Battling for Inheritance: Women’s struggle to own land


Part 1: An unyielding battle

By Edoamaowo Udeme


In 2022, the World Bank’s gender data highlighted a crucial fact: Nigerian sons and daughters have equal rights to inherit assets from their parents. Moreover, the Nigerian Constitution safeguards citizens’ equal rights under the law, emphasizing non-discrimination. Customary law, too, is recognised and upheld within the Constitution. However, even with these legal frameworks and a Supreme Court ruling, many cultures and families in Nigeria continue to deny women their rightful inheritance. Although the Yoruba and Efik traditions conform to these laws, pockets of communities in the South-South and South-East regions resist, perpetuating male-centric wealth distribution. In this article, Edoamaowo Udeme delves into the phenomenon of “stolen inheritance” and examines the roots of resistance within certain tribes. The Case of Comfort Ibeh

Comfort Ibeh, a 35-year-old woman born into a middle-class family, stands as an emblem of “stolen inheritance.” Her background seemed promising, with a military father and a medical doctor mother raising six children – four girls and two boys. Her parents provided quality education and comfortable homes in prominent Nigerian locations. In quick succession, her three sisters and one of her brothers married, leaving Comfort and her elder brother, Emeka.

However, following her father’s tragic car accident, everything changed. The mother devotedly nursed her husband, and the close relationship between the couple was evident. Comfort, who shared a particularly strong bond with her father, vowed to find a husband like him. Tragedy struck again when her mother suddenly passed away due to breathing difficulties. In a cruel twist, her father followed suit by dawn the next day, plunging the family into grief.

Inheritance denied and family in disarray

A turning point occurred during a trip to the East for the parents’ burial arrangements. Extended family meetings excluded Comfort and her sisters, raising suspicions. At first, she thought that their exclusion resulted from the shock of losing their parents so suddenly. To satisfy her curiosity, she approached her younger brothers and got the shock of her life; sadly, her brother looked her in the eye and told her that women don’t have any business in burial arrangements. Comfort and her sisters were told they had no share in the inheritance and therefore had no say in how their parents were buried or how the money was being spent.

Appeals to family elders yielded no results. Comfort and her sisters were excluded from all burial arrangements. Worse still, probably thinking that their children were united, the parents never had a legal document sharing their wealth with their children.

As the siblings returned to the city after the burial, Comfort and her sisters discovered that their brothers had colluded with uncles to seize control of everything. While the married siblings escaped the turmoil, Comfort found herself locked in a fierce struggle with her younger brothers for a fraction of their parents’ legacy.

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Legal interventions and cultural resistance

Attempts to rectify the gender disparity in inheritance rights have seen mixed success. A High Court presided over by Justice Idiong in Akwa-Ibom State nullified the practice of denying female children inheritance rights.

Despite these legal pronouncements, local lea

ders such as Chief Enefiok Ben of the Ikono Ibom clan, in Uyo resist these changes, echoing the belief that women have no stake in wealth. Supporting the dispossession of Comfort and her sisters, Chief Enefiok said: “My female children have no business in my wealth. Whatever they can get from me is what l give them when I am alive. When I am dead, they do not have any share in my properties.”

This kind of attitude and the fear that she would be left destitute at the mercy of her in-laws made Rebecca Noah desperate to have a son. Although she had four daughters, Ma Rebecca was not comforted. Rebecca Noah’s plight highlights the desperation for a male child in a society that prizes them as the ultimate legacy. Her husband’s derogatory treatment and threats to take another wife who would bear sons stem from societal pressure, where sons are valued more than daughters. Men with daughters but no sons have to contend with ridicule from others who perceive them as ‘childless.’ Even within seemingly united families, gender bias persists.

Desperate, she went to many churches where she prayed to have a son.

“I have even prayed to have a child with a deformity as long as it was a son. That is how bad it is for me. That is how desperate I am,” she said during our interview.

Emmanuel and his siblings, two brothers and three sisters, always host the end-of-year party for their mother, who struggled to educate them after their father died when they were very young. Richard, the second born in the family, and his family deliberately skipped the end-of-year party due to his opposition to his married sisters receiving a share of their father’s land. When Emmanuel and their mother insisted that the sisters receive some of the land as their inheritance, Richard stormed out of the family meeting and has remained incommunicado since then.

