By Cosmas Omegoh
A long time before now, men by far married more than one wife. Some had five and more. They had many children and very large families. They had the human capital in good measure.
But these days, things seem to have changed. Many men are shunning marriage to a harem of women; they are no longer raising large families.
A cross section of Nigerians have been expressing their views on this matter, each coming from their own cultural, religious and professional backgrounds.
Ordinarily Nigerians would say a man’s marriage to more than one woman is called polygamy. But an expert insists they are dead wrong.
Mr Goddy Udenka, a sociologist and researcher, says “from the sociological perspective, polygamy means the practice of a man or woman having multiple spouses – a man having more than one wife and a woman having more than one husband.”
He explained that the real term that captures the practice of a man having more than one wife as is the case in Nigeria is called polygene.
“Polygene is the practice of a man marrying more than one wife, while polyandry is the practice of a woman marrying more than one husband.
“What we practice in Nigeria is essentially polygene. But what the people easily relate with is polygamy. I think that is even what is in the law books. But polygene is the actual thing.”
His thoughts were corroborated by Alhaji Abdulraham Ahmed, national Imam and head of mission of Ansarudeen Society. “Polygamy is both ways. It includes a woman having more than one wife and a man having more than one wife.
“In Islam, the act of a man having more than one wife is polygene,” he said.
How Islam sees polygene
According to Alhaji Ahmed, “generally Islam permits polygene.
“Islam addresses and permits it. Here I want to draw a distinction between permission and injunction.
“Injunction is made mandatory, but permission is something allowed under special circumstances.”
Explaining, he said that Islam permits a man to marry as many as four wives as long as “the man is able. And by able, it is not only physically, but emotionally, psychologically and financially able to cope – ability in all its ramifications. These are the condition.”
He added, “but the man must be able to maintain equity. Equity here does not mean equality. Equality is providing the same thing all the time notwithstanding the need. Some people are tall, some people are short, some tall, slim, fat, their requirements differ. If you provide the same thing to all the people, in all the circumstances, you will be doing equality and that may not be justice.”
What Christianity says about polygene
According to Rev. Anthony Godonou, director of Social Communication of Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos, Christianity totally abhors any marriage other than one-man, one-wife.
“The church does not support polygene,” he insisted, saying “there are no two ways to it. It is one-man, one-wife, simply.
“It is an injection fully and completely supported by the Bible.
“In the Book of Matthew Chapter 9, Jesus tells the Pharisees bluntly that marriage to more than one woman was not like that in the beginning.
“In the beginning, God made it one man, one wife. And that was why a man will leave his father and mother and joins his wife and they no longer become two but one.
“It is very clear from the Scripture and the tradition of the church.”
Among traditional religious worshippers, marriage to more than one wife is dominant.
In the distant past, adherents married many women and had large numbers of children.
Chief Goody Uwazuruike, a chieftain of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, said that “for traditional worshippers, what matters is the ability to marry many wives.
“But among the Christians, it is one-man, one-wife. Even now, what do we see? It is difficult to see a man that has four children.
“But among the Muslims, they are triumphant in showing that they are multiplying.
“Among the Christians particularly in Igboland, traditional religious worshippers constitute about one per cent of the population.”
While explaining why men married many wives in those days, Chief Uwazuruike recalled that it was because they could afford it.
“If one had 10 wives and the wives gave him many children, it then meant that he would have as many hands as possible to work on him farms. His homestead would increase.
“Then, the principal business of every home was farming, and fishing. Those who were into hunting were small in number. If you had a large family you were lucky.”
He said: “But polygene can result if a man’s first wife has no child. So he marries a second wife and then the third. If you marry only two, you have a problem. If you have the third one, she will stand in the middle.
“Then, there was another reason. Before the coming of the white man, at the age of 14, a girl was already married. So by the time she was 30 years, she was already a grandmother. Her own child would be in marriage.
