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INVESTIGATION: Extortion, inflated costs… the Nigerian marriage registry where fraud is a norm

INVESTIGATION: Extortion, inflated costs… the Nigerian marriage registry where fraud is a norm
July 01
12:05 2021

While the federal government has 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 to pay mandatory bribes. TAIWO ADEBULU went undercover to expose the fraud in the marriage registration process.

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Next to a passport, a marriage certificate is arguably the most important official document one can hope to obtain in Nigeria. 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 marriages. 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, most applicants still believe that weddings conducted at federal registries are more recognised and acceptable. The seven federal registry offices in Abuja, Lagos, Imo, Edo, Kano, Plateau and Rivers states, therefore, continue to receive a higher number of applicants.

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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. Often touted as Nigeria’s most patronised registry, weddings are conducted from Wednesdays to Saturdays in Ikoyi, with the exception of public holidays. Special applications are considered on request for Mondays and Tuesdays at extra cost.

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To blend in, I posed 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.

While at the registry office, it was hard to miss the business of the day. Propped against the wall were three frumpy wedding gowns, flapping in the wind. Opposite the registry office is a travel and tour company that claims to help with student visas, work permits, medical visas, and foreign tours.

Ikoyi marriage registry

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

After getting inside, I told Elsy, the official handling my case, that I didn’t have any of the 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.

“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.

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Ms. All-Denim then announced that the process was complete, without giving any documentation. She said when the wedding day comes, I would have no hassles because she has already recorded the payment. She motioned me back towards the registration office, where Elsy was waiting.

This was a small office with about four desks as well as 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 for 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…”

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I heard a male official telling someone he would prefer to collect all fees in cash, meaning there would be no trail of the extortion I was there to document 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 electronic bank transfer, so as to leave a record. Elsy gave me her personal bank account number where I sent the money.

At the office, the uniform rate was N25,000 and this was repeated for all applicants to hear. Apart from the N2,500 charged by Ms All-Denim 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.

Ikoyi marriage registry

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 whether or not he/she does the job.

A MULTI-MILLION NAIRA BUSINESS ENTERPRISE

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When George Asonja, a lawyer based in Akure, Ondo state capital, got married at the Ikoyi registry in 2018, he was made to part with money he wasn’t 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, Aregbesola said the automation platform had generated N2.17 billion for the federal government two years after its launch.

However, some officials have also turned the process into a personal cash cow, case in point, the Ikoyi registry officials who charge applicants well above the N15,000 official rate. They have found ways to bypass the eCitiBiz platform to extort couples. After receiving the registration fee in their personal accounts, the officials go to the online platform 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 that has a stipulated fee of N15,000, an extra N10,000 is made from each applicant. And with an estimated 200 to 500 marriages being conducted daily, registrars could make about N2 million on each of the four compulsory days that marriages hold — and that amounts to N8 million weekly. In one month, registrars at Ikoyi could make well over N32 million. In one year, the registry could pocket over N384 million in illegal fees from couples who troop to the facility. And the estimate does not even include the special weddings held on Mondays and Tuesdays, which come with extra cost.

Ikoyi marriage registry

BRIBES, MANIPULATIONS, FRUSTRATION: APPLICANTS NARRATE ORDEAL

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,” he said.

“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.”

Onovughakpor got to Ikoyi at 8am on his wedding day, but he would be 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 2pm,” he said.

“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 (not real name) 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 had paid N27,000 as a registration fee but got an email confirmation for payment of N15,000. He had also paid N1,500 for “documentation”.

Aderemi paid N27,000 as registration fees but got email confirmation for payment of N15,000

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

“That day, as of 9am, 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,” he said.

“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 (not real name), 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 the 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 during the entire 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,” 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,” Ebele added.

Marriage registration fee details on eCitiBiz website

Some Nigerians have in the past 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.”

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.”

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.”

HOW GOVERNMENT CAN BLOCK THE LOOPHOLES, SANITISE THE SYSTEM

In general, the monetary cost 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 sums 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 everyone at the Ikoyi marriage registry cannot feign ignorance of the extortion happening at the premises.

“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,” Sokoya told TheCable.

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’t really 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,” Okoye said.

INTERIOR MINISTRY FAILS TO REACT

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

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

There was no further referral to the enquiry. While this reporter was awaiting Lere-Adams’ response, the ministry spoke 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”.

Weeks earlier, none of the aforementioned identification documents was demanded from this reporter during the undercover investigation at the Ikoyi registry.

Rather, some of the “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.

1 Comment

  1. Mat Matbure
    Mat Matbure July 08, 00:58

    The Nigerian government and political elite makes the life of ordinary Nigerians difficult to hold unto power all this one could do in this age of technology from the comfort of their home but no one must go queue and be exploited to get anything done in this country. I was a victime too paid N25,000 got N15,000 on email sent to me apart other fees totaling 8k paid on the wedding day the silly gilrl still called me after my wedding looking for something after extorting me N10k

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