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African polygamy: Past and Present

African polygamy: Past and Present 


Polygamy is a common practice in every part of our country, Nigeria regardless of traditions or religious beliefs.
Even many well educated people and religious go behind the scene of their faith and prohibition and practice the
age old act. By virtue of the provisions of section 45 of the Interpretation Act of 1963, complete English Common
and Equity were introduced into the Nigerian law together with certain English statutes. As Nigeria developed,
there is this cultural awareness by the people that some of the provisions of the introduced laws are faulty mostly
because they do not reflect the social norms of the people in Nigeria. Such are found in various provisions of law
that deal with the incidence of customary marriage particularly polygamy.

One factor which appeared to have motivated the colonial legislators in enacting the Marriage Act
was to bring Monogamous marriage into Nigeria as they thought that marrying more than one wife is abhorrent the colonial administrators could not comprehend a marriage system which was inherently polygamous. This is
deduced from the words of Thomas Jackson.

Polygamy, marriage to more than one spouse at a time. The most typical forms of polygamy have been polygyny, in which cowives share a husband, or polyandry, in which co husbands share a wife. However, same-sex marriage may instigate new forms of polygamy. Similar but without the commitment of marriage is polyamory, having or desiring multiple intimate relationships at the same time with the full knowledge and consent of all parties involved.

Polygamy in Africa has existed throughout the history of Africa. Polygamy, particularly polygyny, is a highly valued social institution in Africa. Polygamy is a marriage between a man or woman and their multiple spouses. Polygyny is a marriage between a man and multiple wives. Polyandry is a marriage between a woman and multiple husbands. A common expectation for African kings in African societies is for African kings to symbolically unify his kingdom and the society through partaking in polygamous marriages with wives from a broad range of clans within the society. By doing so, the king reduces the chance of dissident and rival forces developing and rising against him.

The polygamy has existed in all over the African continent thanks to the fact that it represents an aspect
of their culture and religion. These types of marriages have been more present in the whole history of Africa like
no other continent in the world. One of the reasons why this has happened is because the African societies have
managed to see that children were a form of wealth and this way a family with more children was considered to
be more powerful. Under these circumstances the polygamy in Africa was considered to be part of the way you
could build an empire.

It was only after the colonial era in Africa that polygamy was perceived as a taboo, as this was one of
the things imported along with the colonists that took over some regions of Africa. Some people are saying that
there was also an economic reason why this has happened: there were many issues of property ownership that
conflicted a lot with the European colonial interest.

At first the polygamy was very popular in the west part of Africa, but as the Islam has started to diffuse
in this region, the prevalence of polygamy has started to continuously reduce due to the restrictions that appeared
to the number of wives. For example polygamy is very widespread across Kenya and right now one of the most prominent single individual that is popularizing this practice is Akuku Danger who as managed to become famous based on the fact that he is married with over 100 wives.

Even if people are thinking about the fact that South Africa is by far one of the most developed
countries in the region, there are still many traditionalists out there that are constantly practicing polygamy. Even
the president of South Africa: Jacob Zuma is declaring openly that he agrees with plural marriages and he is
currently married to 3 wives. And at the same time he has 20 children with these and the two previous wives that
he had in the past.
Another country where the polygamy is accepted is Sudan. Under these circumstances the Sudanese
president: Omar Hassan al-Bashir has always sustained polygamy and he says that these multiple marriages are
one of the options available for Sudan in order to increase its population.


Evidence for polygamy in ancient Egypt can be found among both the Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom.

During the dynastic rule of Amenophis III, numerous polygynous marriages between Amenophis III and foreign princesses occurred, which later led to the princesses being buried in the Valley of the Queens along with the following description of them as part of the harem of the king: “’She of numerous nights in the city of the brilliant Aten’; ‘She who appears in glory in the temple of the brilliant Aten’; ‘She who strikes with fury for the brilliant Aten’.”

An example of polygamy from a 20th Dynasty period papyrus, which is one among several other examples from the 20th Dynasty that highlight grave robberies, highlights the tribunal case of gold worker, Ramose; during the case, Mutemhab, his wife, indicated during her testimony that he had two dead wives and another wife who was not dead; notably, Ramose was subsequently brought to trial for grave robbery and not polygamy.

While Herodotus characterized the ancient Egyptians as being monogamous, Diodorus characterized the ancient Egyptians as being polygamous; according to Diodorus Siculus, “In accordance with the marriage-customs of the Egyptians the priests have but one wife, but any other man takes as many as he may determine; and the Egyptians are required to raise all their children in order to increase the population, on the ground that large numbers are the greatest factor in increasing the prosperity of both country and cities.”


Following the development of Ivory Coast’s first national census in 1975 CE, 23% of men were found to be participating in a polygynous marriage in 1988 CE, and the average polygynist man was found to have 2.3 wives, with higher rates of polygyny found in rural areas than in Abidjan. From 1955 CE to 1988 CE, rates of polygyny in Ivory Coast remained fairly consistent, occurring with four out of 10 married women, though there was some decline found in rural areas from the early 1960s CE to mid-1970s


Between the 12th century CE and the 15th century CE, polygamy was a cultural practice of the Mali Empire. In the Mande narrative of Sundiata Keita’s Epic, Keita partook in a polygamous marriage with two women, whom he had children with, and whose children were in political competition with one another.

Overall the polygamy in Africa is a very common practice that you are going to find all over Africa, but
it tends to be more popular especially in the West African countries. This practice is very common among the
animist and the Muslim communities. For example in Senegal there are almost 47% of the marriages where they
feature more than one woman. In the Arab nations the percentages are even higher and there is also the Bedouin
population that you can find in Israel, where around 30% of them are part of multiple marriages. And along with
all that there are also the Mormon fundamentalists who also live in polygamous families.

Before the reception and introduction of the English Common Law in Nigeria, customary Native Law
controlled the lives of the people. Customary Laws in Nigeria have some unique features in that it is unwritten, it
must be a mirror of accepted usage. It is note worthy that there is no single uniform system of Customary Law
prevailing throughout Nigeria, but it appears that the practice of polygamy cut across all tribes hence, one can
justifiably conclude that polygamy is widely practiced in Nigeria. Aside from having polygamy enshrined in the various customary laws in Nigeria, the Islamic Religion which is well practiced in Nigeria permits a man to marry at most four wives.

Under civil law, Nigeria recognizes polygamous unions. The northern states of Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Niger, Sokoto, Yobe, and Zamfara recognize polygamous marriages as equivalent to monogamous
marriages, as all twelve are governed by Sharia Law which allows for a man to take more than one wife as long
as he treats them equally.

Polygamy and poverty are both widespread in sub-Saharan Africa.1 Several arguments have been made suggesting this correlation is causal. Scholars have suggested, for example, that polygamy crowds out productive investment.

A ‘polygamy belt’ stretches across Africa, from Senegal through to Tanzania, in which it is not uncommon for a third of married women to share their husbands (Jacoby 1995). In the present day, this prevalence is almost unique to Africa. All Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) data sets report that at least 92% of married women are monogamous – except for those from Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa.

Less well known is the rate at which polygamy has declined in Africa in recent decades. In Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Senegal, more than 60% of married women recorded in DHS data in 1970 were polygamists at the time they were surveyed. For women married in 2000 in these countries, the polygamy rate is less than 40%. Several other countries with DHS surveys have experienced similar erosions of polygamy.

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