Offline Advanced English Dictionary defines inheritance as “hereditary succession to a title, an office or a property; or that which is inherited … and passes, by law, to the heir on death of the owner.” It is observed that the method of transfer of inheritance differs from one society to the other. For instance, in the Western world, it is transmitted through a legal instrument: to wit, a will.
In several African countries, including Nigeria, transfer of inheritance is simply by word of mouth, in line with established custom and tradition, which endorses the law of primogeniture. The law stipulates that “the right of inheritance exclusively belongs to the eldest son.” It is supported by the Anthropological and Historical Notes on the Igala People, a Colonial Office, Northern Region of Nigeria (1931) compilation, which states that
“a man’s heir is, more often than not, his brother or a senior member of the family. If the eldest son has reached maturity, the brother calls him in and hands over to him his father’s house and goods. Some say, however, that the eldest son inherits direct. This is certainly the case with the Attah’s private property.”
This ancient tradition is rooted on trust and integrity on the part of the father’s brother, especially when the heir-apparent is yet to come of age; but, in today’s world, some dubious, devilish uncles are wont to convert items of inheritance willed to rightful heirs to their possession, creating confusion and despair, while fanning the flames of discord and disunity in the family.
The most egregious injustice that is inherent in the ancient customary law is its unfair exclusion of the female child from participating in the sharing of her father’s estate. Premised on the assumption that her husband would take care of her, this law does not care if the lady concerned is either too young to marry or is married or unmarried. The eldest son, complicit with the other male siblings, simply tell the victim to “Go and sit down! You are a woman!” However, the Supreme Court of Nigeria, in its landmark judgment of 26th August, 2020, cited Section 42 (1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, ruled in favour of the female child. The judgment, read by Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, held that: “No matter the circumstances of the birth of a female child, such a child is entitled to an inheritance from her father’s estate.” The Court further pointed out that denying a female child of her father’s inheritance is a breach of the section of the Constitution cited above.
On the ancient practice of wife inheritance upon the death of her husband, modernity has put a full, final stop to it. In former times, according to the Anthropological and Historical Notes on the Igala People, cited above, the wives of a dead man went “…to his heir, be he the brother or eldest son, who disperses them among the rest of the family. In some places, the son may actually marry his father’s wives, (except, of course, his own mother). In others, this is not allowed, though he has the disposal of them and receives the dower, if they marry someone else.”
Today, upon the death of her husband, a widow is free to relocate to her father’s house, provided that she was not pregnant before her husband died and that she performs the necessary rites that separate her from the spirit of her husband. It has been, however, observed that most widows prefer to stay back in their matrimonial homes for one sole purpose of guaranteeing her children’s welfare and well-being. Ideally, such widows are taken good care of by her husband’s kinsmen and women. They are allocated farmlands that they cultivate with unfettered access to any economic trees that may be found in them.