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Wed 107 times, he thanks God for 'power'

BIDA, Nigeria -- He fell in love with his first wife because she was sincere and eager to please.

His second wife, a cousin, was irresistible because she did everything he wished and nothing he didn't. "That alone made me love her."

His third wife won him because she submitted to his every request. "I saw her, I liked her. I went to her parents and asked for her hand in marriage."

Wife No. 4 was very obedient. So was wife No. 5. Wife No. 6, the same. As were wives 7 and 8 and 9 and . . .

Well, by then -- it was the late 1980s -- things had taken off for Bello Maasaba, an Islamic faith healer from this city in Niger state. He went from a wedding every few months to one every few weeks.

All told, the 87-year-old has married 107 women, which, even in a society with a tradition of polygamy, is on the high side. The Nigerian government is not amused. Neither are Islamic authorities in the state.

But he's still marrying. He now has 86 wives, the youngest 19 and the oldest 64. Nine have died and 12 he divorced (for disobedience).

To see how a man with so many wives lives, one first has to cross a dusty street in this hot city in northern Nigeria.

A looming four-story house with 89 rooms and a broad veranda supported by gold columns overlooks the street with an air of faded grandeur. But its view is inauspicious: an open gutter running from a bank of rickety street toilets.

On the porch, dozens of men are seated -- some relations, some followers.

Suddenly, the men leap to their feet.

He approaches.

At the doorway, his long, pointy white shoes are removed and placed in an empty plastic shoe rack. Then he rustles in.

An aide proffers a microphone hooked up to speakers on every floor of the house so his wives and children can listen. Questions are blasted through speakers over the street so his followers can hear. He begins with his family history.

After school, he led an ordinary life for 21 years, involved in the clothing business and later working for a sugar company, keeping just two wives.

Life was normal until a religious "vision" in the 1970s, which he says involved a visit from the archangel Gabriel. He fell deeply ill, unable to eat or sleep for days, and all the medicine the doctors gave him only made him worse.

He gave up work and became a traditional faith healer who eschewed medicine. The angel also instructed him to take wife after wife after wife.

"I get a revelation from God telling me any woman I'm going to marry. If it wasn't from God, I wouldn't have gone beyond two," he explains in a wispy, singsong voice.

Maasaba has fathered 185 children, and 133 are still living. He has acquired an extended family of some 5,000 people.

It takes three enormous sacks of rice a day and prodigious quantities of meat and vegetables to feed his clan. He's rich because of the handsome fees paid by those who come to be healed.

Three years ago, Islamic authorities in Niger, a majority Muslim state with Shariah, or Islamic law, ordered that Maasaba divorce 82 of his wives, keeping four. He refused and was ordered by the Shariah court to leave town. (Muslim scholars generally agree that the Quran allows up to four wives, provided each gets equal treatment.) Police raided Maasaba's house Sept. 15, 2008. He was taken away to jail.

That November, at the High Court in the capital, Abuja, the lawyers called in his wives and their parents, one by one, to testify that they had agreed to marriage. At wife No. 57, the court told the lawyers to stop, and ordered Maasaba freed.

A delicate question is finally posed. With so many wives, how does he meet their romantic needs? He smiles. Everyone asks him that.

"God has given me the power and strength to give them the sexual portion they need," he says. "If I didn't satisfy them, they would leave."

Then he stands, and his aides rush to him, putting his white shoes on his feet and arranging his white costume, just so.

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