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.

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249 Responses to “Child Custody in Nigeria”

  1. jane Ameh Says:

    Good day ma’am. Please I would like to contact you privately, how do i reach you please. Thank You.

  2. Chinenye Anne Says:

    I’ve been married for 4 years and my husband has not been contributing to this marriage in any form. The final straw that broke the camel’s back was that he left with the two children of the marriage ( 3 & 2 years) to an unknown destination since 4 weeks ago. I’ve filed a suite for judicial separation and custody of the children and he ( my husband) is yet to answer the court. Pls I want to know if I can be granted custody of the two children of the marriage since I was the one that caters for their welfare both feeding,clothing, house rent,school fees, medical bills and practically everything. Am a nurse with teaching hospital whereas my husband currently has nothing doing. He is also a drunkard and smokes indian hemp which gets him intoxicated most often than none. I have no set my eyes on the children for the past one month and I want to know if the court can help me get my children? Thanks.

  3. Chinenye Anne Says:

    pls ma, I want to call you. let me have your mobile phone numbers. Thanks.

  4. Adedayo Adebisi Says:

    May I call you on the number provided?

  5. jasmine Says:

    hi, pls i have a friend who is pregnant and is sick and dying. she wants to give sole custody to her mother becos she knows her mother will take perfect care of her baby.she doesnt want her husband to have custody becos he is never around and drinks and clubs with friends and abandons his pregnant wife all the time and she also feels he will marry another woman as soon as she is no more.she is scared the new wife will maltreat her baby. what should she do for the court to grant her mother custody of her baby?

  6. Tana Says:

    good afternoon, I a young girl who married at 18, i was mistreated by my hubby for a long time , i was starved and beaten even while pregnant. to cut the long story short, i left him two years ago with my three kids , we are not officially divorced or separated, and since den he has not contributed one kobo to d upkeep of our kids, and he goes around telling people i ran away with his kids . my fear is that he could decide one morning to struggle for my kids and i can’t live without dem and also he can’t take care of dem. i want to start preparing for any future battle . Thanks

  7. Sunday Asuquo Says:

    Can a father request for his child who is under the mum custody to come spend vacation with him during school holiday.

  8. Onyi Says:

    Hello. My ibgo husband is the king of our land. He had a son out of wedlock before we got married. Now we have two sons and a daughter. He acknowledges the son one out of wedlock as his son. Does the son he had before we married inherit our properties and his thrown as the first born?

  9. Kalu Says:

    Good day. I appreciate the answers and your time. My husband had a child before we married. He never married the woman yet claims the child (son). I have been married both legally and traditionally and have two sons. My husband is the king of our land and the woman is English. Can his son with that lady succeed the thrown over my own children? Can that child inherit our lands as the first born even thought he never payed her bride price?

  10. Onyi Says:

    thank you for your responses. I appreciate your time. My husband had a son out of wedlock before we married. He never married the woman but claims the son. I now have sons of my own and fear that the child will inherit our properties and his royal thrown as the first born. Does that child have any rights to succession over my own? Can he inherit if no will has been created?

  11. Onyi Says:

    Thank you for your responses. I appreciate your time. I have the first child of a man out of wedlock. He signed the birth certificate and acknowledges my son as his. My baby father got married and became the king in his land. The wife just gave birth to a son. Will my son be able to inherit the kingship over his wife’s son? Will he be able to share in any inheritances with his younger siblings?

  12. Femi Olanrewaju Says:

    How are you doing i’m Femi Olanrewaju am 30yrs of age and got your email while i was surfing and searching about “Child Paternity/Custody and Right of a father over a child”, I have a two month baby out out of wedlock which i went went my family to ask the mother of my child ( Fiance’) hand in marriage but her mother insisted that she most finish up her HND education before she can grant that which i agreed to wait for her. but the whole issue started when my mom pleaded for my baby mama to spend sometime with us in other to take good care of her and the baby for a short while ” Three Month” which her mother refuse and after then they went on and on to ague anytime we arrange meeting to resolve the issue on ground which escalated that my wife to be mother arrested my mom and i because my fiance wanted to submit some document to back her HND admission up in Abeokuta cause we reside in Lagos which i insisted that she should no go with the baby cause he is just 3weeks and 2 days old and that instead she should extract some breast milk for him till she comes back that same day. Now my our baby is Two months old and i went to her mom to tell her officially that there would be a child dedication in my church but her mom insisted that she wont be allowing my fiance to come over and that where ever the mother is that where the baby must be so that indicates that she doesnt want her to bring my baby over…
    My Questions are:
    *Does she has legal right to oppose my opinion of my fiance bringing the baby to church for Dedication
    * Does she have the Legal right to dictates on where, when and how to see my BABY ?
    * Does she has a Legal right that back her up to make it compulsory that its in her house that i can come see my baby boy when ever i want to see him

    Please i look forward to your reply cause i will feel relief and also know what legal step to take
    I email you already so would be nice of you to reply my email

    • mz_agams Says:

      Yes, she has full legal custody of the child, and she can make any decision she wants to without recourse to you at this time. You can apply to a high court to establish paternity and request for visitation, joint custody or even full custody (if you can prove she is incompetent) at some future date. for now there isn’t much you can do

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