Since late last month, men have been flocking to the northern Nigerian city of Kano in their thousands, some dressed in sharp, tailor-made suits, others carrying worn leather brief cases containing divorce papers and medical certificates.
Some are widowed or divorced. Others say they have simply been unlucky in love. All are hoping to win the chance to wed one of the 1 000 women looking for husbands under the new scheme sponsored by the the state of Kano.
Kano state has been rocked by Boko Haram-issued violence in recent months, but as a result of the new programme, the city - home to more than a million widowed or divorced women - is gaining a new reputation: as a mecca for matchmaking.
So far, 2 000 men ranging in age from 20 to 85 have applied for the marriages, which will be held en masse at the end of April and will be fully financed by the state.
Malam Abba Sa'idu Sufi, director of Kano State's Hisbah Board - a social advisory body - said the area has one of the highest divorce rates in Nigeria. “Men do not seek the hand of divorcees in marriage, creating problems for vulnerable women with no one to take care of them,” he told Nigeria's Daily Trust newspaper.
Among those looking for love is Abdurrahman Alhassan, a divorced 34-year-old from the town of Zaria. “What was contracted out of love and affection turned into hatred,” he said of his previous marriage. “Since then, I have been scared of even talking to women but I feel this could be a chance for me to get my dream wife.”
Mother of four Hauwa Ismail thought she'd never find a man again. Widowed several years ago, Ismail signed up for the scheme after meeting with an NGO known as the Voice of Widows, Orphans and Divorcees Association of Nigeria (VOWAN).
Angry about the lack of men willing to marry divorced or widowed women in Kano, VOWAN mobilised one million women, calling on them to march through the streets of the city in protest. The state intervened, coming up with the novel idea as a way of dampening tensions.
“This is their remedy,” said Bilkisu Yusuf of the Federation of Muslim Women's Associations in Nigeria. “Most of these women will depend totally on the husband, for feeding, for clothing ... More than anything it is poverty that is a big problem in our communities,” she said.
Hafsat Mohamed Baba, women's leader of the Action Congress of Nigeria party, said that most divorces in Kano are instigated by men, leaving women in a tough spot when it comes to taking care of their families.
The new scheme gives women “a second chance,” she said. And there are tough penalties for men who want to back out of the marriages: they will be fined 1.5 million naira (7 200 euros).
But Lagos-based social commentator Ayisha Osori said that “quickie marriages” are not the answer to a problem rooted in poverty.
“Marriage is not the only option. Kano has so many competitive advantages and options which could turn things around - but no, they just want to keep propping up an unjust system which will never work efficiently. In the end, everyone loses,” she told the Daily Post newspaper.
According to Nigeria's National Bureau of Statistics, about 70 percent of participating women are illiterate. “The social context in which these women live is one where being 'Mrs' has become the most important thing on earth,” Osori said.
But the scheme's organisers are adamant that the scheme will forge marriages that last. Screening committee chairman Malam Auwalu Ubaidullah said “the turnout has been overwhelming.”
“I had to help (one 85-year-old candidate) sit on the chair because he was very weak and tired,” Ubaidullah told the Daily Trust.
“He told us that he lost his old wife some years back and doesn't have any child or relative. All he wants, he said, was to get a companion, someone to support him. He said he wouldn't want to die a single man.” - Sapa-dpa