Child Custody in Nigeria

There seems to be a presumption that all child custody matters in Nigeria will be decided in favor of the father. While it is true that under some customary law systems the father is privileged in custody matters this is not uniform or universal and does not apply to any statutory marriage under the Matrimonial Cause Act.

Under Sharia law custody is usually granted the mother; under Yoruba customary law, mothers are granted custody of female children and fathers of male children. In Igbo customary law custody is of weaned children is usually given to the father. Mind you Nigeria has numerous ethnic groups and customary laws vary broadly.

For a marriage to be subject to customary law the ceremonies for consecrating marriage under that particular system of customary law must have been complied with and the bride price must have been paid. If these conditions have not been met any custody of any children of the relationship will be automatically awarded to the mother and or her father.

A statutory marriage that comes under the jurisdiction of the Matrimonial Causes Act must be celebrated before a licensed marriage officer outside Nigeria or registrar of marriages within Nigeria between a man and woman that are previously single. Many foreign women have been manipulated with threats that they would lose custody and be deported forcibly.

Section 71 of the Matrimonial Causes Act is very clear that custody should be decided based on the child’s best interest. Case law has upheld this principle but mothers that want custody are held to very strict proof that they can maintain the children without regard to the courts powers to grant maintenance orders.

Mothers that have come to me for representation frequently describe the arduous proof they are made to provide that they have a personal residence, job and income before they are given custody. While it seems logical and fair that mothers are encouraged to have a job, child maintenance is supposed to provide the necessary financial support that she may lack to take care of her child or children.

If it’s in the best interest of the family that the spouses separate or divorce such as in cases involving domestic violence the spouse granted custody should receive maintenance and support from the other. Both parents should be and should remain financially responsible for their offspring.

However if either spouse was by mutual agreement or otherwise the primary care giver and did not work outside the home during cohabitation and is given custody in a divorce it would be questionable whether requiring that spouse to now work would serve the interest of the children.

Father’s that are asking for custody of children during divorce proceedings are equally required to prove that they can personally provide attention, care and nurture in addition to material needs and that they are fit to have custody.

Will the court automatically grant custody to a father that is also a violent drug addict and regularly disappears for months at a time?  No. Will the court grant custody to an abusive man that believes his wife is a witch and takes his children for strange midnight rituals and exorcisms? No.

Likewise the court will not automatically grant custody to a mother if she is a drug addict or a dangerously delusional religious zealot. Case law shows the child interests being paramount. Custody hearings are getting more sophisticated and judges are asking insightful questions about the best interest of a child in any given circumstance.

Generally custody of very young children is awarded to the mother. There is also a preference for awarding custody of male children to the father and female children to the mother but again this is not a hard and fast rule and circumstances of each case determine the best interest of the child/children.

Evidence of misconduct and moral depravity could however tip the courts judgment against the offending party when awarding custody. The case law needs to be carefully reviewed to determine what the courts consider moral depravity of sufficient seriousness to otherwise deprive a parent of custody.

The Child’s Rights Act of 2003 makes provisions for protecting children during a divorce but child custody law remains a product of Nigeria’s marriage laws and it remains to be seen how the CRA will be read and enforced.


For more on Nigerian case law and decisions on custody here 


361 thoughts on “Child Custody in Nigeria

  1. I am married to a divorce,her ex aandoned her child for 8years,i married her 4 years ago and i brought her son in,i have been a good father and husband ,we have another son together,i love them both.his father has surfaced to take the boy back after 8yrs of no help or financial assistance,what can i do?

    1. If you married in the registry go to the court or go to the social welfare office. before he can take the child he has to prove that it is in the best interest of the child

  2. Hello,
    I sent a mail to you early this year and you replied me to go to the welfare to report. Having reported the case the father of my child is yet to adhere to the condition given to him. Please what is the next step for me to take because I would like to bring my daughter abroad.

  3. I have a six month old baby girl out of wedlock nd d father has not been taking responsibility frm pregnancy till delivery but he came for her naming ceremony, im d only one dat is fully taking care of her always saying he doesnt hav money, nd doesnt show interest towards her welfare but his mum always call me to ask after d baby welfare nd very soon i will get my baby her birth cert pls advice me on wat im going to do,. Should i name her his surname ur advice is highly appreciated

  4. What if a father arrest his son not up to 18years of age claiming his doing the right thing. Because the son told him to stop drinking due to his illness!

  5. I have a case where a guy impregnated my sister whom he did not marry… For a long period he did not make any effort to come see my parents for any marriage rites. Unfortunately my sister died during child birth due to CS while staying with the man… Now it’s 1 year on now and the parents to the mother want to take custody of the child but he refused access to the child by mothers family… We want to go for legal action on this for the fact that he was not married to her neither did he pay any dowry… Now what are the chances of taking the child?

