Is the Return of the Bride-Price a Requisite for the Dissolution of a Customary Marriage?


By HW Emmanuel J. Samaila

It is a common practice among several ethnic groups in Nigeria that a wife seeking a non-judicial divorce must return the sum paid as her bride-price. This act, coupled with the return of other recoverable items, evidences the termination of the union. In fact, the return of the sum paid as bride price was made a statutory requirement in some States in Nigeria. There is a plethora of decision where this customary practice has been upheld. No regard appears to be given to factors such as the duration of the marriage, the sufferings and maltreatment the woman must have endured, the children she gave birth to and nurtured, the domestic and other necessary services she rendered in the house while the marriage lasted, when making the order for return.

In Okwueze v. Okwueze[1], the trial Court dissolved the parties’ marriage, ordered the petitioner to return the bride-price to the respondent to whom the custody of the parties’ children was granted. This is one among many cases in which a woman was ordered to return the bride-price on the ground that she is the one who sought the dissolution of the already broken and loveless union. In fact, in Eze v. Omeke[2], the Court held that: “Any order dissolving any customary law marriage without a subsequent order for the return or acceptance of the bride-price or dowry is meaningless.” However, the requirement for the return of the total sum paid as bride-price is not a common feature in all ethnic groups.

In Tanko v. Tanko[3], the petitioner sought for the dissolution of a marriage contracted under Gbagyi custom. It was established that if the man demands for the return of the sum he paid as dowry, the value will be diminished by the number of children the couple have. In other words, there may be nothing left after such calculations are made.

In Auta v. Auta[4], the parties got married under Gbagyi custom. The union lasted for a few months before the institution of the action for its dissolution. Given the circumstances and peculiarities of the case, the petitioner was ordered to return the bride-price to the respondent.

In Bawa v. Bawa[5], the Court, after ordering a return of the bride-price and some incidental pre-marital expenses, stated that: “Marriage is a sacred institution which must be respected by all and no one should be encouraged to use it merely for the purpose of obtaining certain favours or as a means of enriching oneself.”

In the case of Istifanus v. Istifanus[6], the respondent demanded the return of his bride-price from his wife, the petitioner, under Adara custom. The marriage was dissolved but no order was made for the return of the bride-price. The Court held thus:

“No order is made for the refund of the dowry to the respondent because the child they have; the unquantifiable labour of the petitioner in the respondent’s house and the conjugal bliss enjoyed by the respondent are all deemed under Adara custom to have diminished the sum paid as dowry.”

In Ibrahim v. Ibrahim[7], the respondent demanded the return of the sum of N50,000 he paid as bride price to the petitioner’s family in accordance with Gbagyi custom. The petitioner stated that she is willing to return the bride price to the respondent if he can restore her body to its status when he married her and also reimburse the expenses she incurred to cater for him and his daughter, her stepchild, for over a year before they got married and thereafter. The Court dissolved the marriage but held that the respondent is not entitled to the return of the sum he paid as bride-price. The rationale of the Court’s decision is quoted in extenso for obvious reasons:

“There is no doubt that from the evidence of the respondent that under Gbagyi custom, a wife who seeks divorce is bound to return the dowry to her husband. However, this Court is enjoined and bound to consider all customary laws in the light of natural justice, equity and good conscience and to ensure that a custom in issue is not incompatible either directly or by necessary implication with any written law in existence. See section 24(a) Customary Courts Law 2001 (as amended).

It is noteworthy that the fact that the petitioner (PW1) took care of the respondent’s daughter for almost one year before she married him was neither impeached nor contradicted by the respondent. Similarly, the evidence of PW1 that she provided for the respondent and his daughter after she married him was neither impeached nor contradicted by the respondent. Likewise, PW1’s assertion that the respondent was unemployed when she married him, hence her bearing the burden of taking care of the family, was equally neither impeached nor contradicted by the respondent.

In addition, the presumption that the petitioner was loyal, obedient and respectful to the respondent and that she discharged her matrimonial duties to the respondent during the pendency of their marriage was not even remotely rebutted by the respondent. Also, the presumption that the petitioner faithfully and dutifully performed and fulfilled her role as a mother to the respondent’s daughter and as a wife to the respondent was not in any way rebutted by the respondent either expressly or impliedly. How then will the petitioner’s noble and worthy services dutifully and faithfully performed for the respondent ever be compensated now that their marriage has come to an end?”

