By Chioma Gabriel
Recently, the Supreme Court voided the custom in the South-East that prevented female children from inheriting their fathers’ property. The apex court ruled that the Igbo practice was discriminatory and conflicts with the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution. The court held that the practice was a breach of Section 42 (1)(a) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
The judgment was based on the appeal filed in 2004 by Mrs Lois Chituru Ukeje (widow of the late La zarus Ogbonna Ukeje) and their son, Enyinnaya Lazarus Ukeje, against Mrs Gladys Ada Ukeje (the deceased’s daughter).
Gladys had sued the widow and son before the Lagos High Court, claiming to be one of the Ukeje’s children and sought to be included among those to administer their father’s estate. The case dragged to the Supreme Court which gave the final ruling in the case and stopped the practice.
In this interview with Vanguard, Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, a teacher and professor of law , feminist, scholar and activist speaks on inheritance issues in Igboland and the consequences of the Supreme Court judgment.
How do you perceive this Supreme Court judgment that legalised daughters inheriting from their fathers in the South-East?
Before the Supreme Court’s decision, we had a number of court cases backing this. There had been court rulings saying it is unconstitutional to dis-inherit female children, as we have Court of Appeal cases presided over by Justice Tobi in Enugu and Justice Acholonu in Port Harcourt which supported the discontinuation of the practice of disinheriting female children in Nigeria because it is not constitutional. So, the Supreme Court was actually the last to come to say that female children should not be disinherited.
This has been a problem over the years and I, as a lawyer, have taken up the issue of protecting female children and widows as the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Women’s Aid Collective (WACOL), a non-governmental organisation dedicated to promoting and protecting the rights of women and young people. I am also the Convener of the South East Women Network (SEWNET), and the founder and moderator of the West African Women Rights Coalition (WAWORC) and has under that mandate initiated the “Say No to Violence Against Women and Girls Campaign” among others.
I have handled thousands of cases involving women; female children and widows. WACOL has been in the business of handling the issue of female disinheritance. Women in Igboland under the custom don’t inherit from their fathers and this is basically due to a customary law that when a woman is married, she doesn’t need to inherit from the father’s lineage. But the problem here is that the woman goes to the husband’s family and realises that there is nothing there for her too because, in some cases, the woman faces the problem of not being accepted by the husband’s family. Ordinarily, in Igbo cosmology, when a women is married, the husband’s family becomes her family and she should be accepted there but, in some instances, that doesn’t seem to be the case and the woman is left stranded in the relationship.
So, the issue is that it is customary law and, in those days, people take it to be a legal thing. When property like community land is shared, it is shared amongst men only, but the society is moving and things have changed. Land is a place where women should farm. This has been a problem for decades in Igbo land because we find that 80 per cent of the problems we handle at WACOL are issues of property rights. There are economic changes and if women don’t have access to land, it means they don’t have access to an important thing that is needed for production. When women are deprived of their economic and social status, some of them will go into poverty.
I recall meeting a woman who spent much of her life fighting for her husband’s property in court. This was in 1997 before the woman died; she was 90 years then. She narrated how she fought from the High Court up to the Supreme Court to get what belonged to her husband; she told me this case had been on for decades.They took this woman all through the levels of court such that when the case got to the Supreme Court, she died. So, when the Supreme Court looked at the case, it presented its judgement from the point of view of the customary law that disinherits women and girls whether as wives or as daughters.
Then, the issue of Ukeje and Ukeje came up in 2014 where the Supreme Court re-affirmed that girls should inherit from their fathers and women from their husbands and made it clear that constitutional rights should be constitutional rights and this is in conformity with the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, the African Charter on Rights of Women in Africa the United Nations Convention that prohibited all forms of discrimination against women, the international convention of human rights, the international covention of political rights and international covention of social and cultural rights. One principle that draws other things in all the international and regional instruments is the principle of non-discrimination either on grounds of sex, on grounds of gender or treating female children the way you wouldn’t treat male children.
So, this idea that inheritance is by tribe no longer persists because among the Yoruba in the South-West and some parts of the South-South, women don’t inherit as wives because they believe inheritance should be by blood. Daughters and sons inherit equally in Yoruba land. So, the Igbo case creates a whole lot of problems which have been resolved by the Supreme Court. Daughters should inherit from their fathers and wives from their husbands.
