Africa

Why does a Nigerian Muslim leader want to restrict polygamy?

  • 22 February 2017
  • From the section Africa
Brides at a mass wedding held in Kano, Nigeria Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Emir wants to reform many aspects of the laws on marriage

Polygamy is widely accepted all over Nigeria but one of the country's most prominent Muslim leaders is trying to ban the practice - in some cases.

Why are multiple spouses under scrutiny?

Men who cannot afford more than one wife are the catalyst for these reforms.

The Emir of Kano, Muhammad Sanusi, suggested that polygamy among the poor was linked to the rise of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which has been behind a violent insurgency in north-eastern Nigeria.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Kano has also been the target of attack from Boko Haram

But it has managed to find recruits from all over the mainly Muslim north of the country.

"Those of us in the north have all seen the economic consequences of men who are not capable of maintaining one wife, marrying four," the Emir said over the weekend.

"They end up producing 20 children, not educating them, leaving them on the streets, and they end up as thugs and terrorists."

It was a brave statement that anyone who has visited the north will find hard to deny.

In many northern towns and cities groups of small children, known as "almajiris", crowd around cars stuck in traffic, begging for small change.

How common is polygamy?

Marrying multiple wives is a lot less common among educated people in Nigeria but polygamy still happens in rural areas, especially in the Muslim north.

Image caption Mohammed Bello Abubakar, who died last month, had at least 86 wives

It is legal. Though the official marriage registry only allows for one wife, it also has a clause that allows for marriage under "customary" law. These rules will differ depending on the community.

One man from central Niger state, who died last month, famously had at least 86 wives and at least 170 children.

But according to Islamic law, a man is not allowed to have more than four wives at the same time. It also states that a man should treat his wives fairly and equally - otherwise, he should remain in a monogamous marriage.

Would a polygamy ban prevent terrorism?

The Emir was not clear on where he gleaned his research but a study published by the Royal Society scientific journal in 2012 said that polygamous societies were more prone to war, rape and theft.

The cause was not an abundance of uneducated children but a surplus of poor, young men with no prospects of marriage.

How can it be enforced?

The proposal has been submitted to a council of Islamic scholars for "validation" and then it will be presented to the Kano state legislature in two weeks' time.

If passed it will be enforced through the Islamic family courts.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Emir, pictured here on horseback, is an influential traditional leader among Muslims

Kano is one of several northern states that have introduced Sharia after the end of military rule in 1999 - and the Islamic courts operate alongside secular courts.

In Kano most cases of family law are decided through Islamic courts.

But the problem is that many marriages in Nigeria are not registered with the government or the courts.

Would it be adopted elsewhere?

It would only apply in Kano state, but the Emir has a lot of influence and the law could be adopted in other Sharia states.

The bill is part of a series of reforms Muhammad Sanusi hopes to introduce as part of his mission to modernise the north, which has higher levels of poverty and illiteracy than the south.

So what are his other reforms?

The bill also deals with other marriage rights, education and inheritance.

It would see a ban on domestic violence - giving women the option to seek compensation for any bodily harm and the right to divorce if they can prove domestic abuse.

Domestic violence is already illegal in Nigeria but, as family lawyer Ik Nwabufo says, "human elements" get in the way of those laws being enforced.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Kano State has female literacy rates of between 35% and 50%

From the police station to the courtroom it is a male-dominated system and many of these cases will be dropped along the way.

"What the Emir is trying to do is to close the loopholes," says Mr Nwabufo.

"He is trying to make the Sharia courts stricter on these issues and to make these laws more relevant to religion and culture."

The law would also prohibit forced marriage, meaning a woman would have to give her consent before a marriage is legal.

Though there are exceptions - if a woman's father can prove with medical records that she is mentally disabled, he would have the right to decide her marriage for her.

But as educational attainment and literacy levels in the north are also woefully low - especially for girls - it is unlikely that many women will be aware of these rights even if they are enshrined in law.

Does the Emir practise polygamy?

The Emir does have four wives himself and has been quick to say there is nothing wrong with polygamy if the status of each wife is equal and the husband can afford to maintain all of his wives and children.

But he seems to be on a mission to modernise Kano where he came to the throne in 2014.

Before his royal career he was a well-known public figure - a banker, politician and businessman with a reputation as a reformer.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Emir uncovered a corruption scandal when head of the Central Bank of Nigeria

He was head of the Central Bank of Nigeria during the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan, when he blew the whistle on wide-scale corruption in the oil industry. He was fired from that job for speaking out.

Last week in a speech at the conferring of teachers in his state, he suggested that mosques in the north be converted into schools.

He publicly criticised the failure of education in the north and pointed to similar successful schemes in Morocco.

But challenging the practices that have reigned in the north for centuries will be an uphill battle.

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