The shadow of legal pluralism in matrimonial property division outside the courts in Southern Nigeria
Diala, Anthony C.
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Scholarly interest in the co-existence of normative orders in African social fields tends to focus on conflicts arising from the interaction of customary law with state law. This article takes a different path by revealing the normative influence of state law on actors involved in matrimonial property division outside the courts in Southern Nigeria. Based on individual interviews and focus group discussions with female divorcees, their parents, clergy, traditional leaders, NGOs and social welfare officials, it analyses inequalities in property division under customary law, arguing that these inequalities often lead to ‘dignity takings’. It reveals how the Social Welfare Department, a government agency mandated to champion the interests of women and children, plays a prominent role in the privileging of gender, class and women’s dignity. Spurred by statutes, this department increasingly orders men to divide matrimonial property and/ or to pay compensation to women. Its quasi-judicial orders on marriage gifts, properties bought by women, and child custody potentially contribute to ‘dignity restoration’ for women infantilised by the customary law of matrimonial property. By revealing the driving forces behind shifts in the traditional philosophy of matrimonial property, the article demonstrates how non-judicial dialogue between state law and customary law facilitates a living customary law of marital property division in Southern Nigeria.