By V.C. Uchechukwugaemezu Atulomah Esq.
The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended prohibits gender based discrimination however the issue of female inheritance is a topic that has raised major concerns overtime as it contravenes the provisions of the Constitution.
The concept of the right of inheritance has been identified as one of the key factors that trigger conflict among families. It is a common practice under most customary laws in Nigeria and other countries of the world for women to be relegated to the background with regards to inheritance of family property. The right of inheritance is reserved exclusively for the males while the females have no right of inheritance this is predicated on the rule of primogeniture and this discriminatory attitude is contrary to the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution.
Over the years, there have been several calls for equal rights and equal opportunities to be made available to all irrespective of gender, sex or creed. One prominent area where women’s right to equal rights and opportunity are impeded is inheritance and property rights. One of the modes of devolution of property of a deceased is by customary law, and customary law is only applicable when the person died intestate and did not contract a marriage under the Marriage Act.
The provisions of the constitution have expressly stated that no one should be discriminated against. However, it has been an age long practice for females to be discriminated against with regards to right of inheritance under various customary laws. This practice is controversial because it contradicts the provision of the Nigerian constitution, the judgments’ of the court, and some other Human rights provisions. Hence, it is a pitfall that needs to be addressed.
There exists in Nigeria several customary laws and practices, which discriminate against women and these, are more evident in matters relating to inheritance. The right to property convincingly is a fundamental right, which should be held sacrosanct and meaningful to any human existence.
Efforts have been made to address the issue of female disinheritance in Nigeria. Provisions have been made under the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as well as other Human Rights Instruments such as; The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against women, The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, The International covenant on Civil and Political Rights, The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights among others, to eradicate the discrimination of females based on disinheritance among other practices.
The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which is the supreme law of the land reiterates non-discrimination on the basis of sex and it is prohibited by Section 15(2). The wordings of the Constitution is very clear and unambiguous thus; “Everybody is to be treated equally”. The court of Appeal in Uke v Iro held that any customary law which discriminates against women is incompatible with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, s.42 which guarantees equal rights and protection of all sexes.
Inheritance rights have come into limelight as a public policy issue, mostly because issues of inheritance are being tackled as part of the greater problem of discrimination against women in proprietary rights. The customs of the various constituent tribes, societal norms, and religious beliefs have all contributed to the continuing inequitable representation of women directly and indirectly, and even though there are laws, conventions and treaties that advocates for the equal treatment of all human beings regardless of their sex, tribe, origin and circumstance of birth, these discriminatory practices still operate today unfettered. This is a major problem and challenge because it has resulted in poverty and illiteracy among women in the country.
Customary law is dynamic. However, the customary laws of inheritance, which deny women the right to inherit have remained static. These discriminatory customary laws are still operating despite the provisions of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which guarantees freedom from discrimination based on sex.
The question however is;‘ Whether the custom which disinherits females is of law or society?’ There is no law in Nigeria that expressly provides for disinheritance of women. The society through its customs imposes it.
It is the law as provided in the Nigerian Constitution, s.1 (3) and enunciated by the courts, that if any other law is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution, the Constitution shall prevail and that other law shall be null and void to the extent of its inconsistency.
Rights are inseparable from humans and the practice that excludes females’ from inheritance is totally against human right. With proper legislations and implementations, reform of customary laws as well as re-orientation of the views and beliefs of the people, the issue of inheritance rights faced by women would be eliminated.