By Olumide Babalola
On Monday 13th day of December 2021, many families in Nigeria avoidably yet explicably entered panic mode when a disturbing message was circulated on social media to the effect that the Federal High Court had nullified all marriages conducted by the Federal marriage registry, Ikoyi among other news.
I deliberately refused to comment on the news which was subsequently reported by some major news outlet without first reading the certified true copy of the said interesting judgment.
Now, having read the 15-paged judgment handed-down by Hon. Justice D.E. Osiagor sitting in Lagos State on the 8th day of December 2021, it has become clear that, not only were the news report misleading, the decision itself deserves some academic and practical probity.
In the following paragraphs, I will respectfully express my brief opinions on some of the issues arising from the judgment as follows:
Re-litigation of issues
Although the court brushed aside the defendants’ objection based on re-litigation of issues pursuant to the earlier decision of the same court in Suit No. FHC/L/870/2002 Haastrup v Eti-Osa Local Government in 2004, the learned judge went ahead to “re-decide” the same issue – an assignment earlier rejected by Hon. Justice (Prof.) C.A. Obiozor in an earlier similar action in FHC/L/870/2002 brought by same Plaintiffs in 2017.
For the avoidance of doubt, in Haastrup’s case, the only issue that the court per Olomojobi, J. (Rtd) decided was whether local government authorities can contract and register marriages to the exclusion of other authorities. In this instant case, Justice Osiagor again “resolved” the same issue (at page 13) that: “Therefore, question 1 is resolved in the negative as the conducting of marriages is not an exclusive duty of plaintiff”
Again on the issue of registration of marriages which had been addressed in Haastrup’s case and also by Justice Obiozor in Egor Local Government and Ors v Hon. Minister of Interior, Justice Osiagor also “answered” the question in the affirmative that registration of marriages is constitutionally donated to local governments exclusively.
On whether the Hon. Minister of Interior can issue licences to contract marriages, the court again regurgitated the earlier decisions of Olomojobi, J. (rtd) and Obiozor, J in earlier decisions. In spite of all these re-arguments of issues, it is however surprising that the court held that this case is not a re-litigation of earlier decisions.
Not only must there be an end to litigation, nowhere in Olomojobi’s judgment did the court confer the power to conduct marriages on local government, hence one wonders what part of the judgment this current decision stands on.
Interpretation of judgments of court of coordinate jurisdiction
My Lord, Justice Osiagor noted at page 8 of the judgment that, ‘This present suit therefore in the main seeks the interpretation of these two decisions…” i.e the decisions of Olomojobi, J.(rtd) and Obiozor, J. This raises the question as to whether his lordship can validly interpret the decisions of courts of coordinate jurisdiction?
In Race Auto Supply Company Limited v Alhaja Faost Akib (2006) LPELR – 2937(SC), the apex court emphatically held that: “a judgment of a court of law cannot be subjected to interpretation by a court of coordinated jurisdiction.” See also the decision in Oliver Emezie v Ogugua Linus (2016) LPELR – 40514(CA), Inc. Trustees of Nigerian Governors Forum v Riok Nigeria Limited (2018) LPELR -44915(CA).
Not only does Hon. Justice Osiagor lack the jurisdiction to interpret the earlier judgments of Olomojobi, J. (Rtd) and Obiozor, J., the decisions so interpreted did not strip the Federal marriage registries in Ikoyi and Abuja of the powers to conduct marriages in any particular local government.
Enforcement of issue against the victorious party
My Lord Justice Osiagor noted at page 10 of the judgment that Obiozor, J. had once found a similar suit filed by the Plaintiffs as an abuse of court process but in the instant suit, My Lord rather found that this suit seeks to enforce the decision in Olomojobi’s decision.
It is worthy of note that, Haastrup’s judgment delivered by Olomojobi, J (Rtd),
merely resolved the position of the law and this was even in the Defendants’ favour. What Hon. Justice Osiagor has done in this case, is to enforce a declaratory judgment in favour of parties that were not even part of the initial suit and at the same time, against the victorious party in the suit sought to be enforced.
For the avoidance of doubt, Olomojobi, J (Rtd) concluded that, the bodies that can contract marriages are:
“(1) Registrars in places designated as an office
(2) Recognised ministers of religion in a licenced place of worship
(3) Marriages contracted under the licence granted by the Director-General, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Director General of a State Government in charge of marriages, any officer in the aforestated ministries and of course, the minister of Internal Affairs”
From the decision above, one then wonders, how the current judgment arrived at its decision restricting the Federal Government to Ikoyi and Abuja marriage registries. With respect to the learned judge, the current decision is a far cry from the decision it seeks to enforce especially since the current judgment appears to have reviewed the decision of Olomojobi, J.(Rtd) beyond its boundaries to the detriment of the defendants.
Confusion of registration of marriages with conduct of same
Contrary to the decision in Haastrup’s case where the court noted that conduct of marriages is an exclusive matter as opposed to registration which is a residual matter. The court failed to realise that, conduct of marriages (by the Federal government) will always precede its registration (by the local governments).
This misconception, with respect to the learned judge became evident at pages 12 and 13 that: “For emphasis, the plan and pursuit by the 1st Defendant through the 3rd Defendant to centralise the conduct, contracting and registration of marriages with the 1st Defendant as its exclusive repository undermines the 1999 Constitution … the 1st Defendant should remain in its lane….”
The learned judge clearly misconceives the marriage registries set up by the Federal Government as vehicles for registration of marriages rather than places for conduct of marriages which is an exclusive matter under the Constitution. In any case, since this issue had already been decided by Justice Olomojobi (Rtd), my Lord, Osiagor, J. needed not venture into same again as extensively done from page 11 to 13 of the judgment.
Reading through this decision, rather than enforce the unequivocal decision in Haastrup’s case, this judgment has further opened up more talking points even much more than the previous decisions. This is neither good for our jurisprudence nor the institution of marriage in Nigeria and it is hoped that our country can find closure on the issues as graciously suggested by the My Lord Osiagor, J. at page 13 that: “….this is without prejudice to having stakeholders meetings with the District Registrars in harmonizing, standardizing the precepts of marriage under the Act like compliance with the Marriage Act’s Form E…”