It was a high society wedding which attracted distinguished guests including businessmen, high-ranking military officers and top politicians from all parts of the country. That was twenty years ago. For Helen, it was a memorable day. Her marriage to Engineer Raymond Chika Ngwu Okosisi Eze, a native of Etiti Ngwo, in Udi Local Government Area of Enugu State, was later to transform her from a village girl to a celebrity. Eze had already carved a niche for himself in the textile industry, and had gone ahead to incorporate a private textile company in Lagos, known as Chirex (Nig.) Enterprises, in 1985.
In 1995, Eze recorded another milestone with the establishment of another company known as Chitex Industries. Chitex, a sister company to Chirex, specializes in the manufacture and sale of industrial chemicals, importation, distribution and installation of industrial spares and accessories.
Both husband and wife had everything money could buy. With a fleet of state-of-the-art cars, and splendid homes, both in Lagos and Ngwo, the couple had their kernel cracked by a benevolent God as Easterners would say.
A renowned philanthropist and a staunch member of Christian Pentecostal Mission (CPM), FESTAC Town Lagos, Eze was on December 26, 1996, honoured with the chieftaincy title of 'Omeluoha I' of Ngwo, by the traditional ruler of Ngwo, His Royal Highness, Igwe I.O.U Ayalogu, in recognition of his contributions towards the infrastructural development of the community.
But, on October 28, 1999, tragedy struck. Engineer Eze was brutally murdered in Lagos by men suspected to be armed robbers. The gruesome killing of her husband marked a turning point in Helen's life.
Last week, in Enugu, Helen sobbed her heart out as she narrated her ordeal since her husband's gruesome murder, on the "Action for Women's Inheritance Rights In Africa," jointly organized by a United States-based International Human Rights Law group, and the Women's Aid Collective (WACOL), a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), dedicated to promoting women and young people's rights.
Helen, a mother of two boys and four girls, told the audience at the conference hall of Zodiac Hotel that her brother-in-law caused the homicide squad of the Nigeria Police Zone Two, Onikan, Lagos, to arrest her on the allegation that she paid armed robbers to kill her husband. "I spent four months with my twin babies in police detention. I went through mental torture and agony," she says. She was released after police investigations could not link her with her husband's death.
Even then, her in-laws seemed unsatisfied. Late Engineer Eze, according to them would not be buried until they were convinced that Helen had no hand in his death. Helen was dragged to the Lagos High Court and charged for homicide.
The charge could not be sustained because of lack of evidence.
When her brothers-in-law failed at the law court, she was taken to Elele in Rivers State, where a Catholic priest, simply known as "Father Elele," a man supposedly endowed with supernatural powers administered an oath on her. Helen came out with a clean bill of health. "They did all these things to me to dispossess me of my husband's property," Helen told TEMPOLife in an interview.
Late Engineer Eze was buried on December 28, 2000 after leaders of CPM and the Anglican Bishop of Enugu, Bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma said enough was enough. Even then, Helen's brothers-in-law denied her and her six children access into the husband's palatial home in Ngwo. "We didn't remove a pin from that house." However, her brothers-in-law failed in their bid to take over her husband's two companies in Lagos. She ran to WACOL which provided the legal framework to keep the brothers-in-law at bay from the two companies. Indeed, Helen and her six children are directors of the company, an arrangement which made it difficult for Helen in-laws to lay claim on the companies.
Ngozi Eze hails from Amaike in Ohaukwu Local Government Area of Ebonyi State.
When her husband, Martin, then a police officer, fell sick in November 1999, he was admitted into the Federal Medical Centre, Abakaliki for medical attention.
For inexplicable reason, her brothers-in-law refused to come to the hospital to see their relation. Ngozi, a mother of five children, told the audience that after her husband died a week later, the relations refused to pay the hospital bill of N6000.
However, according to her, the police authorities paid the bill. But the money was deducted from her late husband's burial fund, which she put at N20,000.
After collecting the balance of N14,000, she was chased out of the family house. Ngozi complained to the Ebonyi State Police Command, who obliged her with accommodation in the police quarters. But after one year, she was given a quit notice. "Today, I am homeless," she told TEMPOLife. Her last child Chimaijem, whom she brought to the forum looks anaemic. She complains of lack of money to take him to the hospital.
