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With this ring, I thee con

Fraudulent weddings are causing alarm in parts of Nigeria as penniless tricksters try to marry their way, again and again, into a better life.

July 30, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

Kano, Nigeria — AUWALU Ise is a picture of sartorial elegance. It takes the finest imported shoes, a splash of perfume and an imperious manner to complete what he calls his "silent deceit."

His secret weapon is a can of spray-on starch to make his expensive garments shiny and crisp, one more ingredient in an elaborate ritual to win the heart of even the hardest woman and fool the canniest future father-in-law.

When he tells his targets that he is really a poor man, their voices tinkle with delighted laughter at the presumed joke.

"It's all about deception. I don't have to tell lies verbally," he said. "But I tell a silent lie, by the way I dress."

Ise, 30, is a master of the fraudulent wedding, known as auren yaudara, that is raising alarm here in northern Nigeria's Kano state. So masterful, in fact, that he offers his services to others, sometimes for a hefty fee, to help them fool the daughters of the very rich into opening their hearts and their family's purses. Mothers weep at the ruin he creates. The government has done little to remedy the situation.

Ise sees it as a thrilling battle game. He has married six women, four of whom divorced him for being "too strict." Polygamy is legal in this predominantly Muslim state, and Ise has his sights on two other women. He's better off than when he started -- with fancy clothes and a house with several rooms -- but he still hopes the next nuptials will pay off big.

"This kind of thing is like a business," he said. "When you get into it you are likely to hit the jackpot. A rich family can take you in and set you up in business."

He has another secret weapon that helps him attract unwary brides: "I have this look of someone who's docile and stupid," he said. "A woman wants to marry someone who will not boss her around and who will comfort her."

More than 61% of households in Kano state are poor. Youth unemployment is over 40%. The state, which has adopted Sharia, or Islamic law, has a high rate of divorce, many initiated by deceived brides shocked by the penury of their lying grooms.

The area's high unemployment rate and a culture that accepts divorce more readily than regions dominated by conservative Christian churches have contributed to the problem in Kano.

YOUNG men on the prowl rent expensive watches, fancy clothing, imported shoes and hats. Some tongue-tied suitors even hire actors to do the talking for them. They borrow good cars and pretend they have jobs, university degrees and their own houses, only to ensnare their chosen woman in the one-room hovels most occupy.

"There's so much unemployment. These young men want to get married, and traditionally parents would not give their daughter to anyone who's jobless," said Sadiya Sarki of Bazwara, a nongovernmental group with about 3,000 divorced female members in Kano.

Victims are not always women of means. Often, poor women are deceived by their own dreams of a rich groom, only to be turned out on the street to beg for their spouses and, inevitably, their children.

The group fosters education and helps the women earn money through small enterprises, such as sewing.

Ise advises fellow Lotharios to conceal their poverty until it is too late for the family to do anything.

"You try as hard as possible to consummate the marriage and make her pregnant," he said. "The parents now have two options: either to set you up in business so you will be able to take care of their daughter, since you love her ... or they may dissolve the marriage and take back their daughter and the grandchild. It's a very difficult choice for them to make."

Ise estimates he gets about 10% of his income from helping men set up such marriages, not counting the many gifts from grateful grooms.

With stings so complex and carefully planned, Ise makes Nigeria's notorious e-mail scammers look like high school dropouts.

He regards his most recent triumph as his best yet. Last year, a friend named Danladi, a butcher who supplied meat to rich customers in the capital, Abuja, fell for a girl named Umma, a medical school graduate and part of a wealthy Kano family.

"I told him point-blank, 'She's out of your league,' but he insisted."

Besides expensive clothes, Ise borrowed fancy cars for Danladi, relying on another friend who works in an auto dealership. He always accompanied Danladi on his visits to Umma and her family, never twice in the same car.

He persuaded traders traveling overseas to take out false passports and buy tickets in Danladi's name. They left the used tickets lying casually on the dashboard, and Umma could not resist picking them up.

Ise spent $15 to bribe a security guard at the half-built mansion of a former government minister. In return the guard was perfectly obsequious to Danladi when he posed as the owner and gave Umma and her family a tour. They also showed her six fancy dowry boxes, each crammed with treasures worth $10,000. The delighted family had no idea the boxes were for someone else.

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