Taiwo Adebulu

Nigeria—Extorting those who want to marry

Officials of Nigeria’s federal marriage registries extort prospective married couples by charging them fees way above the official rate, diverting up to half of the country’s minimum wage at a time into their personal bank accounts. Taiwo Adebulu went undercover to record how these civil servants work together, and across marriage offices, to do this with impunity. He also discovered how an online registration portal, meant to be a solution to the corruption, is routinely sabotaged.

On the right side of the Ikoyi marriage registry entrance, propped against the wall, are three frumpy wedding gowns, flapping in the wind. Next to the outfits stand three headless, unclad mannequins; their nakedness possibly due to the fact that the gowns they once carried are ready to be rented by any of the couples waiting their turn in the wedding hall. I am to get married here, and like all the others waiting in the queue, I, Olatunji Iyanu and my imaginary spouse Oluwagboyega Opeyemi are assigned an official; Elsy is here to help.

‘When you are coming that day, make sure you have some money’.

We sit in a small office with about four desks; facing these are white and blue plastic chairs for intending marriage applicants. Each desk has hundreds of application forms stacked inside dozens of green files. It is rowdy here; everyone is either counting or collecting money, as payments are mainly sought for, and made in cash. I pick up snatches of conversation: ‘You have to pay for scroll’ (a cylindrical piece of plastic for storage of the marriage certificate). ‘When you are coming that day, make sure you have some money’.

An official tells someone he would prefer to collect all fees in cash. When Elsy asks for payment, I am prepared, but insist on paying the 25,000 Naira (US$ 61) registry fee using an electronic bank transfer so that the payment leaves a record. Elsy gives me a bank account number, ten digits ending in 25. It bears her name.

A multi-million Naira enterprise

Next to passports, a marriage certificate to either move on in life or out of the country is the most coveted official document one can hope to obtain in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. For a visa application couples need a valid marriage certificate, registered with the appropriate government agency, preferably a federal one, residing under the Ministry of Interior.1The seven federal registry offices in Abuja, Lagos, Imo, Edo, Kano, Plateau and Rivers states therefore continue to receive the most prospective married couples.

But it is also here that it will cost you.

It has been a plague for loving couples intending to get married in Nigeria for years now. In 2018, when George Asonja, a lawyer based in southwestern Ondo state, married at the Ikoyi registry, he simply paid. ‘You just have to pay if you want to achieve your purpose without any delay’, he says. ‘I did the registration at their office, paid the (then official, ed) rate of 21 000 Naira (US$ 51) and got a receipt for that. Then we paid another N10 000 ($24) to them that had no receipt. Then we dropped some money ‘as an offering’ during the celebration itself’.

The online portal would reduce ‘unnecessary contact’.

However, for a brief moment later in 2018, Nigerians were given hope for a change. The government established the ‘eCitiBiz’ online portal, where, from then on, marriage registration fees could be paid digitally. In the words of then Interior Minister Abdulrahman Danbazau, who spoke at the launch, the platform would ‘reduce unnecessary contact with people’ and ‘ensure speedy service delivery.’ In a gesture of even more client-friendliness, two years later, the prescribed fees for marriage registration were also dropped, from 21 000 Naira (US$ 51) to 15,000 Naira (US$ 36) for two Nigerians, and from 35 000 Naira (US$ 85) to 25,000 Naira (US$ 61) in the case of a marriage between a Nigerian and a non-Nigerian. But officials in the Interior Ministry, which is the federal government agency in charge of marriage, continued and continue to turn the process into a cash cow, charging well above the official rate and sometimes even above the old fees, in the process bypassing the entire eCitiBiz platform.

Any document for a price

To investigate this system of corruption, my circumstances presented a challenge. I am already married, and to register online, turning up to get married on the chosen date could be interpreted as wilfully breaching the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Insider sources I spoke to then assured me that the best way to establish the corrupt process from its roots anyway was to visit the Ikoyi Registry office, where the transactions take place. I could then also determine how the online portal itself is intercepted.

At the office where Elsy and about four other registrars attend to prospective couples, the uniform rate is elevated even above the level from before the official reduction: 25 000 Naira (US$ 61), they say, a message echoed for all applicants to hear. I and my prospective spouse are also charged for documents we are told we need, but do not have, like bachelor and spinster certificates, and declaration of age documents. You actually only have to bring a passport photograph to Ikoyi. You can get any other form of ID or legal document right here. For a price, that is.

I pay 30 000 Naira (US$ 73) for the registration and our extras and then the process begins. Again, there is no official bank account provided; officials request money be paid into their personal accounts before they access the online platform to create your booking. Elsy helpfully notes that on the day of the wedding ceremony, ‘applicants will also pay 2 000 Naira (US$ 5) for the marriage certificate scroll and 3 000 Naira (US$ 7) for photography’.

