The Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi, recently made a valuable point about the social problems engendered by forced marriages and polygamy. A number of men, he noted, take more wives than they can provide for, breed children they cannot dignifiedly raise, and their unrestrained loins eventually become a source of social menace. Sanusi says he will be proposing a law to regulate the practice of polygamy and other social ills in his territory. While the scope of the law Sanusi proposes is superfluous (some of them are already covered in the constitution), and enforcement will be usurping existing laws, it is commendable he is thinking of curtailing the way people exploit religious laws to unshackle their libidinal urges.
Sanusi’s address of this issue is encouraging because people tend to tiptoe around religion and its politics and therefore fail to raise certain issues. One of the reasons religious leaders rarely address the menace of uncontrolled breeding is because the children swell the population. We have been Nigerians long enough to know the political implications of numbers. A former First Lady, Dame Patience Jonathan, tactlessly alluded to the issue of the almajiri as “born throway children” during the 2015 electioneering. Post-election, a former Kano governor, Rabiu Kwankwaso, responded that her husband, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, lost the presidential election because they (the northern establishment) galvanised their almajiri crowd to vote him out. In this wise, Sanusi is at least more forthright than Kwankwaso who cannot see the teeming almajiri population as anything more than thumbs that stamp on ballot papers.
However, I am still curious to know when Sanusi arrived at this epiphanous understanding of the retrogressions of polygamy. In September 2015, Sanusi himself had taken an 18-year-old girl as his fourth wife, an act which generated some controversy. An Emir racking up wives would not have been news if not for two things: One, the age of the girl involved. Two, Sanusi’s previous role as a high-ranking public official got us thinking of him as a “progressive” and an intellectual of sorts. Snagging a woman, the very moment she reached legal adulthood, seemed out of sync with the Sanusi we thought we knew. Sanusi responded to his critics that his marriage had to do with northern royal culture which the over-westernised southerners simply did not understand. He argued for respect for cultural differences saying that marriage is a social and political transaction. Blue blooders like him, he said, take wives to forge geopolitical relationship.
African men, when confronted on polygamy, bring out their favourite whipping boy – homosexuality in western culture. Sanusi resorted to the same argument of cultural relativity (polygamy vs. homosexuality) to defend the legitimacy of his marital choices. In 2014, Kenyan lawmakers approved a law that allowed a man to take as many wives as he wanted and defended the law based on some suspect celebration of their Africanity. These defences of “African culture” as a deliberate pushback against westernisation bandied by the same people who use all the appurtenances of western modernity is sheer hypocrisy.
Polygamy, as practised by our ancestors, was useful because people lived in agrarian communities and large family structures were their workforce. Those societies defined their ideas of wealth and masculinity through large households because it was the reality of their times. We live in different times and polygamy is less economically expedient. Monogamy is not about westernisation; it is the realisation that larger families are unnecessary to till the land in the age of mechanised farming. Kano State has more than 1.5 million almajiris and such a high number would have been tolerable if they take to farming but they are not economically resourceful.
That said, I am ambivalent about polygamy as long as it is not coercive. People – male and female – choose to be in polygamous relationships for various reasons. Just a few weeks ago, the famous Bello Masaba who married 90 wives in his lifetime died at the age of 93 and left about 130 children behind with virtually nothing for them to survive on. Everything in me screams at his irresponsibility but as long as those women made their choices, he has not done anything illegal (immoral, maybe).
Therefore, when Sanusi made the argument about cultural respect and difference in 2015, I saw his point even if I did not fully agree with him. Now, in 2017, he wants to regulate the choices of poorer people who, like him, chose polygamy. Isn’t it contradictory for Sanusi to argue that he can take multiple wives because he is a “Northern Nigerian Fulani Muslim aristocrat” but his subjects (as he once addressed them) cannot aspire to do the same? Did Sanusi consider that poorer people who take up multiple wives look up to the royal families as role models? In principle, I agree with Sanusi but I cannot reconcile his new ideas with his previous adamancy.
Sanusi of 2017 seems to be looking down from his royal high horse to proscribe what he had previously endorsed. Rather than stand at a height, he should fashion a bottom up approach to development that will progressively attack social structures and cause improvement in cultural lifestyles. Religious saturated cultures place too much emphasis on sexual morality. That invariably leads to compulsive coupling and with that comes certain problems. Some men can barely feed themselves yet they take a wife, go further to take a second, and a third, and then a fourth! For some of these men, poverty deprives them of any means of self-assertion and the only route to any self-gratification is to take wives and impregnate them. There can be no positive change to the problems Sanusi lists out without addressing the sociological conditions that facilitate breeding children people cannot care for. Any cultural ethos that deems women vassals and baby-producing factories is doomed to stunting. The battle cannot be fought with the law, it is a matter of qualitative education and cultural evolution.
Changes in cultural attitudes to women’s status will also require the overhaul of mass weddings, an idea borne out of policing female morality and which has gradually turned into facilitator of poverty. Since 2012 when Kano State started organising mass weddings for those financially incapacitated, they have “married off” more than 4,400 women by adding them to the harem of those who want to shore their ego with another wife but cannot afford the costs. In July 2016, the AFP reported that due to the recession Nigeria was facing, the Kano mass wedding programme had been suspended for lack of funding. According to the AFP, more than 10, 000 women were on the waiting list, ready to be introduced to the men who will take them off the shelf. When the state itself sanctions coupling so as to preserve public pretenses to morality, but does not simultaneously promote ideas of reproductive justice and bodily autonomy for the women, there will definitely be overbreeding.
Regulating polygamy without addressing the disproportionality of the social status of men and women in Kano can go nowhere. When women are poor and disempowered, marriage becomes an outlet of self-validation. Kano State has fostered the legitimacy of this attitude through the culture of mass weddings, making it seems that being paired with a man is the only option available to these women. Truly, if the women had other choices, they would explore them rather than tuck their heads into the household of a man who cannot even buy his own boxers. To regulate polygamy, they should be thinking of creating avenues of self-empowerment projects, and massively educating people so they can outgrow outdated cultural practices. I frankly do not think polygamy is a problem religious regulation can solve. After all, there are many Muslims who do not take more than one wife.
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