In Nigeria, female child and widows rights to Inherit their father/ husband’s Property in most tribes and cultures are somewhat similar. Generally in the inheritance system, female child or widows are usually excluded or limited to inherit their father/ husband’s property. This principles or custom has raised arguments, debates on equality and discrimination of the female gender. However, some of this principles and customs have been changed or amended by the court of justice as we shall see below.
In most Igbo traditional societies, females and widows do not exercise rights of inheritance over their father/ husband’s property. Though they could benefit from the estate or property. Such gestures are normally extended to them by their father/ husband out of his personal consideration while he is alive. And even at that, such gesture cannot include any portion of land within his ancestral home. The right to succession of the entire estate belongs exclusively to the first or eldest son of a deceased person who acts as Trustee for the other children. Such first son can inherit absolutely to the exclusion of other children. However, by some modifications, the eldest son can allocate land to his other male siblings upon their making of a request for allocation of land. In the case of Ejiamike v Ejiamike (1972) 2 ENLR p. 11, the court held that the right of the eldest surviving son to succeed his father in the headship of the family is automatic and arises from seniority. Only the father who is the owner and creator of the family property can deprive the eldest son of this right by a valid direction. This direction might be made to ensure that the affairs of the family are properly managed by a person competent on the grounds of intellect and education. In the absence of any such direction by the father, the right of the eldest son cannot be taken away without his consent.
In the Igbo land women are excluded from succession and entitlement to inherit the property of their father/husband. A widow has no right of ownership over any property of her deceased husband, rather the widow’s right in the land is to mere possession of a parcel of family property subject to her good behavior and it is immaterial whether she has surviving sons or not.
However, as modernization evades our country, some customary laws are getting reformed. The reformation of unfavorable customary laws of women inheritance in the Igbo land is evident in the decision of the Supreme Court on female right to inherit property. On April 15th 2014, the Supreme Court based its decision of that of the Lagos state High Court and the Court of Appeal. This has made women succession and entitlement to inherit property in the Igbo land possible and valid.
In Northern part of Nigeria, which is largely dominated by Muslim, women’s inheritance is governed by Islamic law which is the Sharia law. Under the Sharia law, women can acquire and retain their own property, pass it on to their heirs, and can inherit from their deceased parents, husbands, brothers, sisters, daughters and other relations. Under the personal law code of the Sharia, the share of inheritance a female receives is half as much as the male heirs. A widow, though, has the right to only one-quarter of the estate if her deceased husband has no descendants and one-eighth if there are heirs. If there is more than one widow, this one-eighth portion is shared between them. These are usually poor properties, with no provision for housing or land. Under the Sharia law, a sole surviving daughter is entitled to half the net estate, whereas a sole surviving son receives the entire estate.
In the Yoruba land Spouses are not meant to inherit each other’s property. On the death of a Yoruba man who dies intestate, dispute often arises as to whether his widow can inherit his property. However, whether a widow can inherit the intestate estate of her husband will depend on the customary law of his locality. Most problems arise when the deceased married more than one wife. In the case of Oloko v. Giwa (1939) 15 NLR 31, the court held that generally, widows do not inherit their deceased husband’s property. They are only allowed to remain in the house or a portion of farm land.
Widows have only possessory rights and not exclusive rights over their deceased husband’s property. It was the opinion of the court that inheritance follows blood and since a widow is not a blood relation of her husband, she has no claim to any share in the property. In Aileru V. Anibi (1939) 15 NLR 31, Jibowu J noted as follows:
“Marriage according to native law and custom is recognized by our law and the issue of such marriage is legitimate. There is no question (but) that the plaintiffs are legitimate children of their deceased fathers, but their mothers have not the same status under native law and custom as wives of marriage under the marriage ordinance.”
Moreover where a husband in his will purports to vest his share of unpartitioned family property in his wife, such gifts will not be capable of transferring because the property consist of rights which are purely communal and inalienable. Where such property is being distributed by the family members, the widow cannot successfully claim that she is entitled to the share which would have being her husband’s property if he had been alive. This is because the transferring or partitioning of family property under customary law follows the blood. In suberu v sunmonu (1957)12 f.s.c pg33, the Supreme Court declared that; it is a settled rule of native law and custom of the Yoruba people that a wife could not inherit her husband’s property. Also in oshilaja v oshilaja (1973)CCHCJ pg11, the court held that in accordance with the decision of the Supreme Court in the suberu’s case, the widow in the instant case could not inherit her deceased husband’s estate, and as the deceased died intestate without a child, the court held that the sons of his uterine sister were entitled to share in the estate to the exclusion of his widow.
It should be noted that this practice has long been abandoned because the law has been declared repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience. Nowadays the existing rules of customary law allow women to inherit similarly to males. In Sule V. Ajisegiri 13 NLR 146, it was held that the partition must be equal between those entitled (regardless of sex) whether male or female. Thus, the defendant’s claim that being a male he was entitled to a larger share was rejected. In
Ricardo V. Abal 7 (1926) 7 NLR 58, the court went a step further to hold that while the male child is the head and manages the estate, in the event of partitioning, a female child who is older than others has a right of first choice in the partitioning of the estate of her deceased father.
Conclusively, as seen from the cases above mentioned, the Yoruba people’s property transfers equally to all children, irrespective of age or gender, while the eldest male child typically succeeding as the Dawodu, or family head, with responsibilities as trustee of the family property. However, in the absence of a male child or such a person is too young, the eldest daughter can also become the Dawodu.
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