While the federal government reduced the fees for registering marriages in Nigeria, corrupt officials of marriage registries have continued to extort prospective couples by charging above the official rate – diverting millions of naira into their personal bank accounts, and shortchanging the federal government. This investigation looks at the corrupt practices and loopholes through which a system frustrates its own online registration portal and forces citizens into mandatory bribes. TAIWO ADEBULU went undercover to expose the fraud in the marriage registration process.

Next to a passport, a marriage certificate is arguably the most coveted official document one can hope to obtain in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. For a visa application, couples need a valid marriage certificate, and registering a marriage with the appropriate government agency is non-negotiable. Therefore, every week, hundreds of Nigerians troop to the registries to exchange conjugal vows and seal their union.

While some applicants go to the local government registries, others prefer the registries controlled by the ministry of interior, the federal government agency saddled with the responsibility of conducting marriage services. The legal battle between these two known registrars over who has the authority to issue marriage certificates is fuelled by widespread speculations that foreign embassies in Nigeria do not accept marriage certificates from local government registries. This perception of superiority conferred on the Ikoyi registry was challenged when a Lagos high court ruled in 2018 that marriages conducted and registered in the state’s local councils are also valid.

Nevertheless, many applicants still believe that weddings conducted at federal registries are the most recognised and acceptable. The seven federal registry offices in Abuja, Lagos, Imo, Edo, Kano, Plateau and Rivers states, therefore, continue to receive a larger number of applicants.

Inside Nigeria’s Most Patronised Marriage Registry

The federal marriage registry in Ikoyi sits on Alfred Rewane Road, Lagos Island, with one of its nearest landmarks being the Falomo Bridge, famous for columns encircled with murals that pay homage to the 276 schoolgirls who were abducted in 2014 by the Boko Haram terrorist group in Chibok, Borno State. Just three minutes walk from the portraits of the girls and the shade of Falomo Bridge, brings one to the place often touted as Nigeria’s most patronised registry.

Here, weddings are conducted from Wednesdays to Saturdays, with the exception of public holidays. Special applications are considered on request for Mondays and Tuesdays, at extra cost. Nevertheless, the registry is always full to the brim on wedding days.

I went undercover to the Ikoyi registry, posing as one of the hundreds of applicants from the six states of the South-west region hoping to get married. At the entrance, each visitor was assigned an official; Elsy was mine.

Arriving at the registry, you cannot miss the business of the day. Propped against the wall were three frumpy wedding gowns, flapping in the wind, on the right side of the entrance. Next to the outfits stood three headless, unclad mannequins; their nakedness possibly due to the fact that the gowns they once carried had been rented by some of the couples waiting their turn in the wedding hall. Opposite the entrance was a travel and tour company that claimed to assist with student visas, work permits, medical visas and tours outside of Nigeria.

I told Elsy, the official handling my case, that I was no longer interested in the wedding gowns; that I did not have any registration documents required (the bachelorhood and birth certificates). She immediately referred me to another woman in a light denim shirt and jeans, who was sitting outside the row of offices. Her gold-hoop earrings were caught in the straps of a face mask covering her chin.

“You have to pay N2,500 for you and your wife,” the woman in denim said. She gave me a notebook; I filled in details, calling myself Olatunji Iyanu. My imaginary spouse was Oluwagboyega Opeyemi.

Ms All-Denim, who declined to provide her name, then announced that the process was complete, without providing any documentation. She said when the wedding day comes, I would have no hassles because she has already recorded the payment. She asked me to return to the registration office, where I was reunited with Elsy.

Front view of the office where marriage registration is done at Ikoyi,

This was a small office with about four desks, white and blue plastic chairs for intending applicants. Each desk had hundreds of application forms stacked inside dozens of green files. Everywhere was rowdy; everyone was either counting or collecting money, as payments were mainly sought and made in cash. I picked up snatches of conversation:

“You have to pay for scroll…”

“When you are coming that day, make sure you have some money because…”

I heard a male official telling someone he would prefer to collect all the fees in cash. That reminded me that there would be no trail of the extortion about to happen if I also paid in cash. I noticed there was no official bank account provided for applicants. When Elsy asked for payment, I was prepared. I insisted on paying the N25,000 registration fee using an electronic bank transfer, to leave a record. Elsy gave me her personal bank account number where I sent the fund.

