The Supreme Court in a landmark decision, has upheld the right of a female child to inherit properties of her father. By this decision, the apex court has voided the Igbo age-long law and custom which forbid a female child from inheriting her late father's estate.
The Supreme Court voided this tradition and custom on the grounds that it is discriminatory and conflicts with the provision of the constitution.
The Supreme Court held that the practice conflicted with section 42(1)(a) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution.
The land mark judgment was on the appeal marked: SC.224/2004 filed by Mrs. Lois Chituru Ukeje (wife of the late Lazarus Ogbonna Ukeje) and their son, Enyinnaya Lazarus Ukeje against Ms. Gladys Ada Ukeje (the deceased's daughter).
"Gladys had sued the deceased's wife and son before the Lagos High Court, claiming to be one of the deceased's children and sought to be included among those to administer their deceased father's estate.
The trial court found that she was a daughter to the deceased and that she was qualified to benefit from the estate of their father who died intestate in Lagos in 1981.
The Court of Appeal, Lagos to which Mrs. Lois Ukeje and Enyinnaya Ukeje appealed, upheld the decision of the trial court, prompting them to appeal to the Supreme Court.
In its judgment, the Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeal, Lagos was right to have voided the Igbo native law and custom that disinherit female children. 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, the Igbo customary law, which disentitles a female child from partaking in the sharing of her deceased father's estate is 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. In the light of all that I have been saying, the appeal is dismissed. In the spirit of reconciliation, parties are to bear their own costs," Justice Rhodes-Vivour said.
Justices Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, Clara Bata Ogunbiyi, Kumai Bayang Aka'ahs and John Inyang Okoro, who were part of the panel that heard the appeal, agreed with the lead judgment.
The judgment has evoked mixed reactions from Ndigbo, particularly traditional rulers who are the custodian of the tradition and culture, as well as church leaders.
It is a welcome development - Bishop Nwokolo
In his reaction, the Bishop, Diocese on the Niger, Anglican Communion, Rt. Rev. Owen Nwokolo described the judgment as a welcome development. He said that female children are not second class citizens and should not be treated like one.
"Female children have and should be accorded the same rights given to their male counterparts and therefore should not be discriminated against.
"This is not the first time the Supreme Court has given this judgment. Some years ago, the Supreme Court gave similar judgment but we are happy and we thank the Supreme Court for upholding the same judgment and there is no going back in females inheriting their fathers' property.
"Families should put the judgment in practice and female children should stand up and claim their right. It is not only Supreme Court judgment but God given right and they should take that right".
Prof. Uzodinma Nwala-led Alaigbo Development Foundation, ADF, also welcomed the decision, saying, "in today's world, daughters have proved their mettle in bringing sustainability, honour and dignity to their families. Some of them have played the role of bread-winners for their father's houses.
"So, it would have amounted to great injustice to continue to deny them the right of inheritance. They should be entitled to a fair share of their family wealth whether married or single."
Supreme Court ruling cannot abolish the tradition of Igbos - Igwe Itodo
However, a prominent monarch in Nsukka and the grand patron of Enugu State Traditional Rulers Council, and the traditional ruler of Aji autonomous community in Igbo-Eze North Local Government Area of Enugu State, Igwe Simeon Osisi Itodo, said the Supreme Court ruling cannot abolish the tradition and custom of the Igbos.
Itodo said that any attempt to implement such law in Igboland would provoke chaos and skirmishes among various communities.
He argued that the custom is unique to the people of South-East Nigeria and should not be touched.
"There are traditions which had existed before the law. Before the emergence of law courts, Igbos have their tradition and custom which cannot be wiped out because of Supreme Court ruling.
"There are so many things we have in common which cannot be stopped because of court verdict.
"We are not against that ruling but we would not abolish our customs and traditions which all of us met. You can imagine a married woman coming back to her father to share his property with the sons.
"We would not allow it because it would breed chaos and troubles in our communities. If there are customs that allow such inheritance, let the people continue the practice but it won't work in Igboland.
"In India, women pay the dowry but the reverse is the case here. We would not abolish our unique customs because of court ruling," the monarch said.
Custom unfair to Igbo women - Igwe Nnamani
But another prominent monarch and the traditional ruler of Likke Iheaka autonomous community in Igbo-Eze South Local Government Area of Enugu State, Igwe Christopher Nnamani disagreed with Itodo.
Nnamani said the custom is unfair to the Igbo women and called on the states' Houses of Assembly in the South-East to make laws that would domesticate the ruling of the Supreme Court on the matter.
He said that some fathers in their wisdom share their properties to their children while alive irrespective of their sexes, saying that the custom reduced the female children to slavish status in Igboland.
"This unfair treatment of female children does not happen in Northern or Western parts of Nigeria. This explains why females with affluence lord it over their male counterparts in Igboland when they remember the injustice they have suffered in the past.
