A Herstory: Reflections on Husband, Marriage and Divorce in Nigeria

Men of power in Nigeria get very public high profile divorces sometimes. The story told is almost always the same. ‘He sent her packing.’ Which is rather ironic. The women are rarely given time to pack. It is a Naija cliche. On twitter Nigerian-Americans joke about it every time another western male is skewered for half his fortune in a divorce settlement. In Nigeria as wife you’re lucky if you get the kids. Or not so lucky. Depends on your point of view.

Who recalls the Oyahkilome divorce? And of course the Obansanjo divorce? The fathers divorce that proceeded the sons divorce? And even the sons divorce. And the Fernandez divorce? Those are stories we read about in the papers growing up. The back room talk reflected the media. Every body knew some body that knew some body that got a divorce. The women were always victims. Most never recovered. A lucky few remarried well. The message was divorce devastates women.

So I don’t get a divorce
I stay married even though I remain estranged and separated from my husband more than 2 decades. Under our tribal laws (and we were married under tribal law till the Supreme Court recognised Catholic weddings as statutory) I was within my rights. Divorce was a simple repayment of bride price. He didn’t pay any. My family told his it was over. We were divorced. Till Catholic marriage hitherto a church blessing to a tribal marriage became statutory. Suddenly I was married again. And needed to go to the High Court for a dissolution.

When I was 12 we had a back room chat in high school. I said I wasn’t ever going to get married. I wanted kids (much later) but not a husband. I had my first baby at the age of 15. My husband snared me with a pregnancy. He should have known better! After all he was 27.

I didn’t want my kid growing up with my father like I had. That’s all. So I moved in with my baby daddy, matriculated and thwarted all his efforts to do the right thing by me. When eventually we walked down that aisle 3 years later at his mother’s insistence I hadn’t told anyone I was wedding. I barely participated in the plans. It was one of those things that happen to you.

The Supreme Court judgment came out about the same time the Oyahkilome saga was playing out. I remember thinking how easy my tribal divorce had been. Elders from the two families, parents of spouses, the witnesses. Discussion. Mediation. Negotiation. Conclusion.
Now a new hurdle for a sister to jump. I filed a petition but had more important things to do than pursue a matter I wasn’t getting paid for in our notoriously slow judicial system. Its not like I wanted to get married. Again.

So once more I am the legal wife of the man I had divorced already cheaply and rather unceremoniously under tribal law. My pragmatic super ego kicked in eventually. Lived experience has blunted my outrage at being discriminated against for being single. What does my marital status matter anyway? I’m tired of lectures from strangers on the virtues of being married. I tick ‘married’ on the next form I fill without guilt. I am married after all. When I’m asked I can honestly say ‘I’m married’. Keeps the marriage proposals at bay too. ‘I’m unavailable.’ I still don’t want to get married.

My status is further enhanced by this one Supreme Court judgment because now, until we are divorced, I am legally entitled to all my husband’s estate. I like that part. I like reminding him and my in laws of that part. I have fully protected my estate such as it is. So no won’t work both ways and if he moves to protect his assets I’ll use him as a Igbo-Nigerian poster boy for good estate planning because I’m like that. Igbo-Nigerian men have a phobia for estate planning. Maybe he’ll even divorce me. Save me the bother.

I take my audacity a step further. I declare we are happily married and have been playing around with the idea of a Silver Jubilee celebration. Yep. We been wedded more than 25 years. We live our dream life in different towns. Happy in what we do. That’s happiness. Conclusion – we are happily married.

Couple years ago he declared we wanted to marry a young woman he’d been seeing for a while as his second wife. I sent word back reminding him he only had that right under tribal law and I had right of approval and right to lead the women’s delegation under same tribal laws. A more potent threat than our screwed up bigamy laws apparently. They didn’t get married and I lost an opportunity to add ‘experience in polygamous marriage’ to my feminist resume.

I’m a divorce lawyer now even tough I call myself a family lawyer. And I do practice family law. Its not just about divorce you know. Its about rights of all family members. Women, children and men. Families need to be safe havens to run to not nightmares to run away from and the law tribal and statutory is a better ally than the pop media in Nigeria want us to believe. I’m sure they just tell those stories to dissuade women from even thinking about it. Like those stories I heard in Uni about ‘bad girls’ getting raped.

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