“Now, when her child is married, she will go for Omugwo, which lasts for three months. Do you expect the man of the house to start doing his own cooking? There had to be a lady to help do that. It starts with the backyard business. But in no time it is formalised. By the time the man’s wife comes back, the man already has another wife.”
He noted that “in those days, it was a status symbol to have many wives. During the New Yam festival when men were supposed to go out and parade, the number of wives one had mattered. They would come fully decked, their bodies well decorated as they filed in with the man of the house taking up the rear. If the man had eight wives, he would be swaggering, while those who had less would like to be like him.”
Practice on the wane?
But now all the talk about marrying many wives appears to be on a downward trend.
“That is the truth right now. That is actually a function of the economic circumstances – the ability of the men to take care of many wives and by extension children – having large families is no longer in vogue.
“The real essence of that has waned. Before, people had large families to help them farm. Now, it is no longer the practice. People now hire people to cultivate for them. The actual requirement for people to keep large families is no longer there,” Mr Udenka said emphatically
He added that “even if there is a boom in the economy, I don’t see polygene resurrecting.
“Yes, I agree that the sexual appetite among men these days is increasing, but keeping a home is a different matter entirely. And so people will prefer not keeping a home, but having girl friends everywhere.”
Giving honest views about the trend, he maintained that the reason polygene is dying is stronger among Christians than Muslims.
“For the Muslims, the reason is purely economic. But for most Christians it is purely religious.
“There is this restriction of marrying one wife at a time, and for another marry as many as four wives. Recall that Nigerians are intensely religious especially on the surface.”
For Chief Uwazurike, “polygene is almost dead in Igboland.
“You recall that the area is more than 99.9 per cent Christians. The rest are animist and Muslims.
“If those who are practising polygene are one per cent, they cannot be a match to the 99.99 per cent.
“So, polygene is something we need to work on because in today’s world, if you are talking about population balance, that of Christians is declining while those of Muslims and traditional worshipers will always increase.”
He was also of the view that the economic situation in the country had been waging serious war on polygene.
“Oh yes, it does,” he exclaimed, adding that “some people would rather have a concubine than have a second wife.
“But again, it depends on the skill of the woman, if she can manourve her way. Otherwise the man might begin to have one or two children from outside. But that is not something anyone would be comfortable with now among the Igbo. Among the Yoruba and Hausa yes, but not a common practice among the Igbo.”
Fr Godonou equally blamed the economic situation in the country for the challenges polygene currently faces.
“I don’t have the fact and figures to support that. But I do know that given the fact that there is more enlightenment, and people are getting socially advanced, and modernity is here with us, the reality is that polygene is no longer fashionable to many people. Besides, the economic situation in the country is becoming increasingly challenging. People are getting more and more affected. That is why I think that a good number of people are no longer attracted to polygene.
“But, of course, you cannot rule out infidelity in such marriages. And people now have what they call side chics here and there. And so, people are practicing monogamy unofficially, but in reality, they are having mistresses out there.
“I do know that when people look at how much they are going to spend on school fees, how much they are going to spend on the home, the ease of training three children, compared to six and more children from two to three wives, then they will know that khaki no be leather. They will go low and marry one wife, and have two to three kids and be able to take care of them. So this is probably making polygene to die naturally,” he pointed out.
He believes that “now, enlightenment is coming, people are educated and know what it entails to live in a nuclear family with one wife and one husband.”
But Alhaji Ahmed believes the decline of polygene is not totally due to economic situation.
“It is not just about marrying more than one wife, but about the whole essence of life. This is a free world that allows people to determine what they can do.
“It is not just about the institution of marriage or multiple marriages, it applies in all aspects of our lives and that is determined by the relative abilities of individuals in different situations and different circumstances.
“It is notwithstanding whether there is economic downturn or not, people must act within the limit of their capacity. They must do things that are sustainable – things that they can cope with. It is not restricted to the institution of marriage of whether there is a downturn or a boom.
“People must act within the limits they have the capacity for. This is a truism in life.”