He's not what most women might describe as a "good catch."
Mohammed Bello Masaba, from a small town in Nigeria, is a short, slightly built 84-year-old with no apparent income. But that hasn't stopped him taking 86 wives at the same time – and with a little help from God, he says, he may just marry a few more.
For decades, his unusual domestic arrangements drew little attention. But when Mr. Bello Masaba, a Muslim, gave interviews to local journalists and television crews claiming he had special God-given powers and challenged accepted interpretation of the Islamic holy book, the Koran, his world came tumbling down.
Bello Masaba has run afoul of northern Nigeria's Islamic sharia laws, Muslim clerics, Nigerian federal law, and even his town's traditional ruler, the Emir of Bida. Local authorities have stationed a dozen armed policemen outside the home he normally shares with his wives and over 150 children to protect them from angry neighbors, while Bello Masaba languishes in prison. Yet he remains unrepentant.
"If God permits me, I will marry more than 86 wives. A normal human being could not marry 86 – but I can only by the grace of God," a defiant Bello Masaba told The Christian Science Monitor during a recent prison interview. "I married 86 women and there is peace in the house – if there is peace, how can this be wrong?"
Such statements are heresy here. Under accepted Muslim doctrine, no mortal can speak directly with God and men are allowed a maximum of four wives at any one time.
Nigeria's religious sensitivities
The case of Bello Masaba highlights just how sensitive matters of religion are in modern Nigeria. In 2006, scores of Nigerians died in riots over cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad in a newspaper in Denmark. And in 2002, hundreds died in religious demonstrations against plans to hold the Miss World beauty pageant in Nigeria. And now, some are concerned that Bello Masaba could cause a similar uproar.
"In years past, he kept quiet and nobody bothered him. But when he comes out and says publicly that anyone can challenge his interpretation of the Koran, then he is creating tension," said Yahaya Abubakar, Emir of Bida seated on an elaborate throne at his palace.
Bida lies in Niger State, one of 11 northern Nigerian states that since 1999 have adopted Islamic sharia law. Islam in Nigeria is far removed from the stringent form practiced in Saudi Arabia. But after an influential group of Nigerian Islamic clerics known as the Jamaatu Nasril Islam, slapped a fatwa – or religious edict – calling for the death of Bello Masaba, the Emir of Bida was forced to intervene to prevent one of his subjects being targeted by an angry mob.
Dressed in an elaborately tied turban and flowing traditional robes, the emir explains how he called Bello Masaba to the palace and gave him a choice: divorce 82 of his 86 wives or leave Bida forever. "We requested he either divorce 82 of them, or leave our sharia lands as I couldn't guarantee his safety if he stayed," says the emir.
Bello Masaba refused to accept either option.
The emir and the sharia courts have now left Bello Masaba's fate to the magistrate courts where he faces charges of insulting the religious creed for his inflammatory comments about Islam.
The 86 wives protest
But what of the women in this marriage, the 86 wives so wronged? Well they're mounting a protest to get their husband out of prison because, they say, they are happy with their unconventional arrangement.
"We are very happy. He's a good man, an honest man, and caring," says Hajia Hafsat Bello, who is 49 years old and Bello Masaba's third wife and mother of four of his children.
Standing in the courtyard of the half-finished two-story home she shares with her husband and his 85 other wives and more than 150 children, Hafsat Bello heaps praise on her husband. Behind her, women wash clothes, prepare food, and braid each other's hair. It's unclear who's a wife, who's a daughter, and who might have just dropped in for a chat.
Some of Bello Masaba's wives are younger than some of his sons and daughters. Three of his wives were pregnant when he was arrested, say police officials. Most sleep three and more to a room in the dank and crowded home. It's a bewildering situation and many in Bida, including some lawmakers, believe Bello Masaba has fooled the women with magic.
"Most of these women are under a spell," says Adamu Usman, attorney general and commissioner for justice in Niger State. "No sane woman would want to live so many cramped together in the same room."
Bello Masaba does not work and has refused to explain where he gets the money to feed and clothe such a large family. His secrecy has only exacerbated the charges of witchcraft, with some speculating that he is using special powers to entrap the women.
Hafsat Bello, who weighs nearly 200 pounds and stands almost six feet tall in her plastic flip-flops is exasperated at such speculation.
"Look at me now!" she says. "Who can keep me inside? Can anyone keep me here against my will?"