At the office, the uniform rate was N25,000 and this was echoed for all applicants to hear. Apart from the N2,500 Ms All-Denim charged for bachelorhood/spinster certificates, I paid another N2,500 for “declaration of age” documents, in the absence of a birth certificate. Literally, aside from a passport photograph, one can register for a marriage at the Ikoyi office without any form of identification or legal document. Every process has a price tag.

Ms All-Denim receiving cash for documents that were not produced

After I parted with a total of N30,000, the registration process began. Elsy noted that on the day of the wedding ceremony, applicants will also pay N2,000 for the marriage certificate scroll and N3,000 to the registry’s official photographer. When asked if applicants can bring their personal photographers, she answered in the affirmative, but with a caveat. The registry’s photographer will still get paid the fee whether he/she does the job or not.

A Multi-million Naira Enterprise

When George Asonja, a lawyer based in Akure, the Ondo State capital, got married at the Ikoyi registry in 2018, he was made to part with money that he was not issued receipts for.

“You just have to pay if you want to achieve your purpose without any delay. I did the registration at their office, paid N21,000 and got a receipt for that. Then, we paid another N10,000 to them that had no receipt. You drop some money as an offering during the celebration,” he said.

Two years after the lawyer got married, the federal government reduced marriage registration fees and implementation began on July 1, 2020.

“The fees chargeable for Statutory Ordinary Marriage has also been cut down from N21,000 to N15,000 while that of Statutory Special Licence has been slashed from N35,000 to N25,000,” Rauf Aregbesola, minister of interior, said in a circular.

Statutory ordinary marriage is between two Nigerians, while the statutory special marriage is when one partner is non-Nigerian.

The new fees were reflected on the “eCitiBiz” online portal created in 2018 to ease marriage registration and payment. Abdulrahman Danbazau, then interior minister, said the platform would reduce unnecessary contact with people, ensure speedy service delivery and promote economic development. In December 2020, Mr Aregbesola said the automation platform had generated N2.17 billion for the federal government two years after its launch.

However, certain officials of the ministry have also turned the process into a cash cow to help themselves. Specifically, some officials of the Ikoyi registry are charging applicants well above the N15,000 official rate. They also have found ways to bypass the eCitiBiz platform to extort couples. Having collected the registration fee into their personal accounts, the officials go to the online platform themselves to create accounts for applicants and begin the registration process with the information provided on the form given to the applicants. My login details for the eCitiBiz were sent to my email two days after, and I was able to monitor the process online.

With Ikoyi officials charging a minimum of N25,000 for a service with a stipulated fee of N15,000, an extra N10,000 is made per applicant. The couples I interviewed gave an estimate of 200 to 500 marriages being conducted daily at the Ikoyi registry. At an estimate of 200 marriage ceremonies, registrars could make about N2 million daily. For the four compulsory days that marriages hold, that comes to N8 million extra cash, weekly. In a month, corrupt registrars at Ikoyi could make over N32 million. Moreover, the Monday special weddings, which come with extra cost, are not included in this estimate. In a year, officials at the Ikoyi registry in Lagos could pocket over N384 million in illegal fees from couples who troop to their facility.

Bribes, Manipulations, Frustration: Applicants narrate ordeals

When Joseph Onovughakpor, a 29-year-old businessman, registered through the eCitiBiz platform, he did not foresee what happened next at the Ikoyi registry where he married, in July 2020.

