Disinheritance: Widows in Igboland battle culture and society (Part 1)
This report by Alfred AJAYI presents the experiences and testimonies of widows and other stakeholders from South-Eastern Nigeria, where the practice of disinheritance of widows is prevalent.
“AFTER the death of my husband, we put him in the mortuary. But without my knowledge, his close friend connived with my brothers-in-law to take away his corpse from the Teaching Hospital at Nnewi. They then insisted that I must complete the family house my husband was building in the village and I must perform the “Igbuefi” meaning (killing of cow) on behalf of their father, who died since 1991, before the burial could take place”.
This was thirty-year-old widow, Ijeoma Ubah, narrating her ordeal in the hands of her husband’s family members shortly after he died on 7th January, 2018.
She continued: “My dear, I did it. I even sold my husband’s highlander to meet up. Then, I asked them to bring the corpse for burial. They said no, that it is time for me to go back to my father’s house with my three daughters. They even came and verbally shared the rooms in our house. At that point, I became confused. That was before somebody gave me the contact of National Human Rights Commission”.
Death of one’s husband is unarguably a devastating experience, especially for young women who are still nursing young children. It is naturally expected that the condition of such widows will provoke empathy from relations, friends and people of good conscience. But, in parts of Africa, that is not always the case as some of them face forceful ejection from their home, while others are forced to either sleep with the dead bodies of their husbands or drink the water used to bathe the corpses to prove that they had no hand his death.
The climax of such dehumanizing widowhood practices is the disinheritance of the widows by close or distant relations of their late husbands, who lay claim to all that their brother’s estates, including property and wealth gotten in partnership with their wives. The matter is worse in families where men were the breadwinners and the widowed women had been full – time housewives.
A woman, who has no male child or has no child at all, is usually at greater risk; same as those suspected to have been responsible for the death of their husbands.
Such practices which are common among the Igbo of the South East of Nigeria, have led to abuse, disinheritance, impoverishment and trauma suffered by many widows in the region.
Disinheritance is a violation of the constitutionally guaranteed right of the widows to freedom from discrimination as provided for in Section 42 of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), which states that no citizen of Nigeria shall be discriminated against regardless of their place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion.
Nigeria is a signatory to several international documents and conventions, which protect women against discrimination in any form, including issues of inheritance. One of them is the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, DEDAW, which was adopted by the United Nations on November 7, 1967. In its Article one, the Declaration maintains that discrimination against women is “fundamentally unjust and constitutes an offence against human dignity”.
Article two abolishes laws and customs, which discriminate against women, for equality under the law to be recognized, and for states to ratify and implement existing UN human rights instruments against discrimination, while article three calls for public education to eliminate prejudice against women.
Another document that frowns at discrimination against the women folks is the legally binding Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW, which came into existence on 18 December, 1979.
In its article sixteen, the convention, in addressing issue of marriage and family relations, gives equal rights and obligations to women and men with regard to choice of spouse, parenthood, personal rights and command over property. In specific terms, this article gives equal right to the spouses in respect to ownership, acquisition, management, administration, enjoyment, and disposition of property, whether free of charge or for a valuable consideration.
The Charter for Widows’ Rights is another document which particularly, demands the elimination of all discrimination against widows, both within the family, in community and public life.
Article two of the Widow’s Charter states that widows shall have the right to inherit from their husband’s estate, whether or not the deceased spouse left a will, while widows may not be “inherited” as wives or concubines to their husband’s brother, nor forcibly placed in a “levirate” relationship, nor forcibly made pregnant by a relative in order to continue producing children in her dead husband’s name.
The article adds that anyone, who attempts or manages to deprive a widow of any of her property, take custody of her children, without an order of a judge or magistrate shall be guilty of the most serious category of crime, while anyone, whether a relative or a stranger, who seeks or manages to gain control of the dead husband’s bank account, insurance policy, accident compensation claims, without the order of the Court is guilty of the most serious category of crime.