Jeanne-Marie Tusey from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), equally went through a traumatic experience after the death of her husband. A professional teacher, Jeane-Marie's husband died after 20 years of marriage. Both struggled to build four houses in Kinshasa and two in the village. The couple had two commercial vehicles and two private cars.
Jeane Marie told the audience that though her husband did not write a will, he recorded the manner in which his property will be shared in a cassette. The couple came from two different villages with different dialects.
So, when Tusey gave up the ghost on July 31, 1997, after a brief illness, Jeane-Marie's brothers-in-law, seized the cassette and gave it to a lawyer from her husband's village to interpret the contents of the cassette. The lawyer, according to Tusey, said the deceased instructed that the two houses in Kinshasa should be sold in case of his death and part of the proceeds given to his wife for the upkeep of the children, and the remaining property be given to the deceased relations. "I got only seven hundred dollars," says Jeane Marie, and I knew the lawyer interpreted the contents of the cassette to favour my brothers-in-law, says Marie.
Besides, she was compelled to shave her hair and to sit on the bare floor for eight days as a mark of honour to her departed husband. "Nobody was allowed to speak to me during these eight days," she says.
The two-day forum was characterized with tales of woes by widows drawn from Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone and Gambia.
Kate Agogo's late husband lived in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, while she lived in Takoradi. When he died on October 22, 1999, Agogo had an uncompleted house in Accra and an Opel car, plus unspecified sum of money in his bank account. She said her brother-in-law, then a law student, seized the car and other property belonging to her late husband. It was only after Kate's lawyer threatened to report the matter to the Ghana Bar Association, that the brother-in-law returned some of the seized property.
Marie Elena John Smith, leader of the delegation from the International Human Rights Law Group, says her organisation has since 1998 been concerned with the harmful, primitive and degrading treatment meted to African women at the death of their husbands. Beside dispossession of property, some widows, particularly those suspected to have killed their husbands, are subjected to inhuman treatment. In some communities in the Eastern part of Nigeria, a woman suspected of complicity in the death of her husband is either meant to lie on the same bed with the deceased or compelled to drink the water used in bathing the dead husband to prove her innocence.
Since 1998, the International Human Rights Law Group, has worked with human rights groups and activists in Africa, to address the pervasive denial of women's inheritance rights. The group launched a three-year international advocacy campaign in 1999 to raise the issue of inheritance rights at the annual meetings of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Since then, human rights advocates from Benin, Bourkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo have joined the law group delegations to the Commission to address the inheritance rights. The advocacy campaign has yielded some dividends.
For instance, the UN Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution on women's equal rights to property and to adequate housing during its sessions in 2000 and 2001 respectively.
Back home, the Enugu State House of Assembly recently passed a bill making it unlawful to infringe on the fundamental rights of widows and widowers. The bill, which was later signed into law by the state governor, Dr. Chimaroke Nnamani, stipulates among others, that anybody who compels a widow/widower to shave the hairs on his or her head or any other part of the body, or to sleep either alone or on the same bed or be locked in a room with the corpse of the husband or wife, shall be liable on conviction to a fine of five thousand naira or two years imprisonment or both.
The law also stipulates that "subject to the marriage act, wills law, administration of estates law, or indeed any customary law (not repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience), a widow/widower shall not be dispossessed upon the death of the husband/wife of any property acquired by the deceased husband/wife (during the deceased husband/wife's life time) without his/her consent.
The issue of women's inheritance rights is akin to that of Osu caste system in Igboland. Despite the passage of a law by the government of the former Eastern Region, outlawing the obnoxious system, most communities in the former Eastern Region still practise the Osu caste system. Participants at the two-day forum in Enugu, agree that they would have a herculean task convincing men to allow women inherit their husband's property at death. The Prohibition of Infringement of a Widow's and Widower's Fundamental Rights Law, 2001 enacted by the Enugu State Government, is generally perceived as a paper tiger. The kernel of the matter is that the question of disinheritance is deeply embedded in the people's culture and tradition. While the law favours the widower, the widow is still at a disadvantage.
Mrs. Uche Balonwu, UNICEF Zonal Information Officer, Enugu, also a widow, counsels that women should be economically empowered so that they can withstand the storm when their husbands pass on. She says such economic empowerment should start by sending girls to school to acquire skills before getting married. In all, she appeals to the church to join the fight against harmful, primitive and degrading traditional practices that constitute violence and gender biases against women and girls.