In whose interest is new Marriage Act?

A new Act that stipulates certain conditions for worship centres and intending couples has been re-enacted by the government. ELEOJO IDACHABA in this piece examines the policy and reactions it has generated.

Any moment from now, it would be difficult for any Nigerian to walk into the auditorium of any church with the intention of being joined in holy matrimony and leaving with a marriage certificate without meeting certain conditions. Also, the practice whereby marriages are conducted in gardens without proper authentication and seal of the relevant approving authorities would cease to exist. This is because suddenly, the government has realised that the Marriage Act overlooked over the years, but had existed since the 30s would now be strictly enforced.

According to the permanent secretary, Ministry of Interior, Georgina Ehuriah, while delivering a keynote address in Lagos during a stakeholders’ conference on “Achieving Harmonious Compliance in the Conduct of Statutory Marriage in Nigeria,” it is to adequately meet the needs of citizens in the 21st century. How far this can go is yet to be ascertained.

Part of the Act, according to Blueprint Weekend’s findings, is that the cost of obtaining licence for any centre of worship irrespective of location is now N30, 000 while prospective couples are to pay N21, 000 before they can have a marriage certificate.

She said by the provisions of Sections 24, 30 (3) and 30 of the Marriage Act, only the principal registrar of marriage is authorised to print and distribute marriage certificates to places of worship throughout Nigeria for onward transmission to couples unlike before that individual worship centres print marriage certificates for intending couples thereby leading to proliferation of marriage certificates. The result of this, she further said, is that the government has no record of marriages conducted in the country.

“The implication is that any certificate not printed by and delivered by the principal registrar of marriages is illegal and cannot serve the desired purposes,” she said.

This development, she said, would also guide foreign embassies in Nigeria and Nigerian missions abroad. She, however, disclosed that the ministry was making a leeway to give couples whose marriage certificates issued before now were not issued in line with the act to bring them into conformity with government directive.

According to her, only 314 out of the 4,725 places of worship licensed by the Ministry of Interior to conduct marriages had renewed their licences. She, therefore, called on other worship centres to do so in order to avoid invalidating the marriages conducted by them.

“The implication of this is that marriages conducted in unlicensed places of worship are not in line with the Marriage Act and cannot serve legal purposes when the need arises; and as such, unlicensed places of worship are operating contrary to Section 6(1) of the Marriage Act,” she maintained. This Blueprint Weekend gathered would lay to rest the argument that has gone forth and back between federal and local governments as to who has the power to conduct and issue marriage certificates beside the ones done in worship centres.

Speaking in the same vein, the director, citizenship and business in the ministry, Mr Steve Okon, said henceforth all places of worship are to be licensed individually and not as a group in line with the Act. He therefore advised existing couples who do not have the ministry’s marriage certificate to visit the ministry’s website to re-certify their certificates.

“The certificate cannot be given out without the couple paying the sum of N21, 000 to the ministry,” he said, maintaining that there is the need to have a fixed price of marriage certificates in order to stop the extortion of citizens by unscrupulous persons.

Certain conditions in the Act for obtaining a worship centre licence, according to Blueprint Weekend’s investigation, include certificate of incorporation, venue, constitution, minister’s ordination certificate, pastor’s passport photographs, six photographs of the exterior and interior of the church building, criteria for place of worship to qualify for approval to conduct marriages, evidence of landed property, the church must have been registered under the land perpetual succession Act cap 98 of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, among other conditions.

…in whose interests?

 As the ministry says this comes into effect, it has continued to generate heated discussions among Nigerians especially the clergy. Many respondents described it as unnecessary, saying it would not work in a country like Nigeria where there are no structures to support it. While reacting to it, the lead pastor, Abundant Life Church, Abuja, Pastor Philemon Jackson, said it is a dead policy that would not see the light of the day. “This is basically about the infringement on the right of worship. Many times, we tend to copy certain models from outside the country where things are done properly and when those models are brought here, they do not work because the structures that guarantee their success are never in place. When I read those conditions stipulated by the ministry, I asked myself whether this is Nigeria or elsewhere because I know that it would generate serious resistance leading to endless litigations. Besides, I did not see where mention was made of mosques but basically church. Are they saying that mosques do not conduct marriages or the Imams know nothing next to conducting marriages? If anything, that policy should first be implemented in the mosques where Islam permits a man to marry as many as seven wives unlike in Christianity where a man is entitled to only a wife. What are they trying to safeguard in the first place?”

