West Africa

Links to legal datasheets for countries in this region.

The Region and Its History

      Islam first reached West Africa by way of traders from North Africa and the Middle East who settled in the area  in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries.  Over the next five hundred years, assorted West African rulers and local merchants who wanted to do business with the Muslim traders adapted themselves to Islam and its customs.  But the practice of the religion did not spread far outside of towns and the commercial elite until the Muslim jihads of the 18th and 19th centuries.  These wars were led by Muslim scholars and teachers who were determined to turn the region's small Islamic colonies into Muslim states.  They arose in dispersed places all the way from modern-day Chad to Benin, but gradually they influenced each other and culminated in the region-wide struggle to  conquer pagan populations, convert them to Islam and rule them according to Islamic law. (Lapidus 1988).

   Uthman Don Fadio led what became the most important jihad, starting in 1804. Uthman began his career as an itinerant mallam or religious scholar who condemned the petty Muslim rulers of the Hausa for unjust and illegal taxes, for confiscation's of property, the enslavement of Muslims, for allowing the free socializing of men and women, as well as for permitting other customs he saw as contrary to Islamic law.  He found his principal constituency among the Fulani, a pastoral people scattered across West Africa.  The wars that followed his declaration of jihad engulfed most of what is now northern Nigeria and the northern Cameroons. At the height of his influence, the Muslim regime Uthman founded, called the Caliphate of Sotoro, ruled all of Hausaland and extended into parts of Yorubaland in what is now southern Nigeria.

   Some fifty years after Uthman's jihad, al-Haji 'Umar, a cleric from Senegal, began another.  'Umar had been initiated into the Tijani religious order on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1826. He returned as the order's khalifa. His jihad began in 1852 and established a state that lasted until 1893. Spreading east from Senegal, its power eventually extended as far as Timbuktu in northern Mali.  Then at the very moment when masses of West Africans were being converted to Islam, Europe checked the Muslim expansion.  The French took possession of the state founded by 'Umar in 1893.  In 1903 the British defeated the Sokoto Caliphate.  Until the 1950s, the region remained under colonial rule.

     Islam is not a uniform culture across West Africa, but has a plethora of local variations. However, almost all region's approximately 215 million Muslims are Sunni, most of whom follow the Maliki school of jurisprudence.  Africa's two largest Muslim ethnic groups, the Hausa and the Fulani, are located in the region.  About 50 million Hausa live in northern Nigeria and southern Niger, most of them according to a demanding interpretation of sharia family law.(Callaway and Creevy  1994).   The Fulani are divided into numerous subgroups spread from Cameroon to Chad and all the way to Senegal.  Some Fulani, such as the Mbororo, are pastoralists and only nominally Muslim. Few Mbororo have had any Quaranic schooling and they know little about orthodox Islam.  Mbororo women are engaged in the milk trade, and are free to move about in public.  Another Fulani group, the Foulbe, are much stricter in their practice of the religion, priding themselves on their orthodoxy (Burnham  1991).

Legal Practices and Institutions

    Most West African countries maintain legal systems that are to some degree conflations of customary, colonial and Islamic law.  The degree to which one type of law predominates differs not only between countries but among regions and ethnic groups. Even countries with large Muslim populations, the degree to which communities adhere to sharia varies.  In essence, while the national law of a country may follow colonial or Western legal patterns, for example, giving equal rights of inheritance to men and women, most disputes involving family law are resolved outside the formal court system at the village or local administrative level.  In settling such causes, local communities may give precedence to customary law, sharia or some combination of the two. 

  For example, Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, traditionally has given priority to customary law, instructing courts in the case of a conflict to apply "the law prevailing in the in area of the jurisdiction of the court, or any law binding between the two parties." (Akande 1979.). In the northern and predominantly Muslim part of Nigeria, a combination of al'ada (Hausa customary law)  and sharia has historically governed family law.  More recently, several northern states have adopted a stricter form of sharia law as the basis of their legal systems.  In these areas, women are disqualified from voting and only men may be elected to high political office.

   Many West African peoples rarely make use of state legal systems. Instead they rely on their community chiefs to govern according to customary law, using sharia as basis only for divorce. 

  Mauritania declared Islam its state religion and made sharia the law of the land in 1985. However, in practice Islamic courts exist alongside secular courts and conflicts between customary laws and differing practices in communities has led to an uneven implementation of Islamic rules.

   In Niger, family law remains one of the few areas of the legal code that has not been the object of any regulation.  The now-suspended 1960 Nigerien constitution expressly declared that "the family is part of the reserved domain of the law," and subsequent governments have hesitated to intervene (Dunbar 1983).

