The news that actor Yul Edochie took a second wife rebooted discussions about polygamy. Typical of our clime, issues bordering on long complex history too quickly descended into superficial exchanges and self-serving arguments. It gets worse when the interventions are headlined by a self-labelled “deep thinker” whose grasp of any issue hardly goes beyond his gut instincts.
A successful debate about polygamy in contemporary culture must do away with the perfidious assumptions of the exceptionalism of the African male’s sexual needs and the faulty conclusion that polygamy solves the problem of adultery by satiating male desires. African men are not more inclined toward polygamy than their counterparts elsewhere and African women are not sexually passive either. After all the “DNA scandals” that have broken out, it is surprising that some people still bandy outdated ideas.
Let us also dispense with the other similarly ridiculous arguments. One, polygamy is not male benevolence to mop up the women left on the marriage shelf. That is an untruth that some men have sold to promote the myth of their demographic scarcity. Statistically, there are more men than women in the world. Nigeria is hardly even in the top 100 countries where women have a higher life expectancy and, therefore, outnumber men. Two, consulting the Bible to determine whether polygamy is permitted or not cannot produce the most insightful argument. If we patterned our modern lives by what characters in religious books did or not, we would assume the right to kill “infidels.” Religious texts are not timeless documents, and the mark of an enlightened believer is the ability to put the injunctions they contain within larger historical and cultural contexts. Persons who solely relies on their books to form their judgment on any issue merely demonstrates a shallow understanding of those texts.
Debates like one on polygamy also, expectedly, get reducible to “African” identity politics. There is a perennial justification of polygamy as “our culture,” as if cultures never evolve. Funny, one never hears this crowd assert their Africanness based on economic productivity and development, social and technological advancement, superior artistic skills or philosophical disquisitions. They only remember their “African culture” when they need to justify libidinal excesses. The theorist, Achille Mbembe, once observed that postcolonial politics is typically obsessed with orifices. That explains why we are either talking about issues of “stomach infrastructure” or, as Chidi Odinkalu recently observed in a well-resourced essay, “virality.”
As for the matter of whether monogamy is “Christian” or “Western,” well it did not simply happen that Western societies studied religious books to adopt monogamy. It was part of social structures shaped by the ideologies of citizenship and of course, capitalism. Monogamy, in fact, predates Christianity because it goes as far back as Ancient Greek and Roman societies. Notably, men in those Greco-Roman societies were not sexually monogamous but the other women they copulated with were simply not recognised by the law. Among other social consequences, it meant the offspring of those relationships could not inherit land or status. Over time, the structures of capitalism also made monogamy a prudent means of sustaining private property and intergenerational wealth transfer. Those who uncritically posit polygamy as an “African” practice that distinguishes us from the West typically overlook this positive aspect.
Today, if the white race is more successful than any other, it is largely because their societies know how to accrue and transfer capital among themselves across generations. It is a key factor in their social and technological advancement. A background of even minimal financial stability confers and reproduces advantages because beneficiaries can afford to take risks on ideas that potentially advance society. Without it, people would continuously (re)start from scratch, heaving and puffing as they labour their way through “bread and butter issues.” Inherited capital is a powerful social propeller.
The most visible examples of such privilege are Forbes list billionaires like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. They did not make it simply because they worked harder than everyone else. They had the advantage of coming from financially established families that supported them. In our part of the world, the people who would have had similar structures to fall back upon if they pursued lofty ambitions have had things fall apart because the resources got cannibalised due to their polygamous family structures.
Consider, for instance, Yorubaland where many of the wealthy families we knew in the ’80s and ’90s (and which one still hears about in old Fuji music) no longer exist. Those businessmen, some of whom were vanguards of enterprise, died and their wealth dissipated. The fluid system of inheritance in Yorubaland, which awards property to a woman if she had as much as one child with a man, did not help matters. It allowed some women to game the inheritance system through serial polyandry. Thus, as soon as a patriarch died, his retinue of (ex)wives, concubines and children would surface. By the time they descended on the goods the deceased left behind, the celebrated riches would be balkanised. The capital that should have carried over time would thus end within one generation. If such resources had been more prudently maintained, they would likely have boosted Yoruba people across several generations. This famous example would likely rub some readers the wrong way but some things need to be said. If, for instance, someone like MKO Abiola had been a monogamist, it is doubtful that his legendary wealth would have been so demystified. Given the stupendous wealth he held at the time, and despite the circumstances of his death, the family might have been one of those renowned billion-dollar dynasties today. But no amount of money, not even the one wielded by Jeff Bezos, can survive the onslaught of multiple claimants of wives, children and even entitled relatives. That is why those making uncritical arguments about polygamy as “natural rights” of the African man need to be careful lest we replay the mistakes of that generation.
Before he was deposed as the Emir of Kano, Lamido Sanusi had noted that one of the biggest causes of poverty in northern Nigeria was polygamy. It was a hypocritical statement, coming from an unapologetic polygamist like Sanusi himself, but it was hardly a novel observation. Studies after studies have strongly correlated the massive poverty in the northern region with the culture of polygamy. It is a no-brainer. There is no way people will reproduce children in numbers that far outstrip their capacity to produce wealth and there will be no shortfall. You cannot but see the overall effect in the peculiarity of their Nigerian problems: millions of out-of-school children, enough to populate an entire country; banditry; terrorism; illiteracy; intergenerational poverty and the attendant outbursts of violence.
Just the other day, one clown in the National Assembly, Senator Alhassan Doguwa, got up and showed off his harem of wives and children. He did not stop there; Doguwa went ahead and boasted that his father that had died recently, at 86 years, left behind a toddler. You wonder why a man that old would still be having children if not for sheer narcissism and irresponsibility. Why must you create problems for society?
The idea that polygamy is justifiable because of some male African exceptionalism should be approached with a clear-headed analysis of what is really at stake for all parties. Since men are the ones who can take multiple wives in this patriarchal society, it would be helpful if they definitively stated that possibility to their intended partners before contracting their first marriage. The woman can determine whether she wants that to be in that kind of arrangement or not.
Growing up, older married women frequently advised younger women to buy property in their own name before contracting marriage. Even, while married, they urged women should make private investments without informing their husbands. Such secrets hurt men when they find out but can one blame such women? They have either seen other women single-mindedly labour beside a man thinking they were jointly building resources they would share with their children only for another woman and her children to show up and begin to contest the goods with them. In the interest of fairness, polygamous arrangements should not take things as a given. It should be laid out to address and codify issues such as property rights.