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Bride Prices and Numerous Marriage Ceremonies and How They Affect the Realisation of the Full Potentials of the Nigerian Youth: A Need for Societal Change or Reform by Chima Williams Iheme

Bride Prices Image from Ynaija.com

Bride Prices Image from Ynaija.com

There is no need to bore you with the definition of marriage because I assume we all know what it is. My task in this paper is to rather draw attention to a few issues that might be of concern to some youth as it relates to marriage – an important institution in every society.

It is common knowledge that the Nigerian youth are faced with multifarious challenges which start to obviously manifest from their early stages of life. Owing to the lack of sufficient basic infrastructures, individual progress is slower compared to some countries in the world. Here is a hypothetical example – an average Nigerian child would graduate from high school at the age of 18 years. He or she may take an average of two years to scale through UTME and other related requirements before gaining admission into a higher institution, and may spend six years on an average to complete university studies due to ASUU’s repeated strikes and other related issues. He/she graduates at 27 and takes an average of two years from graduation to complete the compulsory NYSC. It then further takes him an additional three years to get a job. So he starts to work at 32, and of course a job that pays him N100.000 or above is well celebrated and he may be counted as lucky.

Then comes the main point of this paper – bride prices and marriage ceremonies. Although these two practices that are tied to the celebration of marriages differ from one state to another in Nigeria, a common denominator could however be found, to lend credence to this discussion. The following facts would hardly be disputed: marriage is of two kinds in Nigeria, namely, marriage under customary law and marriage under the Marriage Act, what is known as English marriage. The latter is often accompanied with church blessings and wedding feasts.

In Nigeria, marriage, especially under customary law is very important and often requires the attention and consent of many members or stakeholders of both families. Bride price is paid, a lot of quantity of wine is provided, food stuffs in large quantities are submitted, an amount of money is requested to settle one thing or another, and these are finally capped with a traditional feast, called “Igba nkwu” in the case of the Igbos. In fact, a list of items of what to purchase is handed to the groom and one or two members of the bride’s family would assume the duty to ensure that items on the list are completely provided and handed in. Sometimes these appointees that ensure that the items on the list are completely provided go about it as though they are bailiffs enforcing a court judgment; and this many times injure the feelings of the groom and his family which may linger on forever. From personal observations and interviews, it may cost about half a million naira or more to satisfy the imposed requirements before getting married under customary law. It is compulsory, so to speak, to marry under the custom or else the couple may not be recognised as married in their respective communities and their parents might be ‘booed’ or even prevented from participating in subsequent traditional ceremonies or joining certain traditional groups by their heads and ‘elders’ as having done the unacceptable. Now because marriage couples do not get marriage certificates under customary law marriage and usually would have to face the problem of proof of marriage outside their communities, coupled with the undesirable effects of customary law marriage with respect to devolution of property, couples who have married under custom are further forced to marry under the Act or engage in church blessings. Mind you however, that a church blessing which does not comply with the Marriage Act’s stipulations is not a recognised marriage under the Nigerian law. Here also, they are not spared from expenses. Having wedded in the registry or church, they are expected to throw a wedding feast, where the general public most times is invited to come to eat and drink. It is inconceivable that after a particular church blessing, a couple wouldn’t host a wedding feast. This is because many invited and uninvited guests are in attendance mainly because of the feast (popularly called “reception”) and not that they are so interested in the couple’s union. You will confirm this by the type of gifts many attendees present to the couple in exchange for the couple’s customised gifts: inferior wall clocks, cheap plates and flasks, plastic cups and trays, empty brown envelopes, to mention but a few. From observations and interviews from some married persons, the cost of organising a wedding feast after church blessing or Act marriage is about a million naira, to be modest.

Here comes the problem. The youth are faced with late school graduation; they are faced with the challenge of unemployment for a long time after school. When they pick up a job at the average age of 32, at N100,000 per month (if at all they find), they probably may save for so long before they are able to come up with over a million naira that would enable them get married. On average, most people would work and save for 3 years and above before contemplating to get married at the average age of 35. Due to high cost of living, because one provides almost all his basic needs of life, coupled with the responsibility to contribute to what you could call family solidarity support, little or nothing is saved, and the little is never enough for marriage ceremonies. This makes some youth to either take loans from family and friends or engage in ‘fast runs’ in order to raise the necessary sum required to get married. After wedding, many get so indebted and cannot attempt any meaningful venture that could yield profits, because for a long time, they will be servicing debts that arose from weddings.

But why should getting married be made so financially burdensome as to make young men to borrow large sums? Why should people be made to unwillingly borrow money to feed crowds of people and afterwards get so indebted? Instead, people should be borrowing money to fund their education or start a business, and not to get married feeding the general public in the name of customary and ‘church’ marriage ceremonies. If you stretch this further, you may realise that this is one of the reasons banks are not willing to lend money to unmarried youth to start up businesses without almost impossible collaterals because they fear that the borrowed sum might be diverted to satisfy marriage issues which of course don’t yield profits and defeats the purpose of borrowing in the first place.

