Sometime ago, I was privileged to attend a lecture organized by the Mbano – Etiti Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association as part of their maiden law week programme. The lecture was entitled “Up turning the Igbo Custom which Disentitles a female child from inheriting the deceased father’s Estate: Supreme Court Decision in UKEJE V. UKEJE: Myth or Reality”.
The lecture was delivered by an erudite jurist and scholar; Prof. U.U. CHUKWUMAEZE; Dean, School of Postgraduate Studies, Imo State University, Owerri. But relying on his academic freedom, as he aptly put it, the learned lecturer recast the lecture little to “Igbo Custom On Inheritance – Endangered specie”
The crux of the matter was to x-ray the Supreme Court decision on “Ukeje Vs Ukeje” and other subsequent judgements of the apex court which had variously ruled that a female child is entitled to inherit her late father’s estate. The judgements were based on the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, section 42(1)(a), 2 wherein there shall no discrimination against any citizen of Nigeria based on sex, religion etc; all are equal in the sight of the law.
The disheartening aspect of the judgements, as highlighted by the lecturer, was the eminent jurists of the apex Court’s castigation of the entire Igbo law and customs of inheritance as “Barbaric and repugnant”.
While this author may not wholly share the strong sentiments of the professor on the Supreme Court decision where he stated “I submit that it is unacceptably mythological; it is an exercise in voodoo jurisprudence” nor do I want to contend with the learned justices in their wisdom, yet, I strongly feel that there is urgent need for a reinterpretation or reassessment of these judgements before our people start exploiting them to cause havoc in the fabrics of Igbo Traditional system. It is the common practice among most Igbo communities that a man is inherited at his death by his surviving male children. Where a man dies without marrying or is not survived by any son(s) his estate is inherited by his brothers at the death of his wife. This is the custom of “Iri-ekpe” among my people of Isiala Mbano in Imo state.
It is our belief and practice here that our daughters are “Ama onye ozo” i.e they belong to another man and lineage. We bear daughters who will never have to live with us. They will ultimately marry and remain in their husband’s house forever. If a daughter is divorced; she will marry again. If she is widowed, her brother in law will inherit her and take care of her and her children. Following on that, we strongly believe that a woman has no name, community or god until she marries. And that was why our fathers will give their wives the names they bear (Example) “OBI DI YA, AHU DI YA, MMA DI YA” etc. her house, her community and her gods are now those of her husband eternally. She does not carry her father’s wealth to her husband’s house i.e. she cannot because her father is wealthy belittle or look down on her husband or his family. At her father’s death, she only returns home to mourn him and go back to her father’s house. If and when the need arises she comes home to help in settling family disputes for her brothers as “NWA ADA”. At those times, she is given a pride of place and her words are hardly challenged.
The above scenario was the typical traditional Igbo setting before modernism and urbanization came upon us. At that time, a man did not need to go to Owerri, Port Harcourt or Lagos and Abuja to live and acquire landed property. If for any reason a man migrated, he did that to live in his new home permanently, becoming a native of that land. Today, a man lives in the urban area where he makes money and acquires property, yet lives in his ancestral land.
By the Supreme Court judgements, at his death, his daughter(s) are entitled to share(s) of his estates. The question we now ask: is it his estates in his ancestral home or those in the urban area or both. As I had said earlier, a distinction needs to be made in this area to avoid a social upheaval in Igbo land.
Presently, at the death of an Igbo man his first son (DI OKPARA) is his heir. He is entitled to the deceased’s “ISI – OBI”, that is the man’s main house where he lived and died. The “DI OKPARA” then goes ahead to share the deceased’s estate with his surviving brothers.
However, as the court is now directing that daughters are entitled to their father’s estates, should his first child who may be a daughter, whether divorced, single or married inherit her father’s “ISI – OBI?” what should be shared and what should be left out. Should some things be reserved for the son(s) and some of the daughter(s).
In another instance. A man had only daughters, a man of great wealth, even an “OZO TITLED” man. At his death, his daughters should come back from their husband’s houses to share his estate, perhaps, the eldest daughter would assume the “ISI – OBI” and the man’s “OZO TITLE”, as it has pleased the Court to decide. Will she then sit with the “UMUNNA” (Male taxable members of the community) and deliberate on issues of the community. Will she also be with them during security matters, especially when bad eggs in the town are to be taken to the backyard for questioning, or even war with other communities. Will they allow her to be a part of sharing or allocating community lands. If none of the dead man’s daughters could not do any of these, that man’s lineage is still practically extinct (AMA SIRI ESI).
In Isiala Mbano, a woman is not entitled to sell land under whatever guise and anyone doing such transaction is doing that at one’s own risk, because it is null and void under our custom and law. But with these Supreme Court jugdements, will these daughters who have inherited their Fathers estate be involved in land speculation; buying and selling land. We need to know.
Last August (2018), I wanted to eat new yam. I invited the male members of my kindred (Umunna) to the exclusion of the women folk, for certain reasons. The following day, one of our sisters; a divorcee accosted and accused me of not inviting her to my celebration. She argued that she is a member of the men’s wing of our meeting, paid her dues as a man, shared things with us as a man (All this is true). I agreed with her on these points, but pointed out that those things don’t still make her a man. Thank God that she does not know about the Supreme Court Judgements. I know many people will call me barbaric, illiterate, male chauvinist etc but the truth is that I am an “OZO” TITLED MAN, “ONYE NZE” the custodian of the customs and traditions of my people and women cannot be admitted into certain male circles, just as we cannot present kola nuts to a woman, no matter how highly placed. This is not England, Europe or America where English law permits female inheritance, thus they have QUEENS in their land.
It must be noted that English laws grew out of their culture and suits their life, same way that Igbo laws and customs grew out of our culture for our own well being and daily life.
It is also noteworthy that the Igbos are not in a hurry to share the inheritance of their late brother. They do not pray for him to die extinct. Thus within that custom which some people describe as barbarize and repugnant is the practice of wife inheritance; for a dead man’s brother to marry her and bear children for his late brother. In the same vein, if the woman does not want to be inherited in the family, she is allowed to go out and continue to bear children for late husband. The children so born will answer their late father’s name and inherit his estate. Also where the widow has only daughters, the Igbo custom permits her to marry another wife in the name of her late husband, who will now bear children (sons) to inherit their late father (whom they never know nor were they his blood, but were his sons by customs and tradition). The custom of my people also permits one of the daughters of the deceased to remain in her father’s house and bear sons who will carry on their father’s name and inherit him.
Okparanozie writes from Lagos