(Thoughts on fatherhood in the age of paternity fraud)
I first read Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives in 2011, again in 2012 and 2016. I enjoyed reading it so much that I bought copies for some friends as their introduction to contemporary Nigerian fiction.
It tells the story of Bolanle, a young graduate who becomes the fourth wife of Baba Segi, a local big man. The book focuses on modern-day polygamy, through the eyes of each of the players. It highlights some of the motivations behind polygamy and the various machinations participants embark on to maintain relevance within the household. A bestseller not just in Nigeria but the world over, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives has been adapted for theatre and staged in London and Lagos. It was recently optioned by EbonyLife Studios as a Netflix TV series. It featured twice as a “book of the month” in my book club and we staged an adapted version for our first literary appreciation event, “Living Through The Leaves” in 2017.
Yours truly made his debut performance on stage as Baba Segi and I dare say I put up an excellent performance. You would enjoy it if you are interested in examining polygamy, adultery, and paternity fraud, some of its key themes.
In the last few weeks, there has been heightened interest in the media about paternity fraud and DNA testing. Now, this isn’t new to the world and even Nigeria. Early in the new year, forwarded messages started flying around, first on WhatsApp and then through social media and the blogs. A certain Lanre Thomas, who had passed on and had been buried late last year, was alleged to have died from knowing that the two children he had brought up as his own, were not his. The story took on a life of its own as everyone and their mother became judge, jury, and executioner even though none of the concerned parties had made a statement, the husband for obvious reasons. At the centre of this was the wife’s former boss, a bank MD, who had allegedly fathered the children.
Another paternity fraud case hit the airwaves a few days ago. This time, the revelation was by one of the concerned parties, Anthony Ezonfade Okorodas, a Judge in Delta State. In a press statement dated January 28, 2021, the judge declared that he had decided to make his situation public “in order to prevent damaging speculations, half-truths and outright lies from persons who may want to cash in on the tragedy that has befallen my home”. He revealed that he had received information from an anonymous source who alleged that the last of his three children from his previous marriage was not his biological child. Based on this tip-off, he conducted a DNA test on the child some months later, the result confirming his fears: he was not the child’s biological father. His ex-wife denied the allegation but she eventually confessed to having an affair which resulted in the birth of the child. This further convinced him to conduct a DNA test on the other two children. Sadly, the result was the same: none of them was his biological child.
Many people have laid the blame squarely at the feet of women. Some have compared it to men who have affairs and produce offspring their wives have no knowledge of. While I cannot determine if the comparison is accurate, I believe that paternity fraud is one of the worst forms of deception in marriage. The main discussion is always around the father accepting another man’s child, however, there are also other aspects to consider.
For example, should a marriage end because of this revelation? What if there are extenuating circumstances that parties external to the marriage are unaware of, would there be justification to save the union? Where is the place of forgiveness in all of this? There are so many things to consider but I will not add to this line of thought. I would rather look at another side of the conversation: what makes one a father? who is the real father of a child?
Many years ago, a friend told me that he suspected that the man he had always known as his father was not his biological father. I cannot remember exactly how his suspicions arose; I think someone had alluded to it when his father passed on. To make matters “worse”, he felt he knew who his real father was. He was in his mid-thirties at the time, heavily burdened by this thought, and he wanted me to advise him on what steps to take. He had considered asking his mother but he wasn’t sure how to go about it: how and when should he ask? What would he say had driven his suspicions? How would he handle his mother’s reaction? What would he do if she told him his suspicions were not unfounded? how would he handle the “truth”?
I did not have any experience in such matters and I could only assume he confided in me because he trusted my judgement. I did what I considered the best thing: I told him what I felt I would have done if I had been in his shoes. I thought about my father and every single one of the twenty-one years I had spent with him. I remembered our long talks and discussions, the many trips, travels, and school visits, sitting with him in silence while meditating and wondering what that was all about, watching him play the piano or writing one of the numerous things he was always writing. I remembered the sufferings and sacrifices, the joys and the pains, the shared dreams, and I knew I could never betray that relationship if I ever found out he was not my biological father. I don’t think my friend ever raised the issue with his mother and we did not speak about it after that time. If he had been correct, he would have dug up a secret that would have probably triggered unmanageable consequences. That, for me, was for the best.
I am happy that the Delta state Judge decided to support the children despite the revelation. Deceit is painful but I opine that, if you have brought up a child as yours, that child is yours. Is blood truly thicker than water? And if it is, is that blood genetic or relational? I believe that the relationships we have built with people, not just the genetic makeup, is what qualifies them as family. But what would happen should the biological father(s) decide to step into the picture? Assuming the children are underaged and unable to decide for themselves, what does the known father do? A friend of mine said that if he was faced with this situation, he would hand the children over to their biological father(s). His point was that the mother had deceitfully passed them off to the man they knew as father and he cannot deny their biological father the joy of raising his children. I cannot imagine being in this position and willingly surrendering children I have considered as mine. I would want to play a part in their lives but would I have a choice in the matter? Do our laws provide a position on this? And what if the children are old enough? One would only hope that they would consider relationship over genetics.
Paternity fraud is a tough topic to discuss in Nigeria especially for men as cultural issues and considerations may arise. Extending the discussion on the nature of fatherhood would lead us into topics like gestational surrogacy, which I am not sure is prevalent in Nigeria, and adoption: both topics for another day. As far as I am concerned, having the same blood and genes with someone is not enough to make them family in the real sense of it and in that light, I believe that fatherhood is not solely biological and that is the way I see things today.