DOUBLE-DECKER MARRIAGE: DOES MARRYING MORE THAN ONCE DO THE TRICK?
Given the diverse nature of the Nigerian Legal system, there exists three forms of marriage in the country viz the Customary law marriage, Islamic law marriage and the Statutory law marriage. On the one hand, while both the Customary law and Islamic law marriages are potentially polygamous, the Statutory marriage is monogamous in nature
Thus, it is prevalent that couples tend to opt for the celebration of at least two of these systems of marriage. In the words of Margaret C. Onoka, this is known as “Double- Decker” marriage. She further defined it to involve the celebration by the same couple, of a marriage under one system and their subsequent marriage under another system.
There are various reasons why this is common. For one, people seek for their marriage to be traditionally recognized. Many Nigerians, despite the influence of foreign cultures, still hold their Native Law and Custom in high regard especially in matters of marriage. Thus, there is that desire to preserve their native law and custom. Nevertheless, couples in their many numbers, still go ahead to contract a subsequent statutory marriage as security for the earlier customary marriage. This is so because statutory marriage comes with certain peculiar benefits. For instance, a marriage under the Act protects one against the practice of bigamy.
The misconception among the lay public is that customary law marriage is inferior to statutory marriage in the eye of the law. In reality however, they are all approved and recognized by the law. Although, their implications differ from each other, a single valid marriage in any of the systems, should suffice nevertheless.
As though the disadvantage of duplicity and extravagance in its celebration, were not enough, there are other implications that arise. One is the question of which of the marriages supersedes the other or whether they can exist side by side? In divorce cases, where the marriage is dissolved statutorily, are the parties still married under customary law? In the event of death without a will, is the old spouse, entitled to claim to still be the spouse under customary law? In the case of a subsequent marriage under customary law, can the husband claim that he has not committed bigamy because his statutory law marriage contracted before the customary law marriage is in abeyance or invalid? These are the issues that will spring up if left unattended to.
RELEVANT LEGAL FRAMEWORK
At this juncture, it is important to take recourse to relevant laws on this subject. Unfortunately, the concept of double-decker marriage is not expressly provided for in the Marriage Act 1914. Nevertheless, there are certain sections of the Act that may offer guidance on the legality and effect of a double-decker marriage. According to Section 33(1) of the Marriage Act,
‘No marriage in Nigeria shall be valid where either of the parties thereto at the time of the celebration of such marriage is married under customary law to any person other than the person with whom such marriage is had’.
From this, it can be inferred that the Act impliedly allows the practice of double-decker marriage because it recognizes a previous customary marriage between the same parties followed by a marriage under the Act.
Furthermore, Section 35 of the Marriage Act provides that
‘Any person who is married under this Act, or whose marriage is declared by this Act to be valid, shall be incapable, during the continuance of such marriage, of contracting a valid marriage under Customary law ; but , save as aforesaid , nothing in this Act contained shall affect the validity of any marriage contracted under or in accordance with any customary law, or in any manner apply to marriages so contracted’.
Section 47 of the Marriage Act then provides the penalty where the above is disregarded thus: ‘whoever, having contracted marriage under this Act, or any modification or re-enactment thereof, or under any enactment repealed by this Act during the continuance of such marriage (and) contracts a marriage in accordance with customary law shall be liable to imprisonment for five years’.
Upon examination of Section 35 of the Act, it seems that the position is that once parties are married under statutory marriage, they are rendered incapable of marrying each other or third parties under customary law.
Also, their previous potentially polygamous marital status is converted to a monogamous state if they conducted a previous customary marriage before the marriage.
Nevertheless, in view of the latter part of the provision of Section 35 (the words emboldened) any former customary marriage between them still stands and may affect their rights in issues such as inheritance until it is effectively dissolved.
Hence, the difficulty of double dissolution (of both customary and statutory marriages conducted by the same persons) exists.
JUDICIAL SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT
So far, there have been two schools of thought proffering solutions on how to reconcile the situation namely: The Conversion Theory and Coexistence Theory. The Conversion theorists as stated in Teriba v. Teriba and Rickett, support that the true position is that the customary marriage is converted by the Act marriage which in effect, supersedes it. Therefore, if the Act marriage is subsequently dissolved, the customary marriage cannot revive.
