Inheritance and Land Ownership in an Igbo Village
Presentation at 4th Annual Igbo Conference SOAS University of London, April 17-18, 2015
First I want to tell you how I came to be interested in the topic of inheritance among the Igbo. Then I’ll describe the widows’ plight, followed by a description of the role of a ‘female son.’ I’ll end with the story of a relative, my husband’s cousin.
My Background and Interest
I was accepted for the United States Peace Corps in 1962 in the second year of its existence. When I received my letter of acceptance and read that I was going to Nigeria, I only knew it was in Africa. I had to find an atlas to see where it was on the continent.
I was in a group of seventy volunteers headed to Nigeria to teach. We met at the University of California Los Angeles in the summer of 1962 for ten weeks of intensive training with a stellar group of scholars to instruct us in Nigerian history, politics, literature, art, culture, and languages.
Among the faculty were anthropologists who specialized in the study of Nigerian culture and art. I first learned about Igbo practices relating to widows and the importance of male children from them.
My Peace Corps assignment was to teach German in the Federal Emergency Science School in Lagos. Well into my second year as a volunteer, I met my future husband. After I finished my Peace Corps service we were married. I lived in Nigeria until 1986 and still return frequently. We lived mainly in Lagos but I spent the first half of the Biafran War in my husband’s village Nanka, southeast of Onitsha.
During that year as I got to know my husband’s extended family and others in the village, I saw in practice many aspects of what I’d learned in training.
The Igbo Widows’ World
The widow of an Igbo man faces many hurdles. First she could be given to her deceased husband’s brother or other male relative to marry as the anthropologists had said. This was expected in earlier times, although by the 1960’s and ‘70’s the custom was dying out. It could be advantageous if the widow needed help to provide for young children. But it took away her right to make decisions for herself and made her into chattel or property.
The writer Richard Mordi describes this practice. He says the widowed woman cannot take possession of her husband’s land or belongings because she herself is part of his possessions. “How can property inherit another property?” He concludes that it is the payment of bride price that makes a woman into property that can be inherited. Another writer says, the widow becomes an “object of inheritance rather than subject of inheritance.”
Is There a Widow’s Right to Property?
Second, if the widow is not inherited or passed on to her deceased husband’s male relatives, she still faces the question of what property belongs to her after her husband dies. In native law and custom there was no question – she did not own anything. With good behavior she could be allowed to occupy the matrimonial home until her death, but this was not guaranteed. She could be sent away if she was in the village. If she and her husband had lived elsewhere, his relatives could and often did come and seize the property, leaving her with nothing.
If there is a legal marriage rather than a native marriage, does a widow inherit the husband’s property? What about if the husband made a will?
Mordi says that even when there is a statutory marriage and a will, the widow’s right to the property may be contested. “For example,” he says, “if a testator bequeaths his matrimonial home to his wife in perpetuity, objections are raised to the execution of that bequest on the ground that by native law and custom of Igbos. . . a man’s dwelling house (matrimonial home) belongs to his eldest son or to his male next-of-kin where he is not survived by any male issue.”
The Role of a Female Son
An entirely different problem of inheritance is that of a man not being survived by any male issue that Mordi referred to. With no son to inherit, a man cannot pass on his property and it will revert to his brothers or other male relatives on his death.
But Igbo custom has a way around this question to ensure the man’s lineage even without a male heir. To solve the problem when there is no son, Igbo custom can make a daughter fill the role.
“In the absence of a son or male descendant, a daughter was asked to stay in the family to assume the status of a female son and was encouraged to procreate to maintain the continuity of the family and the lineage.” Not only was she a daughter and a female son, but also “a female father and the head of her family on the death of her father. As a female son, she owned land and inherited the family property.”
In Nnewi the custom is called nrachi or idegbe, and In my husband’s town of Nanka it is nnuikwa or nnachi.
