President Taylor, His Wife (Wives), and the Marriage Laws of Liberia
By Mohamedu F. Jones
October 24, 2002
President Charles Taylor is correct. According to recent news reports, the Liberian president recently stated that, (1) a man in Liberia may marry more than one wife, and (2) as president, he has a duty to respect traditional matrimonial laws. The president is correct that Liberian law does permit a man to marry more than one wife. The president is also correct that he, as a constitutional officer of the Republic of Liberia, has a duty to respect traditional matrimonial laws. Of course, it would be in the best interest of the country if President Taylor were to show the kind of due respect and honor to the Constitution and other laws of Liberia that he is professing for traditional marriage laws.
These statements are characteristically President Taylor. While the president’s statements are literally correct, his proposed course of action, marrying more that one woman, however, shows complete disrespect and disregard for the marriage laws of Liberia, both traditional and statutory.
Liberia, like many West African countries, has two matrimonial laws: traditional marriage laws and statutory marriage laws. Under the traditional laws, a man may contract multiple marriages (up to three or four), according to traditions and customs. These marriages are legitimate and solemn under Liberian law; they represent the majority of marriages in the country.
A traditional marriage ceremony includes the presentment of dowry to the bride’s family. In most Liberian traditional marriages, the dowry includes money, which has led many Liberians to wrongfully conclude that it is “payment” for the woman, and therefore that lessens the marriage. Even more significantly, traditional marriages are seriously disadvantaged because of their inequitable treatment by the courts of Liberia. The 1986 Constitution specifically directed the National Legislature to correct the imbalances, which it has failed to do since 1986. Traditional marriages last until death or divorce. The requirement for divorce follows prescribed traditions.
A Statutory marriage is the other method of contracting marriage provided for under Liberian law. Such marriages are contracted under the New Domestic Law of Liberia, and last until death or divorce also. The parties to statutory marriages are required to meet prescribed health standards and obtain a marriage license. The county registrar of marriages registers statutory marriages and issues marriage licenses. A cleric, judicial officer or captain of a Liberian flagged vessel may carry out the solemnization ceremony; they may not perform the marriage ceremony without verifying the license issued by a registrar.
The New Domestic Law specifically states that a statutory marriage in Liberia is restricted to one man and one woman. A party to a statutory marriage who would “marry” another, without first divorcing the current spouse commits the prosecutable offense of bigamy. Secondly, the “second marriage” is null and void, ab initio, and has no standing in law. A person who is married under the statutory law of Liberia cannot legally “marry” another spouse under any law anywhere in the world, with out first obtaining a statutory divorce somewhere in the world. There is no exception for the President of Liberia.
Significantly, Liberian law does not permit a person to marry under both traditional and statutory laws at the same time, which is what President Taylor proposes to do. A person who is married under the statutory law, may not legally marry a second wife under the traditional law, without first obtaining a statutory divorce from the statutory marriage. Similarly, a person who is married under the traditional laws may not legally marry under the statutory law without first obtaining a traditional divorce.
What President Taylor has announced is that he intends to violate both the statutory and traditional marriage laws. Presumably, the President is married to Mrs. Jewel Taylor under statutory law. His announced intention to contract additional marriages under the traditional laws is a statement that he disrespects and disregards both the traditional and statutory marriages laws. After all, he is not bound by rules anyway; he is Chief Executive of the Republic.
The media also reported that President Taylor made some reference to the late President Tolbert: that while he was in his statutory marriage to the late Mrs. Victoria Tolbert, he also traditionally married other women. One must conclude that the media misreported what President Taylor said, because the reference to President Tolbert, as reported in the media, can only be described as silly. Even if President Tolbert violated the marriage laws of Liberia, a violation of the law by one president is never a justification for his successor to also violate the law.
Since the President is determined to marry more than one woman, and yet remain legally married to Mrs. Jewel Taylor, he might consider divorcing Mrs. Taylor under the statutory law, then re-marrying her, and the other prospective brides, under the traditional laws. He may even want to do this around Christmas and have national wedding receptions in all the counties. This would bring much needed festivities to the Liberian people during the holidays, and permit the president to legally have several wives in compliance with the laws of marriage in Liberia. Significantly, in his 2003 Message to the National Legislature, the president could then propose legislation to meet the requirements of the 1986 Constitution to make traditional marriages equitable with statutory marriages.