Mrs. Lois Chituru Ukeje and Enyinaya Lazarus Ukeje v. Mrs. Gladys Ada Ukeje, Supreme Court of Nigeria, SC. 224/2004
In this case, the Nigerian Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, confirmed that the Igbo customary law of inheritance, which excludes female children from inheriting the property of their deceased fathers, was in conflict with the non-discrimination provisions of the Nigerian Constitution of 1999, and therefore void.
In December 1961, Lazarus Ogbonnaga Ukeje died intestate with real property in Lagos State. The appellants are his wife Mrs. Lois Chituru Ukeje and her son, Mr. Enyinnaya Lazarus Ukeje, both of whom obtained Letters of Administration for and over the deceased’s Estate. The plaintiff/respondent is the daughter of the deceased and brought this suit seeking a declaration from the court that as the daughter of the deceased she is entitled to a share of his estate. The trial judge found for the plaintiff, declared the current Letters of Administration to be null and void, granted an injunction restraining the defendants from administering the estate, and ordered that new Letters of Administration be created. The defendants/appellants lodged an appeal, which the Court of Appeal Logos (Division) dismissed for lacking merit. The case was brought before the Supreme Court of Nigeria by appellants appealing the Court of Appeal judgment. We focus here only on the aspect of the case which addresses Igbo customary law which does not recognize female inheritance.
All parties involved in this case are part of the Igbo ethnic group. The Supreme Court upheld as inviolate the finding by the lower courts that that Igbo customary law which disentitles a female from inheriting the property of the deceased father is void as it conflicts with the fundamental right to freedom from discrimination set out in section 42(1)(a) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution. Based on a textual interpretation of the Constitution, the Court further clarified that 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. This would indicate that it does not matter whether the female child is born out of wedlock.
When the trial court initially ruled on the case, the judge found that the plaintiff is, in fact, the daughter of the deceased and is thus entitled to a share of the real property. Additionally, the trial judge declared the original Letters of Administration made to both defendants to be null and void; ordered the defendants to prepare an inventory of the estate and/or render an account of all monies, transactions and/or properties which have come into their possession since the grant of said Letters of Administration. An injunction was also ordered restraining the defendants from administering the estate of the deceased. Finally, the trial judge ordered the defendants to hand over the administration of the estate to the Administrator General pending new Letters of Administration. The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal and upheld the trial court’s decision.
This decision had the practical effect of annulling Igbo customary law which excluded females from inheriting property from their deceased fathers.
However, as reported in 2021, women in parts of Southeastern Nigeria continue to commonly face profound discrimination in matters of inheritance despite the Supreme Court ruling.
The Supreme Court of Nigeria handed down the ruling for Ukeje v. Ukeje on the same day it handed down Anekwe v. Nweke. In both cases, the Supreme Court condemned the refusal of customary law to recognize female inheritance with regard to property. Although not named explicitly, the judgment in the present case also brought to light issues of multiple or intersectional discrimination, where discrimination is experienced more severely or in a unique way in connection with exclusion from inheritance on the overlapping grounds of gender and circumstances of birth (i.e. being born out of wedlock). Customary law in Nigeria is a major source of law; however, the holdings in these two cases illustrate that the validity of customary rules within the legal system depends on whether those rules are consistent with the Constitution and are not repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience. In a country like Nigeria where there is a large discrepancy in gender equality that is largely grounded in traditional cultures and practices, the holdings in these two cases are a significant step in the protection of women’s property rights and gender equality.
Gender equality in matters of inheritance is particularly relevant today when women around the world still own less than 20 per cent of the world’s land. In Africa, while 31 percent of men own land individually, only 12 per cent of women do so. Various studies reveal that women’s rights to own and inherit property, including land, are vital to breaking the cycle of poverty. According to a UN Habitat report, “[i]nheritance is one of the commonest ways for women to acquire or access land…. However, the pursuit of gender equality in inheritance rights has been one of the most difficult challenges in rights-based approaches owing to the complexity as well as well entrenched patriarchal characteristics of socio-economic, cultural and religious practices.” There have been increasing calls from human rights mechanisms and UN bodies to strengthen women’s rights to property, land and other resources through effectively addressing discriminatory laws and practices. In the context of these contemporary contestations surrounding customary laws relating to inheritance, there have been significant jurisprudential developments in various countries, including India, Tanzania and South Africa.
Special thanks to ESCR-Net member: Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University.
Last updated 16 July 2018