36 year-old Janet Tayese, woke up from the bed she shared with her 47-year-old husband, Oladele, as he snored away.
Two hours before her husband woke up, Janet had cleaned their two-bedroomed apartment, cooked, got her husband’s clothes ready for work and prepared their son for school.
The night before, everything was normal as they went to bed, Janet said. No misunderstanding, no hint of anger from either side and no sign of any impending marital doom.
“My husband was just waking up when I left the house. I told him I had prepared his food, which I put in a warmer. I reminded him to help pick up some stocks for my shop from my supplier and he said okay.
“I dropped my son off at school on the way to my shop at Ijaiye and at closing time, I went to pick him again because his school is closer to my shop than home. Around 7.30pm, I closed my shop that day and we went home together.”
With her son in tow, Janet did not imagine what happened next.
According to her, she was about to insert the key into the padlock on the door when she realised that the lock had been changed.
“I became confused. Who could have changed the door lock? Could it be the landlord? But I dismissed the idea because we had just renewed our rent a few months back. I quickly brought out my phone to call my husband. His number was switched off.
“I went to a friend in whose house we normally dropped our key and asked if my husband dropped the key there. Our neighbour said no.
“At that point, I did not know what to think. I again thought probably my husband had problem with the lock and decided to change it. But I thought that if anything like that happened, he should have called to inform me. After trying so many times to call him and it did not go through, I decided to break the padlock, since I knew I could buy another one.”
If meeting the door secured with a new lock left Janet confused, what she discovered when she opened the door to their apartment nearly knocked her off her feet.
According to her, as soon as she entered the sitting room, she knew something was wrong.
She said, “The few old chairs we had were still there, but I did not see the television. I noticed that his photographs hung on the wall were gone also. I ran inside the room and noticed that all my husband’s things in the room; clothes; shoes, everything that belonged to him had disappeared.
“I started calling his line again. When it did not go through, I called some of his relatives. One of his brothers who finally picked said I should keep trying his line when I told him I did not understand what was happening. But I realised he knew something when he said ‘Just keep trying to call him, he will explain to you himself.’”
Janet said she did not see her husband throughout that day and could not get any explanation on what was happening from any of their relations.
She said even though she knew he could not have packed his belongings without their neighbours seeing him, none of their neighbours talked to her on the development.
The distraught woman said she even went to his furniture workshop also at Meiran, Lagos that same day but was simply told by those he met there that her husband had not been at work that day.
Janet said nothing could compare to the confusion and panic that engulfed her that day.
After three days of trying to get an explanation and running up and down to get hold of her husband, Janet finally spoke with her husband on the phone.
She said despite her frantic demand for explanation, all Bayo kept repeating was: ‘Didn’t I tell you? Why are you surprised?’
“When I realised that he was not ready to give me any explanation, I pleaded with him to just tell me where he was so that I could come and see him. After a lot of begging, he finally told me he was with his friend at Sango.
“I decided to go there very early the following morning. I was very angry when his friend told me he had left for an urgent business. Why did he tell me to come then? His friend went inside the house and brought an envelope, which he handed to me. I asked him what it was and he said he did not know that all he was told was to deliver it to me.”
Janet, who cannot read English as such because of her limited education, did not really understand what the document she had just been handed meant.
She later learnt that, according to the document in her hand, she had been taken to court by her husband and with her consent, a divorce had sailed through.
That was the biggest shock of her life.
“Unless it happened in a dream, I could not remember ever going to any court for anything in my life let alone witnessing my own divorce.”
It turned out that she had become a victim of a racket operating in customary courts in Lagos, which allows a man to divorce his wife by simply renting another woman to stand in for his oblivious wife in court.
Legally in Nigeria, a man cannot divorce his wife without the woman’s involvement in the process.
Divorce, like in many countries of the world, is a lengthy process that seeks to satisfy both parties in reaching the desired settlement.
But Saturday PUNCH learnt that through paid assistance by some individuals within some Lagos customary courts who have mastered the art of deceiving the judges, a man can simply bypass these process by renting a woman.
Our correspondent gathered that such a woman stands in as the wife, tells the court she agrees with “her husband” for a permanent separation, and pronto, they get what is termed a “Jankara divorce”.
The real woman at home playing the good wife only gets the document later saying that she had been divorced.
It turned out that this was exactly what happened to Janet.
