The rights of women in Nigeria, where they are more often than not seen as part of their husbands’ estate and written wills are frowned upon, take a turn for the worse upon the death of their spouses.
By Rose Nwaebuni, The Africa Report, 27 November 2013
Regina Obodoeche, widow of the late Echezina Obodoeche of Irifite, south-east Nigeria, was accused by her in-laws of complicity in the fatal motor accident that took her husband’s life, five months earlier.
After the burial in the village, she was detained in solitude confinement in a hut.
The conditions were inhumane, she was forced to drink water used to wash her late husband’s body, as proof of her innocence, as well as being starved.
Obodoeche’s in laws justified it as part of the three month traditional mourning period for widows.
“It appears God, and the laws, have turned their backs on me and my children,” the widow lamented, a double penalty of death and cultural inheritance laws that saw her fall from being a multiple property owner to living in a make-shift shack made of wood.
“We are destitute. I married my late husband 15 years ago when he had nothing, but now, his wealth is attracting his relatives who have disinherited my two teenage daughters and me of properties I toiled with him to acquire.”
When Obodoeche returned to Lagos, after the mourning period was over, she discovered that her husband’s relatives had sold off the family house, cars and other properties jointly acquired by her husband and herself.
Assets including a building and other properties were confiscated. Local custom laws were used to dispossess both the widow and her daughters, without their knowledge.
Obodoeche’s story is quite common and typifies the fate of women.
Ironically, disinheritance was enforced and supervised by matriarchs, who internalise power and legitimise male narratives about women, as a means of retaining leadership positions.
This tradition has aimed to intimidate, subdue and humiliate women as a way sustaining a culture of obedience, rendering them perpetually subservient.
Nigeria’s constitution, supported by international law, emphasises equal rights for women. But paper rights are difficult to realise in societies where inequality is a long standing tradition, with men largely confirming that assets of women are ceded to the husband on marriage.
Institutions where women and widows are instructed to seek redress and justice, regarding inheritance issues are scenes of contention between paper rights (as enshrined by law) and ‘living laws’ (internalised by culture).
Despite this, women fight on through the courts, using three available systems: the regular court, customary court, or the sharia court, depending on whether the marriage was solemnised under the Marriage Act 1990 (statutory), Native Law and Custom, or Islamic Law.
Nigerian law recognises two forms of property inheritance on death: testate (where there is a written will) and intestate (where there is no written will). Nigerian women face the most challenges under intestate inheritance matters as testate inheritance is relatively straight forward.
Wills and inheritance
In Nigeria, the culture of written the will is weak, not only in rural areas where socio-cultural inequalities and illiteracy are high, but also among the literate and well-informed.
While documenting inheritance as a means of preventing conflicts between wives, children and extended families, according to many interviewed, was unnecessary and troublesome, high-profile and wealthy Nigerians, including ministers, governors, corporate executives on the other hand, showed a marked preference for written wills.
Most inheritance conflicts brought to the court, concerning widows, are handled by the customary courts under native law. Customary courts are presided by magistrates and mostly elderly members of society, who are not lawyers and therefore lack any formal legal experience.
Inheritance systems in Nigeria, predominantly patrilineal, are generally based on applicable customs and traditions of the deceased’s ancestral community, irrespective of his residence or where his estate is located.
Interpretations vary in accordance with the custom and tradition of a people. Under the Yoruba customary law, children share equally from their father’s estate regardless of sex on his death intestate. A widow has no right of inheritance in her deceased husband’s estate, as she forms part of the estate of her husband and can also be inherited by a relative of her late husband.
Jibowu, F.J. observes in Suberu v. Sunmonu, “It is a well settled rule of native law and custom of the Yoruba people that a wife could not inherit her husband’s property since she herself is, like a chattel, to be inherited by a relative of her husband”.
In Davies v. Sungunro, Beckley J. said that the reason for depriving a wife of inheritance rights in the deceased husband’s estate was because devolution of property under native law and custom follows the blood.
The Islamic Law of Inheritance applies in Muslim-majority northern Nigeria. Under the law, wives and daughters are entitled to participate in the sharing of the estate of their deceased husband or father. When there are children or other descendants, the widow’s portion is an eighth of the deceased estate. A woman without any child inherits a quarter of the deceased husband’s estate.
Under Igbo Customary Law, only male children inherit their late father’s property on his death to the exclusion of the females and widow. The first son inherits his late father’s estate and could devolve to his siblings, at his discretion.
Where there is no son, the deceased’s eldest brother or male relative inherits. Where the deceased is a polygamist and has many sons from several wives, the eldest sons of each of the wives may take part in sharing of the estate.
* Rose Nwaebuni writes for the Forum of African Investigative Reporters (FAIR)