Last week’s post highlighted the various legal systems regulating marriage in Nigeria. Among the three marriage systems available to Catholics in Nigeria (customary, statutory, and canonical), only two are largely compatible—statutory marriage and canonical (Church) marriage.
This compatibility is because canon and statutory laws define marriage similarly. The 1983 Code of Canon law describes marriage as a “covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptised.” (Canon 1055 §1).
The Nigerian Criminal Code even uses the term ‘Christian marriage’, which it describes as “a marriage which is recognised by the law of the place where it is contracted as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others”. Also, in the two systems, consent, which brings marriage into being, is exchanged between the man and the woman and not between their families as is done in customary and Islamic marriages.
The compatibility does not surprise because colonialism brought statutory marriage into Nigeria. Marriage in the West developed with the Christian tradition of a union between a man and a woman to the exclusion of others. Due to this similarity, it is very easy to contract a marriage that is valid in both systems in a single ceremony. This combination is prevalent in western countries. It also happens in Nigeria, where people contract Church marriage that is also valid in statutory law. In other words, once one does the Church wedding, there is no need for another marriage rite at the government registry because the certificate issued comes from the government registry.
Nevertheless, although they are compatible, statutory marriage alone contracted at the local government registry does not produce the sacramental effect of a validly contracted canonical marriage. Conversely, a valid canonical marriage does not automatically produce civil effects, except if one completes the acts the Marriage Act requires.
Furthermore, the Marriage Act requires that the Church be registered. Section 6 states: “(1) The Minister may license any place of public worship to be a place for the celebration of marriages, and may at any time cancel such licence; in either case he shall give notice thereof in the Federal Gazette. (2) Every place of public worship licensed as a place for the celebration of marriages under any enactment repealed by this Act shall be deemed to be licensed under this Act unless and until the Minister shall cancel the licence in respect thereof”.
Section 33 (2) states: “A marriage shall be null and void if both parties knowingly and willfully acquiesce in its celebration: (a) in any place other than the office of a registrar of marriages or a licensed place of worship”.
As Nigerians increasingly choose statutory law over customary law, more people seek and defend their rights within the English Law legal system. This choice means we should not presume anything regarding the civil effects of Church marriages. “This is how we have been doing it” or “It doesn’t matter” may cause future problems.
Moreover, we can be jailed for ignorance or negligence. The Marriage Act Section 42 states: “Whoever performs or witnesses as a marriage officer the ceremony of marriage, knowing that he is not duly qualified so to do, or that any of the matters required by law for ceremony for the validity of such marriage has not happened or been performed, so that the marriage is void or unlawful on any ground, shall be liable to imprisonment for five years”.
Section 43 states: “Whoever, being under a duty to fill up the certificate of a marriage celebrated by him, or the counterfoil thereof, or to transmit the same to the registrar of marriages, wilfully fails to perform such duty, shall be liable to imprisonment for two years.”
May God continue to help us🙏🏾
 Federal Republic of Nigeria, Criminal Code Act, Cap. C38, in Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, s2.