She told our correspondent that when she took the document her husband left her to one of her younger brothers, she was told that it was a copy of a divorce certificate.
Janet said when she got family members involved and both of them were summoned to a meeting, she was surprised when he began to refer to minor issues they had in the house, which she did not imagine could warrant a divorce.
“When we met face to face during a meeting with some of his relations and mine, he said I had neglected him and that my business was all I cared for. He said I had also become disrespectful and no longer respected his opinion in the house.
“He was referring to a little quarrel we had two weeks before the day he left home. He had been complaining that my shop was too far from home and had been telling me to pack out of the place for some time. I told him that if I left without finding an equally good location, my business could crumble because I had become well known as foodstuff seller in the place. He said I should move closer to home where he could monitor me.
“We had a little argument like every other couple. I asked what he expected me to do if my business crumbled simply because he did not like the location of my shop when he did not even get me a good location instead.
“I told him this would affect my business. He slapped me for arguing and said I should not worry that I would see the result of my stubbornness soon. I did not really take him seriously. That is what he said anytime we had a disagreement.
“I did not even know anything about how people get divorce. So, I did not understand if the divorce was obtained in an illegal way or not. People I talked to were the ones who told me that the divorce was not proper since I was not invited to the court hearing. I later heard that he paid for another woman to follow him to court.”
Janet had no choice but to resort to begging her husband who has since insisted that his decision was final, despite getting both their families involved in the case.
Out of all options, she contacted Saturday PUNCH about what she could do on her matter. Lagos State Government officials are currently handling her case.
But her case is one out of many, in a period when many Nigerian men affected by the economic strain of the present time are looking for different ways to abandon their marital and domestic duties or dumping their spouses outright.
In October, a non-governmental organisation, Family Reloaded Organisation, said more than 30,000 failed marriages were recorded in Badagry area of Lagos State alone between January and September 2016.
Another woman, who fell victim of illegal divorce is 40-year-old Folakemi Salami, who was forced to seek help from a human rights advocacy group, the Jeshabel Touch-A-Heart Foundation.
Folakemi explained that her husband of 14 years, 43-year-old Mutiu Salam, had banned her from their bedroom in the last three years.
When he finally had enough of her, he took their three children to his mother in Ibadan and simply threw her out of the house.
According to Folakemi, on August 9, she got home one day and could not find her children and the husband.
When he called her husband, he told her to “get off my phone, I am driving.” He switched off his phone later.
Having called some of her husband’s relatives, she learnt that he had taken the children to his mother in Ibadan.
“He did not pick my call until days later when I used someone else’s phone. As soon as he heard my voice, he switched off again. I then called his mother but I just asked after the wellbeing of the children and she said they were doing fine. After that day, I called her every day just to be able to speak with the children.”
But shortly after, she learnt through the calls that her children were falling ill in Ibadan and she decided to pay them a visit.
That was a visit that nearly led to the lynching of Folakemi.
She said as soon as she saw her children, she knew all was not well as they looked sickly and told her they were hungry.
“I did not get them anything from Lagos so, I told my mother-in-law that I wanted to go and buy them some food nearby. As soon as I stepped out with them, she started to scream, ‘Thief, thief! She has come to steal my grand-children.”
“If not because of my children that day, maybe I would have been beaten to death or burnt alive. They started crying that ‘No, she is our mother, she is not a thief, she is not kidnapping us.’ That saved my life as those who had started gathering on the street did not beat me.”
After the furore of that day was finally resolved, Folakemi returned to Lagos without her children but by the time she got home, she had been locked out.
“Till this moment, everything I have apart from the baby things I sell in my shop are locked up in that house.”
Folakemi said she was told that her husband had gone to court and obtained a “Jankara divorce” but that she had not seen him nor got a copy of the divorce certificate.
In the detail of the pathetic story Folakemi told about her marriage, there is no doubt that Mutiu had been trying to do away with her for a long time.
According to her, when they moved six years ago from their rented apartment in Ikeja to the two-bedroomed bungalow Mutiu built in Sango, he did not notify her.
Mutiu, a mechanic who also dabbles in car import, simply packed his things and left.
Folakemi said, “He did not tell me or the children. I was in the shop one day, when he packed to the new house. I just went to our rented apartment and realised he had packed his things alone and left that of my children and mine.
