1607 Gender Equality in Nigeria; Inheritance

Dimeji Akinloye

Inheritance in Nigeria is complex. Culture being fundamental to Nigerian society, present at the grassroots and throughout national discourse and institutions, Nigeria’s hampering of gender empowerment perhaps derives from the refusal of western ideals, as well as from having traditions deep rooted in a harmonising society and so needing to remain unchanged. Recently Nigeria booted out the gender and equalities opportunity bill presented by Senator Abiodun Olujimi, leading others to question why a bill advocating basic human rights for women has no place in an upcoming global powerhouse.


At present, like most countries today, Nigeria is absorbed by gender inequality; whilst the latter is a concept of heated controversy globally, and prominent in Nigeria’s constitutional and social framing, this article aims to provide insight into male inheritance and gender mainstreaming against the backdrop of a complex paradox: customs versus universal legislation.


Apart from preserving bloodlines, the male rule of inheritance is aimed at providing material provision to deceased persons’ dependants. According to this rule, men are the inheritors of deceased persons. Women are subsequently marginalised and prohibited from accessing their kin’s property. Such a custom is not exclusive to Nigeria, nor Africa; in fact, the common law doctrine of consolidating wealth in the hands of the eldest male has existed across almost all societies. In the case of Nigeria, however, such a controversial topic remains prominent and creates a hierarchical structure in which women cannot access power. The article will particularly review the Bini people of South-western Nigeria and Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria, analysing to what extent customs force women to be marginalised in the two cultures.


The origin of the male inheritance system amongst the Bini people is rooted in the tradition of ancestral worship. The Igiogbe was believed to be a shrine for serving and communicating with the ancestors. Among the Bini ethnic group, which has about 1.6 million people, over 99% of whom are Christians, the eldest son enjoys a special place. Under the Bini inheritance rites, when a man dies any hereditary titles, and the Igiogbe, automatically devolve to the eldest son. Thus women are completely neglected, having no access to their families’ property unless the eldest males are willing to share. Cases of male inheritance occur regularly and are contradictory to national legislation. Seldom does national legislation trickle down to grassroots systems, so inevitably traditions carry a lot of importance in organising law.


The laws of inheritance for the Igbo group are equally largely in favour of male descendants. ‘For instance, although many local variations exist, inheritance of individually owned land generally follows the principle of primogeniture. Therefore, when a man dies intestate, the largest share of his individual land would devolve to the eldest son, with other sons sharing the rest equally (Obi, supra, at 199). If the deceased does not have sons, his individual land devolves to his brothers to be shared according to seniority.’


It is evident that Igbo women are excluded from inheritance, but there are certain localities where women are permitted to inherit their father’s property in joint tenancy with their male family members. Nevertheless, in these instances, the eldest male remains in control of all provisions/ materials inherited. ‘There are also localities in which a daughter with respect to whom a nrachi ceremony is performed (a practice in which a female child of a man who does not have male issue is prevented from marrying so that she can bear male children in her father’s name) may inherit her father’s compound, land, and house/s.’ These are perhaps the only instances in which a women may access property of a deceased male family member. Nonetheless, in these occurrences, the principal beneficiary is the male.


As presented, these customary laws exist largely at national level, despite violating the country’s 1999 constitution against discrimination. ‘Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, one of the five justices who heard the case, delivered the Court’s opinion in which he stated 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 in breach of Section 42(1) and (2) of the Constitution, a fundamental rights provision guaranteed to every Nigerian.’ As one can see the national level promotes gender equality, yet this clearly is not exercised in practice- rather the court follows customary or religious laws, which usually don’t consider the women as independent.


To conclude, in considering customs and universal legislation in Nigeria, particularly in regards to women, one must question which one should be the law in Nigeria.  It has been noted that ‘the coexistence of modern, statutory laws with traditional customary laws and practices’ in Nigeria has created a complex and confusing legal regime under which women generally are denied adequate legal protection’. On the other hand, the importance of incorporating customs and religion into Nigerian legislation is paramount given the society itself where the incorporation of traditions links grassroots with national rule. Nonetheless, in order to bring equality, will Nigeria prohibit customs from national legislation, despite their intrinsic value to the Nigerian nation, or can Nigeria change attitudes and perceptions in order to empower women who account for a major part of the economy? Hampering women’s access to what should be rightfully their own causes a myriad of problems not only to their social well-being but also to the economy. Nigeria’s trajectory is towards being a world economic powerhouse. Not facilitating the need and provisions for equality for women in society will inevitably be an additional major factor that will keep Nigeria stagnant.


Kaleke Kolawole










Go back