Man’s inhumanity to women
Cynthia Nweke, from Ezzama, in Ezza South Local Government Area of Ebonyi State, was heart-broken as she narrated her experience battling against efforts to disinherit her with royal complicity.
“This is the picture of the only farmland we have now. My husband secured the property by surveying it. But, immediately he died, his brothers came to take away the land. I saw my husband’s relations surveying the land. So, I took the survey plan my husband did many years ago to the Igwe to help me. But, Igwe told me it was rubbish, that my husband has no right to survey a family land.
“My husband’s brothers had collected the frontage of our house and one of our lands we have been cultivating since I married this man. They collected another one in a swampy area. The traditional ruler, Ezeogo passed a judgment that I should leave the land because they will kill me. But, I told him that I will not leave the only land that I am cultivating to feed my children.
“One of those doing this to me was a servant to my late husband, who said my husband did not settle him and also made sexual advances to me after his death but I refused. He promised to deal with me and he is the one who mobilized them against me”.
Another widow, Precious Ngozi Nwali, from Amaeka Community, in Ezza South Local Government Area of Ebonyi State, narrated how documents of lands and other property were deceitfully taken away from her after the death of her husband, leaving her with nothing to train her four children.
“My husband died after a brief illness on the February 6, 2019. After his death, his elder brother, Monday Nwali, and his siblings in a meeting in the village, collected his phone from me, harvested the yams and cassava we planted and did not give my children and me from the proceeds.
On February 11, 2019, my husband’s younger sister, who is lawyer, led others to our residence in Abakaliki and deceitfully took all the documents for all our lands, a vehicle and a fridge away. She promised to give back to me in three months when I would have recovered from the shock and agony of his demise, but she has refused to do that”.
Precious also alleged that she had been threatened severally by one of her brothers-in-law for daring to demand for the documents taken away from her.
“On one occasion, he came to the timber shed Nkwoagu with some persons to chase me out of my husband’s shed where I am staying right now to trade. He said he would either give it to his younger brother or rent it out. In facts they have told me severally to go and remarry if I am not comfortable with their actions.”
While this was happening, the widow said her husband’s elder brother “went and claimed one of my husband’s land with the money realized from the burial ceremony.”
It was gathered that the International Federation of Women Lawyers, FIDA, Ebonyi State Chapter had taken up Precious’ matter.
Ijeoma Ubah, a widow who resides in Onitsha, the commercial nerve centre of Anambra State, also recounted her experience after the death of her husband.
“After the burial, I asked my husband’s friend to give me the document of the land he helped my husband to buy at Akpaka Phase Two, Enugu, at the cost of N2.5 million (two million, fifty thousand naira). That was our first project as a family.
“He shouted at me. I explained to him that I have paid all the people my husband owed and needed money to take care of my three daughters. I waited for months, no response from him.
“In January this year, I went back to National Human Rights Commission. Through their efforts, he provided an allocation letter, the commission promised to investigate the genuineness of the document from Ministry of Lands. We are still waiting. But, I noticed that the allocation letter bore March 14, 2016 when my husband was still alive. So, it means he had the document all the while but refused to give to my husband. The allocation letter also carried his name not my husband’s name”.
When Anayo Nnoye got married to her husband from Ifite Enugwu-Agidi, Njikoka Local Government Area, of Anambra State, in 2006, little did she know that the union would not last. Her husband died in 2008 and that marked the beginning of her problems. Shortly after the burial, she was ejected from her house by the senior wife and her son, while the farmland she was cultivating was taken away from her.
She recounted: “The first wife of my husband and her first son have pursued me out of my husband’s house. They no dey pity say I get four pikin. The son, Mike, had been selling the property of my husband. There was one he sold for N7 million, another one for N5 million, he no give me anything. The kindred talk to him to give me my own share. The Igwe and the village people support me but he no dey listen to them.
