The Economics of Ethnic & Religious Prejudice on Marriage Choices in Nigeria

With some topics, it’s hard to apply humor or brevity. This is one of such topics. 54 years together as a nation and with about 250 ethnic groups,  inter-ethnic marriage remains the exception rather than the norm in Nigeria. In fact, even marriage within some ethnic groups remains almost impossible.

Given a theoretical framework, what’s the effect of such bigotry on individuals and society? To answer this question, we’ll apply a market model to the situation and imagine a scenario where such restrictions are nonexistent.


The Market for Marriage Without Prejudice

Like every economic model out there, I’ve simplified a lot of life’s complexities to make the model functional.

  1. In our model, we make the parochial assumption that demand refers to the men initiating the request for marriage and supply refers to the number of women available for marriage at a given period.
  2. Cultural restrictions do not exist, so nothing prevents the union of two individuals from different ethnic groups or religions.
  3. The absence of pressure on women or men to get married allows for free entry and exit into the market.
  4. This model only involves Nigerians. And it’s not because we’re xenophobic – adding other nationalities complicates the model.

In this free market model, couples get married irrespective of ethnicity or religion. Everyone lives happily ever after!


What Happens in Real Life

In real life, ethnic and religious restrictions exist, and they create a bunch of logistical nightmares that I’ll explain in three ways.

 First, with common sense:

Let’s make the mental assumption that someone who would be a perfect match for you is one in a million. Given Nigeria’s population of 140 million, that’s 70 million depending on which way you swing. So, you have about 70 people that match who you are. That’s still a sizable number of people that could potentially match you.

This is where things get rough. Now assume the ethnic barrier is enforced. Assuming that everyone fell into one of Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups, that cuts down your ‘market size’ to 23 million. So, you have about 23 people that match you. This still sounds like a good amount until you apply a bit of realism and realize that your likelihood of ever meeting any of this 23 people is extremely limited.

Second, with probability:

This thought process is exactly that of the first one except with, well…probabilities. If you hate probabilities, skip this and go to the third. Assuming Nigeria only consisted of 10 people, the initial probability of finding a suitable partner is 0.5 (5/10 because we assume 5 are the opposite sex). What happens when we bring in our ethnic and religious restrictions? The population remains the same, but the pool of people you can choose from reduces from 5 to perhaps, 2. This probability makes it 0.2 (2/10 because we assume there are only 2 from your ethnic group). Evidently, 0.5 is greater than 0.2, which means that your chance of finding a partner is artificially limited.

Third, with a Demand & Supply Graph:

Photo 11-24-14, 10 49 48 AM

Prejudice creates what economists term a ‘wedge’ in the marriage market. This wedge leads to what is called a ‘deadweight loss’ or a cost to society caused by inefficient allocation of resources…or in this case, marriage partners.

The horizontal line’s stands for the ethnic restriction that limits choice of ethnicity to just one. You see that dotted section to the left? That’s the number of available women who won’t get married – not because they don’t want to – but because ethnic restrictions have placed a limit on who they’re available to. The crossed portion represents the men that might never get married due to ethnic restrictions. In reality, few men encounter this issue compared to the women.

Consequently, the implication of this graph is much worse for women than for men. Most women in Nigeria have a ticking clock on their likelihood of getting married. There’s a window of marriage that closes the older one gets. Considering the excessive level of pressure one gets from family, friends and society, a significant number of women say yes to whoever proposes in spite of the absence of love or compatibility. Yes, so welcome to the age of transactionary marriage. Prejudice has ironically made marriage more economic in nature.

Other issues exist with our current system of bigotry. Note that we’ve not even discussed the geographical constraints that come with ethnic and religious bigotry. How does one in a geographically displaced region find an optimal partner from the same ethnic group? Or what about individuals that connect more with their place of birth rather than their state of birth?


So Are You Saying That Ethnicity & Religion Aren’t  Important Factors?

