OPINION: Democracy and the Troubles with FG’s New Directives on Marriage Licensing

Rauf Oregbosola, Nigeria Minister of Interior

By Jerome-Mario Utomi

Aside from the traditional definition of democracy as government of the people, by the people and for the people, great scholars, commentators and political analysts, had at different times and places shared their thoughts about this form of government- it meaning, concepts, survival, merits and demerits.

Part of such conversations in the past gave birth to the global believe that the best defense of democracy is to stress the values that are essential to good governance, especially transparency and accountability, and to support civil society, independent media, and free flow of information. Together, these steps could lower the risks of democratic backsliding and improve lives in the practicing country.

Comparatively, regardless of nationality, countries that adhered strictly to these democratic ethos, today, display a number of common characteristics-internal development of the people, tackle  unemployment through creation of tenure-based and, endless employment to its people,  they consider and understand the critical importance of socioeconomic well being of the nation,  create  opportunities for participation in government, regard citizens as co-soldiers in the nation’s development army with equal ranks, display real commitment to the business of governance and promotes a common value system, and most importantly, instead of pursuing  strictly financial objective when managing the affairs of their nation, they formulate and implement policies that improve the live chances of their people.

Unfortunately, not so could be said of nations that flagrantly ignores democratic ethos.

Infact, the practice of democracy in such countries is often always not       only challenging and costly. This claim is evident in two major areas- over blotted costs of governance by elected officials and burden of harsh/poor policies placed on shoulders of citizens by elected and appointed public officials

Nigeria and of course the vast majority of Africa countries provide good examples of nations with such virtues and attributes.

Separate from other feeble policies in the past, the most obvious of such in Nigeria is the recent directive by the ministry of interior to the effect that henceforth intending married couples, worship centres and churches shall be made to pay a whopping sum of N 51, 000. The breakdown of this new fees going by the report is as follows; while marriage certificate goes for N21, 000, licencing of place of worship is required to pay N30, 000 before performing statutory marriages in Nigeria.

Expectedly, aside from the directive coming at a time when the list of action not taken by the government to better the lives of Nigerians remains lengthy and worrisome, Nigerians with critical interest have expressed fears that such directive similar to  the kind we used to see in China and Cuba have finally found its way on our political geography. And could come as strategic implication, capped with the capacity to set the stage for further abridgment of citizen’s fundamental and prevent religious groups from performing their statutory responsibilities.

This fears expressed by Nigerians cannot be described as unfounded as they are not alone in this line of thinking.

Recently, the coalition of civil society Organization (CSOs) under the aegis of the foundation for African cultural Heritage (FACH), during a press conference in Lagos, expressed similar displeasure about government decision. And queried why worship centres should be made to pay the sum N51, 000 in order to perform their statutory marriages.

Going by their explanation, not only is the directive so arbitrarily and capriciously imposed without consultation with veritable Nigerian stakeholders, the licences, they added, are in gross violation of section 7(5) of the 1999 constitution of Nigerian and section 6 (1) (2), 21, 24, 30, 36, 37, 38, of the marriage act. And submitted that there are other ways the ministry of interior could generate revenue other than placing unnecessary and extra financial burden on couples, churches, Mosque and places of worship in Nigeria.

Interpretatively, Nigerians and the Civil Society groups, in my views are not sad that the Federal Government is thinking of creative and innovative ways of boosting its revenue base as it is not only necessary but eminently desirable. For without such levies, the government may not have the required resources to bridge the infrastructural gaps in the country as well as attend to the day to day demands of the state.

However, there are so many inherent ills associated with this particular directive by the Ministry.

Very fundamental is the stunning error of procedure that characterized the Ministry of Interior’s decision. As it is done in civilized climbs, what Nigerians with critical interest expects from the Ministry is not a directive but to have a bill submitted before the National Assembly- such process would make the process not only transparent but participatory as it paves way for stakeholders to make inputs at public hearing stage.

Another observation that further plagues the directive, and did so well to qualify the Ministry’s action as an ouster of the local Government Areas, is the conviction by Nigerians of goodwill that Section 7 (5) of the 1999 constitution vests the “registration of all births, death and marriages solely rests on the local Governments area in Nigeria and not on the federal Government.

Again, aside from the illegality inherent in the ministry’s decision to single-handedly exercise the right to grant licences to couples, churches, and mosque and public places of worship, the consequence of the emerging strategy that places such responsibility on the ministry can only be described as cumbersome.

There is also a related factor.

It could be recalled that the lingering legal battles between the ministry of interior and the local government Areas over the right to conduct celebrate, register marriages and issues marriage certificates is all based on the current policy of the ministry of interior. Most local government Areas have rightly insisted that the statutory powers to register marriage are being usurped by the federal Government through this new policy of the ministry of interior.

This, in my opinion is a clear indication that the current policy by the ministry is very unpopular and will continue to cause disaffection, mutual mistrust between the Ministry of interior and the people of Nigeria. And if allowed to stand, it can only but amount to an unjust code that is out of harmony with moral laws.

Like every other well meaning Nigerian, i believe and still believe that Nigeria is practicing a presidential democracy that promotes justice for the common good of Nigeria. Hence, it will be rewarding if the Federal Government unlearn the attitude of making decisions for pecuniary reasons that places extra financial burden on couples, churches and places of worship in Nigeria and imbibe habits that will enhance the life chances of the people.

Jerome-Mario Utomi (jeromeutomi@yahoo.com), writes from Lagos, Nigeria                                          

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