“It was the Human Rights Commission that is helping me to get my share now. They come with Igwe, kindred, the youths, even the police and vigilante and carry me go to the farm, share five plots of my husband’s land to me and my children but my senior wife and her son did not show up that day.
“Since then, Mike carry juju put there. If I want to sell that land, I no go see buyer. I am not asking for the money of those ones he had sold again, but let him leave the five plots the village, Igwe and relations have given to me,” Nonye appealed.
Obiagali Ogbodo, a widow from Ugwuaji-Awkunanaw community in Enugu South Local Government Area, who had a daughter before her husband’s death, complained that her brother-in-law has taken over the plots of land and shops she owned with her late husband and appeals for help. Her offence, it appeared, was not having a male child for her husband.
“I had twins, a boy and a girl before my husband died but the boy died, so I have just a girl. However, my husband’s younger brother shared ten plots of land and 15 shops but didn’t give me anything because my child is a girl. So I appeal to government to intervene,” Mrs. Ogbodo cries out.
But there are situations where in-laws or the community also dispossesses widows who have male children of their husband’s property. Such was the experience of Elizabeth Obodoeze from Umuofiagu-Ukehe in Igboetiti Local Government Area, who alleged that the leadership of the community destroyed cashew, palm, oil bean and other economic trees in a large expanse of land belonging to her late husband, claiming that it was a ploy to dispose her of the land.
“Nobody informed me that they were going to cut down economic trees planted by my husband and no reason was given for the destruction. They also destroyed my brother in-law’s son’s house that reached the lintel level, cut down all my palm trees, oil bean trees, cashew trees which are my source of livelihood, I don’t know why they did that. The town union and village levy collectors tax us ₦4,400 yearly and we pay but don’t know why, because others are allowed to harvest their own palm fruits without disturbance. The day they destroyed the trees and the building they were well armed with machete, dagger and iron rod,” Mrs. Ogbodoeze lamented.
Mrs Obodoeze passionately appealed to the government to come to her aid.
“We have taken palm wine to the eldest man so that the leadership of the town will explain what we did wrong but they couldn’t tell us anything. It is not land tax but sheer wickedness and cruelty against us, widows. So I am appealing to Government to assist me, a poor widow, they are intimidating and marginalizing us, they want to kill me and my children.”
Disinheritance a grave concern in the South-East
Interviews conducted in the three selected states of the South East Region – Anambra, Ebonyi and Enugu – revealed that disinheritance has always been an epic battle between the culture of the Igbos and the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which is not likely to be resolved soon
From Ebonyi State, Mrs Elizabeth Nwali, the Chairperson of Family Law Centre, established by the State Government to look into family-related matters, expressed worry that the right of widows to inheritance continues to be violated in the 21 Century, even by educated and enlightened persons.
“Disinheritance of widows is the order of the day here in Ebonyi. People seem not to know that the widows have rights over the husbands’ property. In one of the cases we are handling now, brothers to the late husband took away all the property belonging to him from the wife, even pulling down the wall of the building.
“They said that the woman will not have any inheritance from her husband. They even went to the police and lied against her. But, I am going to the police to counter all they said against her. It is serious worry for us here because it keeps gaining prominence every day”.
The Chairperson, International Federal of Women Lawyers (FIDA), in Ebonyi State, Grace Chima, and the Co-ordinator, Legal Aid Council of Nigeria in the state, Okwuegbe Egenti, also spoke about the interventions by their organizations.
Chima recalled: “After the death of her husband, a widow with four children kept document with somebody and said after the burial give it back to me. And after the burial, the person refused to give her the document. They invited the widow into their family meeting and told her to accept their decision that her sister-in-law will keep the documents or she goes to remarry, if she is no longer comfortable with it.
“So, it was clear that they planned to frustrate her, so they can claim the property of her late husband. But, we promised we would get justice for her. We are on it already, using Alternative Dispute Resolution, ADR. If that fails, we shall go to court until justice is served”.
