We cannot but rejoice with Igbo women who won the right to inherit a share of their parents’ estates following the recent Supreme Court ruling, which voided the centuries-old Igbo tradition that barred females from becoming beneficiaries of family estates, especially in their towns and villages.
Ruling this Igbo custom as discriminatory and in conflict with Sections 42 (1a and 2) of the 1999 Constitution, the Supreme Court nullified the practice in its judgment on the appeal filed in 2004 by Mrs. Lois Chituru Ukeje (wife of the late Lazarus Ogbonna Ukeje) and their son, Enyinnaya Lazarus Ukeje, against Mrs. Gladys Ada Ukeje (the deceased’s daughter). Gladys had sued the deceased’s wife and son at the Lagos High Court, claiming to be one of the deceased’s children and seeking to be included among those to administer and inherit their deceased father’s estate. The trial court found that she was a daughter to the deceased, who died intestate in Lagos in1981, and was qualified to benefit from his estate.
The Court of Appeal, Lagos, to which Mrs. Lois Ukeje and Enyinnaya Ukeje appealed, had upheld the decision of the Lagos High Court in favour of Gladys, prompting the Ukejes’appeal to the Supreme Court. In the recent judgment, the Supreme Court held that the Appeal Court was right to have voided the aspect of Igbo native law and custom that denies female children inheritance, especially of estates located in their home towns and villages.
Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, who read the lead judgment, held that 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, he averred, the Igbo Customary Law which disentitles 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 rights provision guaranteed to every Nigerian. The landmark judgement, therefore, declared the discriminatory customary law, void.
The Supreme Court ruling is a victory for gender equality in Nigeria. Although the implementation of the judgement is likely to be fraught with difficulties because the inheritance custom it voided is deep-rooted and likely to be resisted by the menfolk in traditional communities, we urge the affected communities to embrace its provision of equality for males and females on inheritance issues, in line with the provisions of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the constitution of Nigeria and those of many other nations. Let the ruling become a convention and the norm in the spirit of fairness to the womenfolk.
In welcoming this verdict, we recommend that the judgement should be orchestrated into a programme of events, workshops, seminars and celebrations, to signify a cultural transformation and the rejection of all forms of discrimination against women in Igboland and all over the country.
This ruling should be used as a springboard for the elimination of discrimination and enthronement of the just and equitable nation envisaged by the Nigerian constitution.
This opportunity for national mobilisation for a good cause should not be missed. Civil society, the media and human rights advocacy groups should enlighten the public on this ruling, while law enforcement agencies should be educated on the development. The traditional institutions that had insisted on the practice should embrace the changing times by according women their rightful place in all fields of endeavour in the society.
This transformative ruling is timely, because the role of women in modern society has changed from what it used to be. Everywhere, women are assuming more leadership responsibilities than the traditional society envisaged. With more access to education and opportunities, women in Nigeria, as everywhere, are making more positive contributions to the society. Discriminatory practices against them are, therefore, not justifiable. They do not only wreak havoc in families, they are also dragging down the pace of societal and national development.
This judgement should rightly form a federal law applicable all over Nigeria. It is expected that no court would henceforth make contrary rulings to this laudable judgement. Even though the 36 states have power to make their own laws and apply local customs within the state legal system in our multi-tiered legal structure, many of these laws adversely affect the status of women, and should be jettisoned where they are in conflict with the latest ruling.
This Supreme Court judgement is a watershed that will go a long way in enhancing the status of women in the country. But, it will only be beneficial when women are ready to fight for the right that it has granted them. We also expect this ruling to provide the impetus for the challenge of other discriminatory customary practices against women, widows, children and the handicapped in the society.