The argument of the “Co-existence” theorists, on the other hand, is that both the first customary marriage, and the latter statutory marriage co-exist; both marriages incidents are legal and valid. Thus, the position of the Court in Afonne v. Afonne was that where two legally recognized marriages are involved , the party seeking dissolution and a decree of divorce should clearly specify which marriage or marriages he or she wants dissolved.
The above theories are not however without controversy. On the part of the Conversion theory, it is important to note that the aim of those people is not to convert their customary marriage to a statutory one. More so since both customary and statutory laws are recognized in Nigeria, there is no basis saying that one law looks powerful or “supersedes” another. In Jadesimi v. Okotie Eboh ,the Supreme Court held that: the status of being married under Islamic Law or Customary law is well recognized in this country and such marriages should not be accorded any status that is inferior to that of marriage under the Marriage Act.
With regard to the Co-existence theory, the view that two different petitions are to be presented first in the Customary or Area Court followed by the High Court seems to be equally beclouded with practical difficulties. The reason is that some of the incidents of the customary marriages cannot be accommodated by the Act; for example, the issue of widow inheritance by the family of the deceased which is encouraged under the customary marriage but otherwise under the statutory marriage system.
In light of these inconsistencies, the writer humbly suggests the following for the improvement on the law as regards the prevalence of double decker marriage. Firstly, the public should be educated on the fact that Customary law marriage is a legal marriage, a marriage recognized by customary law and that the re-celebration will not imput any further validity to their status. This will clear the air on the erroneous belief that their marriage can only be legal, safe and recognized when couples contract a double-decker marriage.
Also, in order to clear the controversies associated with double decker marriages, there is the need for lawmakers to amend the Marriage Act, in more clearer terms stating that couples must elect which of the systems to come under for their marriage. Another option would be to allow the practice of double-decker marriage with express provision for the implication of such union.
Not only that, it is further recommended that both the Evidence and Criminal Code Act be amended and all the rights and privileges conferred only to statutory marriage couples therein be extended to the benefit of the customary marriage couples too. This way, the law makes customary marriage more appealing to the public.
Lastly, because couples enter into double-decker marriage to provide more substantial formality, there could be an issuance of a marriage certificate after a Customary marriage by a Customary law Court or Area Court. This will help to allay all doubts in the minds of the couple because they then have a more concrete evidence of marriage.
In conclusion, the widespread celebration of double decker marriage should be curtailed or at least regulated. This can only be achieved when the law is clear, express and certain. This would create good understanding among citizens and affect the society positively.
 Cap M6 Law of Federation of Nigeria, 2010
 Suit No 1/21/67 at 2/769 (unreported) Ibadan High Court
 (1975) F.C.S.N.L.R .159 at 168-169
 (1996) 2 N.W.L.R. 128 at pg. 142
Margaret C. Onoka, Family Law (Spectrum Books Limited,2003)
Olokooba S.M, ‘ Analysis of Legal Issues Involved in The Termination of “Double-decker ’’ MarriageUnder Nigeria Law’ Nigerian Current Law Review 2007-2010.
Chima Umezuruike, LLB (Hons) Nigeria, LLM (Lond) M. A. E, ‘The Concept of Double Decker Marriage in Nigeria’ Umez Chambers International Advisory Experts
Sisi Lawyer, ‘Should We Continue to Marry More Than Once?’ https://sisilawyer.com.ng/should-we-continue-to-marry-more-than-once/
By Jennifer Chioma OGBERAHA.
Jennifer is a lover of learning. She takes interest in Commercial Law and is keen about Legal research. She has participated in a number of Model United Nations conferences. At the Youth International Summit Model United Nations 2020, she won the Highly Recommended Delegate for strong speaking and research skills. . She is a student of the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos and she currently serves as an executive member of the NBA Section on Business Law Club, University of Lagos.
Jennifer wrote this article during her internship in Akinlawon and Ajomo LP