Nigerian law and the female right of inheritance in Igbo land

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Do you know that in Igbo land today, females have right in their father’s properties?

In Igbo traditional setting, it is a norm that when a man dies under the condition of intestacy his properties are devolved in accordance with the applicable customary norms.

In Igbo native law and custom, the properties of the deceased are devolved to his first son (Opara) who is the heir-apparent, before the properties are shared among the existing male children of the deceased after the one-year mourning period.  This indigenous customary practice has long developed rules of inheritance for intestacy through the traditional canon of descent which indeed has given room to disinheritance and discrimination of the female descendants. Under this customary practice in Igbo native law and custom, the female child has no right to inherit any of the properties of her deceased father. This rule in Igbo customary law of inheritance does not only run contrary to the dynamics of the present sociopolitical realities and international best practices but falls under the repugnancy doctrine test.

It is also discriminatory and violates some International conventions against discrimination. Example is the convention for the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women adopted by the UN General Assembly on the 18th December 1979 to provide a framework for developing and applying equality norms to specific conditions in different legal system. This international bill of right which Nigeria is a signatory to, states in it’s preamble that “any discrimination against women is a violation of the principle of equality of life and respect for human dignity”

Also, the UN charter which is a basic component of international customary law binding on all member states including Nigeria has provided an elastic precedential pedestal for harmonizing customary laws within the jurisprudential legal systems of member states. Also, African charter regional bill also prohibits discrimination of any type on the ground of sex.

Consequently, while the law of inheritance and succession under the English legal system remains harmonized, its customary aspect which breeds conflict and acrimony among family descendants has remained repugnant especially in Igbo land. It is unfair that the female right of inheritance in the nation’s law of succession has continued to be violated especially in Igbo land. This is because the nation’s customary law of inheritance has not been harmonized to reconcile with the dynamics of the present realities.

Over some times, there have never been an adopted legislation with human rights benchmark to regulate the law of succession in our nation’s pluralistic legal system. Our courts on several occasions have long sustained some of the customary practices that subjugate women especially in their rights of inheritance in their families.

Contrary to this age-long customary practice in Igbo land, the nation’s Apex court in April 2014 invalidated and declared unconditional the age-long customary law of succession that excluded and denied the female descendants the right of inheriting the properties of their deceased father, saying that such practice violates the spirit of the provision of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This means that no matter the circumstances of the birth of a female child, such child is entitled to inherit her father’s property.

Based on this judgement, it is interesting once again to remind our people especially in Igbo land that it is still a norm that every female child is entitled to inherit and take part in the sharing of the properties of her deceased father who died  under the condition of intestacy. Our people should know that this judgement is still binding on every family in Igbo land. It’s unfortunate seeing some people denying the female children the right in the property of their fathers.

As a country with a common law tradition, that judgement should bring a radical reform of the nation’s customary law of inheritance which no doubt needs reformation to address the lacuna and inconsistencies in its application. Moreover, the principle of equity which is a rule of English law and the principle of natural Justice should be harmonized with our various customary laws as a single system to eliminate all forms of inconsistencies and uncertainties in our multiple legal system. This will indeed act as a noble weapon in shaping our customary laws in a more civilized manner that respects the rights of all irrespective of status, sex and circumstances of birth. This will also enthrone our laws as tool of social engineering and sinequanon for achieving the object of equity, Justice , legal positivism and utilitarianism for the greatest happiness of the greatest number of all Nigerians.


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