   Across the region, women find it difficult to protect what rights they may have under law.  Only women from the most wealthy and educated spheres of society have the means to engage a lawyer. 

Seclusion of Women/ Purdah

   In many West African communities, there is no separation between the sexes and women dress as they did before their people converted to Islam.  Other communities, such as the Hausa, value a form of strict purdah, though in practice only wealthy families and the families of religious leaders usually carry it out. In these families, women seldom go outside the house, and then only when fully covered.

   The separation of Hausa boys and girls and the emphasis on modesty for girls begins quite early.  By the time a girl is six years old, she begins dressing according to the codes of dress applied to women, covering all but her face, hands and feet.  Small girls continue to move about in public, though, running errands and doing marketing for grown women in their homes.  Boys are kept out of women's quarters in their homes from the time they are about ten years old to when they being to sleep in the men's areas of the house (Callaway and Creevy 1994).

   Generally Hausa men decide if and when their wives may work.  Educated Hausa women sometimes speak of practicing "seclusion of the heart," by which they mean that they shield themselves from men by means of a mental or spiritual barrier rather than by physically separating themselves. Among the poor, few men have the luxury of keeping their wives at home.  The popular Tijani Sufi brotherhood places little emphasis on this aspect of sharia. In recent years, reformist movements such as Yan Izala have sought to maximize Muslim voting power by encouraging women to vote (Loimeier 1997). 

   Certain Hausa subgroups, however, take a different. view.  The Kanuri, a group of some 4 million Nigerian Muslims, practice a very strict form of purdah.  In the cities, some Kanuri women basically never leave their homes.  Others leave only with male chaperones.  Meanwhile, Yoruba Muslim women do not dress any differently from Yoruba Christian women.

   Since the imposition of strict Islamic law in the Nigerian states of Kano, Zamfara and Kaduna, women have been barred from many jobs and sex outside of marriage has become a crime.  The government has promised to segregate men and women on public transport and in schools (McGreal, 2000). Authorities in the town of Kano have ordered women to remain indoors between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

      In Senegal and Gambia, most women are not secluded.  Wolof women  go out in public without men from their families, but they are expected to dress and act appropriately.  for women of the upper classes, propriety requires more modest clothing then it does for  working class women  (Weeks 1984).

   In Mali, only the wives of wealthy merchants are secluded.  Most women are free to go outside and many women work. There is little concern about contact between the sexes. For example, women from all levels of society participated in popular demonstrations against the government in 1990.

   In Nigeria, Niger, and many other parts of the region, the custom of women marrying at a far younger age than men often means that girls are less likely to attend school than boys.  Men are therefore better equipped than women to take advantage of whatever legal system exists.

   Female circumcision is widespread among West Africans of all faiths who often see it as a method of protecting the chastity and modesty of women.. Muslim religious leaders in the region often justify the practice on religious grounds, although Islamic scholars in other parts of the world argue that it is not a religious requirement. All of Nigeria's major ethnic groups excise the clitoris. In Ivory Coast, older women excise young Dyula girls of the clitoris and labia minora In Senegal, the Muslim Wolof and Serer people do not circumcise girls,  but the Tukulor practice infibulation, the most radical form of female circumcision. In Mali, Mande women are infibulated, while Tuareg and Moor women are not (Hosken, 1982).

Family in the Region

    Most West African peoples follow patrilineal patterns of descent.  Some ethnic groups, such as the Malinke, trace their heritage back to a single male ancestor.  Others have a less complex system, tracing their lineages through the father's line without concern for the clan's connection to a distant ancestor or ancestors. However, there are numerous exceptions, Muslim and non-Muslim, to the rule of patrilineal descent.  The Kanuri, for example, trace their family lines bilaterally, or through both parents.  The Serer of Senegal,  a mostly Muslim group of almost 1 million, are solidly matrilineal. At the same time, the Tukulor, a group of about 750,000 who have been Islamic for some nine centuries, trace their families patrilineally.  But they believe that on Judgment Day , they will be recognized by a maternal uncle, rather than someone from their father's family.  Islam has helped move some peoples toward a patrilineal system.  For example, the Wolof, a predominately Muslim population of about 2.3 million in Senegal and Gambia, now trace their descent from their fathers. In the past, many Wolof were matrilineal, and they preserve some matrilineal customs, depending on maternal relatives for emotional support, while expecting training and discipline from paternal relatives (Weeks  1984).


