Why is Adultery Legal in Nigeria? by Seun Lari-Williams

In Lagos, it’s an offence to not wear a helmet to protect you while riding on an Okada. It’s an offence to even ride on an Okada in many places now. Hawking and even begging on the streets are offences in some parts of the country. And believe it or not, calling someone a witch is an offence in our criminal law. But the other day, when one “Mumuni” reported to the Police in Lagos that he has evidence to show that “Tugbaski” and his wife were caught in the act, the police laughed hard and told him adultery is not a police matter.

The same thing happened to “Iya Basira.”

Mumuni’s plan now is to put something the Yorubas call “magun” on his new wife. I don’t know what it is, please use Google.

Iya Basira has just bought herself one gallon of acid. It’s unmentionable

what she plans to use it for.

Why? Well, when the law doesn’t offer any help, people resort to self-help.

I guess it’s now settled that many adults enjoy adultery more than infants enjoy infancy.

Male Lagosians know, that if they cannot stay married to just one woman, they can contract an Islamic marriage or a customary marriage as opposed to a marriage under the Marriage Act.

Many women who are married under the Act did so in order to be protected by the Law, even though it may be true that a man who really wants to cheat on his wife, will do so in spite of any law. But it is also true that there is always that category of people who don’t commit offenses because of their fear of serving jail time if caught.

As it is, the worse that can happen under the law is that proof of adultery will be considered as a mere factor in determining if the court can grant a divorce. Proof of adultery is not even in itself sufficient ground for divorce under Nigerian law.

By the way, the divorce rate has been on the increase in the South and if you sit in a family Court for a few weeks, you would find that the most popular reason for this increase is unfaithfulness from one of the spouses.

If you don’t already know, adultery in two words is extramarital sex. Historically, adultery was considered a very serious offence and it incurred penalties including capital punishment, mutilation or torture. In many countries, adultery is still a criminal offense. However, the United Nations and many Non-Governmental agencies have been fighting to eliminate laws that discriminate against women or are discriminatory to them in terms of implementation or impact. They consider adultery laws as one of these laws. The United Nations Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice states that: “Adultery as a criminal offence violates women’s human rights”.

These campaigners argue that adultery laws are outdated, sexist and an infringement of human rights. They argue that the courts should not be regulating consensual adult behaviour that occurs in private.

Some go further to state that adultery is beyond the scope of the criminal law. It has frequently been suggested that certain crimes are in reality “victimless” and that all statutes defining such offenses should be repealed or at least substantially restricted. For example, public drunkenness; vagrancy; various sexual acts usually involving consenting adults (fornication, adultery, bigamy, incest, sodomy, homosexuality, and prostitution); obscenity; pornography; drug offenses; abortion; gambling; and juvenile status offenses (offenses that would not be criminal if the actor were an adult).

To these people, I ask: How does the commission of the act of adultery lack victims?

Who does not know that knowing one’s spouse is involved in an extra-marital affair has strong emotional and psychological impact? Even the law allows you plead the defense of provocation in a murder trial if you killed someone who you caught in bed with your spouse. Though, it’s only a partial defense but this shows that the law understands.

Adultery affects a lot of people, and the emotional and psychological impact on the people involved can be devastating. Many researchers have proven that children from broken families are less likely to become successful in life, as well as having psychological issues of their own.

You will be shocked how many murders, how many broken homes, how many loyal partners get sexually transmitted diseases for no just reason because of adultery.

I am not saying that if it is criminalized everything will be okay. I am saying if it is, there’ll be people who will stay away from committing adultery because they know that they can end up in jail if they are caught and found guilty.

I am not advocating capital punishment, mutilation or torture. But there need be some punishment or something. You know, even one year in a Nigerian prison will do. Or maybe even just a fine. After all, many are behind bars, and for many years awaiting trial for “being accused” of stealing a few tubers of yam.

The law is already magnanimous enough. The standard of the law is way below morality and religion when it comes to issues such as these. The law provides that if you do not want to be loyal, you can get a divorce or better yet don’t get married at all. Go and sleep around if that is the life you want. Do not hurt innocent people and say adultery is a victimless crime so it should not be a crime at all.

In several Muslim countries and even in the US, adultery is still considered a criminal offence. That’s right, the US! In fact, almost half of all US states still consider adultery a criminal offence. Thankfully, the northern states in Nigeria still consider the commission of adultery a criminal offence. However, the provision in the Penal Code; which applies only in Northern Nigeria, applies only where the adultery is committed by a person subject to a system of customary law under which adultery constitutes a crime.

Not criminalizing adultery can also be what violates women’s human rights. Not criminalizing adultery can actually also be what is sexist. How many women campaigned for the decriminalization of bigamy in Lagos?

It was the men who said things like “Bigamy doesn’t reflect the peculiar nature of the Nigerian society” and “Bigamy was introduced into the Nigerian law books by the British during the colonization of the country and Nigeria is not ripe to fully enforce it.”

I believe that unpunished adultery indicates that it is fine. It indicates that the State doesn’t attach much to the sanctity of marriage. It indicates that the only concern of the State is to issue marriage certificates and that’s the end of the matter.

I believe society should express its distaste for cheating and harming others psychologically.

Family, they say is the basic unit of the society and our Social Studies teachers have emphasized its importance in a nation. The lawmakers should as well. It’s true that corrupt leaders are destroying our nation but wait until you hear what homes do to this nation. The Nigerian media concern themselves more with political news, corrupt leaders and a broken nation. It’s not a bad thing. Politics is important. But a broken nation is a reflection of several broken families, isn’t it?

Criminalize adultery. It will help.

“If you cannot feed a thousand people, feed one” – Mother Theresa


Seun Lari-Williams is a Graduate of the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos. He was the President of the Law Students Society in the 2012/2013 Academic Session.



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