No. In the defense of intraethnic marriages, marriage to an individual from a similar ethnic group might be integral to proper communication. Culture not only significantly influences our beliefs and value systems; it most likely affects our method of communication. Given that communication is fundamental to the success of every relationship, miscommunication between ethnicities could be bothersome.  The Igbo mode of communication between peers and elders differs considerably from that of the Yoruba, where considerably more reverence is demanded. Similar communication issues might exist between religions also. Therefore, critics of inter-ethnic marriage might opine that such differences negatively affect the probability of a successfully happy marriage.


So Bigotry Does Have Its Benefits! Right?

Not exactly. Preventing intermarriage could be ‘well-intentioned’ in a sense, but glaringly inefficient, market-wise, and coercive in terms of choice. Advocating for an ethnic exclusive marriage market based on that assumption completely misses the beauty of an open market. An open market allows for an interaction between supply and demand—no one is coerced to buy or sell. Choices can be made, mistakes made and lessons learnt. Likewise, the freedom to choose a partner from a different ethnicity takes care of the communication issue. Rather than select based off a proxy for great communication i.e. ethnicity or religion, the individual chooses a partner based on actual communication – without any wedge.


But this Free Market Model of Marriage Seems Like It’ll Never Work in Nigeria.

As implausible as the free market model of marriage sounds, it has a significant advantage that beats anything I’ve talked about so far—it might be the solution to Nigeria’s lack of unity. When intermarriage occurs, both ethnic groups/religion suddenly have a stake in not just the life of their partner, but in the welfare of their partner’s ethnicity as a whole. You’re forced to not just care, but to trust. As my twin brother eloquently put it: “Intermarriage is a determinant of trust, and as long as religious and ethnic barriers to marriage exist, unity can never be achieved in Nigeria.” The irony in Nigeria is that we complain about lack of unity in Nigeria, yet constantly flee from what might be a possible solution to the problem.


So What Next?

We wait. Fact is that the trend towards intermarriage is positive. I recently met a Yoruba girl who’s more familiar with my village in Anambra state than I am – and that’s simply cause her mom’s Igbo. And yes, her parents had a happy marriage. The more children from intermarriage, the more society will begin to warm up to the concept. Perhaps then, we’ll be less frosty towards other ethnicities or religions. We need to — the future of Nigeria might depend on it.

  • uju

    I’ll wait for a day when this becomes more popular in Nigeria. Amen

    Meanwhile I made a post that slightly touched on inter marriage in Nigeria, and some of my readers had a thing or two to say about it.
    You can check it out here:

  • “Well, I’ll set up a committee to look into this issue” *in the president’s voice* lolzzz

    Nice piece, reads like a final year project… Well done…

    Maybe its still possible that I marry the yoruba woman of my dreams… I think I should get her to read this post… Woww Chuba, I owe you…

  • Anonymous

    I agree that the futre of nigeria’s unity depends on the tear-down of the barriers to interethnic and interreligious marriages. I tell my friends, ‘if I can pick and choose, I want to marry a Hausa chic (I’m Igbo).’ They cheer and say ‘malo chics are damn hawt mehn!’. But they think I’m joking, even when I try to convince them I’m not, they force me to be. That’s the problem- our problem. ‘Nice idea’ peeps say when you raise the benefits of intermarriage, but they remind you that it’s not just done. Even if you want, they say, she won’t agree- her father won’t let her…. and we are talking about someone i’ve not even met. Nigerians are too scared of mixing up I think, of coming out of their comfort zones, of adventuring…. not just the old, but most youths, very unfortunate I tell you.

  • Anonymous

    This is a very important revelation. We really need to give this piece all the utmost consideration it deserves especially in the face of the current gross ethnic and religious bigotry and disconnect in Nigeria.

  • bayo

    An interesting piece, this attest to the fact that we are polarised along ethnic and religious lines which could be curbed by inter-ethnic marriage but in the terrain of religion, some faith forbids their members marrying from other religion. How interesting will a world without religion, ethnicity, race, be?

  • Anonymous

    I have a crush on the writer

  • Brilliantly written. Throw in age discrimination and intra-ethnic prejudice into the mix, and there are more chances of you visiting Mars in your lifetime.