This judgement is the landmark.
But will the judgment be complied with, especially in Igboland?
What we need to do is to create awareness around it, organise community legal education and sensitise the public to know what the court has said. So, it must subsist unless there is an express law that over-rules the Supreme Court’s decision. It is for women to know that when they face such situation, they can run to organisations like WACOL and FIDA that fight for women. National Human Rights Commission can as well take action. But if people are not aware, how can they respond? So, we need to create awareness so that female children and wives get to know their rights under the Constitution. You should also know that changing attitude and culture is not a day’s job. There will still be that hard posture and, if you go to some traditional rulers, they may even sanction or ostracise people who take such cases to court to insist on their inheritance. But some fathers are becoming wise now that before they die, they decide to will their property to their children, specifying who gets what including their daughters.
Parents know that female children are the ones who look after them especially in their old age and are beginning to show concern about this customary law that is against women. But a woman should fight for her rights in her family.
I don’t know why some people tend to grab the property of others and go through all the trouble to have what shouldn’t be theirs. We have had some legal issues around it, the next-of-kin palava around it, non-inheritance of women and girls around it. There is need for legal literacy so that people should know what should be. There is need to educate daughters that under the Constitution, they have the right to property. So, there is need for enlightenment, legal literacy education, training of para-legal people in different communities to create awareness of this but, importantly, we must engage traditional rulers. They are the ones who mediate in these cases at the local level. Therefore, there is urgent need for training of traditional rulers and people who manage religious institutions because people believe in them.
The strange thing is that the agitation for a man’s property begins even before the man is buried. So, it is important to get a husband’s death certificate and use it to apply for these rights. That also makes it necessary for a man to have a will so that when he dies, his property goes to the right people but when this is not done, the property goes into wrong hands.
What is the exception to the rule in this case?
In customary marriage, the legal consequences are different. But if you have a statutory marriage, you have the right. So, a woman should know what awaits her going by the type of marriage going into.
Families, communities and leaders should ensure compliance when the need arises.
Also, appropriate government agencies should know about these legal issues at federal and local governments. It has been a major decision since 1997; 20 years later, people are just waking up to know because the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court have affirmed it. The women affairs agencies should be aware of such things and to stick out their necks on issues that affect women.
Governments at different levels should set up gender management agencies to handle these issues. In Nigeria, people tend to dismiss issues like this as a traditional matter but it is not so in other countries. So, Nigeria needs to step up action on the issue of inheritance as it affects women. Our culture has a lot of emphasis on marriage and motherhood.
In Nigeria for instance, a woman needs to be married to be perceived as somebody but that nation is wrong. You can be whatever you have to be. People have to actualise themselves. They need education and aspire to achieve their lives ambitions. You don’t have to marry just anybody because you want to marry to become acceptable. You can end up hurting yourself. This idea that you have to get married and you must stay there no matter the situation is not acceptable. You should not attach social status to the detriment of conferring respect and recognising the achievements of other women. All these things are changing.
Even now, there is a customary law that a woman can remain in her father’s house and have children and those children can inherit. There is also a customary law that recognises that a woman can even marry on behalf of her late husband in order to try to have a male child who can now inherit and there have been situations that such male children inherited posthumously.
But the Court of Appeal also condemned that and said, ‘look, we don’t understand this issue of a dead mean having a child’. People are trying to find a way to manoeuvre out of these unjust customary laws and practices, including what they call woman to woman marriage, not in the sense of same sex marriage but a woman using the name of a man to marry. The woman marries to have children and raise children for the late husband’s family. All these happen in a complex society.
In some cultures in Kenya, Ghana, you find those things. But there is ongoing urban globalisation, there are modern socio-economic realities. There are other ways of living and other ways of being, that a woman who is not married can decide to have a child of her own. A child is a child and there could be single parents families. But we have realised that even in formal government circles, there are regulations that a woman who is not married and gets pregnant is not given a maternity leave and, in the police and other security services, such a woman is sacked.
A woman is being discriminated against. If she marries out of her state, it becomes a big problem as she will be continually be asked to go to her state of origin.
So, it is good to have laws that protect daughters and wives so that, whenever the need arises, everybody falls in line.