  6. I am not married but I have a son with a lady. I have no intentions of settling down with her but am playing my role to my son. Now she’s using my son as a weapon to suck me dry. I have practical cleared my account to her n yet she’s not satisfied. She’s keeps demanding and treating me using my sons .he has becoming her bate. I need my son. What do I do.

    1. Well Jack. You said it all. ‘I need my son.’ Did the trap catch the rat or did the rat want the cheese? Maybe if you stopped seeing him as ‘my son’ and start seeing him as ‘our son’….she is not your baby incubator and nanny. Its ‘her son’ too

  7. I have a 14 year old son whose mother went to court to seek legal custody 4 years ago. she has since remarried but left my son with her mum and sister. In the judgement, the presiding judge (by the way I do not live in Nigeria) ruled that my parents or my appointed power of attorney will have unlimited and unrestricted access to my son. However, she has refused to let neither me nor my parents have access to my son. she lives in Abuja while my son lives in Benin with her mum. She even threatened that if my sister who I gave power of attorney to should go near my son, she will accuse her(my sister) of attempted kidnapping. Our marriage was consummated under the Benin Native law and custom, what can I do to have the custody? What are my chances?

  8. MY Name is sir T , am from bayelsa state , i married my wife in 2010 and she died of cancer in 2017 ,we had a daughter of 7 years ,but my late wife father is fighting for custody of my only daughter, if am inrresposible that is a clear case ,but in this situation and working with the presidency and been responsible for her up keep and education fees from birth.
    my father in law is even threaten to go to court to forcefully collect my daughter from me.although it was discovered that he his fighting for the death benefits of my late wife ,which my daughter is the next of kin,
    my father inlaw also went to social welfare ,claiming that i forcefully collect my biological daughter from him,which is absolutely not true,my daughter never stayed with or any of the mothers relatives.she has been with me throughout her life till date.
    so sir i want to seek your legal advice on this issue .

  9. My husband had been married legally but told me he and the wife agreed on getting another wife for their barrenness, I had three children I leave in a separate apartment, his not treating me well, how can I get one of the children to leave with me. Though he can’t take the children home because his wife said he doesn’t want to see me and my children but I want to leave on my own with one of the children, pls advice me

  10. Hello Madam.. 2016 the mother of my son took my son and ran away to her uncle’s place.. Eachtime i request to pick my son to spend weekend with me and my parent, His mother always tell me i need to speak with her uncle first and we end up fighting over this issue. I dont even need custody of the boy now cus am aware he is still very young he is 7yrs.. But what i request from her is to always get to pick my son any weekend of my choice or during their holiday. I dont want to go over there and start a fight with the family.. Do i need to visit a welfare or get a lawyer to fix this.. So that we both can have equal access to our child when ever we want to.

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  12. Good day ma’am. Please I had my daughter in 2016. Her dad and I aren’t legally married. He only pays for her upkeep monthly though she bares his surname. We agreed on a monthly fee but at a particular point he reduced it. Now my daughter has begun schooling and he still wants to reduce it a lot more. How do I make him pay child support that’ll be sufficient to take care of my daughter?

  13. am married for 5yrs now and I have two kids a boy and girl, am legally married. after 5yrs my hubby came up with a selfish plan that we should relocate to his village to live with his mum which I bluntly refused. he stopped sending money and calling because I refuse to follow him, now he wants to stylishly take my son of 5yrs from me, that’s a trick to bring me home. I got a new apartment and I didn’t allow him know where I stay with my kids. I want to take him to court to stay clear of my kids. pls advice.

  14. Please reply, i have a son, sperm donor vanished before i gave birth. I got affidavit from the court because i wanted to apply for his passport and birth certificate. I used my fathers name on his birth certificate because by tradition my belongs to my father. Embassy replies asking why my fathers name is listed and not the biological father? Does igbo tradition serve as a good explanation because this is what i was told to do.

  15. My wife left with my 6weeks old baby, now 2yrs old
    After welfare and court battles, the court ruled that she take custody while i take responsibility, and she gives me acess every first friday of every month to the child
    After the ruling, she came after my life, she connived with my caretaker and as a result, i lost source of income and and accommodation and was not able to meet up for 1yr after the ruling
    NOW. i rescently got a new apartment and settled down, also started a new biz.
    I sent her some money for d child upkeep and send her a message but she replied. ” back off, the child doesn’t need your money we are not hungry, she now has one she calls daddy and mummy ….”
    In this case what do i do.

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