Polygamy is a centuries-long tradition in Africa and is a highly valued social institution across the continent.
The practice of having many wives preceded colonialism and the puritanical teachings of the missionaries, and still runs deep in the cultural fabric.
Although present-day society has seen an erosion of polygamy, it is still more prevalent in Africa than in the rest of the world.
Africa is blessed with diverse cultures and, generally speaking, the question of how many wives one can have is quite complex.
The legality of polygamy is multifaceted and varies depending on the legal, religious, and cultural traditions of every country or region.
Some countries have restrictive laws that require men to have marriage licenses for each additional spouse but, for the majority of countries, religion plays a significant role.
The Ancient View of Polygamy in Africa
It is not uncommon to find folks arguing that it is in a man’s nature to struggle to commit to one woman.
Others misconstrue polygamy as a man’s urge to spread his seed and guarantee the continuation of the lineage.
These two are the most common arguments folks give when explaining polygamy. Whichever side of the argument you pick, both couldn’t be far from the truth.
In the traditional African culture, polygamy is viewed as a symbol of wealth, power, and status.
In some cultures, what underpins polygamy is the need to have more wives, better chances of bearing kids, and, therefore, the continuation of one’s lineage.
Going by this explanation, you will be forgiven to assume that monogamists in pre-colonial Africa had no wealth or status to afford the luxury of polygamy and, therefore, no choice.
Polygamy is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, and so are poverty and patriarchy.
Most communities in Africa are marked by women who depend on their husbands financially.
That, coupled with the plethora of social norms that entitle men to dominant roles, means polygamy isn’t going away anytime soon.
Amid all this, scholars have criticized polygamy for perpetuating gender inequalities because most often, it leads to mistreatment, objectification, abuse, or negligence of women in polygamous arrangements.
Polygamy in Africa: The Christian view
Beyond Africa’s traditions and cultural factors, another significant determinant of polygamy is religion.
Christianity dominates most countries in Africa, and the church generally frowns upon this practice.
Christian catechism forbids polygamy in general. Instead, it fosters one-man-one-woman love relationships to preserve doctrinal guidance on equal human dignity.
Thus, in Christian-majority countries in the south, central, and east of Africa like Kenya, Tanzania, The Congo, and Uganda, polygamy is technically prohibited.
That is not to say that it is a punishable offense.
If you are wondering how many wives you can marry in the aforementioned African countries, no need to get spooked because polygamy is widely practiced in most of these communities.
In Kenya, for example, parliamentary legislation was passed in March 2014 allowing men to marry multiple wives.
Polygamy in Africa: Islamic view
Unlike Christianity which forbids polygamy, Islamic law across Africa concerning marriage doesn’t forbid men from marrying more women.
Islam, which allows men to marry up to four wives, is the dominant religion in the North and West African countries.
However, there is a catch: the man should be able to support his wives equally, plus he must tell any subsequent wives of the already existing marriage relationships.
As a result, Africa’s Muslim-majority countries such as Algeria, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Somalia, Tunisia, etc allow polygamy.
Having up to four wives is, therefore, legal and socially acceptable
Elsewhere in Africa
In Ghana and South Africa, polygamy is a legal practice by law.
However, those looking to enter such arrangements must obtain relevant marriage licenses for each additional spouse.
Senegal, Chad, and Mali, though, resort to a democratic approach, giving men the choice between a polygamous or a monogamous union.
Despite polygamy being a centuries-long practice in Africa, it has declined tremendously in recent times but is still prevalent in a cluster of countries in West Africa.
33% of Nigerian women in a 2013 study conducted by the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) reported being in polygamous marriages, with their husbands having more than one wife.
A follow-up survey established that polygamous relationships are widely recognized and regulated in West and North Africa under both civil law and religious or customary laws.
While some countries (such as Ghana, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Nigeria, and Cape Verde) do have regional codes that prohibit having multiple wives, those regulations are barely enforced.
The Bottom Line
So how many wives can you have in Africa?
Based on legalities and cultural factors reviewed herein, it is apparent that you can have anywhere between 1 – 4 wives.
It just depends on which religion you conform to (either Islam or Christianity), or if you are willing to do the legwork involved in obtaining the legal documentation required to have an additional spouse(s) in your respective country.
That being said, it is worth noting that while having more than one wife is still a thing in many African countries, the practice is facing tremendous opposition from human rights groups, including the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
In Ethiopia, for example, gender, equality, and women’s rights movements have been established under law and are pushing back on polygamy in recognition of human rights and dignity.