Customary marriage is marriage conducted in accordance with the laws and customs of a particular tribe, ethnic group or society as the case may be. This article envisages what is generally referred to as engagement, introduction and Nikah in Islam.

Whereas in Nigeria, there are diverse ethnic groups and tribes, we have similar customs and practices when it comes to giving and receiving in marriage.

Apart from the conventional way of marrying, where two people of opposite gender see, like themselves and decide to marry, Customary marriage may happen where (a) a man dies and his widow is inherited by his kinsman; (b) where a woman dies and her family presents her young sister who has not passed childbearing age as substitute to her widower; (c) where a woman (whether or not she has children) marries another woman for her husband so that she can bear children for him.

One major characteristic that stands out with Customary marriage is that there is no limit to the number of wives a man can marry, the mere fact that at a given point in time he has one wife, does not affect his right and capacity to take more wives to his pleasing.

Procedures and requirements that must be followed for there to be a validly conducted customary marriage includes:

  1. The intending groom and his family must pay a visit or many visits to the intending bride and her family, for the purpose of getting their consent. At this stage, the intending bride’s consent must also be unequivocally ascertained.
  2. The intending bride must have attained the age permissible under the laws, customs and practices of the bride’s ethnic group or Islamic law as the case may be.
  3. Hold a ceremony (big or small), where the groom must pay bride price, fulfill all requirements and perform all rites required of him under the customs and practices of the bride’s ethnic group or family as the case may be.
  4. Cohabitation may begin immediately or after a given period of time, depending on the customs and practices of the bride’s ethnic group.

Now, just like there are people you are prohibited from marrying within the boundaries of statutory marriage, some customary laws prohibits marriage on grounds of consanguinity and affinity:

  1. Consanguinity refers to blood relationships through parentage or descent. This means under some customary laws, a person is prohibited from marrying someone they share blood relationship with, for example, you cannot marry your mom, dad, sibling or anyone with whom you can trace a blood relationship. In some customs however, where two people who share blood relations marry each other, they can approach the elders of their ethnic group to make some sort of appeasements on their behalf.
  2. Affinity refers to relationships by marriage or adoption. This means that under some customary laws, a man is prohibited from marrying anyone who has any blood relationship with his former or existing wife. Also, you cannot marry anyone who has been legally adopted into your family.

The major benefit of customary marriage is the elimination of childlessness, in that, if one wife does not bear children for the man, another one will.

Finally, in his book, Modern Nigerian Family law and Practice, Ajuzoie E. Osundu explicitly pointed out some of the disadvantages of customary marriage.

  1. Except for extremely rich people, having many wives and a large family increases poverty in the home, as the man is always under financial pressure because of the number of children and their attendant needs.
  2. It fosters rivalry between the wives and the children which is usually unhealthy and can lead to a breakdown of peace and order in the home and society at large. This rivalry may continue after the death of the man most especially if he dies intestate (without a will) and leaves behind landed properties, shares, companies or businesses, and money.
  3. It may foster infidelity on the part of the wives, as they may not be well cared for materially and sexually because of the demands on the man.
  4. It may also pose the danger of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

It must be pointed out however, that where two people are rightfully married under native laws and customs or Islamic law, neither of the parties to this marriage can afterwards legally conduct a statutory marriage with any other person apart from their existing spouse. For them to marry a different person under statute (that is, at the registry or registered place of worship), they must first and foremost annul the existing customary marriage.

Note that this does not preclude them from conducting another customary marriage with a different person other than their existing spouse.


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