"If a male becomes the eldest man in his community, he would be entitled to some privileges, which may come in form of royalties but the reverse is the case for the women in Igboland. The challenge is how to implement it now because it is an old tradition in South-East Nigeria."
For the chairman, Enugu State Association of Town Union Presidents, Chief Paully Eze, "any custom which shows to be manifestly unlawful should be expunged." Eze, a lawyer, said it is wrong to deny any child inheritance because of sex consideration.
"Any custom that did not meet the test of time, that is, when it is manifestly unlawful should be expunged. I stand strongly with that pronouncement. Nsukka High Court has earlier pronounced it before it was affirmed by the Supreme Court.
"It is very much unfair to deny females right of inheritance of their fathers' properties. Because it is a new law, it would definitely bring problems in terms of implementation but with time, we would get accustomed to it. It is already causing ripples in my community," he said.
Chief Augustine Uzochukwu from Ihiala Council Area of Anambra State hailed the judgment just as Igwe Patrick Okolo of Nkpunano community, Nsukka, Enugu State insisted that the Supreme Court judgment must be obeyed by every community in Igboland.
Okolo, however, posited that Nri ancient community stands as the best community to interpret the judgment, "though we concur with the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The Supreme Court judgment should be upheld in principle in some quarters of Igboland while traditional unwritten constituency holds supreme in most quarters of Igboland."
Judgment completely right - Ezenagu, PG, NUF
In his reaction, the President- General of Ndigbo United Forum, NUF, Chief Godson Ezenagu, commended the decision of the Supreme Court, saying that granting females access to their fathers' property is natural, adding that it would give them a sense of belonging in the society.
"According to Igbo tradition, the female child inheritance does not happen and now that the Supreme Court has ruled that they are entitled to that, by natural justice and conscience, I agree with them completely.
"Granting them access to their biological father's properties is a natural thing. Sometimes, customs handed over from generation to generation can be awkward and can be discontinued.
"For denying them that, they are put in serious jeopardy; they are molested at home and also in their marital home. Their partaking in sharing of property will make them more comfortable than the situation in which they found themselves. That is what is supposed to happen naturally.
"All animals are equal and at the same time, all children are equal. We shouldn't because of custom deny the female child her natural right.
"So, it is a welcome development and I am sure all people of good faith will support it and advocate that even the ones that have not been done or already done could be revisited. Involving them is the best thing ever, even though they may not get equal share but it will give them some leverage", Ezenagu said and wished that the same court abolish the practice of a married woman bearing her father's name in her husband's home.
"That is the advantage and the disadvantage of the ruling will be that most women may not like to go into marriage because their father is rich and has a lot of property to benefit.
"Whether your husband is rich or poor, you will leave your own family to your husband's family. Once you are married, you change your family name to your husband's name. Some women are now attaching their family name to their husband's name. I think it is wrong.
"I believe the same law that abolished Igbo customs denying female child rights of inheritance will also abolish it. Most educated women are doing it but it is wrong", he said.
Also reacting to the court decision, Chief Augustine Emelobe, a renowned Chemical Engineer, said that it has removed the unjust and unfair treatment on the female children.
"I support the verdict of the Supreme Court. Children are children irrespective of whether they are male or female. I have always had the notion that it is unjust and unfair on the part of the female children.
"I applaud the Supreme Court as the last hope of the common man in this age-long man's inhumanity to man."
"I totally agree with the Supreme Court that the Igbo law and custom, which forbids female children from inheriting their late father's estate on the grounds that it is discriminatory and conflicts with the provision of the constitution."
For the President-General of the Coalition of South-East Youth Leaders, Goodluck Egwu Ibem, the Supreme Court decision is a welcome development. According to him, it is a wonderful defense of the girl-child who before now, has been treated as a second class citizen in our society.
"She is seen as the property of her husband who loses all forms of rights once she gets married.
"A man who has only female children in our society loses his rights to certain privileges like being a traditional ruler or his inheritance in his own father's compound. The situation before now has been very ugly," he lamented.
"We deeply appreciate the Supreme Court for this landmark judgment that has brought back the confidence of the girl-child in our society today. Communities that
"We are not in the South South and South-West tradition or the Northern part of Nigeria. But in South east it is not the practice that the female child inherit the Father's property.
"Rather the father can give the female child one or two rooms in case she comes with the husband and the children.
"May be after the ceremony for which they came home they will go back. So, the female child inheriting the father's properties will be a difficult thing to practice as part of our tradition in Igbo land.
"Just imagine, after the father of the House dies and they say that the most senior of his children who is a female child should inherit the family house of the father in the village.
"What you see we are doing is the steps laid for us by our forefathers. Nobody will built a house in the village and say that his female child will come and stay there.
"By the time, they want to implement this law in Igbo land it will cost a very big problem it will even get to a appoint of those children trying to eliminate themselves if not managed very well."
"Yes, i can do that to assist my daughter and her husband and children so that they can live a better life if that is what they need to succeed."
Vanguard News Nigeria.