Critical appraisal of the inheritance rights of women in Nigeria





1.1 Background to the Study


The term right refers to the freedom and liberties of human beings to live with dignity. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights[1]. Women‘s right as a term refers to the freedoms inherently possessed by women and girls of all ages, which may be institutionalized, ignored or illicitly suppressed by law, custom and behavior in a particular society[2] . These liberties are grouped together and differentiated from broader notions of human rights because they often differ from the freedoms inherently possessed by or recognized for the male folk. Although the activism surrounding this issue claims an inherent historical and traditional prejudice against the exercise of rights by women, but nonetheless, the emergence of municipal, regional and international laws over time have indeed relegated this claim.


Women   rights   are   protected   under   a   wide   range   of   international   and   regional   instruments including   declaration   and   covenants.   Human   rights   declarations   represent   a   commitment   by signatory countries to meet stated human rights standards. Covenants, also known as treaties or conventions, are international law agreements entered into by governments. Once covenants or treaties are ratified they become part of domestic law[3]


The patterns of inheritance and succession,[4]particularly under intestate estate under customary law in Nigeria, have almost as many variations as there are ethnic groups in the country, and many of the variations are discriminatory in practice. The law of succession and inheritance reflects Nigeria’s plural legal system. Indigenous customary law developed rules of inheritance for intestacy through the traditional canon of descent, as adapted over the years to changes in the society and the rule of natural justice as applied by the courts. Fortunately, nongovernmental organizations have been active in attempting to rectify the problems of discrimination.


Suffix to say that  in  Yoruba land for instances , the distribution of an estate of a deceased person who dies without a valid Will is per stripe; i.e. by the number of wives that the deceased had and not by the number of children[5].  Similarly, in the southern part of Nigerian like Calabar in Crosss River state, the eldest surviving male member of the deceased person succeeds as the head of the family and inherits the deceased estate. Also among the Fulani, the eldest son inherits his deceased father’s cattle, the main asset in those days, out of which he makes presents of some of them to his younger brothers according to their needs. Finally under the Bini custom, the right to succession of the entire estate belongs exclusively to the eldest son of a deceased person who acts as a sort of trustee for the other children[6].


It is against this backdrop that the present study seeks to investigate an appraisal of the inheritance rights of women in Nigeria under the Act and the various customs in Nigeria


1.2 Statement of the Problem

Women constitute a major group of human kind who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Despite statutory provisions and judicial authorities upholding women‘s rights as was done in the cases of Mojekwu v Mojekwu8 and Mojekwu v Ejikeme[7] , the reality is that women are still denied equal opportunity to inherit property with men. Some women still lose out completely from their husband‘s estate, due to ignorance and strict application and observance of repugnant customary practices, which prejudice against the status of women in the society and reduce them to mere second class citizens after men and cuts their bargaining power in economic, social and political affairs in a given place and at a given time. They are also usually scared to explore the option of litigation in some other cases. This is perhaps because of the phobia associated with being a litigant in a court of law in Nigeria resulting from illiteracy or lack of enlightenment as regards their fundamental rights and the cost of financing the case. In order to have a healthy and happy society in nigeria, particular attention has to be paid to protect the rights of women to own and inherit property which happens to be an ongoing struggle begging for a wider platform for the consideration of options and chances available to protect the property rights of women in Nigeria  as has been set out to do in this thesis.


  • Aims and Objectives of the Study

The main thrust of this study is to on  appraisal of the inheritance rights of women in Nigeria under the Act and the various customs in Nigeria

The study were guided by the following specific objectives;


  1. To critically appraise the various laws on inheritance rights of women in Nigeria
  2. To investigate whether the prevailing inheritance practices in Nigeria significantly alienate women from assets of their deceased husband.
  3. To analyze the challenges, if any, associated with the right of women in relation to rights of inheritance


1.4 Research Questions

The issue of deliberation is “on  appraisal of the inheritance rights of women in Nigeria under the Act and the various customs in Nigeria “.In look at this all encompassing topic certain addendum or follow up questions will be asked in order to fully explore the potentials of the study.

The study are guided by the following questions;


  1. What the various laws on inheritance rights of women in Nigeria?
  2. What are the prevailing inheritance practices in Nigeria significantly alienate women from assets of their deceased husband?
  3. What are the challenges in enforcing the right of women in relation to rights of inheritance in Nigeria ?



