By Tobi Soniyi
The Supreme Court has held that Nigerian customs which disinherit women are repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience and should therefore not be allowed to stand. The court therefore declared as repulsive the custom of the Awka people in Anambra State which allows married women to be disinherited upon the death of their husband because they did not have a male child for the late husband. A widow, Mrs. Maria Nweke, had in 1991 instituted a case at the Awka Division of the Anambra State High Court. Among other claims, she asked the court to declare that she was the person entitled to statutory right of occupancy of a parcel of land situated at Amikwo village. She also urged the court to restrain the defendants from trespass on the said land. The defendants, Onyibor Anekwe and Chinweze, were the descendants of Anieke Nwogbo, the half brother of the plaintiff’s husband, Nweke Nwogbo.
Their father, Nwogbo Okonkwo Eli, had died outside the home town of the parties. His two widows who had a son each (the plaintiff’s husband and the father of the appellants)) went to stay with Eli’s half brother, Obiora Okonkwo Eli. Later, Obiora built two separate houses at No 19 Ogbuagu Lane Amikwo Village, Awka and shared them between the two sons of Nwogbo Okonkwo Eli (the defendants’ father and the plaintiff’s husband). The dispute arose when the plaintiff was asked to vacate her own portion of the land. The plaintiff’s said that she inherited the portion given to her late husband upon his death shortly before the civil war. She further stated that the defendants asked her to vacate the house on the grounds that she had no male child in the house. She stated that she had six female children. Her claim was that she was disinherited by her late husband’s family simply because she had no male child for her husband.
However, she refused to leave the land by contending that a woman according to the customs of Akwa people inherited the property of her husband whether she had a male child or not. She also stated that the Ozo Awka society arbitrated in the dispute and agreed with her that she had a right to remain on the land. But the defendants disagreed. They argued that by the Native Law and Custom of Awka people, the land was inherited by their father as the first and only surviving son. The trial court and the Court of Appeal ruled the case in favour of the plaintiff. The defendants were dissatisfied and appealed to the Supreme Court. Even though, the defendants acknowledged the fact that the plaintiff had six female children, they argued before the court that a woman without a male issue in Awka had no right of inheritance of any land except the one she purchased with her money.
In dismissing the appeal, Justice Clara Ogunbiyi said the issue to be decided was “whether the respondent (plaintiff) who had no male child can inherit the property of her late husband?” She held that the appellants had not given any credible evidence to over turn the judgments of the two lower courts. Justice Ogunbiyi held: “I hasten to add that the custom and practices of Awka people upon which the appellants have relied is hereby out rightly condemned in very strong terms. “A custom of this nature in the 21st century societal setting will only tend to depict the absence of the relatives of human civilisation. “It is punitive, uncivilised and only intended to protect the selfish perpetuation of male dominance which is aimed at suppressing the right of the women folk in the given society.
“One would expect that the days of such obvious differential discrimination are over. “Any culture that disinherits a daughter from her father’s estate or wife from her husband’s property by reason of God instituted gender differential should be punitively dealt with. “The punishment should serve as a deterrent measure and ought to be meted out against the perpetrators of the culture and custom. “For a widow of a man to be thrown out of her matrimonial home, where she had lived all her life with her late husband and children, by her late husband’s brothers on the ground that she had no male child, is indeed very barbaric, worrying and flesh skinning.” She also berated the lawyer who represented the appellant for coming to court to argue that such an obnoxious customs be upheld. She consequently awarded the cost of N200,000 against the appellants. Justices Tanko Muhammad, Muhammad Muntaka-Coomasie, SylvesterNgwuta and Olukayode Ariwoola agreed with the lead judgment.