Proposed Nigerian family laws can revolutionise polygamy

The Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, rides through the streets of Kano during the Durbar Festival. Photo: Stefan Heunis/AFP

The Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II, rides through the streets of Kano during the Durbar Festival. Photo: Stefan Heunis/AFP

As a traditional ruler, the Emir of Kano is expected to dispense sage advice in matters temporal and spiritual to his legions of followers in Muslim-majority northern Nigeria.

Like his counterparts dotted around the country of 180-million, he is the guardian of the past and the customs that define his people.

But Emir Muhammad Sanusi II has also set himself up as a progressive social reformer, shaking up long-held views and practices on marriage, including polygamy, to make unions fairer — and safer.

For more than a year, a team of clerics and experts assembled by the emir has been working to end abuse in family life, he revealed on Sunday. The result is a 670-page document that seeks to codify family life, including marriage, divorce, child custody, wills and inheritance, specifically to protect women’s rights.

The report recommends stiff penalties for domestic violence, early and forced marriages, child begging and “the humiliation of women” in homes, he added.

Before being appointed emir in June 2014, Sanusi was governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria and a university lecturer. He is one of a new generation of younger, more worldly traditional rulers in Nigeria, along with the Oba of Benin in the south and the Ooni of Ife in the southwest.

Last month, he cancelled plans to put a cap on the cost of marriage, calling it oppressive against women because it did not provide any measures to make it harder for men to divorce wives.

Polygamy is widely practised in northern Nigeria; Islam allows a man to take up to four wives.
Sanusi himself has three wives and several children.

Under his plans, anyone without the financial wherewithal would not be able to take another wife. Former wives and children from those unions are abandoned and, with no social safety net, are forced to fend for themselves.

“If you father a child, you are responsible for his upkeep and, if you know you don’t have the capacity to cater for him, then don’t bring him to the world,” said Sanusi.

High rates of begging have been blamed on the widespread belief in predestination among Muslims in northern Nigeria, who expect God to provide for them and their families, no matter how big.

Campaigners have warned that children especially are put at risk from traffickers, drugs, sexual abuse and indoctrination by extremists such as Boko Haram.

Sanusi has criticised those who defend the practice as “tradition” and vowed to end the impunity of men who force their former wives and offspring on to the streets.

Some men have criticised the proposed law, saying it will curb their rights to marriage and family. But the emir, who has the backing of the state governor, Umar Ganduje, is unmoved.

“Change is always difficult to effect and people may not necessarily be willing to accept and appreciate change,” he said.

“But people should be ready for the family code; there is no turning back on this.”

Efforts have been made to address the effect in Kano of the highest divorce rates in Nigeria, including mass weddings initiated by Islamic law (the sharia) and Islamic law police (the Hisbah).

Couples have to sign an undertaking to explore all avenues if they are considering breaking up, and a man risks jail for divorcing without the consent of the Hisbah.

The Hisbah also ensure the men have the means to support a wife and any children, although the state pays the marriage expenses.

Attine Abdullahi, the head of the Voice of Widows, Divorcees and Orphans Association of Nigeria (Vowan), said: “If the emir succeeds in enacting the family law we will have solved half the social ills confronting our society today. We have been fighting for an end to the exploitation and dehumanisation of women and children in the name of marriage. The law will certainly tackle the endemic social problems in our society from their roots, which is the family.” — AFP

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