On December 27, 1961, Lazarus Ogbonnaga Ukeje, a native of Umahia in Imo State died intestate. He had real property in Lagos State and for most of his life was resident in Lagos State. He and his wife, Lois got married on December 13, 1956. The marriage was blessed with four children. Enyinaya Ukeje is one of four children.
Following the death of Lazarus, Lois and Enyinaya obtained letters of Administration for and over the deceased’s estate. On being aware of this development, Gladys Ada Ukeje filed an action in court wherein she claimed to be a daughter of Lazarus and by virtue of that fact had a right to partake in the sharing of her late father’s estates. The Supreme Court of Nigeria in August 2020 passed a judgement, which many considered to be a landmark decision. The judgement was the upholding of the right of the female child to inherit property of her father in Igboland. This led to the jettisoning of the Igbo age-long custom and tradition, forbidding the girl-child from inheriting or partaking in the sharing of her late father’s property.
The court argued and agreed that such a custom and tradition was void on the grounds that it was discriminatory and in conflict with the provision of section 42(1) (a) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution. The Lagos State Court of Appeal, which Lois and Enyinnaya appealed, upheld the decision of the trial court, prompting them to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court in its judgment held that the Court of Appeal, Lagos was right to have voided, “the Igbo native law and custom,” which made the girl-child unqualified to inherit property. According to the lead judgement read by Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, “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, the Igbo customary law, which disentitles a female child from partaking in the sharing of her deceased father’s estate, is a breach of Section 42(1) and (2) of the Constitution, a fundamental rights provision guaranteed to every Nigerian.”
A traditional priest from Umuogele, Aba South Local Government Area of Abia State, Nze Ifejiaka Udeagbala, described the judgement as something, which might take a millennium to be implemented. This was even as he advised the girl-child not to struggle with her male siblings over property. Udeagbala said: “I remembered when the judgement was made last year; some people said it was a welcomed development, but those of us who are custodians of tradition knew it wouldn’t be able to stand the test of time. That judgement will end up bringing troubles in Igbo-land and our people will never allow it.
“How do they expect a married woman to leave her husband’s home, return to her father’s house to struggle over property with her male siblings? I read the judgement they gave and it was about a single girl who wanted to be part of the sharing of her father’s property.
The father had died without leaving a will. That was a different issue.” He also pointed out that none of the judges, who agreed to that judgement was Igbo, which to him, was an indicator that they didn’t know anything about the customs and tradition of the Igbo people. “I think people should be careful when dabbling into traditional affairs. We were Igbos before becoming Nigerians. How can you use such a case involving a young girl and her siblings to mandate Ndigbo to change our custom and tradition, which had kept our families united and harmonious over the years? You’ll see how fruitless it will be,” said Udeagbala.
The Chairman, Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Aba branch, Professor Charles Chinekezi, called for a total implementation of the Supreme Court judgement. His words: “The recent Supreme Court ruling that included the girlchild in the distribution of the family estate is a welcome development. Its absence for years has caused a whole lot of damage to the moral position of the Igbo culture and the interpretation of fair justice as it concerns all in a family. The girl child has to be considered when it comes to distribution of property in Igbo-land.
“Families must become more responsible in trying to interpret this and do the needful. This legal precedence has made it imperative that families, head of families and patriarchs, whether father or mother should be able to leave a Will before death.” Chinekezi also said that it was dangerous to die interstate, urging parents to draw a Will or specifically give out the gift to their children before they die. He said: “You have to bequeath certain things to your children.
It’s naturally unfair not to include all members of your family in the distribution of whatever you gathered on earth when you want to leave. Well, even if you’re not sure when you want to leave, you should be able to do some justice by specifically making some pronouncements, file it with the authorities or Umunna (kindred) and make it clear that such things shouldn’t be contested.” Mrs. Comfort Micheal applauded the judgement, stating that it would give a sense of belonging to everyone whether male or female.
She said: “I’ve seen families where some sons who are expected to play lead roles in families ended up contributing absolutely nothing to the care of their aged parents. In some families, the male children care less about their aged parents, believing that they will inherit everything no matter their behaviour.
“However, most female children are responsible and usually carry family responsibilities well, whether they are married or not. Now, when their aged parents finally die, you’ll now tell the girl-child, who had given her all to their late aged parents, that she wouldn’t inherit anything because she’s a female. Is that fair? Is that a justifiable tradition?” Honourable Cyril Ohamaeze, from Mbano, Imo State said that the issue of a girl-child inheriting property in Igbo-land was a traditional issue, which the court might not be able to handle. He stated: “I don’t think the court can decide the tradition of a people.
That Igbos doesn’t give property to a woman to inherit has been our custom and tradition. Recently, some families have decided to do otherwise because they want to accommodate everyone. “However, it’s an issue of tradition, conscience and not a legal issue. Our male children in Igbo-land are seen as heirs to their families while the girl-child is expected to get married. The name of every family lies on the head of a male child. This issue is tradition. For instance, in my house, I have five children and I have assets.
If I want to write my will, it’s my decision to decide what and whom to give. If I love my daughters and feel like giving them out of my wealth, nobody can stop me from doing that in my will. It’s only if I fail to make such provisions that tradition will take over and decide how it should be done which we all know.
“Traditionally, in Igbo-land, only the male children inherit their father’s property. The truth is that most of the daughters are even more responsible than some sons. I advise all parents to always consider their female child because they’re always caring and homely.” Mr. Okechuchukwu Iheanacho from Obingwa, Abia State said that in Ngwa-Land, women do not get any inheritance. He said: “I’ve never heard of women asking for property in their father’s house as long as Ngwa-Land is concerned.
Such a judgement by the Supreme Court is something that needs thorough review because it’s a difficult thing that may end up causing problems for us here. “However, the Supreme Court as its name goes is Supreme, but I completely doubt if such can be implemented in Ngwa-Land because it’s not in our culture and to force it on us will not be easy.
“There are some circumstances where the male siblings will have to be reasonable to help their sister. Maybe if she’s unmarried, they have to give her something. They could give her a place to farm, a house to live or make her comfortable because she’s one of them. “But on the issue of giving her property, which she could sell without anyone’s interference, will be very difficult. They will have to accommodate their unmarried sister, but not to give her land as her own.”