Forget Tradition, Women in Nigeria Can Now Inherit From Their Fathers

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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?

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6 thoughts on “Forget Tradition, Women in Nigeria Can Now Inherit From Their Fathers

  1. Change has just happened to this law, it will take time, but people will get used to it.ones upon a time having twins and keeping them alive was a taboo, sending female children to school was haram, but change (mark my. Words) happened and is still happening to them. Some Yorubas may not have much issues on this decision because they already practice it.
    I sincerely love the decision, though I’ve never been interested in what my father will leave behind.
    However I advise men to put all effort in putting their houses in order before they die to avoid the bloody scene they mostly leave behind when they do.

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    • The twin analogy is dead on, Rhoda. It was the example I thought of when I read angry comments about the decision and people worried that it will upset a settled tradition in Igbo land. Good the Yorubas already have women inheritance of their father’s property as part of their tradition. It appears they are ahead of others in many ways. Like you, I sincerely have no interest in what is left behind. I just wish men will learn to share whatever is left amicably. And I have always found it strange that anybody will fight over something left by another man, yes, even if that man is one’s father. Whatever happened to working hard to make one’s own wealth? And like you advised, more people should embrace and not dread making wills. That appears to be a better way to stop the unfortunate but common situation were brothers become mortal enemies once their father dies.

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  2. I love this post and I sincerely support women should be taken care of too while sharing a deceased parent ‘s estate. The law is a good one and adopting it might be easier than we thought because the percentage of nigerians who have property to bequeath to their children is very slim. Majority of nigerians are poor and parents usually become heavily dependent on kids before their deaths eventually.
    On a personal note, why would people really worry over someone’s estate? When I was working in one of the nigerian banks, one faithful afternoon,i saw a young girl in my boss’s office with three hefty men,she was in tears. My curiosity led me to inquire while the young lady(probably in mid twenties or less) was in tears in d midst of those men. I was told the lady was a widow and the men were the late husband’s brothers. They were anxious to know the balance of the millions in their late brother’s account (They didn’t know banks have got their procedures).What a shame? Shame on those who fight over someone else’s sweat. If u love comfort,work hard and enjoy comfort and do not put your life on hold waiting for inheritance. I have a friend who keeps telling me’ I will get married once I get my mum’s gratituity, I need the money to start business,rent a house settle down…i really do wonder. My guy is approaching forty and is still waiting for mum’s gratuity. I wish people could see inherited stuff as less important,women should face their homes while fathers and mothers should make it easier by keeping a will.

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    • Nice contribution, Amara. Waoooo, I am touched by the story about the young widow. Yea, I do wonder why those men could do so brazenly and without any shame-eager to acquire a deceased brother’s wealth without any care for his immediate family. This new law on inheritance is a good one also because it will stop the practice where women who has only daughters are left with nothing at the death of their husbands. I do hope your ‘mum’s gratuity’ friend soon realize the danger in waiting. Yea, I don’t advocate women agitating for the enforcement of the new law at this time, except of course when they really need it. We all agree that leaving a will makes the fight for inheritance less messier. Thank you once, again, Amara, for stopping by.

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