Tuesday, October 31, 2023 8:03 am
The phenomenon of state-sponsored weddings across Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim northern region raises pertinent questions on the limits of political benevolence.
For some time now, mass weddings organized and entirely paid for by state governments have become increasingly common across Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim northern region. Over the past decade, successive administrations in Yobe, Borno, Jigawa, Kaduna, and Sokoto states respectively have sponsored nuptials for a mix of divorcees, widows, and spinsters. Within the past month alone, the northwestern states of Zamfara and Kano have organized elaborate wedding ceremonies for thousands of young men and women.
Government financial involvement in these ceremonies tends to be substantial, as illustrated by last month’s mass wedding in Kano State which gulped a reported 854 million naira. Such spending is not limited to the logistics of the weddings, whose every aspect invariably bears the imprint of the state, including being presided over by state functionaries and state-remunerated religious leaders, and being organized within the premises of the government house; it also goes towards the purchase of clothes, shoes, hijabs, assorted earrings, caps, furniture for the new couples, payment of dowry and wedding clothes, as well as cash presentations to the new brides “as seed money to start a small business,” presumably in order to “lessen the financial burden on their husbands.
The official justification for such weddings—and by implication the huge financial outlay—ranges from “promoting social cohesion” on the one hand to “supporting the less privileged and victims of banditry,” “checking the menace of prostitution, particularly among destitute unmarried young girls and widows,” helping to identify those living with HIV/AIDS (since it is usual to conduct such tests, as well as for hepatitis B and sickle cell disease for participating couples), and “reducing the number of widows and divorced women” as a way of cracking down on “immorality” on the other.
It transpires that state interest in these ceremonies is not limited to ordinary matchmaking. On the contrary, it would seem that the government is also invested in a particular conception of gender relations within the institution of (heterosexual) marriage. For instance, addressing the 1,800-odd couples at the wedding reception organized for them within the premises of the Government House, former Kano State governor Rabi’u Musa Kwankwaso enjoined the women to desist from checking their husbands’ phones, since “that is the major cause of marriage breakups these days.”
While a certain queasiness about this marital prescription may be understandable, so too is northern state governments’ underlying nervousness about the breakdown of social cohesion in the region. Insofar as the entire country has been buffeted by an array of socioeconomic crises, their impact has been more palpable across the northern region, parts of which, especially when compared with the more economically and educationally advanced southern region, can feel like another country entirely. On the whole, northern Nigerian states have more out-of-school children (OOSC), higher birth rates, and lower levels of literacy than states in the southern region. The picture becomes more sobering once gender is taken into consideration. According to the World Bank-assisted Adolescent Girls Initiative for Learning and Empowerment (AGILE), only about 30 percent of girls in northeastern and northwestern Nigeria attend secondary school, while in the poorest households across the region, girls have only a nine percent chance of enrolling in secondary school. For comparison, girls in Southern Nigeria have a 79% chance. While “more than two-thirds of Northern Nigerian girls aged 15-19 can’t read a full sentence,” the figure for Southern Nigeria is less than 10%.
If religious and cultural factors have been longstanding co-conspirators against public literacy in northern Nigeria, the outbreak of the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency has intensified the assault, both morally (Boko Haram being an explicit rejection of Western education) and materially, the latter in terms of the systematic carnage unleashed by the group on random targets and communities across the northern and middle belt regions.
To be sure, northern political leaders are not insensitive to these challenges. For example, the establishment of the North-East Development Commission (NEDC), signed into law by the Muhammadu Buhari administration in 2017, seems to have been partly dictated by a need to reverse the physical and socioeconomic destruction of the zone. A corresponding bill for a North West Development Commission (NWDC) to “receive and manage funds for the agricultural and industrial development of the North West geopolitical zone” as well as “formulate policies and guidelines for the development of the North West in the areas of roads, education, health, employment, industrialization, agriculture, housing and urban development, water supply, electricity, and commerce” recently passed its first reading in the upper house of the Nigerian National Assembly.
Yet, while the establishment of a development commission can be defended, even when allowance has been made for the corruption and patronage that will most likely turn it into yet another boondoggle and ultimately defeat its purpose, state sponsorship of something as a private as a wedding seems like an overreach. Insinuating the state into a private realm in which, ordinarily, its role should be strictly limited to observation and record keeping, such spectacles flip the civic script by reducing citizens (sic) who should ordinarily be on guard against the state’s excesses and intrusions to wards of the state. In this way, they raise the specter of a tutelary state, one that bestrides a civic landscape in which citizens (“subjects” is more like it) live in a relationship resembling permanent conservatorship. For how do you raise your voice , never mind your hand, against a benefactor that looms so large, and in this case, one that secures a partner for you, marries you off, sets you up, and when the time comes, helps you discharge your religious obligation in terms of a state-sponsored pilgrimage?
The latter question is not just theoretical; on the contrary, it goes to the heart of the state-society compact, primarily in northern Nigeria, but across social formations where state paternalism hobbles private initiative and threatens the very foundation of civil society by intruding into the domain of domesticity. What happens to society in relation to the state when, within a moral understanding that is essentially feudal, individuals are treated more or less like juveniles, and state policy, while aimed in principle at helping them, positively disables and deprives them of the opportunity to stand on their feet? This and ancillary questions were anticipated by Cornell University political philosopher Olufemi Taiwo in his exposition of the rights, duties, immunities, privileges, and forbearances of citizenship in Nigeria.
The elements that drive and sustain this ruler-subject dynamic in the context of northern Nigeria would seem instructive. One is conservative Islam, so far as it functions as a system of political submission, lending divine credence to the abjection of the Talakawa by their Masu Sarauta masters. From this perspective, mass illiteracy, leading to civic docility, is a feature, not a bug, and rather than being impelled by a grand theory of social change, mass weddings and the attendant iteration of an avuncular state are geared towards the perpetuation of the existing social hierarchy.
A second element is the well-known identity of Nigeria as a petro state, one in which revenue earned from the sale of crude oil flows from the center to the periphery according to a predetermined set of criteria. That this perverse arrangement authorizes fiscal irresponsibility goes without saying, since states (and by implication other tiers of government) rely on and technically spend monies that they have not earned, and for which they scarcely have to account. This, for the most part, explains the sheer absurdity of the many capital-intensive projects embarked upon at different tiers of government. For every state-sponsored wedding in the northern region, there is, in the southern region, a corresponding “demonstration fishpond” with neither water nor fish, a “football academy” that has never been built,” and many a poultry farm without a single chicken.
Within these parameters, oil money—and by inference all state “earnings” that do not accrue from productive investment—insofar as it licenses elite fiscal misconduct, is antithetical to democratic accountability in Nigeria.
*Professor Ebenezer Obadare is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). This article was originally published by the CFR as part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy:
Reina Patel contributed to the research for this article.