The Christian Association of Nigeria has taken a swipe at the Federal Government over its insistence that places of worship must obtain licences from the Ministry of Interior before conducting weddings under the Marriage Act.
CAN’s Legal Adviser, Samuel Kwamkur, in an interview with one of our correspondents on Tuesday, said the Federal Government had an ulterior motive for insisting that churches must obtain licences from the Interior ministry.
CAN stated this just as the Ministry of Interior told The PUNCH that statutory weddings conducted in places of worship that were not licensed by it were not legal.
The Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Interior, Georgina Ehuriah, had at a stakeholders’ conference on Wednesday last week, said that only 314 worship centres in the country were licensed to contract statutory weddings.
Ehuriah had stated, “Presently, only about 4,689 licensed places of worship in Nigeria have updated their records with the Ministry of Interior of which only 314 have renewed their licences to conduct statutory marriages.
“The implication of this is that marriages conducted in unlicensed places of worship are not in line with the Marriage Act and cannot serve legal purposes when the need arises and such unlicensed places of worship are operating contrary to Section 6(1) of the Marriage Act.”
She had said arrangements were going on to give couples whose certificates were not issued in line with the Act the opportunity to bring them to conformity.
The data obtained on Sunday by one of our correspondent from the website of the Ministry of Interior indicated that worship centres in Adamawa, Bauchi, Benue, Borno, Ekiti, Gombe, Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Niger, Sokoto, Taraba, Yobe and Zamfara states did not have the legal authority to conduct wedding under the Marriage Act.
It was also observed that no mosque was among the worship centres licensed by the ministry to conduct weddings.
The interior ministry spokesman, Mohammed Manga, explained to one of our correspondents, why no mosque was on the list of worship centres that had licences to conduct weddings.
According to Manga, the monogamous marriage, which is statutory, is regulated by the Marriage Act, 2004, while polygamous marriage preferred by Muslims falls under the Customary and Islamic Laws.
He stated, “Statutory marriage is an item under the exclusive list of the Federal Government, therefore no state House of Assembly can legislate on marriage except those contracted under the Customary Law or Islamic Law.
“A statutory marriage is defined as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. Thus, the procedure, the role and functions of key players in the conduct of statutory marriages are purely constitutional and guided by relevant laws i.e. Marriage Act Cap M6 of the Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, as amended,” the spokesman explained.
Worship centre branches can’t use headquarters’ licence – FG
He also said a licence obtained by the headquarters of a church was not applicable to its branches nationwide, explaining that the approval given to a place of worship does not cover its branches.
He added that all branches must obtain their licences on merit but on the recommendations of their headquarters.
He said, “Although the celebration of monogamous marriage in Nigeria is regulated by the Marriage Act, such marriage is usually referred to as statutory marriage.
The ministry spokesman further referred one of our correspondents to a note on the website, www.ecitibiz.interior.gov.ng which stated, “If your place of worship is not listed, then the place of worship is not approved and licensed to conduct legal marriages in Nigeria under the Marriage Act CAP M6 LFN (2004) of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
The website also admonished intending couples to ensure that their place of worship was approved and licensed by the Ministry of Interior to conduct marriage.
Directive on marriage licence unacceptable –CAN
However, the Legal Adviser of CAN, Kwamkur, who said he was aware that the relevant laws provided for churches to contract marriages, expressed concerns over the directive that churches must renew their licences.
He argued that churches had been contracting marriages without any issues, noting that the new directive looked suspicious, adding that there might be an ulterior motive behind it.
Kwamkur said, “I think there is an ulterior motive towards that. In any case, the registration by churches is done once and it is done by their headquarters. So, the issue of going to renew their licences to contract marriages is very strange, I don’t think it is something the Church can accept. If not for the purposes of travelling, I wonder why they are raising the issue.
“As a Church, we cannot be bound by what they are saying. We have our registration, guidelines and records as churches and we operate independently, so no government can coerce us. The validity of marriage should be beyond the validity of certificate.”
Asked if CAN would challenge the ministry’s directive, Kwamkur said the Christian body was still studying the situation and would respond at the appropriate time.
He noted, “Why are they interested in Christianity? What about Islam? Where are they (mosques) collecting their certificates? Where are they registering their marriages? I don’t know why the government is focusing on these issues instead of developing the country. I think it is diversionary to cover for their lack of performance.”
It negates principle of federalism – SAN
On his part, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr Babatunde Fashanu, said it was an anomaly that the Federal Government, rather than the states which are closer to the people, was in charge of English-type marriage.
The SAN said, “When you are talking about the English style of marriage, either in church or marriage registry, that is under the Exclusive Legislative list for the Federal Government. But when you are talking of Islamic or customary marriages, the state can also handle those ones. That is the law, but my own opinion is that it negates the principle of federalism.
Another Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr Norrison Quakers, said it was time that marriage be moved from the exclusive legislative list to the residual legislative list to give the states total control.
But, a Catholic Priest and former Director (Church and Society), Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Rev. Fr. Evaristus Bassey, said, “Actually in the Catholic Church the code of canon law directs that marriages should follow the laid down laws of the land. Even the code recognises that not all churches are registered for marriages. I think at some point, the government got confused and lax and wasn’t issuing licences or printing the tripartite certificates that churches use as well.”
Also, an Islamic scholar and lecturer at the Al-Hikma University, Ilorin, Ustaz Sanusi Lafiaji, said the government was overstepping its boundaries by seeking to regulate how weddings were conducted in worship centres.