Brides attend a wedding feast at the Kano state governor's office after taking part in a mass wedding at the central mosque in Nigeria's second city of Kano on December 19, 2013. More than 1,000 Muslim couples tied the knot at the mass wedding, part of a government programme aimed at promoting stable families. The elaborate event at the city's central mosque included 1,111 previously divorced women and an equal number of men, many of whom had also been married before. AFP PHOTO / AMINU ABUBAKAR (Photo credit should read AMINU ABUBAKAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Brides attend a wedding feast at the Kano state governor's office after a mass wedding at the central mosque in Kano in 2013 © AFP

For three years, Nasiba Abdullahi wanted nothing more than to marry Ahmed Aminou, her fiancée who works as a trader in the same market as her in the Nigerian city of Kano.

But the 33-year-old jewellery seller’s parents could never afford the household items, from furniture to kitchenware, that local customs require the bride’s family to buy for the marital home. Her dream finally seemed to be coming true when she and Mr Aminou were chosen as one of 100 young couples to be wed at a mass wedding last weekend.

But her hopes were dashed when police called off the event at the last minute citing security concerns.

“We are in a terrible situation,” says Ms Abdullahi, bowing her veiled head and clasping her hands, which she had decorated with intricate henna tattoos, a wedding tradition.

Distraught, she has no idea when, or even if, she and Mr Aminou will tie the knot. They had been counting on the sponsor of the wedding ceremony — a powerful local politician — to provide all of the things their families could not afford: the 10,000 naira [$25] dowry and about 1m naira [$2,560] in home furnishings.

Their plight and the doomed attempt to organise the mass wedding are reflective of the pressures piling up on Nigeria’s authorities and struggling families as the worst economic crisis to hit Africa’s top oil producer in decades deepens.

Kano, a desert city in the north, is far from Nigeria’s southern oil-producing swamplands, but the impact of the slump in crude prices is being felt just as acutely.

During the boom years when oil prices were above $100 per barrel, Kano’s state government sponsored several mass weddings for nearly 2,500 couples. The state paid the requisite dowry for the families of the grooms and provided a raft of household items for the brides’ families.

The programme was popular. In the predominantly Muslim state, marriage is seen as critical to maintaining the moral fabric of society. But many families battling to make ends meet cannot afford to marry off their children — a problem seen by many as contributing to concerning trends in Kano such as rising drug use among unmarried, unemployed women.

“[It] was creating stable family situations . . . and building a foundation for a good society”, says Abubakar Jiddere, a political scientist at the Aminu Kano Centre for Democratic Research and Training.

“People here welcomed it,” says Abba Sufi, head of the Kano State Hisbah Board, an Islamic authority. It helped the government organise the weddings by screening prospective couples and testing them for diseases including HIV — a practice that just a few years ago would have been taboo in this conservative society.

“I am sure that any critics are not from here,” Mr Sufi says.

But the nationwide cash crunch caused by low oil prices forced the state government — under new leadership after last year’s elections that brought President Muhammadu Buhari to power — to axe the mass wedding programme from this year’s budget.

After that announcement Rabiu Kwankwaso, a popular former governor who backed the previous wedding programmes and now a senator, re-entered the scene. His private charity announced it would take up the task of funding weddings, to the joy of many expectant couples.

The charity spent 17m naira on items to be distributed to the newly-weds. It even planned to hand out “start-up” funds to couples to begin their lives together.

A large house owned by Mr Kwankwaso was stacked to the ceiling with sofas and bed-frames last Friday, all to be distributed after the ceremony that was set to take place at the city’s polo grounds the next day. The charity was expecting thousands of family members of the brides and grooms to attend.

Word then came from the police that they would not be allowed to hold the event.

“This is an injustice”, says Binta Spikin, an aide to the senator. “People see marriage as a source of social security and as a religious duty. There’s hardship everywhere, and he [Mr Kwankwaso] is trying to lighten the burden.”

Map: Kano, Nigeria

The consequences of poor women remaining unmarried are severe, Ms Spikin adds, voicing a common concern.

“Without marriage, women might have to sleep around to get what they need,” she says.

However, Zubeida Nagee, a Kano-based women’s rights activist, says mass weddings are only a short-term solution to broader issues rooted in poverty and lack of education.

“You are creating more problems for women as they are going to have babies and then there will be more mouths to feed,” she says.

Still, she hesitates to condemn the practice, because “it provides temporary relief” for many poor women from the shame of being unable to marry.

The state authorities declined to give a detailed explanation for the last-minute cancellation of the wedding. For the would-be newly-weds, it was a was crushing decision.

“We have been waiting for this opportunity,” says Mr Aminou, gazing at his would-be bride. “Marriage is so important.”

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