“The person I initially contacted at the registry said I should bring N30,000. So, I bypassed the official, to register on the online portal and paid the official N15,000 fee. The official I chatted with on the website said I should just go to the registry on my wedding day with the printout and I will be attended to. Before that day, I asked a friend to take my printout to the registry, but they refused to attend to him. They were angry because the registration was done online. He begged them and they charged him N5,000 before he was attended to.”

Mr Onovughakpor got to Ikoyi at 8 a.m. on his wedding day, but was disappointed.

“My name was not on the register of over 250 couples getting married that day. After I gave them the printout, a lady at the office of the registrar collected N2,000 from me and we got married around 2 p.m.

“During the ceremony, we were sold a scroll for N4,000. When you go inside, the first official that will attend to you and give you a number will tell you to “bless the counter”; then you know what to do. The officials filling the certificates will ask for theirs as well. The ones joining the couples will collect N2,000 each from both parties (the husband and wife). They will also ask your witnesses to drop something.

For Babatunde Aderemi who got married on September 10, 2020, at Ikoyi, the official who conducted the ceremony held back the marriage certificate when he refused to pay extra bribes. That was after he paid N27,000 as a registration fee but got an email confirmation for payment of N15,000. He also paid N1,500 for “documentation”.

Mr Aderemi said he was aware of the online registration process, but chose in-person registration, to make things faster.

“That day, as of 9 a.m., I was 97 on the list but the most frustrating part was when the registry officer demanded N1,000 from me and N500 each from witnesses and parents after joining us together. I paid when she decided to hold back the certificate. My uncle prompted me to give her the money. They dictate the amount and you have to give them, else they delay you.”

Amaka Nwora, a Lagos resident who also got married on August 7, 2020, paid N27,500 at the Ikoyi office for the registration and N45,000 for a change of venue because the registries were closed due to the pandemic. An additional N5,000 went into ferrying two officials, who conducted the ceremony, to the venue.

“We still paid ‘thank you for coming’ money too,” she said.

Like many others, Sola Bello, a car dealer in Oyo State, paid into the personal account of a registrar at Ikoyi. Before his marriage on January 13, he paid N27,500 but only N15,000 was confirmed in the receipt sent to him. Also, N2,500 was charged for age declaration documents. During the brief wedding ceremony, an official also collected N4,000 for a crate of fizzy drinks, asides from other smaller fees tagged as celebratory charges.

In April 2021, when Chibuzor Ebele, a trader, served as a witness to his ward’s marriage ceremony at the Ikoyi registry, he found himself calculating what officials made at one point in the process.

“The day of the wedding, at the table where they take the oath and everything, all of you must drop money on that table. The couple and their parents, the guardians that will sign for them. I was there to sign, all of us dropped money. Between the six of us, N5,000 dropped on that table and this is done for every couple. So, imagine us, multiplied by all the couples that day. That woman (the registry official) will leave there in just one day with more than a million naira. That day, I think about 500 couples got married,” Mr Ebele said.

But is the female registry official at the table the only one spending all that money alone?

“There’s no how she’s going to take all that money; otherwise, they would have blown her cover. It will cause a problem like ‘only you can’t be doing this’. This is just me thinking and assuming; it’s either they share it between themselves, or they take turns. There is a whole lot of money being made in that system. There are too many steps or processes that expose you, or create the room for these extortions to be done,” Mr Ebele added.

Some Nigerians have taken to social media to express displeasure over the irregularities happening at the federal marriage registries.

In 2019, Seun Taiwo wrote, “I’m at a Federal marriage registry in Abuja and after the joining, they legit just said it’s “offering time”.. and the woman’s going round with a basket “what the Lord has done for you..”

I’m at a Federal marriage registry in Abuja and after the joining, they legit just said it’s “offering time”.. and the woman’s going round with a basket “what the Lord has done for you..” 😭

— Seun James Taiwo (@SeunJamesTaiwo) June 13, 2019

Nifemi, a Twitter user, wrote, “I went to ikoyi registry today to correct the name on my marriage certificate and I was asked to pay 27,500 and 5,000 for registration but I saw on a poster on a door stating it’s 15,000. I complained about the difference and the woman picked a fight with me.”