The money made in the office with four desks

With Ikoyi officials charging a minimum 25 000 Naira (US$ 61) for a service with a stipulated fee of 15 000 Naira (US$ 36), an extra 10 000 Naira (US$ 24) is made per applicant. Couples interviewed told ZAM that two hundred to five hundred marriages are conducted at the office daily, which leads to the following sum:

  • At a minimum 200 marriages, registrars could make about two million Naira (US$ 4 840) daily.
  • For the four days allocated to marriage registration, that comes to eight million Naira (US$ 19 370) extra cash, weekly.
  • In a month, corrupt registrars at Ikoyi alone could therefore make over 32 million Naira (US$ 77 480 — the Monday special weddings, which come with extra cost, are not included in these estimates).
  • In one year, that one registry in Lagos could pocket over 384 million Naira (US$ 929 780, close to one million US$) in illegal fees from couples needing to marry at their facility.

We were not able to find out how many officials work at the Ikoyi registry and how many of them share in the proceeds of the corruption. We only know that marriages are handled at four desks in that office.

‘They were angry because he registered online, but he begged them’.

Blessing the counter

When businessman Joseph Onovughakpor registered online, he did not foresee what happened next at the Ikoyi registry where he married in July 2020. ‘The person I initially contacted at the registry said I should bring 30 000 Naira, which was double the legally prescribed fee’, he says. ‘I then bypassed that official to register on the online portal and paid the proper 15 000 Naira fee. The person I chatted with on the website said I should just go to the registry on my wedding day with the printout and I would be attended to. Before that day, just to make sure, I asked a friend to take my printout to the registry, but they refused to attend to him. They were angry because the registration was done online. He begged them and they charged him 5 000 Naira (US$ 12) before he was attended to’.

Onovughakpor got to Ikoyi at 8 AM the next day but found that his name was not on the register of the over 250 couples getting married that day. Nevertheless, ‘after I gave them the printout, a lady at the office of the registrar collected 2 000 Naira (US$ 5) from me. Then we got married around 2 PM’. But not before still paying more. ‘When you go inside, the first official that will attend to you and give you a number will tell you to ‘bless the counter’. Then you know what to do (pay more, TA). The officials filling the certificates will ask for their share as well. The ones joining the couples will collect 2 000 Naira (US$ 5) each from both parties (the husband and wife). They will also ask your witnesses to ‘drop something’. During the ceremony, the couple was also still sold a scroll for another 4 000 Naira (US$ 10).

The extra amounted to almost half of Nigeria’s minimum wage.

In the end, without factoring in money collected from witnesses to Joseph Onovighakpor’s marriage, he parted with at least 13 000 Naira (US$ 31) in bribes. This amounts to almost half of Nigeria’s minimum wage, pegged at 30 000 Naira (US$ 73) per month.

Babatunde Aderemi (name changed upon request), who was aware of the online registration process but had chosen in-person registration, hoping to make things faster, also found that things only move when you pay. After his marriage on 10 September 2020 at Ikoyi, the official who conducted the ceremony held back the marriage certificate when Aderemi refused to pay extra bribes. ‘I was number 97 on the list and waited, but then she demanded 1 000 Naira (US$ 3) from me and 500 Naira each from witnesses and parents after joining us together. I only paid when she decided to hold back the certificate’. By then Aderemi had already paid 27,000 Naira (US$ 65) for registration fees, only getting email confirmation for payment of 15 000 Naira (US$ 36). He also paid 1 500 Naira (US$ 4) for ‘documentation’.

Amaka Nwora (name changed), a Lagos resident who got married on August 7, 2020, paid an extra 45 000 Naira (US$ 109) for a change of venue because the registries were closed due to the pandemic, on top of paying 27 500 Naira (US$ 66) at the Ikoyi office for the registration. An additional 5 000 Naira (US$ 12) went into ferrying two officials, who conducted the ceremony, to the venue. ‘We still paid ‘thank you for coming’ money (to these officials) too’, she says.

Sola Bello, a car dealer in Oyo state, paid at least 19,000 Naira (US$ 46) in bribes on January 13 this year. First, he was forced to pay an extra 12,500 Naira (US$ 30) on top of the formal 15,000 Naira fee for registration, then 2 500 Naira (US$ 6) was charged for age declaration documents; then lastly, during the brief wedding ceremony, an official also collected N4 000 (US$ 10) for a crate of fizzy drinks, asides from other smaller fees tagged as celebratory charges.