  West Africans generally perceive marriage as an alliance between two kinship groups and only secondarily a union of individuals. (Akande 1979, Dunabar, 1983).  Some Muslim ethnic groups, such as the Serer in Senegal, or the Songhay in Mali, Niger, and Nigeria,  are exogamous, preferring to marry outside their lineages.  In Nigeria, Islamic law prohibits marriage between Muslim men and animist women, though Muslim men may marry Christian women. Muslim Nigerian women may only marry other Muslim men. In Senegal, Tukulor men adhere to the Quaranic injunction against marrying pagan women. Dyula men do marry pagan women, but Dyula women do not marry pagan men.

  Other groups have very specific rules against marrying outside of the ethnic group, rather than outside the Islamic religion.  Among the Malinke, a group of some four million Muslims in several coastal countries, men can marry women who are not Malinke, but women may only marry Malinke men.  Similarly the Jahanka allow their men to marry non-Jahanka women, but women may only marry Jahanka men (Weeks 1984). 

  The age of first marriage and betrothal customs vary widely in West Africa. Traditionally, most West African peoples regarded a girls as marriageable at the time of puberty.  In Senegal and Mauretania, the average age of a women at her first marriage is 23.  Women in Mali and Niger marry earlier, at an average age of 16.   Hausa girls are generally married between the ages of 10 and 12.  The girl's family arranges her first marriage.  If she has not yet reached puberty, she will stay in the home of her parents until her first menstruation and then go immediately to her husband's home. The girl's consent is not required, but she may repudiate the marriage after puberty. Men, on the other hand, do not marry until they are capable of supporting a wife, which means that many Hausa men are thirty before they wed.

   The payment of bridewealth is an essential part of marriage in most West African communities, Islamic or not.  The payment usually follows indigenous rules rather than the classical Islamic tradition of mahr.   In Niger, for example, the negotiations leading to marriage are marked by a series of gifts. In practice, the bride's family often spends as much as the groom's on these exchanges. Nevertheless, the marriage is not valid until the payment of bridewealth and the announcement of the amount.  Among most West Africans, the bride's family receives the payment rather than the bride herself.  

  The government of Niger encourages people to register marriages, but registration is not required for a marriage to be valid. A Nigerien husband is obliged to provide his wife with food, clothes, lodging and pocket money.  A wife has the right to acquire and administer property, as well as the right to respect, good treatment and conjugal relations.  She is obliged to obey her husband, including seeking his permission to leave the house, whether for visits or for work. If she does not, he has the right to send her from his bed or administer a light beating (Dunbar 1983).

   Malian husbands are legally required to support their wives and children. As a practical matter, however, women have difficulty enforcing the law (Hosken 1982).

  In Nigeria, married Muslim women have certain rights to property that other Nigerian women do not. Under statutory Nigerian law, a married man controls his wife's property and she may not enter contracts that would jeopardize his right to such property.  She cannot enter into loan or hiring agreements without her husband's consent, nor can she obtain a passport without it. However, under sharia law a married woman's property is her own (Akande 1979).

   Marriage practices among the Mbororo of Cameroon downplay the relations between husband and wife.  Once a woman becomes pregnant the first time, she returns to her parents' household and stays there until the child is weaned, about three years after she gives birth.  During that time she has no contact with her husband. 


   Divorce is extremely common in West Africa. Among the Hausa, divorce occurs almost as frequently as marriage. All forms of divorce sanctioned by sharia are allowed, but repudiation is the most common. In Niger and Senegal, however, divorce is not valid until registered with a court.  In the rest of West Africa, repudiation is sufficient, meaning that many women do not actually know their marital status.  Women who initiate divorce must return the bridewealth their husband paid at the time of the marriage. If a Muslim couple divorces, the woman is expected to observe idda, the forty-day waiting period proscribed in the Quran. During this period, the ex-husband is supposed to support her, though women have no way of enforcing this (Akande 1979). 

   Once a woman is divorced and her idda period has passed, she will generally remarry within a few months, as most West African Muslims consider it socially unacceptable for a woman of childbearing age to remain single.  Divorced women do not suffer any social stigma in Mauritania, unless their family or the family of their ex-husband blame them for the failure of the marriage. However, a few groups, such as the Daza in Chad and the Nupe in central Nigeria, allow divorced women to remain single and to serve as the head of their household.

   Among the Fulani, divorce is relatively easy for either partner to obtain, although men are more likely to initiate it.  Prior to the final divorce, the spouses must observe a period of conjugal separation in which the wife returns to her father or guardian.  The wife's idda period begins after this separation.  The Woodaabe also recognize a process of divorce in which the wife leaves her husband and establishes an informal remarriage prior to or without proper dissolution of the first marriage (Weeks 1984).   Among some West African groups, women keep their houses after divorce. Others expect women to return to their natal home.


