Marriage Laws in Nigeria

Nigeria is as pluralistic in its legal systems as it is in its ethnic makeup. There are basically three legal systems in Nigeria, namely English law, common law and Islamic law (also called Sharia law).

Each of these laws has its own marriage system, although they have their differences and similarities. All three marriage systems are equivalent, at least in terms of their recognition as a marriage that can be legally contracted in Nigeria by anyone who wants to.

It is possible for a person to have two marriages, one under common law and the other under Islamic law, but this is unacceptable as far as English law is concerned.

At this point it is important to look at each of the marriages in some detail.

Marriage under English law

Marriages in accordance with the principles of English law are governed in Nigeria by the Marriage Act. As early as 1860, the court in Hyde vs Hyde, defined marriage as “the voluntary union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others”. This has since been accepted as the meaning of marriage under English law. This type of marriage clearly abhors polygamy.

For a marriage in Nigeria to be valid and qualified as a marriage under English law, the conditions of the Marriage Act listed below must be met.

Conditions for a valid marriage under English law

  • The spouses must have agreed to be husband and wife
  • The man must have submitted a notification of his intention to marry to the marriage registry of the territory where the marriage is to take place
  • The notice of termination is then entered by the registrar in the marriage register
  • The notification remains open for at least 21 days before the registrar can issue the marriage certificate
  • During the 21 days, anyone who so wishes may enter a reservation against the proposed marriage
  • At that point, the Registrar will refer the reservation to the High Court, who will determine the fate of the reservation in one way or another
  • If the reservation is found valid by the High Court, the registrar will be prevented from issuing the marriage certificate until the objection raised in the reservation has resolved
  • If the High Court invalidates the reservation, the registrar issues the marriage certificate. The marriage certificate should be issued no earlier than 21 days and no later than 3 months after the man has completed the declaration of intention to marry.

Other factors that may prevent the marriage certificate from being issued

Except for objections that may be contained in a reservation, the registrar may not issue the marriage certificate in any of the following situations:

  • if neither party was a resident of the territory where the marriage is to be celebrated for 15 days prior to the issuance of the marriage certificate
  • if the Registrar is satisfied that either party is a minor (i.e. under 16 years of age)
  • if the consent of either party is obtained through fraud, dress, undue influence, false identity or a party who is unable to give consent due to a mental illness
  • where the parties are related by blood like cousins
  • if either party is already married under English or common law.

celebration of marriage

The marriage ceremony itself can take place in two places, i.e. in the registry office or in a place of worship.

The following conditions apply to the registry office:

  • it must take place before the Registrar
  • there must be at least two witnesses, and
  • it must take place between 10:00 and 16:00.

In the case of a place of worship, the following rules apply:

  • it must be conducted by a recognized minister of the religious organization concerned
  • The place of worship must be a place authorized under the Marriage Act for the performance of the marriage ceremony
  • At least two witnesses must be present
  • Before the marriage ceremony, the minister must be sure that the marriage certificate has been obtained from the parties
  • the wedding ceremony must take place between 8.00 a.m. and 6.00 p.m
  • The minister must send a copy of the marriage certificate to the registrar within 7 days of the marriage

English law marriage is the most complicated to finalize as seen later in this article compared to the other two marriage systems in Nigeria.

customary marriage

Common law marriage is the easiest marriage to enter into in Nigeria. It is a wedding celebrated according to the customs and traditions of a local tribe in Nigeria. In terms of marriage, different tribes in Nigeria have a lot in common.

Basics of a common law marriage

  • Agreement between a man and a woman to be husband and wife
  • Parental consent, especially the woman’s side
  • Payment of the dowry by the man to the woman’s family
  • handing over of the woman to the man.

Once the above conditions are met, a common law marriage is validly concluded. This marriage allows for polygamy, allowing a man to marry as many wives as he likes. In fact, there is no limit to the number of women a man can marry under various native customs in Nigeria.

Marriage according to Islamic law

Marriage under Islamic law refers to a marriage contracted by two Muslims (i.e. a man and a woman) in accordance with the prescriptions of Sharia law. Islamic law allows a Muslim man to marry up to 4 wives provided he ensures fairness, equality and justice between them.

For a valid marriage under Islamic law, the following requirements must be met:

  • The spouses must have agreed on the marriage
  • The consent of the woman’s father or uncle or a male family member is mandatory
  • The man must give a gift (it could be money or an item) as a dowry. The monetary value of anything given must not be less than N5000. There is no max
  • The marriage itself must be witnessed by at least two witnesses.

As soon as the above requirements are met, a marriage is considered to have taken place according to Islamic law.

What I have planned with this article is to present a concise picture of different marriages that Nigerians and non-Nigerians living in Nigeria can enter into based on individual preference.

The only marriage that is not free for all is Islamic law marriage, which can only take place between a Muslim man and a Muslim woman. However, a Muslim man may marry a woman who belongs to him “The People of the Book”. This refers to Jewish or Christian women.

Apart from Christians and Jewish believers, a Muslim man cannot marry any other faith. It might be interesting to hear that the opposite is the fate of a Muslim woman. She can only marry another Muslim man. This smacks of a subtle strategy to attract more converts to Islamic circles.

Despite this, I believe that Nigeria is one of the countries where the variety of marriage opportunities is well cultivated. Although marriage between same-sex or closely related people is not allowed and there are no indications that this will happen in the not too distant future.

It’s quite funny to note that some people refer to marriage under English law as a “legal marriage” as if other marriages weren’t. That’s wrong. In fact, all three marriages are legal.