CULTURE they say is the characteristics of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, social habits, music and arts. It is the totality of a people’s way of life. Tradition on the other hand serves as the vehicle through which elements of culture is passed down from generation to generation.
Rules made by government are called “laws.” Laws are meant to control or change our behaviour and unlike rules of morality, they are enforced by the courts. Law basically is aimed at ensuring fairness by recognizing and protecting basic individual rights and freedom, such as liberty and equality. It was in the light of the foregoing that the Supreme Court, in two recent judgments, abolished the ancient culture in Igboland that denies women the right of inheriting property in their father’s house. Specifically, a 5-man panel of Justices of the apex court, held that the practice conflicted with section 42(1)(a) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution.
Culture and custom
According to the court, “Any culture that dis-inherits a daughter from her father’s estate or wife from her husband’s property by reason of God instituted gender differential should be punitively dealt with”. The Supreme court which described the culture as discriminatory, maintained that, “The punishment should serve as a deterrent measure and ought to be meted out against the perpetrators of the culture and custom.”
The first judgment was on an appeal marked: SC.224/2004 which was filed by one Mrs. Lois Chituru Ukeje, (wife of late Mr. Lazarus Ogbonna Ukeje) and her son, Mr. Enyinnaya Lazarus Ukeje. The duo entered the appeal against Mrs. Gladys Ada Ukeje who is a daughter to the deceased. The origin of the case was that Gladys sued the appellants before the Lagos State High Court, claiming that as one of the children of the deceased, she said she ought to be included among those to benefit from the family estate. In its verdict, the trial court, found that she was indeed a daughter to the deceased and that she was qualified to benefit from the estate of their father who died in1981. Dissatisfied with the decision, Mrs. Lois and Enyinnaya Ukeje took the case before the Court of Appeal in Lagos, where the lower court judgment was also upheld.
The case was later taken before the apex court for adjudication. In a judgment delivered Friday April 11, the Supreme Court, affirmed the decisions of the lower courts and voided the law and custom of Igbo’s that deny the girl-child the right of inheritance. Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, who read the lead judgment, stressed that “no matter the circumstances of the birth of a female child, such a child is entitled to an inheritance from her later father’s estate. “ Consequently, the Igbo customary law, which dis-entitles 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. Other justices that also concurred to the verdict were Justices Walter Samuel Onnoghen, Clara Bata Ogunbiyi, Kumai Bayang Aka’ahs and John Inyang Okoro.
In another case on the same subject, the apex court, held that Nigerian customs which disinherit women are repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience and should therefore not be allowed to stand. Thus, the court, declared as repulsive the custom of the Awka people in Anambra State which allows married women to be disinherited upon the death of their husband because they could not produce a male child for the late husband. The decision followed a case of a widow, Mrs. Maria Nweke, who in 1991, instituted a case at the Awka Division of the Anambra State High Court. She had among other things, prayed the court to declare that she was the person entitled to statutory right of occupancy of a parcel of land situated at Amikwo village. She also urged the court to restrain the defendants from trespass on the said land. The defendants in the matter, Onyibor Anekwe and Chinweze, were the descendants of Anieke Nwogbo, the half brother of the plaintiff’s husband, Nweke Nwogbo. The court was told that their father, Nwogbo Okonkwo Eli, had died outside the home town of the parties. Consequently, his two widows who had a son each (the plaintiff’s husband and the father of the appellants) went to stay with Eli’s half brother, Obiora Okonkwo Eli. Obiora, subsequently built two separate houses at No 19 Ogbuagu Lane Amikwo Village, Awka and shared them between the two sons of Nwogbo Okonkwo Eli (the defendants’ father and the plaintiff’s husband). Trouble started when the plaintiff was asked to vacate her own portion of the land. The plaintiff said that she inherited the portion given to her late husband upon his death shortly before the civil war. She further told court that the defendants asked her to vacate the house on the grounds that she had no male child in the house, adding that she had six female children. She bluntly refused to leave the land, insisting that according to the customs of Akwa people, a woman, could inherit the property of her husband whether she had a male child or not. The plaintiff averred that the Ozo Awka society arbitrated in the dispute and agreed with her that she had a right to remain on the land. Nevertheless, the defendants, disagreed with her. Their contention was waved aside by both the trial and appellate courts which ruled in favour of the plaintiff.
Dissatisfied, the defendants appealed to the Supreme Court. Though the defendants acknowledged the fact that the plaintiff had six female children, it was their argument that a woman without a male issue in Awka had no right of inheritance of any land except the one she purchased with her money. In dismissing the appeal, Justice Clara Ogunbiyi said the issue to be decided was “whether the respondent (plaintiff) who had no male child can inherit the property of her late husband?” She held that the appellants had not given any credible evidence to over turn the judgments of the two lower courts. “I hasten to add that the custom and practices of Awka people upon which the appellants have relied is hereby out rightly condemned in very strong terms. “A custom of this nature in the 21st century societal setting will only tend to depict the absence of the relatives of human civilisation. “It is punitive, uncivilised and only intended to protect the selfish perpetuation of male dominance which is aimed at suppressing the right of the women folk in the given society.” “One would expect that the days of such obvious differential discrimination are over. “Any culture that disinherits a daughter from her father’s estate or wife from her husband’s property by reason of God instituted gender differential should be punitively dealt with., “The punishment should serve as a deterrent measure and ought to be meted out against the perpetrators of the culture and custom. “For a widow of a man to be thrown out of her matrimonial home, where she had lived all her life with her late husband and children, by her late husband’s brothers on the ground that she had no male child, is indeed very barbaric, worrying and flesh skinning”, Justice Ogunbiyi held: The apex court went ahead and awarded the cost of N200,000 against the appellants. Though the apex court has given its verdict on the issue, will it change anything among the people? Only time will tell!