Recently, the media went abuzz with the news that a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos had declared marriages conducted at Federal Marriage registries all over the country, including the popular Ikoyi Marriage Registry, invalid and void. The Court presided over by Justice D. E. Osiagor, reportedly held that only the local government marriage registries were empowered to conduct marriages by the provisions of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).The Court was reported to have consequently ordered the closure of all Federal Marriage registries opened by the Federal Ministry of Interior, including that of Ikoyi with immediate effect.
This sent shockwaves across the country, particularly for hundreds of couples who had wedded at the popular Ikoyi Marriage Registry, both in past and recent times, including those set to wed at the said registry. However, within less than 24 hours, the Federal Ministry of Interior released a statement declaring that all marriages conducted by the Ikoyi Marriage Registry were valid and legal. The Ministry’s Permanent Secretary/Principal Registrar of Marriages, Dr. Shuaib Belgore, in the statement, stated that there were existing court judgments empowering the Federal Government, through the Ministry of Interior, to conduct marriages by virtue of Legal Notices issued pursuant to the Marriage Act.
There has been some confusion following the back-and-forth exchanges, and a great number of people might be wondering which of the two conflicting positions is correct. This article summarises and analyses the recent decision of the Honourable Justice Osiagor and provides some needed legal clarification in respect of the conflicting situation.
The Plaintiffs, four (4) local governments across Nigeria, instituted a suit at the Federal High Court in Lagos against the Federal Minister of Interior and two (2) others, praying amongst other reliefs, for the court to restrain the Ministry of Interior and its agents from contracting, celebrating, and registering marriages as well as issuing marriage certificates for marriages contracted or celebrated by the plaintiffs’ registrars. The Plaintiffs argued that by virtue of Section 7(5) and Paragraph 1(1), Fourth Schedule to the 1999 Constitution and Section 30(1) of the Marriage Act, registration of marriages under the Marriage Act was under the exclusive reserve of the Registrars of the marriage districts (i. e., local government councils) in Nigeria. They further argued that the Federal Ministry of Interior and its agents could only issue or grant licences to authorise intending parties to marry, contract or celebrate marriages, and not actually celebrate or register such marriages.
The Plaintiffs referred to an earlier Federal High Court judgment (coram: Justice Oyindamola Olomojobi) delivered in 2004 (“the 2004 judgment”), reportedly restraining the Federal Ministry of Interior and its agents from contracting, celebrating, and registering marriages as well as issuing marriage certificates for marriages contracted or celebrated by the Plaintiffs’ registrars. In view of this, they urged the Court to direct the Federal Ministry of Interior to return all marriage certificates issued within the respective Plaintiff’s local government councils and refund all marriage registration fees paid by couples to Plaintiffs’ Marriage Registries for re-issuance of marriage certificates to the affected couples, subsequent to the 2004 judgment. The Plaintiffs further urged the Court to order the sealing off of all the Federal Marriage Registries established by the Federal Ministry of Interior in the Plaintiffs’ Local Government Areas across the country or, alternatively, restrict the Federal Ministry of Interior to only issue licences to places of public worship for celebration of marriage.
In their defence, the Defendants argued that no law in Nigeria bestowed exclusive authority to contract and celebrate marriages on the Plaintiffs, as every marriage contracted and celebrated in any licensed place or district in Nigeria, whether by the Plaintiffs’ Registrars or by the Federal Minister of Interior or his delegates, was valid according to Section 6 of the Marriage Act. The 3rd Defendant further argued that the present suit was an abuse of court process and was caught up by res judicata, as its subject matter had already been decided by the erstwhile 2004 judgment. The Plaintiffs argued that this submission was wrong, as their present suit simply sought injunctive reliefs which were consequential to the declaratory orders granted in the 2004 judgment.
The Court held that the present suit was not a re-litigation of the old issues or causes of action decided by the 2004 judgment, as argued by the Defendants. The Court then traced the present suit to the public-private partnership agreement between the Federal Ministry of Interior and the 3rd Defendant, Anchor Dataware Solutions Ltd, for the primary purpose of establishing marriage registries across the states. The Court noted that by this agreement, the first Defendant (Federal Ministry of Interior) had literally outlawed any marriage conducted by the Local Government (Marriage District) Registrars.
