The Bello Masaba story

Mohammed Masaba

A man called Alhaji Muhammadu Bello Masaba just died a few weeks ago. The name rings a bell in my head because we did a story on him in Newswatch many years ago. The reason I remember him is that he lived a curious life: he married 86 wives. We had to do a simple arithmetic to see how many times he would do his “other-room responsibilities” to each of these wives in a year. It came to less than five times a year assuming that he was healthy all the year round and he never got tired any day to perform and he never travelled out of town. We wondered whether the man kept an attendance register to determine when it would be this woman’s turn and not the other woman’s so that there would not be a clash. We also wondered whether he knew the names of all the women and all the children. We wondered whether they all lived in one huge compound and ate in one dinning hall which would probably be larger than a football field. We wondered whether all the children went to the same school if they went at all and if they did how were they conveyed to school? In buses or scores of motorcycles or kekes. There were many more questions to ask about this man’s madness but very few answers were received.

When the story hit the front pages we learnt that the Etsu Nupe, the traditional ruler of his domain, felt embarrassed. He set up a five-man committee of Islamic scholars to advise him on the matter. The Etsu Nupe was advised to direct Masaba to divorce all the wives except four. In September 2008, the man agreed to dump 82 of them and keep four only. But apparently the unrepentant polygamist was not truthful to his words. Rather, he added more to his collection. At his death a few weeks ago, at the age of 93, he left behind 90 wives, 130 children and a truck-load of problems for the society to deal with. Truth be told some of those children may carry the imprint of doubtful paternity as it is apparent that in his latter years some younger persons may have been helping him to his bedroom responsibilities. Some cynics have however said that the reason he lived up to 93 years is that sex as a physical exercise is a long life tonic. I have not sought the opinion of the experts.

It is probably as a reaction to Masaba’s death and the accompanying collateral cost, that the Emir of Kano, Sanusi Muhammadu Sanusi, threatened to issue a decree on polygamy and its apostles as a way of regulating the operation of this happy vulgarity. Masaba’s extreme example of massaging this monstrosity must have given Sanusi wrinkles of worry. He says that many men in his domain marry women they are unable to care for and breed, like mushrooms, children they can’t afford to take care of. He therefore intends to propose a law or a regulation that would build a polygamy wall to exclude those who are poor in financial terms but not in sexual ability, from climbing the wall to the other side. In other words, he wants polygamy as an exclusive preserve of the rich only. In life the poor have been oppressed already by poverty and now the Emir wants to rub pepper in that wound. The Emir believes he is performing an altruistic function, helping the poor to stay where they are, on the mud, but I am sure the poor men in Kano who would like to enjoy what he is enjoying may say to him, “if you are down you can’t be downer.”

Sometime ago Sanusi condemned rich Muslims who are busy building mosques instead of building the future of the girl-child by sending her to school. His advice is excellent but his example is antithetical to the success of his thesis. In September 2015, fresh from being anointed Emir of Kano, Sanusi took an 18-year old girl as his fourth wife. Is this the best way to spread the bright flame of education among women? No. At 18 the young girl, even though a legal adult, knows little about marriage and parenting in today’s complicated world. She is unlikely to be a university graduate at 18 and if she is less than that then why did Sanusi rush in to grab her instead of allowing her to improve her education? Afterall, he already had three other wives but he thought a little, delicious, trophy would not be a bad addition to his harem. Many young people in Kano and elsewhere look forward to him, a well educated man, a former governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, a man urbane and well travelled for guidance and mental mentorship. Any educated man who marries many wives under any guise is setting a bad example for the youths. The truth is that polygamy is bad business. Those who see polygamists may think that they are existing in a steady hum of happiness. Not true. Polygamy produces multiple problems that no man can truly, harmoniously, handle to the satisfaction of all the dramatis personae.

I come from a polygamous family. My father married five wives, all of them beautiful and decent human beings. They seemed to be cut from the same cloth. The reasons my father was a polygamist were two (a) he was an only child and the mother wanted to cure himself of the lonely life of a loner. (b) He had plenty farmlands and oil palm plots and as it was the custom in my part of the world, the women and children were the man’s labour force. When my father was going for his fifth wife I refused to accompany him out of protest. Even though my father was generally fair minded and evenhanded in his relationship with the women and his children, we still, no doubt, felt the debilitating pressures of polygamy. Polygamy is a different type of university entirely. That is why I haven’t considered enrolling in it as a student.

However, there are various reasons why people opt for polygamy. Some Muslims go for four wives because they say Islam approves it. They hardly mention the caveat: that you must love all of them equally. The truth is that no one can love two or more women equally. That is why many educated Muslims stick to one wife.

Some people marry more than one wife when the first wife happens to be barren. In that case, the choice is either to divorce the barren one and marry a new one or simply keep the first wife and bring in an addition for the purpose of procreation. In some communities it is the barren wife who looks for and acquires a new wife for the husband as compensation for her failure to lengthen the family tree.

In more conservative settings where the female child is lowly regarded the search for the alpha male child often leads to the acquisition of another wife that is expected to deliver a baby boy. In that case, the woman must give birth first before marriage formalities are consummated. If she delivers a baby girl, then the search for a male child shifts to another woman. It is crazy stuff but even well-educated men are caught in this gender drama. This is the climax of the oppression of women by men afterall it is the man that is supposed to produce the Y chromosome that brings a baby boy to the world. But it is women that bear the consequences of men’s failure to do their duty properly.

Some people opt for polygamy so that they can have many children in case some die from witchcraft, enemy action or lack of good medical attention or from some unfathomable causes. But good medical facilities are spreading, even if slowly, to various parts of the country and many children are free from the ravages of infant mortality.

However, some men are forced into polygamy by some other causes. A casual one night stand may end in a pregnancy that the girl refuses to abort. The man, if already married, may decide to save himself and the woman from the ridicule of having a “bastard” for a child. He may opt to bring the woman home as a second wife. These are complicated matters of the heart that are not often decided by the force of reason but by some kind of emotional arithmetic. Mr. Sanusi’s decree may be hampered by the fact that most men, rich and poor, have a certain degree of addition to sexual variety.

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