Monogamy, Polygamy, Bigamy, and the Law

Nigeria is an interesting country, blessed with unique ethnic configuration and diversified legal system where polygamy is legal and bigamy is a crime. Monogamous form of marriage is a legal one. So, the inference is that under the Nigerian law, both polygamy and monogamy are legal and recognised. The single explanation is that the Nigerian law establishes three types of marriage: statutory marriage, customary marriage, and Islamic marriage.

Once a person contracts a statutory marriage, such person cannot marry another person again as long as the marriage with the first person has not been dissolved and that the partner to the first marriage is still alive because a statutory marriage is monogamous for life (Hyde v. Hyde (L.R.) 1 P. & D. 130 (1886)). Bigamy is committed, if anybody does that. Bigamy is an offence that forbids any person who has contracted a statutory marriage to become a polygamist. Although Lagos State has removed bigamy from its Criminal Law as an offence, it is still an offence in all other states in the Southern part of Nigeria. Contrastingly, bigamy has never been an offence in the Penal Code which applies in the Northern part of Nigeria. For further reading on bigamy, I recommend Decriminalisation of Bigamy in Lagos State and Its Legal Implications.
In Nigeria, any man who wants to be a polygamist, especially in the South, is at liberty to do so as long as that person does not contract a statutory marriage. One can get married in a traditional or Islamic way, both of which permit a man to marry many wives. For an elaborate discussion of the Nigerian marriage system, you may download my book, What the Law Says About Marriage and Divorce

But it is funny to note that in spite of the fact that bigamy is an offence in some parts of Nigeria, many men, who are violators of this law, are still walking free and proud of their illegal deeds because of the societal attitude to polygamy. Many Nigerians believe that a man can marry as many wives as he wants or can afford but they fail to appreciate that once a person embraces the Western-imported marriage choice of having a statutory marriage, he loses his right to be a polygamist. 

The law of bigamy in Nigeria is more honoured in breach than in observance.

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