The Court further noted the Federal Ministry of Interior’s directives to the Nigeria Immigration Service to make federal marriage certificate an inclusive eligibility requirement for all married applicants for international passports, and to the marriage registries in the local governments to obtain approval from federal marriage registries to allow them to continue conducting marriages in accordance with the Marriage Act. The Court condemned this, stating that the attempt by the Federal Ministry of Interior to centralise the conduct, contracting and registering of marriages as its exclusive repository was illegal, as it undermined the 1999 Constitution, flouted the 2004 judgment, and was an affront to the three tiers of government of the Federation.
However, the Court held that the conduct and celebration of marriages was not an exclusive duty of the Plaintiffs, as the 1st Defendant could only be restrained from celebrating marriages in districts headed by the Plaintiffs’ Registrars in areas outside Lagos and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The Court further held that whilst the registration of marriages was within the exclusive preserve of the Local Government Councils, as constitutionally stipulated, the 1stDefendant could issue licenses as well as contract marriages through its Registrars in its designated offices in Lagos and Abuja.
Subsequently, the Court granted orders of perpetual injunction, restraining the 1st Defendant and his privies from further contracting and celebrating marriages under the Marriage Act, within the Plaintiffs’ Local Government Council Areas, except for marriages conducted in the Federal Marriage Registries of Ikoyi, Lagos and Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The Court granted additional orders of injunction, restraining the 1st Defendant from further issuing certificates of marriage and registering marriages within the Plaintiffs’ Local Government Council Areas, except for marriages conducted in the Federal Marriage Registries of Ikoyi, Lagos and Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The Court declined to grant orders directing the 1stDefendant to transmit all marriage certificates issued and remit all monies paid by couples within the Plaintiffs’ Local Government Councils, since the 2004 judgment, to the Plaintiffs.
The Court granted the Plaintiffs’ prayer to seal off all Federal Marriage Registries established by the 1st Defendant in the Plaintiffs’ Local Government Areas or to alternatively, restrict the 1stDefendant’s Marriage Registries to only issue licenses for the celebration of marriage, at licensed places of worship or the Local Government Registrar’s office, only to the extent that there shall be no Federal Marriage Registries within the Plaintiff’s Local Government Areas, with the exceptions of the Ikoyi and Federal Marriage Registries, which predated the 1999 Constitution. The Court further held that this Order was without prejudice to the 1stDefendant’s exclusive powers to issue licenses for celebration of marriage to places of worship all over the Federation.
Analysis of the Court’s decision
From a perusal of the Court’s judgment, as summarised above, it is immediately clear that the Court neither held that marriages conducted in the Federal Marriage Registries were invalid nor held that the marriage certificates issued by these registries were invalid, as wrongly touted by the media. Thus, the anxiety that has gripped the general public as to the alleged invalidity of previous marriages conducted by these registries should be laid to rest.
The Court’s restrictive judgment is one that appears to rebuke the deliberate attempt of the Federal Ministry of Interior to edge out the Local Government Councils from the conduct and registration of marriages. Nevertheless, it is vital to note that pursuant to this judgment, both the Local Government Councils and the Federal Ministry of Interior have the power to conduct and celebrate marriages, albeit with some restrictions on the latter’s powers.
At this juncture, it is germane to consider the enabling powers of these two institutions. The powers of these two institutions to conduct and celebrate marriages are derived from the 1999 Constitution and the Marriage Act. Item 61 of the Exclusive List contained in the 1999 Constitution prescribes that the Federal Legislature has powers to legislate over the formation, annulment, and dissolution of marriages, other than marriages under Islamic law and customary law including matrimonial causes relating thereto. From this provision, it would appear that indeed, the Federal Ministry of Interior is empowered to conduct marriages pursuant to any enabling Federal statute, as the formation of marriage is one of the matters over which the Federal Legislature can legislate.
The same 1999 Constitution provides that one of the main functions of a local government council is the registration of all births, deaths, and marriage. It is submitted that there is a big distinction between conduct of marriages and the registration of marriages, and this provision does not exclusively empower the Local Government Councils to conduct marriages, as claimed by the Plaintiffs in the present suit and as reported by the frenzied media. Furthermore, the provision does not list the registration of marriages to be an exclusive function of Local Government Councils, as it merely states that registration of marriages is one of their main functions. Thankfully, the Court in the present suit dismissed the Plaintiffs’ claim that the registration of marriages was their exclusive function. However, it is baffling that the Court after dismissing this claim went on to restrict the Federal Marriage Registries in areas other than Lagos or Abuja from registering marriages. Again, this might be a counteractive nudge to chastise the Federal Marriage Registries from trying to edge out the Local Governments from the marriage business, especially through their partnership with a private organization like the 3rd Defendant.
