Over the years the customary law has influenced the inheritance law in Nigeria. With the primogeniture system practiced among the major ethnic groups, which gives unequal right to Male and female as regards inheritance and sharing of property. This system recognizes the right of a Male child than that of the female, also discriminate and deny women the right to inherit property of there late father or husband’s. The Supreme Court in Suberu v Sunmonu (1957) 2FSC . upheld the Yoruba custom that a wife cannot inherit her husband’s property. Also and most importantly the rules of customary law of succession in Igboland is that “when a man dies, all his property passes to his eldest son, who manage and administer the estate on trust for the benefit of the whole family’’ In the Eastern Nigeria, a widow cannot inherit her husband’s estate when he dies, reverse is the case, the widow is regarded as part of the deceased property to be inherited by his heir. And in cases like Nezianya v. Okagbue the Supreme Court also upheld the contention that a married woman has no right to succeed to the property of her deceased husband. Also in Northern Nigeria it is generally accepted that the first in line as heir to a deceased property are his sons and next his brothers, females are excluded from inheriting a deceased man’s property.
The Supreme Court having recognized that the discriminatory practices against women are not justifiable. They do not only wreak havoc in families, they are also dragging down the pace of societal and national development. This customary law practice was therefore abolished in the recent case of Ukeje v Ukeje (2014) 11NWLR (Pt 1341) 185SC The Supreme Court ruling voided the centuries-old Igbo tradition that barred females from becoming beneficiaries of family estates, especially in their towns and villages. Ruling this Igbo custom as discriminatory and in conflict with Sections 42 (1a and 2) of the 1999 Constitution.
Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, who read the lead judgment, held 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. Consequently, he averred, the Igbo Customary Law which disentitles a female child from partaking in the sharing of her deceased father’s estate, is in breach ofSection 42(1) and (2) of the Constitution, a fundamental rights provision guaranteed to every Nigerian. The landmark judgment, therefore, declared the discriminatory customary law, void.
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 the case of Anekwe v Nweke(2014) NWLR (Pt 1412) 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.
The Supreme Court in its judgment delivered by Justice Ogunbiyi said; “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 civilization. “It is punitive, uncivilized 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”,
This transformative ruling is timely, because the role of women in modern society has changed from what it used to be. Everywhere, women are assuming more leadership responsibilities than the traditional society envisaged. With more access to education and opportunities, women in Nigeria, as everywhere, are making more positive contributions to the society. Discriminatory practices against them are, therefore, not justifiable. They do not only wreak havoc in families, they are also dragging down the pace of societal and national development. This Supreme Court judgment is a watershed that will go a long way in enhancing the status of women in the country. But, it will only be beneficial when women are ready to fight for the right that it has granted them
Though the apex court has given its verdict on the issue, but we are faced with the question if it will change anything among the people? Only time will tell! The Supreme Court ruling is a victory for gender equality in Nigeria. The implementation of the judgment is likely to be fraught with difficulties because the inheritance custom been voided is deep-rooted and likely to be resisted by the men folk in traditional communities, we urge the affected communities to embrace its provision of equality for males and females on inheritance issues, in line with the provisions of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the constitution of Nigeria and those of many other nations. Let the ruling become a convention and the norm in the spirit of fairness to the womenfolk.