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Women and Property Inheritance: What Does the Law Say?

Spoken in hush tones and taught to female children from a tender age, the age-long question often causes a stir when asked.

The edition of the International Women’s Day is worth a trip down the annals of history to explore an empowering decision of the Nigerian judiciary, when the Supreme Court affirmed the right of Nigerian women to inherit properties from their deceased parents. This is the case of Ukeje & Anor v Ukeje (2014) LPELR-22724(SC) where Lord Olabode Rhodes-Vivour JSC made the noteworthy pronouncement 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  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 said discriminatory customary law is void as it conflicts with Section 42(1) and (2) of the Constitution.”

This decision settled beyond all doubts, the fundamental right of a female to participate in the inheritance of her deceased father’s estate. The judgment of the Court in this case is of very significant value to Nigerian women because the Nigerian judiciary has experienced a chequered history on this issue of the right of women to inherit their deceased father’s properties, in light of the various customary laws in some parts of the country which prohibits women from participating in such inheritance.

For instance, in 1963, the Supreme Court had in the case of Nezianya & Anor v Okagbue & ors (1963) 1 All NLR 352, held that a widow is a recognised member of her late husband’s family and not a stranger to it, and thus permitted to live in her late husband’s house, but she was not permitted to dispose the property by giving it out or selling it. This 1963 decision left women handicapped as they were incapable of exercising ownership rights over the properties of their late husband.

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AIHS 2022

This 1963 judgment also formed the basis of support for the old Igbo “Oli-Ekpe” custom which stated that only the eldest surviving male off-spring could inherit the property of their late father and prohibited female inheritance because the judgment suggested that ownership of property should be restricted to the patrilineal lineage of the deceased.

However, in 1997, the Late Niki Tobi (Justice of the Court of Appeal) was bold enough to declare this “Oli-Ekpe” custom as being repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience in the famous case of Mojekwu v Mojekwu (1997) LPELR-13777(CA).In this case, the erudite Niki Tobi JCA took great pains to condemn this custom – and other customary practices – which discriminated against women, for being repulsive to equity in the modern day. This decision was widely hailed as a step in the right direction in the advocacy for women’s rights. Several other decisions of the Court of Appeal delivered between 1997-2003 followed this reasoning and affirmed the rights of women to own, inherit and purchase property.

The victory gained by the pronouncement of Niki Tobi JCA in this case was however short-lived, as the erudite Niki Tobi JCA was harshly criticised for the statement he made about the repugnancy of Oli-Ekpe custom by his superiors when the case was further appealed to the Supreme Court in Mojekwu v. Iwuchukwu (2004) LPELR-1903(SC). The Supreme Court was of the opinion that Niki Tobi JCA should not have made the statement without calling all relevant parties who engaged in such discriminatory practices against women from explaining their side of the story.  The harsh remark of the Supreme Court in this appeal gave further impetus to the propounders of the Oli-Ekpe and other similar customary practices to persist in their discrimination against women in the sharing of family inheritance.

Hence, the recent position taken by the Supreme Court in Ukeje & Anor v Ukeje (Supra)has therefore provided the much needed clarity on the right of all genders – women inclusive – to participate in the inheritance of their parents’ properties. The effect of this judgment which is binding in all parts of Nigeria is that females have an equal stake to inherit their parent’s properties, as do their male counterparts.

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