Ndi Igbo: Girl-child and inheritance rites
The Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria, commonly referred to as Ndi Igbo in recent times, are not only known for their enterprise, but also for their ability to travel wide and relate cordially with people from other tribes. But as widely travelled and educated as these people are, they still cherish and practise their traditional rites and customs, which some of them see as part of their culture that cannot be discarded.
Some of these practices include rites of inheritance, death, marriage and punishment for crime, among others. However, these differ from one Igbo community to the other.
Chief Fidelis Nwosu explained that the Igbo culture couldn’t be similar because of the various sociological influences the Igbo man has been exposed to with regards to geographical location, history, trade, migration, folklore and ties with neighbours.
He said: “The customs of the Anioma Igbo will never be the same as that of the Ngwa or Ohafia people or other Igbo located in different parts of Igboland because of historical past, climate and their neigbhours. And this is the main reason they sometimes behave differently, even though they may have a central binding force.”
He explained that while the Ohafia customs are matriarchal, others tend towards patriarchal. This reflects on how the people express themselves in all areas of life, including ownership of land and sharing of property at the death of a man.
He said the boy-child and girl-child in a traditional Igbo society are not treated equally because the girl-child is assumed to be in transit, as she would eventually marry and thus lose all identities that make her a member of a certain family. And even in the case, where a married woman returns to her father’s house, which is considered an abomination, she still does not have the same rights and privileges as her brothers or stepbrothers.
“It is believed that the sons are the pillars of the home, as they do not leave the family, but rather go out to marry a woman to increase the number of people in the family,” he said. “Men sustain the family name, which is why they are given greater attention than their sisters. Though, in some community such as the Ohafia people, the first daughter may be privileged to get some of her fathers property, especially land after his death, such practice is not common among Ndi Igbo.”
Mazi Ikechukwu Okorie of Old Umuahia Quarters said this discrimination can be corrected in some cases, such as, when there is no male child in a family and the wife has to marry another woman for the husband. According to him, the second woman may go out and get a child from any man and the man would claim the child. If the child was a male, he has the same right with every other person in that family. He bears the name of the man and is addressed as the bona fide child, even though the family members know his source.
Recently and perhaps to stop this age long discrimination, the Supreme Court, in a case filed by Mrs. Lois Chituru Ukeje (wife of the late Lazarus Ogbonna Ukeje) and their son, Enyinnaya Lazarus Ukeje against Mrs. Cladys Ada Ukeje (the deceased’s daughter), voided the Igbo custom, which forbid a female from inheriting her late father’s estate, on the grounds that the practice is discriminatory and conflicts with Sections 42(1)(a) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution.
Expressing his views on the discriminatory practices and the Supreme Court ruling, Chief Michael Odita of Ahiara, said this is not the first time Supreme Court would be ruling on Igbo customs and practices. He recalled that the court at a time repealed against Osu caste and high bride price in some communities, yet the practices still exist.
Odita said traditional rites couldn’t be forced or easily changed, as they are embedded in long history and antecedents. All that government needs to do, if it is interested in changing the situation is to constantly educate the people, making them see the reasons the harmful practices must be changed, as well as enable those affected to challenge the rites in a constituted court of law through making litigation cheap.
While some people agree with Chief Odita, others believe the man should not even expose their children, especially the girl-child to the rigour of facing the Umunna (kindred) for any reason, as they would never shift their grounds, even when the law says so. This category of people says even where the family accepts the ruling in words, they still return to the old order in practice and principle. So, the best thing is for the man to empower his wife by making her engage in a trade or work, as well as share his property among his children while still alive. He should ensure that his family members are all aware of such decision, so that no one comes for the man’s property after death.
Though, the traditional Igbo man may consider this an abomination, it would definitely protect the children from conflict with members of the extended family.
Chief Olua Ekemba, one of the promoters of the idea, said while the man is still alive, he should properly organise things and put the family in its right place. He explained that though some of his property is in his wife’s name, this does not stop him from helping his relatives. He disclosed that even when the relatives have been adequately taken care of, they still trouble the wife and children of the deceased, but when the property are in the children and wife’s names, they are rendered powerless.
But Eze John Onyebuchi Ibezim of Amuzukwu, Umuahia, another proponent of this idea, said if the owner of a property, while alive decides how the property should be shared among his children nobody, custom or rites could change it.
“If I will my property to anybody, it supersedes tradition. Culture and tradition lay down procedure for sharing one’s property or inheritance. A female child has no right to such inheritance. But there are certain situations, where she can inherit her father’s property. We don’t throw away women in our tradition. If a woman does not get married, she can’t be thrown out of her father’s compound. She has the right to retain where she was before the father died.
“Similarly, if a woman’s marriage didn’t work out and she returns to her father’s house, the sons do not have the right to throw her out; they must give her a place to stay. But if the girl or the woman is not married, she has the right to stay in her father’s house. After marriage, she can’t return to share her father’s property. Our mothers and wives would not return to their fathers’ houses to share property with their brothers. A wife only has right to her husband’s property and not his maiden family. Culture and tradition have been there before the constitution. It is an unwritten constitution.
“The woman in Igbo land inherits her husband’s property because the wife of the man has right over the property of the man, irrespective of the sons, who can’t just throw the woman away from her matrimonial home. The house belongs to the children, when the woman is dead. But as long as she is alive, she has to be there, it’s her right by tradition,” he said.
Corroborating what Ibezim said, Eze Edward Ibeabuchi of Okwulagha Afaraukwu noted that Igbo people do not bequeath property to women, especially married ones.
“We believe they should only partake from where they are married. But if she is not married, she has to be accommodated, when sharing her father’s property. When a father dies, his first son inherits his house. The first son then allots parcels of land to his siblings to build their own houses.
“A woman inherits her husband’s property and not the father’s,” he said. But if she has a love child, she won’t be driven from the father’s house; she and her child will be given a place to stay. While we cannot watch our daughters suffer because of customs and traditions, we also do not want to cause confusion and contradict the customs.”