Taiwo Adebulu

Nigeria | Love remains a cash cow

How dismissals and promises didn’t end corruption at Nigeria’s main marriage registry

After Taiwo Adebulu had investigated the extortion and systemic corruption at the Ikoyi marriage office in Nigeria, and his story for ZAM made waves in Nigeria, the government announced they would put a stop to the corruption.

A few years later, it is back with a vengeance.

My phone had been overloaded with responses after I first published my Ikoyi marriage registry story. A veritable online frenzy from Nigerian citizens joined me in highlighting the extortion, harassment, and stress they, too, had experienced from the officials working there. One social media poster recounted being forced to pay ₦45,000 (US$32) into an official’s bank account. Another, that they had to fork out ₦60,000 (US$43) for a change of venue. Yet another detailed how he paid an official ₦29,500 (US$21) for a marriage licence, but got a receipt only for the official fee at the time of ₦15,000 (US$11).

Feeling pressed to respond, the Federal Ministry of Interior declared it would take several measures to end the corruption. It asked the registry to stop the physical registration of marriages and revert to the online portal created for that purpose. Staff members were sacked and the highest official, the Registrar, was replaced and redeployed.

Newly appointed staff members now also ask for bribes

Years later, however, on a return visit, it is clear that these measures have not helped. Couples desiring to marry are once again queueing for physical registration in front of staff members – including newly appointed ones – who charge above the official rate and demand their share in bribes. The special disciplinary panel that oversaw the dismissals had also been tasked to make recommendations, but what happened to those recommendations is a mystery: they were never made public.

White and buttercream

On March 28, 2024, the scene at the Ikoyi registry is, as always, endearing at first. Hundreds of people gather between canopies and makeshift photography studios; sunbeams illuminate the flowing, white and buttercream wedding gowns as couples stroll gorgeously through the expansive compound. Soon-to-be husbands are drenched with sweat under their blue and black suits. Some throw their customary outfits on their arms as they wrestle with their brides into or out of the registry rooms. Some step into photo studios or wait out another couple as they leave the registry’s picture-perfect green signage.

Styrofoam packets and plastic bottles obstruct movement on the threshold

A crowd of mostly old men and women in ceremonial dresses, and kids, sit in the corners of the tiled, dusty compound, while soon-to-be brides struggle to fit into their newly sewn dresses. Plastic plates of jollof rice dangle in the hands of bridal party guests, as styrofoam packets and plastic bottles obstruct movement on the threshold of the crowded room opposite the registry’s main entrance, manned by a sweaty officer of the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps. He, too, asks for compensation in exchange for letting people through.


For the second time since 2021, I present myself as a bachelor intending to marry at the building’s administrative office, an operations room where staff in casual dress shove piles of paperwork around. They speak in hushed tones to different couples wanting one favour or the other. After a while, I am attended by a female staff member, who goes by the name Habibat. She walks me to a window on the left side of the dim room, away from the crowd. “Give me your phone number. I will send you details of what you need and the forms you need to fill out,” she says with authority. “Do you have your bachelor's and birth certificate?” When I respond in the negative, Habibat repeats that I must fill out the form she will send to me. 

Shortly afterwards, I receive a message requesting my full name, the one of my non-existent fiancée, the names of our local government authorities, and our fathers’ occupations. I must also send in passport photographs and birth certificates for myself and my spouse-to-be, plus IDs, the message says.

After I fill out the form and send passport pictures to Habibat’s WhatsApp number, we meet at the window again. She motions me inside the dim room, where I now meet Abiodun, a well-built, tall, dark man in jeans and dark t-shirt. He sits on a blue plastic chair with white pieces of paper on his lap. At intervals, he puts these into printing machines and photocopiers that look like they haven’t been cleaned in months. After a few formal pleasantries, we discuss getting the required bachelorhood documents and birth certificates. Abiodun tells me the cost of the four documents is ₦8,000 (US$6). He does not check if I am registered as a bachelor anywhere on the system; apparently, I, married as I am, can get the certificate – as long as I pay.

The bribe costs have gone up

I try to haggle down the cost of the documents, but Abiodun remains unmoved. When I walk away, saying that I want to “call my fiancée to transfer the cash”, I hear Habibat's voice call after me. “You’re only paying Abiodun for the birth certificates, which cost ₦2,000 (US$1.50) apiece and ₦4,000 (US$3) in total,” she offers, exhaling sharply. “The cost of the bachelorhood documents will be deducted from the registration fee.” I ask how much the registration fee for marriage is. “₦55,000 (US$39),” she responds. The official fee, listed on the registry’s website, is ₦27,000. When I was here in 2021, I was asked for ₦25,000 when the official fee was ₦15,000. Clearly, even the bribe costs have gone up.

Habibat then asks me on which date I intend to get married. “August. But I need to sort out everything before then,” I tell her, and we walk back to the dim room where Abiodun waits. “When are you going to pay the marriage fee?” Habibat asks as we are walking, as if she wants to sort this out before we reach her colleague on the blue plastic chair. I tell her I want to sort out the documents first, and that I will pay the full fee in August. She nods, as if she understands my misgivings. Back at Abiodun, she witnesses me paying him the ₦4,000 (US$3) for the birth certificates, then strides back to the dingy administrative room where she came from.

Abiodun gives me two forms to fill out for my fiancée and myself. When I am done, he says, “That’s all. She” – meaning Habibat – “will reach out to you.” He collects the forms and the money from me. He does not look up anymore, clearly not expecting me to sign anywhere or be provided with copies of mine and my fiancée’s signatures. I can go.

When I call Habibat on the phone number she gave me, to make sure all is in motion, she tells me that she will reach out to me when the birth certificates are ready.

