15 Basic Facts That Everyone Must Know About Customary Marriage

In my former church, once every month a Sunday service would be tagged “Family Service” where a subject having to do with family affairs would be discussed. It was a nice programme and it’s one thing I miss in that church to date. On one of such services, a lawyer talked to us on marriage but he only spoke about the marriage under the Act, nothing said on customary marriage, which some people call, traditional marriage or wedding. Being a lawyer too, I contributed during the questions and answers session to tell the congregation a little about customary marriage but during the wrap-up by the presiding pastor, he made frantic effort to discourage members from ever choosing to have customary marriage as if it is unChristian. Is customary marriage bad, unChristian, or evil? That’s the essence of this post, to lay everything bare and leave each person to decide but in order to fully understand this article, I advise you click on the link here to read my previous post on statutory marriage.

Some people wrongly believe that customary marriage, being our indigenous system of marriage from time immemorial, could be celebrated anyhow, unlike statutory marriage that is regulated by the law. The truth is that customary marriage cannot be done anyhow; there are rules that govern its celebration and if a couple fail to comply with its rules, they may later realise that their union is less than a marriage properly so-called under the customs and traditions of their community. Each tribe in Nigeria has its system of customary marriage either greatly or slightly different from another tribe. What is discussed here focuses more on the practices that are commonly found in Yoruba land.
Let me make this quick point before I proceed further – if you did a traditional wedding and later went to a marriage registry for your statutory marriage, the latter marriage has superseded the former and therefore, it can be rightly said that you are married under the Act. But if all you did was customary marriage, without paying any visit to a marriage registry, and you later went for church wedding, your marriage is simply and legally customary marriage and nothing more! However, it is also possible for a couple to do customary marriage as well as church wedding but failed to have a marriage validly recognised under the Nigerian law, if they failed to comply with the rules of a valid customary marriage celebrations.

By now, you should have an idea of the type of marriage you are into and what is next is for you to be cocksure, in case yours is customary, whether it was properly, legally, and validly done. What you find below are the rules that define a valid customary marriage.

1. For there to be a valid customary marriage, the following must have taken place –
i. the bride price must be paid by the groom’s family to the bride’s family, though it is known that some families now prefer to return such money to the groom’s family. This practice is not good enough.
ii. there must be mutual consent of the intending couple to the marriage as well as the consent of their parents, most importantly, that of the bride’s parents; and
iii. the bride must be physically handed over to the groom’s family.

2. Customary marriage is no less legal than statutory or Islamic marriage which is a type of marriage only meant for the Muslim faithfuls.

3. The marriage could be celebrated at any place but usually at the bride’s family house or chosen venue.

4. Nowadays in Yoruba land, what is done as engagement (known as idana in Yoruba language) ceremony may qualify as a valid customary marriage as long as all the ingredients in number 1 above are present.

5. Marriage certificate is not a requirement for a valid customary marriage but it is also not forbidden.

6. For those interested in polygamy, customary marriage is the best choice for them because there is no limit to the number of wives that a man can have. But it is also possible to have this type of marriage and stick to one wife.

7. Amount to be paid as bride price is usually not fixed by law. The amount depends on the respective families involved.

8. A valid customary marriage cannot exist by mere introduction ceremony.
9. The existence of this marriage can be proved by photographs and evidence of those who attended its celebration as well as respective spouse parents.

10. The law is not too clear as to whether customary marriage can be celebrated by proxy or in absentia or not. But the prevailing opinion is that a valid customary marriage cannot exist either by proxy or in absentia.

11. Marriageable age is not too clear under the customs and traditions but the provision of the Child’s Rights Act which prohibits marriage of a child below 18 years may prevail.

12. Customary marriage is recognised outside Nigeria.

13. The appropriate court to dissolve customary marriage is Customary Court. It may also be dissolved without a court action but simply by a husband asking for the refund of the bride price and by handing over the wife to her parents or sending her back to her parents.

14. Unlike a statutory marriage, customary marriage may be dissolved for whatever reason even if a spouse simply says he/she does not like the other spouse anymore. It also takes a shorter length of time to secure its dissolution.

15. Either party to the marriage can initiate the process for its dissolution.