The Court proceeded to declare the Gbagyi marriage custom requiring the return of the bride-price after a divorce as repugnant. The Court added that the laws of the land “recognizes, upholds and protects the right of women to be accorded with all the dignity they deserve as human persons and not to be treated as one of the chattels of a man as it is practiced in some cultures.” The order for the return of the bride-price wittingly and unwittingly entrenches the long-held belief and practice that a wife in a customary marriage is one of the chattels acquired by the man and for which he reserves the exclusive right to demand and receive the bride-price if she dares to seek an end to the matrimony, no matter her reason for doing so.

The role of the Court is not just to determine what the applicable custom between parties is but to also ensure that all customs are examined within certain established parameters and guiding principles before they are applied. The Court ought to examine each custom and ensure that it passes the repugnancy test before applying it in resolving disputes between parties rather than slavishly applying it because a group of people agree to be bound by it. Unfortunately, no matter what the Court decides, even when it declares a customary practice repugnant, the locals will maintain and sustain their practices until and unless an aggrieved member of the community opts to seek judicial intervention.

The cases considered here are indicative that it is fallacious to presume that the practice of making a demand for and return of the bride-price as a condition precedent to the determination of a customary marriage is sacrosanct in every custom and in every case. Evidence ought to be taken to discover the peculiarities of each custom and the existence or otherwise of factors which may operate to diminish the sum returnable as the bride-price, if any. Where such factors are not shown to exist in a people’s custom, the Court is duty bound to invoke its inherent powers to consider factors such as the duration of the marriage, the presence of children and the necessary, inherent and selfless services rendered by the woman during the pendency of the matrimony in making its orders.

The Customary Court or any Court vested with jurisdiction over customary law matter ought to ensure that the custom it applies is in tune with the rules of natural justice and not in violation or discriminatory of any constitutionally guaranteed right. It is with such a mind-set that the Courts will be able to look deeper into the circumstances and peculiarities of each custom and the facts of each case and make the necessary, humane and just orders.

HW Emmanuel J. Samaila, Upper Customary Court, Kaduna State. Email:


[1] (1989) 3 NWLR (Pt.109) 321

[2] (1977) 1 ANSLR 136 (as cited by E.I. Nwogugu in his book, Family Law in Nigeria at page 218)

[3] CCKJ/CV/92/2010 Salomi Tanko v. Tanko Ciroma (unreported) delivered on 7th February, 2011. See also (Coram: HW Emmanuel J. Samaila – Judge and Mr Luka Magaji & Mr Inda Tache – Members)

[4] CCKJ/CV/7/2010: Hannatu Auta v. Auta Wakili (unreported) delivered on 7th June, 2010. See also (Coram: HW Emmanuel J. Samaila – Judge and Mr Luka Magaji & Mr Inda Tache – Members)

[5] CCKJ/CV/14/2011: Tabitha Bawa v. Bawa Waziri (unreported) delivered on 24th June, 2011 (Coram: HW Emmanuel J. Samaila – Judge and Mr Luka Magaji & Mr Inda Tache – Members)

[6] CCKM/CV/31/2013 Victoria Istifanus v. Istifanus Yamusa (unreported) delivered on 17th May, 2013. See also CCKM/CV/82/2014 Angelina Ishaya v. Ishaya Dodo (unreported) delivered on 24th November, 2014; CCKM/CV/28/2014 Maryam Nicodemus v. Nicodemus Auta (unreported) delivered on 27th March, 2014 and CCKM/CV/60/2014 Blessing Anuagah v. Anuagah Barthlomew (unreported) delivered on 10th September, 2014 (Coram: HW Emmanuel J. Samaila – Judge and Mr Ezekiel Mamman – Member)

[7] CCST/CV/2/2017 Victoria Ibrahim v. Ibrahim Tanko (unreported) delivered 23rd March, 2017 (Coram: HW Emmanuel J. Samaila – Judge and Mr Yerima Musa & Mr Gaiya Damina – Members)

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