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On Polygamy In Nigeria


By Chippla Vandu


The first group of Europeans to set foot on present-day Nigeria were the Portuguese (this pretty much depends on which piece of written history you believe in).


While England was still reeling from the effects of the Christian reformation, Portuguese explorers were sailing the West African coast. They made significant contacts with rulers of the Benin Kingdom—an ancient empire in southwestern Nigeria, renowned for its ivory and bronze artworks.


Unlike the British colonialists who were to arrive a couple of centuries later, the Portuguese came to trade. And the sort of trade they happened to fancy the most was that of trading in slaves.

When two cultures make contact, they borrow from each other. Quite often, the dominant of the two cultures gradually imposes its ideas and values on the other. Though the Portuguese spent about 300 years in Southern Nigeria, there are very few reminders such today.


Nigeria's largest city (Lagos) has a name with Portuguese roots and some 16th century Benin artworks show clear manifestations of Portuguese influence such as the Virgin and Child as well as the Christian Cross.


However, Southern Nigeria did not become Christian—Portugal being a Roman Catholic country then. It was English, Scottish and Irish missionaries that became responsible for introducing Christianity to Nigeria.

     Women's group

    Nigerian women at a local get-together

By the mid 19th century, much of present-day southern Nigeria held onto traditional religious beliefs, some of which were quite well developed. Islam flourished in the north--ever since Usman dan Fodio led a jihad (holy war) in 1804, aimed at expanding the Islamic faith in the Hausa states of northern Nigeria and beyond. To a large degree, his jihad was successful, given the fact that much of northern Nigeria remains Islamic to this day.

While Islam and most traditional religious belief systems in Nigeria permit polygamy, most forms of Christianity practiced in Nigeria do not. And given that these three religious ideologies helped provide a moral framework on which the secular Nigerian constitution was written, a compromise had to be reached. This compromise involved making polygamy legal in Nigeria. That is, polygamy in the form of polygyny. Polyandry is deemed unacceptable.

A significant number of 'Christian' Nigerian men (like the current president) are polygamists. They all too often reconcile this practice to their Christian faith by claiming that polygamy is a part of African culture. And undoubtedly, cultural norms exceed religious restrictions in their opinion. Since Islam and traditional belief systems permit polygamy, male adherents of these faiths have little need to justify marrying more than one wife.

I have always had a deep problem with polygamy. Polygamy is, in my opinion, a survival mechanism that was necessary in the past when most children died of diseases and large number of hands was needed to work the land to produce food.


Furthermore, in days gone by, women generally had little say in the governing or administration of villages or cities. They were viewed as properties of their husbands and were totally subject to his will. Times have changed, especially in southern Nigeria, where women are becoming very active in all walks of life.

HIV/AIDS is a problem in Nigeria, and the practice of polygamy is one of those cultural idiosyncrasies that assist in spreading in. Thus, I do believe that African culture should give way to common sense. And common sense should result in legislation that limits one man to one wife and one woman to one husband at a time.


Greatest opposition to any changes in Nigerian marriage laws with regard to polygamy would surely come from the core north of the country, where not too much appears to have changed in the past century in regard to the way women are viewed and treated (especially in rural areas).


Machismo is indeed a problem in all of Nigeria. And it is reinforced by certain interpretations of religious texts particularly in Pentecostal forms of Christianity and Islam.


Chippla Vandu is a Nigerian writer and academic. He blogs as Chippla.


Please e-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com




A bit idealistic, Chippla. If you say polygamy is basically a social construct, then wouldn’t it rather call for a culture change? And the question would be to what extent can the law be an instrument of social change? And even if such legislation exists, how would it be enforced? Please, bear in mind that we already have laws on marriage in Nigeria.


We have the Marriage Act and the Matrimonial Causes Act. The current Nigerian law allows you to choose whether to marry under the Marriage Act or under customary law (including Islamic law). For a person who marries under the Act, bigamy – another marriage during the subsistence of the former – is prohibited.


It carries an imprisonment term of 7 years. However, people (especially Muslims) refuse to marry under the Act and would rather marry under Islamic law. So, you see, the problem is not about legislation. There are limits to legislation. What we need is a change in mindset and for culture to evolve in such a way as to preserve a society’s population.


Polygamy was originally intended to serve the latter function. However, times have changed and polygamy is now having a contrary effect to its root intendment. It is now a factor to consider in the spread of HIV/AIDS – a disease which could deplete a society’s population. Legislation without consideration of a society’s belief systems will end up being thrown into the bin. What we need is a culture change, and there are very firm limits on the extent to which legislation can be responsible for that.


Posted by Ayoke.


Chippla, you will have a lot of African men calling for your head if you keep this up. Like you said, machismo is a major problem in Africa...maybe that is where we need to start. Your points make sense in a "social responsibility" kind of way. But with the mindset of many Africans who feel a lot of their way of life is slowly being eroded, this is an issue that may still be around for the next 100 years.


Posted by Rosie



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