By Lillian Okenwa
When Gladys Ada Ukeje took her mother and brother to court, seeking to be included in the administration of her deceased father’s estate, many might have considered her insane. A girl child in Igbo land never inherits her father’s estate; so what was she thinking?
Over the years gender inequality continues to hold women and girls back, depriving them of basic rights and opportunities. On account of this, more women are seeking inclusion in the nation’s decision-making process and level-playing field with their male counterparts.
As pressure continues to mount for an equitable and healthier society devoid of discrimination, it is fitting to commend the Supreme Court of Nigeria for its progressive judgments particularly in promoting rights of women.
Female children in Nigeria for instance, will eternally remember Hon. Justice Bode Rhodes Vivour for delivering the landmark lead decision in Ukeje v. Ukeje(2014) 11 NWLR (PT.1418) 384.
Perhaps, it was in this spirit that the Court through his lordship in 2014 went forward in time to endorse the International Women’s Day 2021 campaign theme of: ‘Choose To Challenge.’
Rhodes Vivour, in that decision, annulled the ancient Igbo custom which barred a girl child from inheriting from her father’s estate; insisting that it is discriminatory, unjust, repugnant, and a violation of Section 42(2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Prior to that decision, a determined Gladys Ukeje maintained that being a child of Lazarus Ogbonnaya Ukeje, her exclusion from the administration of her father’s estate was discriminatory. The Lagos State High Court agreed with her, but her mother and brother went on appeal.Eventually both the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court stoutly condemned the customary law with Rhodes Vivour holding at page 408, paragraphs D – E 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 dis entitles a female child from partaking in the sharing of her deceased father’s estate is breach of Section 42(1) and (2) of the Constitution, a fundamental rights provision guaranteed to every Nigerian.
“The said discriminatory customary law is void as it conflicts with Section 42(1) and (2) of the Constitution. In the light of all that I have been saying, the appeal is dismissed. In the spirit of reconciliation, parties are to bear their own costs.“
The action leading to this judgment illustrates the discriminations women in Igboland face with regards to acquisition of property and inheritance of those properties when a husband or father dies intestate.
Nigerian women and girls, like most of their African counterparts, are excluded under customary law from inheriting land or landed property from their deceased intestate husbands or fathers. This discrimination is rooted in ancient traditions that view women as part of the inheritable estate of their deceased husbands.
Thankfully, Sections 34, 42, and 43 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) guarantee the fundamental rights to human dignity, freedom from discrimination, and the right to own property anywhere in the country.
It is then perverse for any customary law to bar women and girls from inheriting property from a husband’s or father’s intestate estate
In that decision, his lordship entrenched an equal world where every girl child’s right is acknowledged and defended as a human right in every level of the Society.
During a recent chat with Law & Society, His lordship re-emphasised his position with these words: “I support girls having equal rights as boys. See Numbers 27 verse 7 and Job 42 verse 15 in the Holy Bible. Even God supports it. Women are Heads of State in several countries. See our own Okonjo Iweala. Once you give a girl education, she would achieve enviable heights. So, a girl child should be treated equally as the boy child.”
At an event marking the just concluded 2021 International Women’s Day celebration, Idayat Hassan, Executive Director, Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) remarked that societies making progress around the world are those that have come “to the realisation that they cannot afford to discountenance the talents, abilities and human resource embedded in their women.”
Hassan further noted that: “Those societies worked systematically to address the injustices, prejudices and narrow mind-set, which held women back”, adding that:
“The call for inclusion and an end to marginalisation should not be misinterpreted as a divisive call for women to ‘take over.’ It is a call for partnership, collaboration, and amity, without which a society cannot take the strides it requires in its march to progress.”
And a final thought. After an eventful 10 years and six months, Hon. Justice Bode Rhodes Vivour exits the apex court on 22nd march, 2021. It is our prayer that his lordship enjoys a health-full and restful retirement. Congratulations, my lord!
▪︎ Ms. Okenwa is the Editor-in-Chief of the Law and Society Magazine, and sent this via WhatsApp