@MinOfInteriorNG I went to ikoyi registry today to correct the name on my marriage certificate and I was asked to pay 27,500 and 5,000 for registration but I saw on a poster on a door stating it’s 15,000. I complained about the difference and the woman picked a fight with me.

— nifemi (@Nyphemy306) July 8, 2020

Krisifesi, another Twitter user, wrote, “This issues are everywhere, marriage registry is 15k as stated online, but the marriage registrars are collecting ₦27,500. In Ikoyi there.”

This issues are everywhere, marriage registry is 15k as stated online, but the marriage registrars are collecting ₦27,500. In Ikoyi there..

🇳🇬 (@krisifesi) April 30, 2021

How Govt Can Block Loopholes

In general, the monetary costs of bribe solicitation and payment add up significantly, nationwide. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) surveyed over 33,000 households and noted that a total of roughly 117 million bribes which sum up to N675 billion were paid to public officials in 2019, with the average bribe size being N5,754.

Dare Sokoya, a family lawyer, said every official at the marriage registry cannot feign ignorance of the extortion happening at the premises. He called for the investigation, dismissal and prosecution of culpable officials, adding that such corrupt acts taint Nigeria’s global image.

“This is official corruption in its most unfortunate form. Those officials who shortchange the government also have superiors they remit the proceeds of their fraud to. It’s a multiplication of evil. Punishment for fraud in Nigeria is specifically spelt out under various laws,” Mr Sokoya said.

Joshua Olufemi, chief executive officer of Dataphyte, a media research and data analytics organisation, said the solution could be to “implement an end-to-end automation policy which enables couples to complete the whole registration, payment, and certification online,” similar to what exists in Nigeria’s education, banking and travel insurance sectors.

“Another option could be for the court to adopt the e-courier service or partnership with the Nigerian postal service to deliver and return the registration and application documents, thereby eliminating direct contact with couples or registrants,” he added.

But Emeka Okoye, senior knowledge engineer at Cymantiks Limited, an IT consultancy firm, said software systems alone can not save the country from corruption, adding that in bureaucratic systems, “paper is power.”

“The new digital service is being resisted by those interests fearing losing perks. Lack of control, oversight and supervision are the reasons behind this brazenness. We need to place citizens at the centre of government, education of officials on these systems, their purpose as government officials to serve the citizens and not themselves, and the rights of the citizens (as well as) improving the rule of law, so that corrupt officials can be prosecuted and punished thereby discouraging them from misbehaving,” Mr Okoye said.

Interior Ministry Fails To React

On April 15, Adjobome Lere-Adams, the spokesperson of the interior ministry, was contacted by this reporter via telephone for an official reaction to the findings of this investigation. When Mrs Lere-Adams was made aware of the nature of the interview, she requested that all questions be sent via WhatsApp.

Specifically, this reporter provided details of the undercover investigation, asked if officials in the registry remit parts of these bribes to senior officials, and whether this is why there have been no prosecutions, despite the brazenness of the solicitation and extortion. Hours later, Mrs Lere-Adams said via WhatsApp message that the ministry was “working on it now.”

There was no further response to the enquiry. While this reporter was awaiting Mrs Lere-Adams’ response, the ministry spoke exclusively to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) on May 5, saying it would penalise any official of the federal marriage registries found culpable of corruption.

The ministry said it has “trained its registrars to comply with the provisions of the Act in the conduct of statutory marriages and to verify the identity of intending couples by obtaining valid forms of Identity such as national identity card, International passport, driver’s license and voter’s identity card.”

However, just weeks earlier, none of these forms of identity documents was demanded from this reporter during the undercover investigation at the Ikoyi registry.

Rather, some of these “trained” registrars brazenly cashed out millions of naira through a relentless system of retail corruption that sends proceeds to personal pockets.

This investigation was supported by ZAM Magazine as part of The Kleptocracy Project Part II.

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