There is a famous case, Mojekwu vs. Ejikime, in the Nigerian Court of Appeal, Enugu Division in 1999, that is referenced frequently. The ruling was in favor of the appellants who argued that the custom of nrachi had been performed for Reuben’s daughter Virginia, thus her children and grandchildren were entitled to inherit Reuben’s property. They had been opposed by male relatives who said that a different daughter had been made the ‘female son’ and had then died without a male child, so the property should revert to them.
Mgbokwuocha was my husband’s second cousin. I met her the first time I went to Nanka with my fiancé and came to know her better during the year I lived in the village. Our daughters were the same age; both turned one during that year. The two of them were often together at the railing in front of our house. After the civil war, every time I went to visit, she would come to embrace me and welcome me in her booming voice.
I knew that she was unmarried and was raising her children on her own. I knew that she had been charged with preserving her father’s property.
I asked my husband’s cousin Chinedu to fill me in on her story.
Mgbokwuocha’s father was called Nwafor. His first wife Ebulonu had no children, so she brought her younger sister Nwangbeke into the marriage to have children, a practice my husband says is called nnochi. Nwangbeke gave birth to Mgbokwuocha, her sisters, and a mentally disabled son Tologbeke.
Nwafor, the father, contracted leprosy and by the time of his death had lost interest in who would inherit the obi, the compound and land. He was only concerned with who would give him a befitting burial. So he promised a portion of his land to someone who would perform the burial after his death and left other matters to the mother of Mgbokwuocha.
Mgbokwuocha was the youngest of her father’s daughters. Her older sisters had already married. The only son was not capable of managing the land. The mother had been brought into the family purposely to have children and ensure the survival of the lineage. She was desperate to fulfill her mission. So she conducted the ‘inside marriage’, or nnuikwa to make Mgbokwuocha the ‘female son.’ At the time, some people in Nanka were already Christians, but her family was pagan so there was no religious obstruction to this ceremony.
To perform the nnuikwa ceremony “that made Mgbokuocha to be a man,” he said, the requirements were two gallons of Nkwu-enu, two gallons of ngwo, one live cock, kola nuts, and assorted food for the guests. The majority of the umunna were present.
The chief priest took the rooster and kola and introduced the bride to Ndichie (ancestors). She automatically became a man and had all the rights of a man. With that, the journey of obiechina began – “may my kindred never end.”
She could then inherit and transfer to her children. Because she owned the property she was able to barter land for cash or goods, sell some profitable trees, and grow her own crops for cash to take care of her children. Men who fathered her children would not be responsible for the children, because they could not inherit the land and the children were not theirs. So the men who father the children are regarded as “efuru efu” (useless man-fun seeker).
Mgbokwuocha had four surviving children. Her first son Okekenwa died in the civil war. She had two other sons and one daughter who now occupy the compound.
Many writers have raised the issue of women’s rights as human rights, maintaining that the practice of denying inheritance to widows, and even worse, letting widows be inherited as property, is inhumane and counter to treaties to which Nigeria is a signatory, in addition to being contrary to the Nigerian constitution.
There is no doubt a conflict between all these Igbo traditional practices and the recognition of women’s human rights. The tradition says the first son inherits; he may share with male siblings but not female. By tradition widows do not have rights and can even be regarded as the property of their deceased husbands’ male relatives. Traditionally a woman can be charged with staying unmarried to maintain the lineage rights to her father’s land.
How far should people go in enforcing human rights? The case I mentioned earlier was decided on the basis of the Nigerian Constitution and CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. Yet there is a place to honor tradition. How these are reconciled is a debate for another day, maybe another conference!
In 2014 the Nigerian Supreme Court In Ukeke v Ukeje, “categorically ruled that female children have as much right as their brothers to partake in the distribution of their father’s estate. The Supreme court ruled unanimously that the custom that excludes women from inheriting from their father was unconstitutional and so cannot stand.”
I asked Chinedu whether he thought the Supreme Court decision would be implemented in Nanka and other Igbo towns and villages. He thought it would. However, he said, if such a case were taken to the umunna, they would rule according to tradition.
I believe the story of widows’ and women’s rights will be an issue in Nigeria for years to come.