1.5 Significance of Study

This study is therefore important as it outcome will be useful to policy makers and implementers of development programmes in Nigeria. It could equally be adapted in similar society to tackle the menace of inequality among women and men. It is expected that students and researchers in development related discipline will find the work invaluable. The work is also hoped to accentuate valuable insight on the preparation of Enugu State in terms of attaining the Millennium Development Goals. Above all, the findings of the study will ultimately help



1.6 Scope and Limitations of the Study

This study will deal primarily with inheritance; its history, the customary laws practices of the major ethnic groups of Nigeria which are: Igbo, Yoruba, Bini, Esan, Urhobo, Islamic law and Hausa inheritance rights of women under the Wills Act of 1832 & the relevant Wills Law of selected states. It will also examine the reasons why these discriminatory practices are still in existence despite the various laws already in place. Also, the human rights implications of discrimination against women as regards inheritance rights will be considered and it will point to the effect this worrisome trend is having on the nation’s economy and her reputation in the global world view.


1.7 Research Methodology

This  study adopted empirical approach and a little of analytical, descriptive and prescriptive approach in addressing the problem of the research. It involves analysis of primary sources which include statutory laws and case laws, including Bills proposed to be passed into law which will be very relevant to this research. The Secondary sources which contain opinion of writers in textbooks, published and unpublished papers, research publications, articles on the internet, theses, reports, and law reviews will be looked at. Papers presented at workshops, seminars and conferences will be consulted. These diverse sources sufficiently capture the state of the rights of women, particularly the aspect of property ownership and possession and give in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of property rights of women.

1.8 Definition Of Term

For the purpose of clarity, it is important to define some key words in the topic of today’s lecture.

  • Women– who is a woman? It is obvious that a woman is a person of female gender but at what age does a female person become a woman or age does not have any role to play in defining who a woman is? Longman Dictionary states that a woman is “an adult female person  ”. This implies that an underage female child is not a woman. Otaluka, in her article “Protection of Women under the Law” defines a woman as “…an adult female human being physically weaker than the man, exhibiting feminine characteristics quite distinctive from the opposite sex [6] ”. The two definitions have clearly shown that a woman is not only a human being of opposite sex different from a man but also that she is a grown-up female person. In Nigeria, any person of 18 years of age is considered to be an adult. Even though a female person below 18 years is not regarded as a woman, for the purpose of this lecture, the word “woman” would be used in a general sense. In that case, woman is used here to refer generally to persons of female gender, irrespective of age or marital status.
  • Inheritance– Longman Dictionary defines inheritance this way, “money, property etc that you receive from someone who has died [7] ”. Another source defines it thus “the right of an heir to succeed to property on the death of an ancestor [8] ”. Another word that is closely connected to inheritance is “succession”. Law Dictionary defines succession as “The devolution of title to property under the law of descent and distribution [9] ”. In legal texts, the use of the word “succession” to denote a situation where property of a deceased person passes to her heirs seems to features more frequently than “inheritance”. However, in this lecture, the two words may be used interchangeably.
  • Law– Longman Dictionary defines Law thus, “a rule that people in a particular country or area must obey… ”. Another source puts it this way, “…the body of official rules and regulations, generally found in constitutions, legislation, judicial opinions, and the like that is used to govern a society and to control the behaviour of its members, so law is a formal mechanism of social control ”. Law is one of the words that do not command a universally acceptable definition. It is defined differently by different scholars. But on a general note, it can be defined as a rule of behaviour or conduct laid down by a constituted authority in a particular society. A law may comprise written codes, unwritten customs and traditions, pronouncements of rulers and judicial decisions. In Africa, for instance, despite the fact that former colonial masters introduced foreign legal systems to territories once colonised by them, the African people still hold strong allegiance to their unwritten native customs and traditions. Therefore, in most African countries, if not all, Customary law is a source of law, along other sources. Legal systems in African states are pluralistic; there exists such laws as the statutory law, Customary law and religious law e.g. Sharia legal system. All these laws affect the subject-matter under consideration one way or the other.
  • Women’s Rights: These are the rights and entitlements claimed for women worldwide.
  • Culture: The customs, arts, social institutions, etc. of a particular group or people
  • Custom: Generally accepted and long established way of behaving or doing things

[1] Article 1, Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly (1948)

[2] Women‟s right, definition in Webster’s New World College Dictionary,4th Edition, Wiley Publishing, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio, 2010 on <>, Accessed on the 15th August, 2014. Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

[3] 6 Ogugua V.C. I., Op.cit at 84

[4] 2 See T.O. Elias: Nigerian Land Law (1971) 4 th edn., Sweet & Maxwell London, chapter 8

[5] Onuoha R.A., “Discriminatory Property Inheritance Under Customary Law in Nigeria: NGOs to the Rescue” The International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law, (2008), Vol.10, Issue 2

[6] Okeaya-Inneh K.S., Benin Native law and Custom at a Glance, (Benin City: Gift-prints Associate; 2007)

[7] [2000] 5 NWLR 402