Not even a week later, on April 4, Habibat sends me the two birth certificates. Both documents carry a stamp of the commissioner of oaths, the Lagos judiciary stamp, and that of the state’s High Court in Igbosere. A follow-up message says that I must now send our IDs and evidence of payment of the elevated marriage registration fee. The bank details in the message are of her private account.

Massive and blatant

Asked about his own experiences, recently married lawyer Malach Odo says that extortion was part of the process both in his case and at the wedding he attended of a Nigerian friend and his foreign partner. It had been massive and blatant, he adds, in the case of his friends, the half-foreign couple. “Unfortunately, once the registry officials see an intending couple of which one is a foreigner, their gluttony shoots up because they believe they have more money to spare. No foreigner that visits or weds at Ikoyi Registry will not want to flee immediately. It is a huge dent in the image of this country.”

It is a huge dent in the image of this country

Odo feels that the process could be improved if the political will was there. “Full digitalisation and compliance with the system will help a lot, especially combined with strong oversight duties by the managers.” He mentions the example of the Lagos state judiciary, which has, he says, adopted technology for the filing of cases, significantly curbing cases of bribery and corruption in this way. “Litigants simply file their cases online and upload their documents with evidence of payment. Their cases are then assigned to various courts and judges without them having to set foot in the court's registry.”  He cautions, however, that the process should also be simple. “As long as it is made difficult, or does not work, this will make applicants feel frustrated, and force them to go to officials for ‘help’.”


As evidence that the political will to implement such a process is simply not there in the case of the Ikoyi registry, Odo points at the fact that the building has no notices pasted on the walls of halls, offices, and premises, saying that giving cash to any official is a crime. Nor are there any phone numbers or emails displayed for the lodging of complaints. “The ministry should (also) put a task force on the ground to ensure that couples are not harassed or blackmailed,” he adds, again noting that such steps are not being taken. “My assumption is that (such steps are absent because) everybody from top to bottom in that registry are partakers. The fact that registrar replacements have continued the same path (also adds to the suspicion) that the higher-ups in the ministry are aware of these things and probably encouraging it.”

“The higher-ups are probably encouraging it”

Senior research and policy analyst Vahyala Kwaga of the BudgIT Foundation (a civic-tech organisation focused on open governance and institutional reforms) says that according to Civil Service rules, any redirection of public funds into private accounts of officials, like in my liaison staff member Habibat’s apparent practice, should come with an immediate suspension “at the very least.” 

“But government officials continue to perpetuate inefficient and illegal means of service delivery primarily because there are no consequences for inefficiency in the civil service,” he says. “In fact, it is difficult to fire a civil servant. This speaks to a broader problem of a lack of adequate oversight from within ministries, departments, and agencies, and a lack of oversight from the outside, for example from the head of service of the national federal government.”

Kwaga agrees with Odo on the issue of digitalisation, saying, “One of the reasons that corruption thrives in Nigeria is because there is too much unnecessary human contact. Certain services that can be delivered without contact require citizens to come to a government office, which is a complete waste of time, as citizens spend hours there for something that could have been handled by email.” In the case of the Ikoyi Registry, a digital portal had been installed, but staff had simply rendered it dysfunctional. (In another case investigated by ZAM in Uganda, digitalised processes proved vulnerable to manipulation by those who had access.)

Systemic issues

Kwaga also feels, however, that there is more to this type of corruption than a handful of lowly, dishonest office functionaries. “It is hard to believe that the officials within the ministry are completely unaware of these activities. A proper investigation should be carried out to determine if the rumours are true and then to discover the direction in which money flows. It also speaks to the deeper problem of a lack of consequences for what is agreed to be ‘bad’ behaviour … Corruption, fraud, and graft are social problems. They are also symptoms of broader systemic issues.” He adds, “Since the return of democracy in Nigeria, successive governments have made attempts to eradicate corruption, but the results have been dismal at worst or ambiguous at best. One would be at a loss if they were asked if Nigeria was less corrupt today than it was 15 years ago.”

Ikoyi is “the juiciest registry in Nigeria”

A senior officer at the Ministry of Interior who spoke on condition of anonymity, commented that he doesn’t see how anything can be done about the recurring complaints of extortion and corruption at the Ikoyi registry. “That is the juiciest registry in Nigeria and the monthly turnover is massive. Don’t you see the population there? It’s a cash cow. Even if they keep changing the registrars and managers, it will still be the same, because they must make returns to the bosses at the top. Even if there would be a presidential order to stop the practices, when the president’s tenure ends, the civil servants will still return to their old ways.”

A declined interview

When asked to react to the findings of this investigation, Ikoyi chief marriage registrar Kisali Bolaji invites me to his office. However, once I arrive there on April 8, he first asks for all the questions – inter alia on allegations that top officials of the national Ministry gave the registry a financial quota that must be sent monthly – to be read to him first. He then declines to grant the interview and says a letter to request it should be written to his supervisor, the permanent secretary and principal registrar of marriages in Nigeria at the Ministry of Interior in the capital, Abuja.

Kasali Bolaji, the registrar at the Federal Marriage Registry in Ikoyi, Lagos, welcomed reporters to his office, but later declined to respond to questions that were read to him. Image by Taiwo Adebulu.

A letter from ZAM requesting the interview is  met with an acknowledgement, but despite several follow-up calls and messages, neither the ministry nor the registrar respond. A list of questions sent to the ministry by email bounces back.


Call to Action

ZAM believes that knowledge should be shared globally. Only by bringing multiple perspectives on a story is it possible to make accurate and informed decisions.
And that’s why we don’t have a paywall in place on our site. But we can’t do this without your valuable financial support. Donate to ZAM today and keep our platform free for all. Donate here.