What It’s Like To Get A Divorce In Nigeria

February 1, 2021

The end of Emmanuel’s* 7-year-old marriage happened simply. It was 2015, and his wife was on a work trip to the US. When he reached out to know how her trip back home was going, she said it was going well and they needed to talk when she got back. “Up until that day, I felt we had issues like every couple but not to the extent of getting a divorce. Alas, I was very wrong. ” Emmanuel says. 

With both parties in agreement, Emmanuel had imagined the divorce process would be an open and close case because his ex-partner eventually relocated to the US around that time. “Boy, was I wrong! I had to get a lawyer for ₦250,000 minus appearance fees and costs of filing and serving. She was served via her email (was good to know the legal system had taken a step into the modern age).  It took two months for the process to fully begin. My lawyer advised me to file my case in a different state from where I lived, which cost me  ₦10,000 appearance fees. Essentially, the whole process lasted for 15 months and cost over N350,000,” Emmanuel says.

The Divorce Process In Nigeria

Due to Nigeria’s unique social-cultural setting, and divorce laws that haven’t been reviewed since they were enacted in the ’70s and ’80s, getting a divorce in Nigeria is a tiring process. “The system is designed to keep parties together. In Nigeria, marriage is sacrosanct and it is believed that you must be serious [about your marital issue] to consider carrying out a divorce. There are cases where both parties want a divorce, but the judge thinks they shouldn’t get one; maybe they were laughing together in court? Congrats, no divorce. Go and settle your problems.” A divorce lawyer, Tolu Olowo, says. 

Kingsley Esene, a family law attorney, tells us that statutory marriages officiated in a court or a church are much harder to dissolve, and only the High Court can mediate and approve a dissolution. “The process begins by filing a petition for the dissolution of the marriage at the high court, then the case will be assigned to a judge who will hear it. The other party -respondent-will be served with the petition. The respondent has 30 days to respond to the petition by filing an answer to the petition. The lawyer to the petitioner will file the necessary statutory forms to set the case down for trial and a date is given for trial. The trial comes up and parties present their case — the trial may take more than a day.  The case is adjourned for final addresses after trial.  Final addresses are taken and the matter is adjourned for judgment. Judgment is usually an order called the decree nisi that determines when marriage will end”. The order of decree nisi becomes absolute after three months from the date it is given.” Kingsley explains.

Cultural Reception

Nigerian courts are not the only institutions that hold marriage – no matter how possibly destructive it is to both parties – in extremely high regard. The average Nigerian views divorce as a murky and complicated concept that is the fault of the woman

To get a snapshot of the church’s stance on this issue, a commentary published in the Nigerian Catholic Reporter, by Ukoma Andrew, a priest domiciled in the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, is a good way to start. Ukoma writes, “Marriage is no longer seen as a sacrament whereby a man and a woman are married for life. The injunction that they will remain married till death do them part no longer means much to a Westerner. Unfortunately, they are trying to impose that on Africans, and particularly Nigerians. Today, people marry for the wrong reasons — because the bride or groom is from a rich home or is rich.” 

Amongst many cultures, marriage indicates a higher social status. Men are permitted to be adulterers and women aren’t in some cultures, and in some others, women are forced to give up their husband’s properties, even though the Marriage Act of 1990, Chapter 218 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, states, “The married woman under the Act enjoys equal rights to the family assets acquired during the marriage and to be involved in their disposal during or after the marriage or upon the death of her husband.”

And because marriage is held in such high esteem, separations or divorces are often frowned upon. Emmanuel remembers getting mixed reactions when he told his family about his divorce. “With the older generation, it was like I’d committed a mortal sin. But the younger generation seemed more receptive to it. I also had to go through counselling in church though. But the greatest culture shock I got was when I wanted to remarry. Some members of my wife’s family just believed that there must be something that I am hiding. “For a woman to leave three children and run from a man, there must be something very wrong with him,” they said. 

Looking back, Emmanuel, who has remarried and was able to get custody of his children, believes it would have helped if the divorce processes had been easier and hadn’t cost him so much money at a time when he had just lost his job.

“Since both parties were saying they were okay with the divorce, I didn’t think it was necessary to make it run that long. The court should have just dissolved the union and then ask us how we would want possession shared and custody of children. If any party is being unreasonable, then the court steps in and enforces why it feels is right. If both parties are okay with agreement, then the process moves ahead.”

Divorce, as Tola says, isn’t like in the movies where somebody brings paper, everybody signs and they go. It is much more complicated. Considering that more Nigerian couples are receptive to the idea of divorce now – with a 14% since the past year – perhaps it is time to review our existing laws. 

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