In the heart of Nigeria's legal landscape lies a complex web of inheritance laws, often fraught with gender biases. This article delves deep into the intricacies, focusing on the rights of women to claim their rightful share of property from deceased male relatives. We will dissect how these rights are treated under customary, statutory, and Islamic laws, while also shining a light on the broader socio-economic implications for women's empowerment.
The principal legal source are the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Nigerian Legislations and local statutes, Case laws, English Law comprising Statute of General applications, common law statutes. Amongst the major sources of the Nigerian Legal System is the customary law standing tall. These customary laws evolve from customs which have gained the force of law. Different practices have formed a peoples’ acceptable way of life and with time, yearn to find credence as to gain the force of law.
This article examines inheritance laws in Nigeria, focusing on women's rights and potential gender biases. It assesses whether women are entitled to inherit property from deceased male relatives, evaluating treatment under customary, statutory, and Islamic laws. Additionally, it scrutinizes the socio-economic impact on women's empowerment, reviews measures taken, and analyses recent judicial rulings, culminating in reform recommendations.
FEMALE INHERITANCE LAWS IN NIGERIA
Nigeria's legal system draws from various sources, with customary law playing a significant role, though not uniform across tribes and communities.
Unlike a woman who marries under statutory law, a woman who marries under customary or Islamic law in Nigeria does not enjoy adequate legal protection in the distribution of assets. Under customary arrangement, the husband is generally regarded as having dominant power to dispose of family property. In some cases, this power is often exercised without taking cognizance of the wife’s contributions as assets are usually acquired in the husband’s name.
The major index used to determine what system of inheritance is to be adopted for a deceased's property is the form of marriage that the deceased chose to adopt, be it a civil marriage, or under a customary or Sharia system, and whether the deceased made a Will. In order to have one's property shared under extant statutory provisions, one must contract a valid civil marriage under the Marriage Act, which is the primary statute governing marriage in Nigeria. A civil marriage establishes the presumption that the couple intend to subscribe to the statutory inheritance system.
Regarding statutory rights of inheritance relating to women, the laws are subject to the religious, customary, or indigenous beliefs or affiliations of the deceased successor. Nevertheless, the Constitution, Wills Act, and Wills Laws elucidate relevant provisions on the operations of inheritance in Nigeria. The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria addresses issues of discrimination based on gender, making practices that disfavour women's inheritance unconstitutional. The Wills Act and subsequent Wills Laws uphold testamentary freedom, opposing gender-based discrimination in inheritance. Administration of Estate Laws in various states supports non-discriminatory inheritance, encouraging equal shares to the estates regardless of gender.
The Nigerian constitution generally protects the rights to female inheritance, however customary practices usually practice the primogeniture rule, which often favour male heirs in property distribution.
In recent times, efforts have been made to address gender disparities in inheritance laws, with significant legal reforms taking place.
The Supreme Court of Nigeria and The Court of Appeal have over the past two decades delivered pivotal decisions on women's inheritance rights, particularly in Igbo communities in the eastern part of the country, challenging discriminatory customary laws and highlighting their unconstitutionality. Yoruba (of western part), female inheritance on the other hand appears more liberal and democratic.
In Eastern Nigeria, which encompasses Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, and Imo states, inheritance follows the Igbo custom. Traditionally, male children are favoured over females for the inheritance of a father's property, including house and land.
In Igbo customary law, widows typically do not inherit their deceased husband's property. They may only retain the house and a portion of land. This grants them possessory, not proprietary, rights. This practice stems from the belief that inheritance follows blood, and widows are not blood relatives of their husbands. Additionally, native law recognizes children from such unions as legitimate, but their mothers do not have the same status as wives under the marriage ordinance.
In Yoruba customary inheritance, when a person passes away without a will, the estate is divided. This is done per stripe, where it is first divided equally among wives, and then each wife's share is further divided equally among her children, regardless of gender. In polygamous settings, disputes may arise due to the proportional distribution among children of each wife.
Another Yoruba practice, 'Ori Ojori', ensures equal distribution of the deceased's property to each child, promoting fairness and reducing conflicts. In summary, under Yoruba Custom, girl-children have equal inheritance rights from their deceased father's estate. However, in Yoruba native law and customs, wives typically do not have inheritance rights in their deceased husband's estate, unless it can be proven that the property was gifted to them during the husband's lifetime.
Islamic succession follows a regulated framework, requiring adherence to Islamic principles for eligibility. The power to bequeath is limited to one third of the estate, with the remainder distributed among heirs according to prescribed portions. The Maliki school of Islamic law is applied in Nigeria, recognizing three grounds for inheritance: marriage, blood relations, and clientship. There are three categories of heirs: sharers at law, residuaries, and distant kindred, each with specific entitlements. For instance, a wife inherits a quarter in the absence of certain heirs, while daughters may receive one-half or two-thirds depending on specific circumstances. These provisions reflect the careful consideration of various familial relationships in Islamic succession.
