The Supreme Court of Nigeria Missed Opportunity on Igbo Tradition

The Supreme Court of Nigeria Missed Opportunity on Igbo Tradition

 “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.” From Supreme Court ruling

The Nigerian Supreme Court has attempted a bold call on a tradition: female children must have rights to the inheritance of their fathers in the Igbo Nation. The implementation would be exceedingly challenging. The fact is this: most Igbos expect their daughters to marry, and never to return from their husbands’ homes. So, the tradition makes it this way: stay in your husband’s place and we do not want you back. At the same time, they do not expect the daughter to bring anything belonging to her husband back to them.

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.

But with asset structures changing, everything is complicated since unlike in the old ancestral world, a father now owns stocks which are easier to transfer. So, a man can give his stocks to his married daughter if he thinks the son cannot manage them well. This is already happening in most educated families: daughters are getting portions of their father’s assets and wealth. But since most properties in rural areas are not formalized, and with the daughters expected to be married out, rights to properties domiciled in father’s ancestral homes remain harder for the female child to access. How are you to quantify your father’s house for sharing  when you live in another town? In Nigeria’s balance sheet, that property is valued at nothing, being non-formalized.

Igbo traditional marriage

Yet, the irony is that the Igbo Nation accords huge rights to female children, especially when they are married. They name their daughters “Nneka” which means “mother is greater”. The implication is that a man can lose his kingdom, and the only safe option is to run to his mother’s place. This means, you may be living in your father’s land but true safety is in the mother’s place. That reverence to daughters remains till today when elders gather, and before the oldest man drinks palm wine, he will first ask for any “Nwa-ada” present. Nwa-ada means “son to our daughter”.  You need to take care of Nwa-ada because the boy could be the one to welcome you to the daughter’s new home (i.e. his father’s house) should bad things happen.

All humans – male or female – are equal before law. I will have a piece to explain why even though the Igbo Nation seems not to pass inheritance from father to married daughter (not common these days), Igbos see daughters as “greater”. We name our daughters “Nneka” which means “mother is greater” and by tradition the safest place is your mother’s, not father’s. More so, before the oldest man breaks a kola nut/drinks palm wine in any gathering, Nwa-ada, the daughter’s son, is invited, jumping ahead of everyone. You need to make him happy so that if bad things happen and you run the the married daughter, his son will be open to welcome you!

Then, the most consequential: all mother’s inheritance are exclusive for daughters. So, if you look carefully, the real issue is not that a father’s inheritance goes to sons (since mother’s goes to daughters), the problem is this: gender inequality is pervasive that what mothers leave behind is never significant. Imagine a scenario where mothers are earning more than fathers, it would be sons who will wage a fight asking for equity.

Then, you may ask: why not lump mother & father wealth together? The problem has to do with entrepreneurial polygamy where different women were married to help expand farmlands. Linking … ok, let’s stop. (my earlier post on LinkedIn)

All Together

As I have noted, the core problem is not really who controls the father’s estate but the pervasive gender inequality in Africa which makes it harder for women to accumulate wealth. What the Supreme Court has done is simple: only the father could accumulate wealth and estate. What happens when the mother is the one who has accumulated wealth? Typically, such goes to the daughter in the ancestral Igbo tradition. 

My point is this, the Supreme Court of Nigeria would have used one stone to kill two birds by ruling thus: No matter the circumstances of the birth of a child (male or female), such a child is entitled to an inheritance from his or her parent’s estate (mother or father). But by making its ruling focusing on the father’s estate, it leaves open for a son to sue a sister who gets inheritance from the mother.  

Most mothers, in Igbo Nation, WILL their estates to their daughters. So, if a family has a scenario where the mother does own the estates, the son loses, if tradition is followed. The Supreme Court could have ruled and fixed this anomaly once and for all. It certainly got distracted because Igbo Nation, Nigeria, Africa and indeed the world have sustained the evil of gender inequality, with the assumption that only a father’s estates would be in contention. 

(Of course, most daughters are supported during Idu Nwanyi (marriage ceremony) where parents buy goods for the daughter as she leaves her parent’s home to begin a new home with her husband. While that should not be seen as sharing inheritance, the fact remains that the Igbo tradition does honor women, because the joy of every family, is to ensure that the daughter has assets to help her support her new husband in the new home. Yet, this only works when the daughter is being married. Where the daughter is not getting married, such favours are not extended, explaining the thesis that the Igbo tradition expects daughters to be married).

Sure, most times, the Court rules on the case at hand! But for me, while the lady got her good call,  the Court did not go all the way. But pray and hope, no one needs a Supreme Court to help a brother or sister!

But I may be very theoretical here: in practice, no man will sit on his father’s estate and see his sister suffer. So, the fact this case went to the Supreme Court shows the need for the Court to have fixed this gender rated issue once and for all.

And as it does that, it needs to write to the National Assembly to make laws that would fix gender inequality which makes it harder for women to accumulate wealth as men. 


Click to register for Tekedia Mini-MBA (Sept 13 – Dec 6, 2021): online, self-paced, $140 (or N50,000 naira). Full curriculum here.

Click to join Tekedia Capital Syndicate and build Next Africa with a minimum of $10,000 co-investment in startups.

Share this post

3 thoughts on “The Supreme Court of Nigeria Missed Opportunity on Igbo Tradition

  1. Am currenty working on a script that has alot to do with this subject matter, i really need more indepth research just like this one to be able to produce a profound work.
    Thank you sir for this one.


Post Comment