4. He should not give it more than once; that is, it should be pronounced in a manner leaving room for reconciliation. This is known as Talaq Raj’i.

5. He should not give another divorce within the time of the three months awaiting period.

6. The intention to divorce must be clear. Intention can be shown by speaking, clear signs or writing.

7. Each statement of divorce must have at least two witnesses

8. The divorce that is pronounced once or twice is a revocable divorce.

This is known as Bid’i.

(a) This means that if the husband and wife decide to reconcile before the end of the waiting period (iddah) they may do so.

(b) But, if they mutually reconcile after the end of the waiting period, they must go through another marriage contract. This is known as talaq ba’in bainuna sugra.

9. A divorce that is given three times is irrevocable. This is known as talaq ba’in kubra. A talaq ba’in kubra means that the husband and wife cannot reconcile and be married again, after the wife has been married to and divorced from another man. This should not be a marriage done for the purpose of being able to remarry with the former husband.


A lot of divorces do not follow these conditions. The high divorce rate also comes with two notable negative side effects. Firstly, in terms of the provision of upkeep for the children borne out of the union. While Islamic law mandates that the man must make adequate provision for this, many men do not meet this obligation, making it difficult for the women to maintain the children after the divorce. Secondly women are sometimes restricted from having custody of the children with no recourse for justice thereby in many cases causing them psychological trauma. It is obvious that changes need to be made in the enforcement of the Islamic marriage system. There must be some form of control that ensures that men that want to take more wives must show that they are able to provide for the increased family size, marriages must also be registered so that there can be a way to monitor abuses in the system. Men must also be penalized when they do not provide for their children; they must register these children at birth and must not be allowed them to send them outside the towns where their parents live under the pretext of sending them off for Islamic education.


Kano state has taken an initiative to address this issue by sponsoring the recent mass marriage of divorced and widowed women. There has been criticism from some quarters, with some arguing that the women would have been better off being empowered so that they can be self sufficient. But would they? Given that there was no compulsion in the marriages, it can be argued that women using their own agency took this decision to partake in this arrangement and if they had wanted something else they would not have taken part in the process. The fact that the government also ensured that marriage contracts were in place would ensure that both parties are aware of their rights in the marriage and should reduce the abuse that has become common in many marriages especially with regards to dissolution of marriages and the rights of women.


It is important that efforts are made to address this social issue and while the federal government has started the process, the states in the north must take the initiative like Kano state did and be more proactive in how they approach these issues; government is tasked with enacting policies even those that seem unpopular in the best interest of the majority and they must not allow themselves to be blackmailed into not doing the right thing.