On his part, Pastor Soji Omhoudu of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Family Centre in Life Camp, Abuja, said the development is akin to the code of governance practice that was to be enforced in the early life of this administration which was shot down by the forces of prayer. According to him, the policy is targeted at the growing Pentecostal churches. “Imagine them saying that for any church, irrespective of location, must pay a licence fee of N30, 000. That means for a church with over 200 branches, that is a lot of money for the ministry beside the payment for marriage certificates being conducted almost on a weekly basis. Is it a way of raising government revenue? To me, they merely polished the code of corporate governance through the back door on Nigerians. Let’s see how this would go. I only read about it, but yet to be told by anyone officially. When told, we will know what to do,” he said.  

When asked for his comments, the Imam of Yoruba mosque located in Dawaki, Abuja, Abdurahman Olatunde, said he was not aware of any Marriage Act. “I am not aware, but Islamic marriage is not like English marriage that can be regulated anyhow. Even the marriage certificates are given in line with strict Islamic law. We cannot pre-empt what we have not seen. Whenever we are officially informed, we know what to do,” he said. He, however, wondered how such policy would work in a heterogeneous society like Nigeria where ideas are not the same. He asks, “Is it possible for such policy to work in the North where we approve mass weddings for couples because of the number of divorcees and the need to prevent the singles from waywardness? If the intention is only to raise revenue for the ministry, then the idea is wrong considering that if allowed to be, it might further discourage our youths especially from settling down in marriage. For a person who cannot afford to marry, if you now go ahead and introduce marriage fees, it would automatically discourage him from marriage and we would still have to grapple with the menace of illicit immoral behaviours in the society. Government may mean well, but I think we need to get the details first.”

Nigeria not ripe for it – Intending couples

In a random discussion with this reporter at a marriage counselling class of Mountain of Fire and Miracles Service, Utako, Abuja, some of the intending couples opined that legalising fees for marriage certificate is totally alien to Nigeria and the Christendom in particular. According to them, Nigeria is not yet ready for that type of policy because the social security schemes that married couples enjoy in advance climes where such things are done are not found in Nigeria. “What do I gain from the marriage certificate the government would give me? Except they say until I produce a government-approved certificate before my children would get enrolled in a school, otherwise, it is not necessary in Nigeria,” says Juliana Agbo. “If the church pays a licence fee, the fee should cover marriage and others instead of asking intending couples to pay marriage certificate fees as if the certificate would guarantee automatic peace in homes.”

Augusta Ozoemena, another lady waiting to be married in September, says government simply wants to flex muscle with the people where there is none. “Which one is marriage certificate fee again? What is the government doing for the people to warrant all these subtle ‘taxes’ they are trying to enforce on intending couples? Have they been able to enforce property tax on wealthy Nigerians whose wealth is the reason for the deplorable situation in the country? Please tell them that you didn’t see me,” she said.

Good for planning – Devt expert

While many see the government’s initiative as unnecessary, a financial/development expert, Mr Salaam Quwiyy, said the step, if followed diligently may be the right step in the right direction. He noted that the policy would assist the government with data to capture the number of marriages and divorces in the country. “That is how the data for national planning are sourced. It is just normal for any government to have the accurate number of her citizens who get married every day as well as the number of those leaving marriages in the form of divorce, but most importantly, for me, the amount generated from such exercise is a huge income for the government. You can imagine what the government generates from marriages conducted across the length and breadth of the country every week. That is enough to finance projects in the ministry,” he said.

‘Act older than Nigeria’s independence’

While seeking the opinion of the director of press in the ministry, Mohammed Manga, on the rationale behind the new act, he simply replied that the act is not ‘new’ in Nigeria as it had existed long before Nigeria gained independence. “What the ministry is simply doing is to re-enact it. It had existed long before now. Anyone who tells you that we are doing something new is not economical with the truth.” Asked whether the policy involves both churches and mosques, he said, “The phrase is all worship and marriage validating centres.”

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