Pen corruption

Because the couples know they have to sign something, they usually go with their biros (pens). When you get in (into the office), they’ll tell you you cannot use your own biro, and they tell you that you have to buy their biro, which is a hundred Naira (24 dollar cents). So you just see a huge stack of biros and they are basically putting the biros in your hand, you pay money, they collect it back from you, you go use your own biro to fill the form. So you can imagine this is like a hundred Naira but multiplied by a thousand people, and this is one process alone, where people are being subtly extorted’.
—Chibuzor Ebele, trader

The online registration portal is never mentioned to couples

Ghost weddings and drinks

The Ikoyi marriage extortion ring is not an isolated case. In the capital Abuja, a December 2020 investigation by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting ICIR (2) revealed that the cost of marriage licenses in four registries in the capital territory varies from N 15 500 to N 50 000 (US$ 37 to US$ 121), with some officials conducting ‘ghost’ weddings, where spouses are absent, while others demand that besides fees, applicants must bring along a crate of drinks, or its value in Naira. According to ICIR, at the Federal Marriage registry in Garki – Abuja’s equivalent of Ikoyi in Lagos – payments were also received by officials. The existence of a registration portal is, according to a source quoted by the Centre ‘never mentioned to couples, neither is there any information indicative of a self-help process’. The investigation also quoted an applicant who said his knowledge of the existence of such a portal came as a surprise to the officials, who then tried to stop him from divulging this information to his fellow applicants.

Bribery in Nigeria

Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, in a recent survey3, asked 33 000 households whether they had paid any bribes to government officials in 2019. The results, extrapolated over the country’s 200 million population, indicated that roughly 117 million bribes of an average N 5 754 (US$ 14) each, could have been paid in Nigeria in that one year. This translated, the survey calculated, to ‘a total of roughly N 675 billion (US$ 1.6 billion), paid in cash bribes to public officials in Nigeria in 2019’.

Other findings from the survey were as follows:

  • Almost all, more than 93%, of all bribes paid in 2019 were paid in cash.
  • The average cash bribe paid was N5 754: approximately $14.
  • Direct bribery requests by a public official accounted for 60% of all bribery transactions in Nigeria in 2019.
  • Indirect requests for a bribe accounted for 20% of all bribery transactions, while spontaneous payments to facilitate or to accelerate a procedure accounted for 8%. Some 5% of bribes were also paid with no prior request from the bribe-taker as a sign of appreciation to a public official for services rendered.
  • Around two-thirds of bribes, 67%, were paid before a service is provided by a public official. The survey said that the consistently large share of bribes paid in anticipation of a service to be rendered by a public official was an indication that bribes are often requested before action is taken to deliver a service.

In a comment on the online marriage portal saga, Emeka Okoye, a senior knowledge engineer at IT consultancy firm Cymantiks Limited said ‘software systems alone can't really save us from corruption. (…) Lack of control, oversight and supervision are the reasons behind this brazenness (of corrupt officials). We need to place citizens and their rights at the centre of government (…) and improve the rule of law, so that corrupt officials can be prosecuted and punished’.

Working on it now

Instituting controls, oversight and supervision, let alone prosecution, do not seem predominantly on the mind of the Ministry of Interior. After receiving the specifics of this investigation and ZAM’s questions, as requested by her, on Whatsapp on 21 April, Interior Ministry press director Adjobome Lere-Adams simply responded that the Ministry was ‘working on it now’. There was no further response. Two weeks later, however, on 5 May 2021, Moremi Soyinka-Onijala, Director of Citizenship and Business Department at the federal Ministry of Interior, announced to Nigeria’s National News Agency that it would penalise any official of the federal marriage registries found culpable of corruption. Soyinka-Onilaja added that the ministry had ‘trained its registrars (…) in the conduct of statutory marriages and to verify the identity of intending couples by obtaining valid forms of identity’. She made no reference to the reported fact, also communicated to the press director, that just weeks earlier, none of these forms of identity documents were demanded during ZAM’s undercover investigation at the Ikoyi registry.

So far, no Nigerian marriage official has been arrested.

Notes

  1. Though local registries also have the power to conduct marriages, there are widespread speculations that foreign embassies in Nigeria do not accept marriage certificates from these local government registries. This perception of superiority, and a tug of war between the two known registrars over who has the authority to issue marriage certificates was put to bed when a Lagos High court ruled in 2018 that marriages conducted and registered in the state’s local councils are also valid. Nevertheless, most applicants still believe that weddings conducted at federal registries are most recognised and acceptable.
  2. See: Insidious world of Abuja marriage registries.
  3. See: UNODC—Corruption in Nigeria: Patterns and Trends, December 2019.

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