   Polygyny predates Islam in West Africa and is practiced by most ethnic groups, regardless of religion. A man's wealth is determined by the number of wives and children he has (Akande 1979).  Many West African Muslims see polygamy as part of being devout, as well as a status symbol for men.  Affluence rather than any other factor, usually determines whether or not a man has more than one wife. In mostly Muslim Senegal, approximately one-quarter of urban marriages and one-third of rural marriages are polygamous. Although the law requires first marriages to be declared polygamous or monogamous at the time of the wedding, in practice this is rarely done and there are no sanctions against men who change their minds.  Frequently even men who start out wanting to be monogamous change their minds as they grow older. As they become more prosperous, they are better able to afford having multiple wives. Senegalese men who are literate, whether they have studied only through primary education, or all the way through university, are more likely to have several wives than are men with no education. On the other hand, Sengalese women who have higher education are less likely than others to be in polygamous marriages (Antoine and Nantilelamio 1996).

   Hausa men see polygamy as an obligation, if they can afford it.  Some Hausa subgroups, such as the Kanuri, also allow men to keep concubines.  When a Hausa man has more than one wife, the co-wives live in separate rooms within the same house, not in separate homes. 

  In Mali, many men, particularly of the merchant class, perceive having more than one wife as part of being a serious person (Warms 1994).  Similarly for the Sosa of Guinea and Sierre Leone, a predominately Muslim people of about a million, having multiple wives, sometimes more than four, conveys prestige.  One exception to the general rule is Mauritania.  There the Maures, who are the elites of the country, are basically monogamous, while the rest of the population is frequently polygamous.  At the time of the wedding, a woman can stipulate that the marriage is dissolved if the husband takes a second wife. Maure women use this provision regularly.

   In Niger, the first wife divides the goods and supplies from the husband among the other wives. Stress and strain between wives lead to frequent flights from urban marriage home. Some rural women, however, welcome other wives as additional workers (Dunbar 1983).

   In both Guninea and Ivory Coast, polygamy is illegal but widely practiced among the Muslim Dyula and the Jahanka. In Sierre Leone, Muslim Limba men sometimes have more than four wives.


     Throughout West Africa, procreation is considered an obligation as well as a right.  Men and women place a huge importance on having children; a childless marriage is regarded as a curse. Boys are traditionally prized more than girls. It would be unthinkable for a Nigerian woman to use a contraceptive device without the consent of her husband (Akande 1979). 

Custody of Children

        Hausa custom differs from Maliki law with regard to child custody. Though Maliki law stipulates that the wife retains custody of a male until puberty and a female until puberty or marriage, Hausa children remain with their mother only until the age of seven (Akande 1979).

  A Songhay father or his family get custody of the children after divorce, as they are considered part of his lineage.  In Equatorial Guinea, Muslim men, like others, get custody of any children born during a marriage. Among the Fulani, when a marriage dissolves, the husband decides who will take the children. 


      On the whole, Muslim women fare better in the area of inheritance and land rights than their Christian or pagan counterparts in West Africa.  Nonetheless, even the region's Muslim populations tend to follow customary inheritance practices leaving women with little or nothing, rather than the Quranic division.

       Although under Maliki law, Hausa women should inherit half as much as their brothers, they seldom do.  By local custom, only the sons of the deceased are entitled to divide up  his land.  When a land-owner leaves only female off-spring, his brothers occupy the land in their own right. But female children are entitled to the proceeds of farmland.

  Unlike Yoruba women, Hausa widows have the right to inherit whether or not they have children.  The family of a Hausa widow's husband has no claim on her after his death.  Yoruba widows, by contrast, are handed on to one of their husband's male heirs as part of the estate of the dead man (Akande, 1979).

  In Mali, by law, women are supposed to receive the same share of an inheritance as a man of the same relation to the deceased.   However, few women are aware of this law and custom does not allow women to inherit. 

  In countries with small Muslim populations, local traditions tend to overpower sharia in questions of inheritance.  In Liberia, for example, women may not inherit. The Central African Republic, Ghana, and the Republic of Congo also follow customary law in inheritance.

  Among the Fulani, women may not inherit cattle, the main property. The Limba have a system of land rights passing from the oldest brother down through his youngest brothers until it reaches the youngest man, then passing to the oldest son of the oldest brother, without ever falling into the hands of a woman. In Gabon, which is 40 percent Muslim, a widow may only inherit if her husband's family agrees to it (US Department of State 1994).



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