18 March 2011

Nigeria: Inheritance Laws And Women's Rights

"I and my children were beaten and kicked out of our house by my brothers-in-law. We live by begging, in continual fear" - Widow

he above quotation was from an abused woman who became a victim of circumstance and her crime was that she is called "woman". Women have sought for their rights, privileges, legal and societal recognition through conferences, seminars, public awareness campaigns and private educational self development. The laws in operation in Nigeria today have not adequately protected women's rights. Women are human beings and no lesser citizens than men. Do they really need to "struggle and fight" for their rights? I agree that inheritance laws and practices are particular to different societies and cultures. However the point must be made that all men must accept the women and respect them and their rights either as wives or humans who nonetheless are bona fide citizens of the Country. The women are fundamental to the birth of our male children who acquire inheritance rights at birth. The Nigerian constitution allows every citizen to own property anyway in the country. This ownership right is not limited to men or boys alone. In this same vein, men having married the women as wives legitimately and legally must be taught to obey the 1999 constitution and include their wives in their Wills and inheritance practices. Men should be encouraged to include their wives and daughters in their Will. Any amendment to the Nigerian constitution that fails to make copious references and grant protective rights to women will be defective abi initio.

The inheritance rights of women must be given vent and taken into cognizance in our legal systems at the National and State legislatures. We must protect the goose that lays the golden eggs. Some cultures especially those repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience, must be legally checked and sanitized to conform to human standards. Section 1(1) of the 1999 constitution states thus "This constitution shall be supreme and its provisions shall have binding force on all authorities and persons throughout the Federal Republic of Nigeria"

I read a story from the WIDO website from Enugu state sometime ago of a 26 year old widow and mother of one daughter that portrays the irrepressible male dominance over women in inheritance matters in the southern part of Nigeria. This story confirms the insensitivity of the inheritance laws and practices in most parts of Nigeria. The point to note here is that such instances as in this story should be subjects of criminal prosecution by the police and not especially where the man dies intestate. Any unlawful entry into another's house is trespass and the act of taking away property without authorization or consent of the owner is theft simpliciter. The elements of crime namely Mens Rea and Actus Reus are complete in this story and prosecution is ripe.

"My husband died of TB (and probably AIDS) in August. Since then I've been having terrible difficulties with my in-laws. Although they didn't help at all in raising the money needed for his burial. I found on my return from the hospital that my father-in-law and my husband's younger brother had ransacked my wardrobe and removed my husband's bank passbook and other things from our house. My father-in-law refused to allow me entry into the family compound to collect my personal belongings. In fact they told me that thieves had broken in and stolen everything. I knew this wasn't true because I saw some of my sister's in-law wearing my dresses! So immediately I reported this 'theft' to the Traditional Ruler and the Police, and they found some of the so-called stolen items my father-in-law's own house. After my husband's burial, his younger brother took over the house we owned in the nearby town! He ejected our tenants and replaced them with new tenants, and refused to give me any account on the new tenants. A little while later my little daughter fell sick, but my in-laws refused to give me any money which I badly needed for the medical bills for the child. I did what I could but my resources were few. The child eventually died."

"By the end of November 2003, a Peace/Reconciliation meeting was held in the home of the Igwe's representative and attended by 4 Chiefs from the Igwe's Cabinet, members of the widow's family and her in-laws, the Investigating Police Officer (IPO) and two representatives of Vanguard Team. The Igwe's representative handed over the items found in her father-in-law's house which were checked by the IPO against the widows inventory and she also took her personal belongings from the items and the bank passbook (bearing a balance of N70, 000.00) It was agreed that her late husbands Hiace Litace Bus should be given to her late husbands father.

The widow concludes her story thus: "..... I haven't heard anything more about my share of my late husband's property. But I'm wearied by all this and think I should just give up any hope of getting anything of my late husband's property, except for the gas cooker. I want to start life afresh and forget the whole horrible experience. I'm also hoping to get married again very soon."

The emphasis here is that widows have a right to seek legal redress against the inhuman treatment of in-laws. They had lived and labored with their husbands. Why will the law and some nondescript, mundane legally reprehensible practices exclude them from the fruits of their labor? The only recognized exclusion from inheritance for the woman is the Will of the dead man. In the absence of this document which must be properly executed in line with the legal requirements, the woman must be allowed by law and practice to execute her late husband's estate. It's unimaginable that some cultural or traditional practices do not conform to basic Fundamental Human Rights of a person and yet the law seems helpless with all the entrenchments in chapter 4 of the 1999 constitution. If the constitution cannot restore human dignity, then a state of emergency is imminent in the law of inheritance. I agree that cultures are peculiar to their people but where it is inconsistent with the provisions of the constitution, it should be pressured for a change. In this century and modern age, these harmful and discriminatory practices must be jettisoned. If we can fight against female genital mutilation we can also fight against discriminatory inheritance practices. I defiantly support widows to seek legal redress against their in- laws who may try to dispossess them of their late husband's estate in the name of some innocuous inheritance practice. The law must view this as discriminatory, oppressive, criminal and unconstitutional. In some other societies of the world notably America and Britain the inheritance practice is strictly according to the Will. But the widow has a right to seek legal redress to get her own share of her husband's estate even if the man dies intestate. In divorce matters, the woman must not only be thrown out of the house but she and the children of the marriage must be adequately provided for in maintenance costs. The British colonized Nigeria but since they left, we have depreciated the values set for us and decimated our focus that all that matter to the people in government is not human development and respect but business ventures and self aggrandizement.

My Bible tells me that a man and a woman are married until death do them part. This is acceptable in the Christendom. It must also be noted that the man and woman built the marriage together and lived the marriage. The woman must have been instrumental to the acquisition of the properties or maintaining them either directly or by conduct. Our matrimonial laws have protected the wife from certain acts of oppression of the man but not much in inheritance cases.


"Marriage is a union of two consenting adults to the exclusion of all others. The law must respect this."

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