Under the Islamic law, the Quran unequivocally affirms women's right to inherit, setting a precedent recognized by the religion. Generally, women receive half the inheritance of men, though exceptions exist, such as when a mother receives an equal share to the father. This demonstrates that women's rights and responsibilities are not entirely subordinate to men's in the eyes of God.
The Nigerian Court of Appeal took a very progressive stance in querying certain Igbo customs that discriminated against female inheritance however, the Supreme Court reversed this progressive stance, citing procedural irregularities in the Court of Appeal's approach. The Supreme Court also cautioned against labeling the Oli-Ekpe custom in Nnewi as repugnant, fearing potential backlash against customs that do not recognize women's roles. Critics argue that this conservative approach prioritizes the preservation of customary laws, even if perceived as unjust by modern standards.
Despite initial resistance, recent Supreme Court judgments in the landmark case of UKEJE V UKEJE (2014) LPELR-22724(SC) have affirmed the rights of Nigerian women to inherit from their deceased parents, reinforcing constitutional provisions. This decision solidified a female's entitlement to her late father's estate, though dissenting factions point to earlier concerns about potentially unsettling established customary norms. In that case, Hon. Justice Rhodes – Vivour, JSC who delivered the lead judgment said:
“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 disentitled a female child from partaking in the sharing of her deceased father’s estate is in breach of Section 42(1) and (2) of the constitution, a fundamental right provision guaranteed to every Nigerian. The said discriminatory customary law is void as it conflicts with Section 42(1) and (2) of the constitution.”
This landmark decision cemented a female's entitlement to her late father's estate, reinforcing constitutional provisions. Yet, there remain mixed reactions and factions that dissent from the Supreme Court's ruling in Ukeje, citing the initial concerns raised in Ejikeme’s case about potentially unsettling established customary norms.
Unfortunately, despite the erudite decisions of the Courts on the discriminatory customary laws on inheritance in the eastern parts of Nigeria, the permanent eradication of the practice continues to meet resistance due to ignorance and the custom-leeches.
IMPACT OF CUSTOMARY FEMALE PROPERTY INHERITANCE LAWS:
These inheritance laws significantly impact women's rights and gender equality in Nigeria. They relegate women to a secondary status, perpetuating economic dependency and limiting autonomy. This is particularly critical for widows, who face the risk of losing their homes, livelihoods, and their children's welfare.
The consequences of these laws go beyond immediate property distribution:
- Economic Empowerment: Excluding women from inheritance hinders their economic independence, impacting investments in education, healthcare, and family well-being.
- Poverty Alleviation: Denying inheritance rights perpetuates cycles of poverty, leaving women without resources to improve living conditions, educate their children, or start businesses.
- Access to Healthcare and Education: These laws directly affect access to essential services like healthcare and education, making it difficult for women to provide for their children's basic needs.
- Psychological Well-being: Discrimination and denial of inheritance rights can have significant negative psychological effects, leading to feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness.
- Gender Equality: Inheritance laws reinforce gender disparities, presenting challenges to achieving gender equality in Nigeria.
- Reform of Customary Law: There is an urgent need to reform customary laws, ensuring certainty and eliminating discriminatory practices.
- Enactment of Legislation: Legislation should grant widows married under customary law the right to inherit a portion of their deceased husband's estate.
- Sensitization Programs: Education and awareness campaigns, legal literacy initiatives, and legal aid support are crucial, particularly in rural areas.
- Promotion of Equal Inheritance Laws: National and State legislatures should enact laws to eliminate discriminatory practices against women in inheritance matters.
- Enlightenment Campaigns: Programs should focus on educating women about their inheritance rights, clarifying states' laws, and highlighting the role of the judiciary.
- New Wills Laws: Updated legislation governing wills can help ensure fair distribution of assets.
- Free Legal Aid: Providing free legal aid for matters relating to inheritance rights will facilitate access to justice.
- Administration of Estates Laws: States should establish laws supporting non-discriminatory inheritance practices.
- Economic Empowerment of Women: Initiatives to empower women economically will help break the cycle of dependency.
- Establishment of Sharia Courts: Sharia courts in Southern Nigeria can help address inheritance matters in accordance with Islamic principles.
In conclusion, Nigeria's journey towards securing and protecting women's inheritance rights is marked by commendable progress. However, sustained action and vigilance are crucial to achieving broader gender equality and creating a society where opportunities and rights are equally accessible to all, regardless of gender.
 See section 42(1) &(2) of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
 Indigenously known as “idi igi” & “Ori ojori” methods od distribution.
 See MOJEKWU V MOJEKWU  LPELR-13777(CA), UKE V IRO (2001),11 NWLR (PT. 723)196., MUOJEKWU V EJIKIME (2000) 5NWLR (Pt. 657) 403.