In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court of Nigeria has upheld the judgment of the Appeal Court respecting the right of a female child to her father’s inheritance. The Apex Court judgment has however, disrupted a long-held tradition of the Igbos that prohibits female children from inheriting their father’s properties.
The Supreme Court ruled that the tradition contradicts Nigeria’s constitution and it is discriminatory. It said the practice is a clear violation of section 42(1)(a) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution.
Gladys Ada Ukeje, the daughter of late Lazarus Ogbonna Ukeje had filed a suit challenging her family’s decision to disinherit her from her father’s estate based on the Igbos’ native law. The trial court had ruled in her favor, but the widow of late Mr. Ukeje, Mrs. Lois Ukeje, and her son; Enyinnaya Ukeje appealed the ruling of the trial court.
Consequently, the Appeal Court upheld the judgment of the trial court, prompting the duo to appeal to the Supreme Court. The long legal battle that started in 2004 with the file number SC 224/2004 ended in a historic verdict which does not give only Gladys a right to her father’s inheritance, but every other female child of Igbo race.
In its ruling, the Apex Court held that the Appeal Court has been right in its judgment that nullified the Igbo tradition that prohibits females from inheritance.
The panel made up of Justices Samuel Walter Nkanu Onnoghen, Clara Bata Ogunbiyi, Kumai Bayang Aka’ahs and John Inyang Okoro and others, agreed with the lead decision.
Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, reading the verdict said: “No matter the circumstances of the birth of a female child, such a child is entitled to an inheritance from her late father’s estate.”
Rhodes-Vivour added: “Consequently, the Igbo customary law, which disentitles a female child from partaking in the sharing of her deceased father’s estate is breach of Section 42(1) and (2) of the Constitution, a fundamental rights provision guaranteed to every Nigerian.
“The said discriminatory customary law is void as it conflicts with Section 42(1) and (2 of the Constitution. In the light of all that I have been saying, the appeal is dismissed. In the spirit of reconciliation, parties are to bear their own costs.”
While the ruling has voided the practice of disentitlement of a female child in Southeast Nigeria, it has also created a new conflict. The tradition has been upheld for ages, and consequently many have found the Supreme Court’s judgment unacceptable.
Igwe Simeon Osisi Itodo, the traditional ruler of Aji autonomous community in Igbo-Eze North Local Government Area of Enugu State, told Vanguard that the Supreme Court ruling will not change the custom of Ndigbo, and any effort to enforce it will bring chaos.
“There are traditions which had existed before the law. Before the emergence of law courts, Igbos have their tradition and custom which cannot be wiped out because of Supreme Court ruling.
“We are not against that ruling but we would not abolish our customs and traditions which all of us met. You can imagine a married woman coming back to her father to share his property with the sons.
“We would not allow it because it would breed chaos and troubles in our communities. If there are customs that allow such inheritance, let the people continue the practice but it won’t work in Igboland. In India, women pay the dowry but the reverse is the case here. We would not abolish our unique customs because of court ruling,” he said.
While there are many voices in support of the court’s judgment, many have acknowledged the difficulty in its implementation.
Another Monarch, Igwe Christopher Nnamani of Likke Iheaka, in Igbo-Eze South Local Government Area of Enugu State, who added his voice to the development said the Igbo custom that denies females’ right to their fathers’ property has been unfair, and needs to be changed. But he acknowledged that it would be difficult to introduce something new in place of the old custom.
“This unfair treatment of female children does not happen in Northern or Western parts of Nigeria. This explains why females with affluence lord it over their male counterparts in Igboland when they remember the injustice they have suffered in the past.
“If a male becomes the eldest man in his community, he would be entitled to some privileges, which may come in form of royalties but the reverse is the case for the women in Igboland. The challenge is how to implement it now because it now because it is an old tradition in Southeast Nigeria,” he said.
The tradition has been based on the fact that a girl-child will be married off, maybe far away from home where she cannot play the custodian of the inheritance. Moreover, for Ndigbo, a female child’s inheritance lies with her husband who is believed to have inherited his father’s property.
However, a twist in the custom that birthed the judgment is the urban setting, where Igbo fathers own properties far away from home, where inheritance is not governed by native laws and practices.
Additionally, the 21st century ushered in a new era of thinking and a brigade of rights activists ready to fight till the last drop of blood to kill the old norms that have subjugated women.
However, it is not the first time the Supreme Court is ruling in favor of Igbo women in this matter. There has been such a judgment in the past, but it has failed to change the custom particularly in the Southeast. And based on the views of the custodians of Igbo customs, the recent Apex court ruling may have little effect on the tradition.