“I reported him to his family and they resolved the matter. I packed my belongings and that of my children and moved to the new house with him. But he barred me from the bedroom. I decided to sleep on the floor of my children’s bedroom while they slept on the bed.
“His family members heard about this after two years of packing to the house and they told him to allow me in the bedroom. He did. After a year, he threw me out of the room again. I was sleeping on the floor of my children’s room for three years till this incident happened.”
Saturday PUNCH learnt that divorce in Nigeria can only be premised on the following grounds: non-consummation of the marriage (when either party rejects sex), abandonment, separation for two years prior, failure to comply with an earlier court order on marriage or sexual rights, or privileges of marriage, adultery and death.
For some victims of the “Jankara divorce,” they do not even understand that they had simply been duped into being divorced. They only seem to understand when told that the divorce paper they have been handed was obtained dubiously since they were never in the court.
One of such women, Chinasa Obi, a 40-year-old woman from Anambra State, who runs a restaurant at Akowonjo, but lives in Iyana-Ipaja, explained that she resorted to begging her husband of seven years when he handed her a copy of a divorce paper from the Customary Court, Alakuko, with both their names as signatories on it in October 2015.
According to her, she had always believed a man could divorce a woman anytime he wanted, which was why she went down on her knees to beg him.
Obi said it was after she started running around for help that she was told that the divorce could not have been obtained in a legal way because she was never invited to the court.
Like the others, she is seeking redress, but does not know what to do.
This was the question our correspondent posed to human rights activist and lawyer, Mr. Malachy Ugwummadu, on the issue.
According to Ugwummadu, who is the President, Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, a divorce obtained in such an illegal way has serious criminal implication in the eye of the law.
Ugwummadu said it is a trend that urgently needs the attention of the police.
Such was the case of 39-year-old Pascaline Chigbuogu, whose husband of 13 years, Anthony told her to leave his house along with their six children.
Pascaline told our correspondent,
“We were so close that since we got married, we had been using the same tooth brush. One day he just said he could not share a brush with me anymore. I quarrelled with him because of it because I felt he did not love me enough anymore. Then, he started misbehaving at home and acting strange. Afterwards, I caught him sprinkling some strange liquid in our compound.One day, not long after, he just called me to the sitting room and told me to sit down.
“He said, ‘See, if I tell you I still you, I will only be deceiving you and myself. I intend to marry another woman. You and the children need to move.’ I have never been shocked like that in my life.
“I asked him where he wanted us to move to and he said he did not know. We live in a storey building that we both laboured to build. That night, he moved his things to the ground floor and left me and the children upstairs.
“I am not sad because he is leaving me. I am sad because I made him everything he is today. When we married in 2003. I established an olive oil business and because it was profitable, he then joined me. We built our house from it and built one in the village. Everything we have was from the village.
“When he finally sent me packing with the children, he took the vehicle he bought for me. He said all his property were bought on his name including the car. The only thing I remember that my name was on was the registration of our company.”
Pascaline said she did not imagine that his marriage could crumble that way because she had never had any reason to think her husband would leave her even when he was cheating on her and even some times physically assault her when they had a disagreement.
In addition to their olive oil business, the couple also produce a herbal drink in a factory located in their residential compound at Onipanu area of Ota, along the Ota-Idiroko Road.
On behalf of some victims of this “Jankara divorce” the coordinator and founder, Jeshabel Touch-A-Heart Foundation, Mrs. Favour Benson, had approached the Lagos State Public Advice Centre for assistance as she said their cases were being handled with dispatch.
According to her, her organisation has over 17 different divorce cases which are undergoing various processes at present.
“I believe this sort of divorce racket is a criminal offence that should land the men concerned behind bars.
“A mother who woke up on the same bed as her husband was suddenly told that she had to leave with nothing since she came into the house with nothing. It is terribly bad. For instance, the woman who was loyal enough to get her husband involved in her business had been pushed out with nothing. It is cases like this that make people say women are not humble when they take actions to safeguard themselves.
“There is an urgent need to beam a searchlight on the activities of these customary courts. We have a case where the husband even took the woman to court but she was simply blamed throughout the hearing. They said she was an ingrate for arguing with her husband despite everything he had done for her. She was not allowed to say anything. They called her an ingrate, awarded custody of children to the husband and she was divorced. The same husband did not allow her to take anything out of the house. Things like this have to stop.”