Inheritance of landed property by women in Igboland
By Azuka Onwuka
In the face of some wrong narratives, let us put some things in perspective and context:
1. There is no law in Igboland that bars women from inheriting the property of their parents. Men give their daughters as much of their property as they wish. My father-in-law gave his daughter land in Nnewi and Lagos.
2. There is what is called ancestral land. The father gives it to his son. The son gives it to his own son. It is never paid for with money. Any son that does not inherit an ancestral land is seen as having been disowned.
i. Even though modernity has turned so many traditions upside down, it is seen as an abomination for someone to sell his ancestral land. It is seen as one selling his birthright. Even when things become so hard that one needs to sell one’s ancestral land, it is usually advised that a member of the imenne (close family) or ụmụnna (extended kindred relations) should buy the land, so that it does not go out of the ụmụnna or big family.
ii. Members of the same ụmụnna usually live together in one part of town. It is unusual for people from another ụmụnna to live within that environment, except in towns that have become cosmopolitan. It is similar to what happens in Isale Eko (near Ịga Idunganran – Palace of Ọba of Lagos). One can buy property in most parts of Lagos but not around the Oba’s Palace – there, one can only be given property on lease of about 20 years or 30. That area is the home of the sons and daughters of the soil – Eko. An outsider is not usually allowed to live there.
iii. It is an abomination in Igboland for two people from the same ụmụnna to marry each other. The ụmụnna are descendants of one man for up to 7 generations or more. This means that a woman can only marry someone from outside the ụmụnna. Inheriting the ancestral land by a woman means that the ancestral land of the family has exchanged hands to someone from outside the ụmụnna or village or town. It also means that an outsider will live within the space where the ụmụnna live.
iv. If a man has lands and houses outside the ancestral space, or money or cars or whatever, there is no law or tradition that prevents him from giving his daughters as much as he desires. But his ancestral land that he inherited from his father does not, traditionally, belong to him. It belongs to the ụmụnna. That is why traditionally he does not give it out to the daughter. The reason is because she can marry an outsider whose children are not members of the umunna.
v. Every man has an obi, which is on his ancestral home. That obi is like a palace where the members of that family hold meetings. Only the first son can inherit that obi. Other sons will get their own land portions near it, depending on the size of land their father owns. In decades of generations to come, that obi will remain where all the descendants of the father or progenitor of that particular lineage will gather for meetings.
vi. During marriage, a man is expected to conduct the tradition of idu ụlọ for his daughter (that is her dowry). Idu ụlọ is compulsory. It is during this ceremony that the father settles his daughter. If he has land or house or car or cash or shares or bed, refrigerator, pots, cots, etc, he hands them over to his daughter publicly as her inheritance as she goes to start a new home somewhere else.
vii. Because the daughters are also expected to leave to start their own homes away from home, a man is also expected to prepare the daughter well. If the man is not very financially stable, while he may not train the sons in the university, he is expected to train the daughters in the university to give them a better footing in life. If you check the JAMB statistics, you will notice that the Southeast is the only zone where there are more female candidates than male. It is not by coincidence. It is so because the men see it as part of the heritage to give their daughter as they prepare for the journey to start life away from home.
3. So it is not correct to assume that women are denied inheriting property in Igboland. A woman gets as much property as her father wishes to give her. If a man does not give his daughter landed property, it is not because of any tradition. It is because the man does not want to give his land or houses to his daughters or because he is ignorant. See Supreme Court judgement in Ukeje vs Ukeje 2014. What a woman does not usually get is the ancestral land which, in practical terms, belongs to the ụmụnna rather than the father. Members of the ụmụnna simply hold the ancestral land in trust. It is the same ancestral land that Igbos don’t sell to outsiders that gave rise to the falsehood that Igbos don’t sell their land to non-Igbos. All other lands are available for sale to the highest bidder. But the ancestral land is not usually sold – all things being equal.
4. When a man dies without having a son, it is this ancestral land that his most senior brother is expected to inherit, because it is believed that the ancestral land belongs to the ụmụnna. But this has been successfully challenged in court which ruled that the daughters should inherit the ancestral land of their father. See Supreme Court judgement in Mojekwu vs. Mojekwu (also known as Mojekwu vs Iwuchukwu) 2004 as well as Anekwe vs. Nweke 2014.
5. There was never any dispute whatsoever about the rights of a girl over the property of her father. Her rights over the ancestral land of her father (which houses his obi) had been the only bone of contention, but the Supreme Court had ruled that it is the right of the female child to inherit even her father’s ancestral. Therefore, even when a man does not have a son, no brother or kinsman has the right to deny the wife and daughters of the deceased man rights over the ancestral land and property of their husband and father respectively.
6. So if you are a daughter whose father does not think of including you among those who will share in his landed property, sit your father down and explain to him why you deserve to have a portion of his landed property. Explain to him that if he does not include you in the sharing of his landed property, he has told you that you are not good enough to be his child, and you may seek redress in law court when he is gone, to prove that you are his bona fide child, and that the Supreme Court rulings are in your favour. But if he will not prefer to look from the great beyond and see his children in court over his property, then he should do the needful.
7. If you are a married man with only female children, get a lawyer to write down who will inherit your landed property, including your ancestral home. Print out a summary of the Supreme Court rulings on Mojekwu vs Mojekwu and Anekwe vs Nweke (they are online) and hand over to your brothers to read (as well as the Obi of your ụmụnna and other key members of your your ụmụnna), in case they are nursing the idea of inheriting your ancestral home in the event of your transition.
8. If you are a woman and have been disinherited of your husband’s ancestral home and any other property because you have no male child, or your father’s property has been taken from you because your father had no male child before his death, just report your case to a lawyer. Even if you don’t have the money to pay the lawyer, there are women’s rights groups who are interested in such cases. There are also lawyers who are interested in such cases. You may not pay anything to prosecute the case. The law courts are also interested in such cases. The law is in your favour. Don’t fold your arms and whine inside your room. Seek redress. There are people who are ready and eager to deny you your rights if you fold your arms.
9. If you are a man and attend your ụmụnna meetings or village meetings at home or in the place where you reside, occasionally raise the issue of inheritance and enlighten those who are not aware of it. There was a time it was believed that the money spent on the education of the daughter was a waste, since she would eventually get married and leave home with all that investment. But later, due to enlightenment, a new thinking took over: that it is even better to train the daughter in education than the son. Perceptions on issues are never static.
Inheritance of landed property by women in Igboland