The Marriage Act provides that marriages may be celebrated either by religious ministers in licensed places of worship, Registrars in their designated offices or by religious ministers and Registrars at places other than their licensed places of worship or designated offices, pursuant to licenses issued by the Minister of Interior or his delegates. The Marriage Act further provides that Registrars may register marriage certificates in their designated offices.
Interestingly, the Marriage Act in its definition of the term “Registrar”, does not indicate whether the Registrars are from the Local Government Councils or from the Federal Marriage Registries. The Act simply defines a Registrar to mean “a Registrar of marriages and includes a deputy Registrar when acting as Registrar”. Thus, the term “Registrar” could indicate Registrars from either the Local Government Council or the Federal Marriage Registries. Since Registrars are authorised to celebrate marriages under the Marriage Act, this means that marriages can be celebrated in all Registrars’ designated offices, whether in Local Government Councils or in the Federal Marriage Registries. It is thus surprising that the Court granted the injunctive order restricting Federal Marriage Registries outside Lagos and Abuja from celebrating marriages. It is submitted that this restriction was misconceived, reached per incuriam and will not stand if tested on appeal.
Moreover, the only marriages considered invalid under the Marriage Act are marriages where one party is married to another person under customary law at the time of marriage, marriages celebrated in places other than the designated office of a Registrar or licensed place of worship or celebrated in any other place without a license, and marriages celebrated under false names or celebrated by a person who is not a recognised minister in a licensed place of worship or a registrar. By virtue of this provision, all marriages celebrated by Federal Marriage Registrars are valid.
Having analysed the Court’s judgment, one can easily conclude that the restriction on Federal Marriage Registries only commenced after the delivery of this judgment, and that the said restriction does not apply to the Ikoyi and Abuja Marriage Registries. Thus, all marriages celebrated at the Federal Marriage Registries all over Nigeria, as well as marriage certificates issued by said Registries before this judgment are valid.
However, going forward, marriages celebrated by Federal Marriage Registries, as well as marriage certificates issued by these Registries, outside Ikoyi and Abuja Federal Marriage Registries, might be deemed invalid on the basis of this judgment. Nevertheless, there is a silver lining as the judgment is subject to appeal, and the restriction on Federal Marriage Registries, outside Ikoyi and Abuja, might turn out to be short-lived upon the success of any appeal in respect of this judgment.
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 Miracle Eme, Associate, Dispute Resolution Department, SPA Ajibade & Co, Lagos, Nigeria.
 Igbintade, Wale, ‘Court: All Marriages Conducted at Ikoyi Registry Illegal, Invalid’, ThisDay Live (Lagos: 14th December 2021), available at https://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2021/12/14/court-all-marriages-conducted-at-ikoyi-registry-illegal-invalid/ ,accessed on 14th December 2021.
 (Unreported Suit No. FHC/ LS/CS/816/18: Etiosa Local Government Council & Ors v. Minister of Interior & Ors, judgment delivered on December 14, 2021; per Hon. Justice D. E. Osiagor).
 Oyeleke, Sodiq, ‘Marriage certificates issued at Ikoyi registry valid -FG’, The Punch (Lagos:14th December 2021) available at: https://punchng.com/just-in-marriage-certificates-issued-at-ikoyi-registry-valid-fg/, accessed on 15th December 2021.
 Cap M6, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.
 (Unreported Suit No. FHC/ L/870/2002: Prince L. Haastrup & Anor v. Etiosa Local Government Council & Ors, judgment delivered on June 2, 2004; per Hon. Justice R. O. Olomojobi).
 Supra, n. 8.
 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended).
 Part I, 2nd Schedule, Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended).
 Section 1(i), Fourth Schedule, Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended).
 Section 21, Marriage Act.
 Section 27, Marriage Act.
 Section 13, Marriage Act empowers the Minister of Interior or his delegates to issue these licenses.
 Section 29, Marriage Act.
 Section 30, Marriage Act.
 Section 2, Marriage Act.
 Section 33, Marriage Act.