Mr. Calabar E. Daniel

In my few years of Legal practice, it has become a worrisome and common practice in Nigeria that many wedded Couples in the Church or its equivalent live in a celebrated impression that seems like a perfect union, believing he/she is in a legal marriage. Whereas, he or she could be one in an illegal contract that can never be enforced while the children of such marriage are lingering in a delusional mirage.

Surprisingly, going to a church and being declared “man and woman” without an earlier strict observance of legal marriage requirements is no marriage in the eyes of law.
Interestingly, the legality of your marriage may not border you now, until issues of rights, privileges, International Employment, Travel Visa, Will, Inheritance, Divorce, Child Custody, Guardianship, Annuity, Insurance, and Burial arises.

It is against the above backdrop, this article is written primarily to educate the public on making and contracting a valid marriage in the eyes of the law and those especially on the wrong impression.

It is imperative to note at this Juncture, that Courtship is not marriage neither is a loose partnership of opposite sex marriage. Conversely, living together and making babies doesn’t connote marriage and does not matter how long you have cohabited. A purported union with one who is validly married is not a marriage. No matter how valid a marriage is in the eyes of the couple, clergy, relatives, church and the society, it must equally be valid before the law for it to be legal. The Bible urges us to respect laws and constituted authorities; for a marriage to be legal it must be in accordance with the provisions of the Marriage Act of 1949 except for traditional marriages, irrespective of the religious inclinations of the couples.

Hence, marriage is a union between one man and one woman for life to the exclusion of all other persons (that is, English marriage/statutory marriage and not applicable to Customary Marriage). Except you intend to contract under Native Law and Custom which in a plethora of legal authorizes, the courts have decided that neither a marriage under the Act nor marriage under Native Law and Custom is superior to one. It is a sacrosanct union that begets lots of rights, benefits, duties, privileges, and responsibility for its couples and offspring of such union. To say the least, couples (husbands and wives) are protected from certain criminal charges and responsibilities, their children enjoy exclusive rights to inheritance while Native Law and Custom cannot bound or limit them.

Indeed, In the Nigerian traditional and customary law system, marriage is not restricted to just a man and a woman rather a man and many wives and vice versa. Such marriage does not enjoy the full rights accorded to English marriage (that is marriage according to the law). In the eyes of the law, marriage is only what the law (Marriage Act) says is marriage.

Furthermore, it is glaring in our present day Nigeria, that many couples perform both English marriage (often times laymen referred to as “white wedding” “church wedding” and “court wedding”) and traditional marriage (often referred to as “tebesah” in Ijaw language or its equivalent name in other tribes in Nigeria) to satisfy all interests and pressure. That is okay, and acceptable in law. Same couple (the same husband and wife) can marry each other under the traditional/customary law and subsequently marry each other under the law.

It must be borne in mind that a man or a woman married under the traditional/customary law cannot subsequently marry according to the law a different person other than his/her customary wife /husband. Doing such is an offence called bigamy and punishable with five years imprisonment (section 46 of Marriage Act).

Conversely, it is an offence for the same couple to first marry according to the law “English Marriage” and then subsequently marry themselves according to the traditional/customary law. Such act is punishable with five years imprisonment as prescribed in section 47 of the Marriage Act. Many couples in a bid to maximise time, minimise cost and avoid waste are guilty of the above offence. Hence the practice of “white wedding” in the morning and traditional marriage in the afternoon or anytime later is illegal and a punishable offence. However, this provision seems to have been whittle-down by case law and no longer have the force of law provided that the parties are the same persons.

In our modern contemporary society, many desire and strive for a decent home and a lovely married life but often time don’t get such owing to their ignorance. Many plan and celebrate their marriages without consulting their lawyers to educate and advise them on proper and legal means to marriage; hence they end up living in a web of error.

There are laid down procedures and requirements that must be fulfilled before a marriage can be said to be legal and lawful according to the Nigerian Marriage Laws. The Marriage Act of 1949 governs all valid marriage to be made in Nigeria or outside Nigeria (among two Nigerians in the Nigerian High Commission). Please note that no other way or style or method of English marriage is accepted and legal except that to be explained below. The steps which are to be unveiled in Part Two of this article are essential and sacrosanct. Whether you want your bishop, archbishop or court to wed you, you must start the process from step 1 and end in step 3.

In an effort to salvage you from a legal suspense, it becomes desirous to summarise the steps to a valid marriage pending the Part two of this article, hence, a couple must give notice of their marriage to the Registrar of marriage in their local Government Area. The Registrar would, in turn, register such notice in the “Marriage Notice Book” and equally cause same notice to be published on his door and notice board at the local government office for twenty-one (21) days. During the twenty-one days, people are expected to report any reason why the potential couple should not be wedded.

Where there is no protest from the public to such impending union, at the expiration of 21 days, the Registrar of Marriages shall issue a Registrars’ Certificate to the couple. The certificate empowers the concerned couple to go ahead and celebrate their marriage (exchange of vows) within three months. Such exchange must be done in public, often in a licensed place of worship (church) or Mosque or their equivalents and before a registered clergy. (At that stage, people refer to such as “church wedding”).

Some couple prefers to celebrate their own marriage (exchange vows) not in a church rather in the office of the Registrar of marriages, before the Registrar of marriages and a few witnesses. (At that stage, people refer to such as “Court Wedding”). In all the two methods are same, from the same origin and with the same legal benefits and responsibilities (it is a matter of convenience).

Written By Mr. Calabar E. Daniel (LL.B), (L.B.), (CIPM)
The Author Mr. Calabar E. Daniel reserves all rights to this content and work and no part shall be plagiarized without the consent of the Author

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