There are consequences of getting married late especially where there is no social benefit system to take care of each citizen. This is particularly those who do not have viable means of getting the basics of life due to the untimely loss of their bread winners. When people are forced to marry late due to these imposed financial burdens, they bear children late and may not be in good positions both in finance and health to adequately raise their children and cater for their needs when those children are in their 20’s and obviously need money for education and overall advancement in life. This is more serious when it is considered that the average life expectancy in Nigeria according to the 2011 World Bank study is 51 years, meaning that an average person who got married at 35 may only be with his children for a period of 16yrs. Why then should we not attempt to increase this number of years to (16+X) years by lifting the financial burdens that impede the possibility of getting married earlier? There are a lot of compelling reasons to do so:

    (a) the current concepts of marriage with the attendant ceremonies were not fixed by those who are currently living but by ancestors whose society differed significantly with ours today.
    (b) the current monetary cost of getting married is unrealistic and incompatible with the present Nigerian economy where there is high youth unemployment.
    (c) manhood and maturity to marry are wrongly measured by one’s ability to provide for these costs, but then it is forgotten that the real cause of impecuniousness of most youth is due to the overall poor economy and high unemployment rate. A person with an idea may not be able to galvanise them into proceeds if he cannot raise sufficient credit to test-run his ideas, since no one can ordinarily create something out of nothing.
    (d) as a result of the foregoing points, many children do not tap from the youthful energies of their parents and this is worse in their 20s. Of course, these things repeat themselves from one generation to another and keep us at the nadir of collective progress.
    (e) there is no extraordinary benefit that is gained by celebrating two systems of marriage with all the imposed costs. Would it be less of a marriage if these expenses are given a low haircut to fit with our economic realities?
    (f) it should become socially acceptable for people to marry under one system so as to save cost. This further means that customary marriage should begin to bear some formalistic features like creating a registry that could issue parties with a marriage certificate so as to ease the burden of proof on a person claiming to be married under custom. As it stands now, one would have to call witnesses all the time to prove the existence of a customary law marriage and this is unrealistic for the youth who travel far and wide beyond their immediate communities.
    (g) In this era that the equality of male and female genders is more seriously emphasized, the concept of bride price ought to have outlived its usefulness because ‘price tag’ suggests sale/purchase and such has become disgusting in reference to the female folk. And for those who may want to argue that bride price is symbolic, how come the price is sometimes fixed considering the educational achievement of the bride, meaning that the bride price for a university graduate is higher than that of a primary school leaver. Is that not discrimination on the basis of education? The different prices that depend on the bride’s educational achievement as practiced in some customs further reveals the economic motive behind the collection of bride prices, as some families see it as a time to partially recoup the educational expenses of a female child. This is wrong! And I challenge ladies who seek gender equality to seriously take this up in any lawful way that they can.

My position is that high bride prices and marriage ceremonies have become a huge pain in the neck both on short and long terms to the Nigerian youth. Even though, appreciably, these practices have become social norms and individuals are afraid to depart from them for fear of being discriminated in one way or another, the time has come to take bold steps towards untying these knots that have impeded youth’s progresses. Of course many of us do acknowledge that it is currently a problem especially when our weak economy and high unemployment rates are considered. I’m therefore proposing that the youth who are the bearers of this burden should not continue to condone it. Any custom that imposes high and unrealistic burden on those who inherited it should be revised to meet with current realities. A forceful awareness at all levels needs to be created to change the mentality of many Nigerians so that the important recipe to be required for a marriage union becomes whether both parties LOVE each other and are willing to spend their lives together. It shouldn’t be whether they love each other as well as ready to satisfy the monetary cost which of course is in millions of naira.

Finally, the mere fact that a particular practice is “ome n’ala” – an Igbo expression for social norm, does not mean that it cannot be changed or revised. We have changed so many of these norms in the past because at any time a custom outlives its usefulness, it is the duty of the current generation to revise or change it. The duty to revise or change a repressive custom does not lie on those who first introduced it but are no longer alive, but on those who are alive and are the bearers of its harshness. The thought of getting married by youth ought to inspire happiness not fears due to the huge financial implications. This is not just a story because we are all familiar with these issues as almost every youth I have interacted with raised this issue of high cost, which has prompted this write-up. The time to review these practices is now, and now is the time to do something about it.

Chima Williams Iheme is a Nigerian trained lawyer. He’s currently a PhD candidate at the Central European University, Budapest/New York, in the field of International Business Law, – with more emphasis on Secured Transactions Laws of Canada, United States and Nigeria. Apart from Business Studies, he’s also keenly interested in the empowerment and development of the Nigerian Youth. Facebook Connect: Williams Iheme

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