“We expected him to attend the annual family gathering so we could plead with him to reconsider his stand. As it turns out, he is uninterested, and we can’t share any of the land in his absence. For now, everything is on hold. Our 82-year-old mother is heartbroken. We are all afraid that she may die while we are still at loggerheads,” Emmanuel says.


Escaping violent marriages

Uduak Emediong’s story reveals a more tragic dimension. After enduring an abusive marriage, she fled with her two children in the middle of the night, seeking refuge. Her pleas for help from her family went unanswered. Her father had passed away before her marriage, leaving her mother and siblings as her support network. Yet, their refusal to assist painted a grim picture. Uduak’s brothers exploited her during the marriage but turned their backs when she sought protection. Even her mother, who endured a similar fate, scolded her for considering leaving her marriage. Uduak’s escape left her homeless and battling for survival.

Currently, Uduak is staying in her uncle’s home in the same village. Her family members are angry with her uncle for providing her with accommodation. Meanwhile, her husband has pledged only to provide her with financial support once she returns to their marital home. In the interim, Uduak relies on her uncle, who has allocated her a small piece of farmland to cultivate and provide for her children, while her immediate family disregards her.

Defying tradition: Hope amidst challenges

Ezinne Ike, a general civil litigator, emphasizes the importance of considering whether the deceased had a will (testate) or not (intestate). These classifications help define what is to be inherited and who the beneficiaries are. Consequently, situations related to intestate succession often arise when the deceased didn’t leave a will, and the applicable legal framework determines the distribution of their assets.

Generally, among the various communities in the South Eastern part of Nigeria, there appears to be uniformity in custom that stipulates that a woman cannot own land through inheritance. She may, however, acquire ownership through other means e.g. through sale, transfer, or outright gift from her husband or father. Although it has been said that in some communities a woman cannot own land through inheritance, there is an exception in some communities among the Igbo, which existed before the judicial intervention that now makes it possible for women to own land through inheritance when succession is in issue.

According to section 42(2) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), these practices of intentionally excluding women from inheriting land are strongly condemned as they promote discrimination. This stance was upheld by the Supreme Court in UKEJE V. UKEJE (2014)11 NWLR (pt 1418) 384, where Justice Rhodes-Vivour asserted that the Igbo customary law, which prevents daughters from sharing in their deceased father’s estate, violates section 42 of the constitution. Regrettably, even with these recent judicial pronouncements from the apex court, this deeply rooted indigenous practice cannot be dismantled overnight, as Ike points out.


“Considering this sombre reality, it’s crucial to raise awareness, especially within rural communities where these objectionable customs persist. Additionally, there’s a need to engage the older generation and facilitate their reorientation since they still vehemently uphold these customs,” says Ike.

Notably, some families diverge from this pattern. Unyime Udoisong is a prime example; she inherited her father’s wealth despite having brothers and her father having children from other women. Her inheritance was indisputable because her father left a will. He included all his children when distributing his wealth.

Chief Clement Usoro is another case; during his lifetime, he equitably distributed his properties among all his children, irrespective of gender. Before he died, he made known his wishes and why he did not want to discriminate against his daughters.

“Female children care for you more in your old age,” he had said.

However, these instances remain relatively rare, representing just a handful compared to the thousands of examples where daughters and wives are denied their inheritance rights solely based on their gender as women. Despite enacted laws, the application and adherence to these laws vary significantly from one family to another.

The path ahead

Although laws are in place, their implementation varies from family to family. Moreover, the uniformity of customary practices across different communities complicates matters. Recent judicial interventions have challenged this, but deeply entrenched beliefs take time to change. Raising awareness and reshaping mindsets in rural communities is essential for lasting transformation.

In South-South/South-East Nigeria, the battle for women’s inheritance continues despite legal protections. Stories like Comfort’s, Uduak’s, and Rebecca’s underscore the gravity of the issue. While some families break free from tradition, cultural resistance remains strong. To achieve true gender equality in inheritance, enforcing existing laws and driving societal change are imperative. This struggle goes beyond legal texts – it’s a fight for cultural evolution and equitable futures.

“This article was produced with the support of the Africa Women’s Journalism Project (AWJP) in partnership with the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and with support from the Ford Foundation.”

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