I often joke that while most Nigerian men do all in their power to have male children who will carry on the family name when they are gone, most times, what they leave when they die are sons who care little about maintaining their fathers’ legacy except the ones that come with the wealth left behind. With a recent Supreme Court decision however, I am afraid family bickering and fighting over a deceased person’s estate is going to get uglier and more intense as estate distribution meetings are now going to have even more unwelcome guests.
Before now, most customs in Nigeria exclude women from inheriting their fathers’ property. But even when the family treasure is left for the male children alone to share, the distribution is often characterized by acrimony between the first son who feels entitled to get a large disproportionate part of the estate and the younger brothers who are left discontent. Once, my former law firm had a client whose elder brother had sold all the shares (stocks) their father left behind and was also managing and collecting rents from their father’s property in the city without any accounting to his younger brother whatsoever. Our client sued to get an order of the court to have the real property sold so that he could get his share from the proceeds of the sale. During a ruling in her chambers declining jurisdiction based on territorial grounds, the female (and gorgeous) Judge raised two oft-ignored moral questions. First she asked, why should first sons feel entitled to a greater share of their father’s wealth because of a position they occupy by a mere accident of birth? Second, why do men always focus selfishly on what they will get from their father’s estate without any thoughts on what they may give their sisters? I guess you are thinking, ‘It’s the tradition’.
Well, women now have rights to inherit from their fathers according to a recent Supreme Court decision. (Although Mojekwu v Mojekwu (1997) tangentially touched on the discriminatory practice against women in Igbo inheritance culture, it wasn’t directly on point as the main issue in the case was the constitutionality of oliekpe custom and necessity of nrachi ceremony in Nnewi before a female child who had no brothers could inherit from her father). In Ukeke v Ukeje, however, the Supreme Court in April this year categorically ruled that female children have as much right as their brothers to partake in the distribution of their father’s estate. The Supreme court ruled unanimously that the custom that excludes women from inheriting from their father was unconstitutional and so cannot stand.
It was interesting to see online comments following an article reporting the decision. One person was sure the Justices must have been under the influence of alcohol when they made the decision. Another wondered why the judges considered themselves wiser than their forefathers who established the tradition. And yet another opined that the new law will encourage women to have children out of wedlock and will only increase the divorce rate as women who are now financially dependent on and therefore submissive to their husbands will become more assertive as they will have financial means to sustain themselves without their husbands. Others further argued that it will be unfair to have women inherit from their fathers and their husbands as well. I will not refute any of these arguments. They came from men.
While I do not by posting this article intend to stir the pot by advocating a movement to enlighten women on their new rights, there are two situations where I would love to see women assert their inheritance rights. First is where without getting a share from their fathers’ wealth, they would be left with no reliable means of sustenance. And second, when sisters who do not have interest in asserting their inheritance rights cannot get their brothers to share the family wealth in harmony. In the latter case, I will like to see women teach their feuding brothers a lesson in contentment by conspiring (good-humouredly of course) and indicating their interest to share in their fathers’ wealth. Surely, if the family wealth isn’t enough for say, two brothers, it would definitely be sufficient when their six sisters assert their rights to partake in the distribution. It will then be fun to watch the two warring brothers band together to fight off their sisters.
Finally, the disunity in many families can be avoided if parents make wills in their lifetime. I know a man who had nine sons. I believe the only reason he is resting in peace, and in heaven I hope, is that he shared his property before he died.
So what do you think? Should women assert their rights to inherit from their parents?