Egenti noted that widows find it difficult to lay hands on anything belonging to their late husbands.
“We have about three cases like that in Afikpo, where this practice is prevalent. We won one of them last year before my Lord Justice Ogbu. A woman lost her husband (a police Inspector) and the sister to the dead man chased the wife away from the husband’s house, warning her to go back to her father’s house, since she had no child for the late brother. We took it up till we won”
The Co-ordinator of NHRC in Anambra State, Nkechi Ugwuanyi, confirmed that disinheritance is among the biggest challenges facing widows, some of who are even disinherited by their sons.
“It is disheartening, terrible, unthinkable and sad that women in the South-East find themselves in such situation. We have several cases on this issue of disinheritance of widows. When a woman loses her husband, naturally, the extended family immediately comes in. all they are thinking of is the property of the man. Even sons disinherit their mothers. In one of such cases going on in Onitsha, the court had given an order that tenants in the property in conflict should pay to the widow, but her son has refused to obey the court order. Sometimes, the relations are bribed with peanut to side with the violators”.
The Executive Director, Women Information Network, WINET, Enugu State, and former chairperson of Nigeria Association of Women Journalists, NAWOJ, Miriam Menkiti, said she became an advocate against disinheritance of widows when, as NAWOJ leader, she found out in various communities they were being marginalized, disinherited.
“So, we championed what we called the “Prohibition of Infringement of Widow’s and Widower’s Fundamental Rights Bill”, with the assistance of Hon. Uche Anya, the Minority Leader in the House then, who sponsored it as Private Member Bill. It was passed in 2001 and former Governor Chimaroke Nnamani signed it into law.”
“Unfortunately, because of greed, many family members still rob widows of the property of their late husbands’ property, disinherit them, take lands and houses belonging to their husbands, not minding that they have children. A few women had been able to use the law to safeguard themselves from such inhuman practice. Some enlightened people also take part in this repulsive treatment against the widows. But, I must say that there are a few families where they ensure that the widow is taken care of”.
Why widows are disinherited – stakeholders
Why has the practice of disinheriting the widows continued despite all legal frameworks and judicial pronouncements as well as international protocols and documents against it?
The traditional ruler of Umuawulu, in Awka South Local Government Area of Anambra State, Igwe Joel Egwuonwu, attributed it to sheer greed among the relations of the dead as well as bad manners among some women, who quarrel with their in-laws during the life time of their husbands.
“Some women are the architects of their problems. Some of them are hostile to relations of their husbands, especially if such men are rich. They drive brothers, sisters, friends and other relations away. If unfortunately, such men die, the relations who had been badly treated see that as an opportunity to get back at such women.
“However, many relations are very greedy and don’t fear god. They want to take away all the widows had suffered with their husbands to put together. But, if that woman is good to her husband’s relations, friends and other people around before her husband died, she will see people who will stand with her against whoever wants to take away her husband’s property”.
For the chairperson, FIDA, Anambra State chapter, Ikpeze Ogugua, disinheritance of widows cannot be divorced from culture and tradition.
“Disinheritance is a harmful traditional practice. In Igboland, even after you get married to a family, the people there still see as if somebody who came. Then you ask – if they can deny their daughters inheritance, why will they not do the worse to a widow?
“Every culture still in existence in Igboland is pro-men and against the female folks. More unfortunate and annoying is that the easterners claim to be Christians and all they are shouting and glowing about is culture and maybe, fetish. Disinheritance is at variance with 1999 constitution of Nigeria, which in section 42 talks about non-discrimination in whatever guise, whether by state of origin, sex, religion, any form of discrimination”.
Ugwuanyi also enumerated other factors that trigger the problem.“You can’t divorce it from poverty, lack of love and knowledge of existing human rights laws, lack of respect for human rights. In some cases, we discovered that violators don’t know they are offending the law. That speaks to the issue of under-reporting”.
CLICK HERE TO READ THE SECOND PART OF THIS STORY.