The patterns of inheritance and succession particularly under intestate estate under customary law in Nigeria, have almost as many variations as there are ethnic groups in the country, and many of the variations are discriminatory in practice. The law of succession and inheritance reflects Nigeria’s plural legal system. Indigenous customary law developed rules of inheritance for intestacy through the traditional canon of descent, as adapted over the years to changes in the society and the rule of natural justice as applied by the court. Fortunately, nongovernmental organizations have been active in attempting to rectify the problems of discrimination.

            Rather than trying in futility to cover all the patterns of succession, we shall examine a few of the succession patterns in this chapter four with particular reference to the discriminatory aspects under customary law. We also shall propose reforms in the next chapter. Finally on this chapter, we shall recognize the important work done by non-governmental organizations in Nigeria.
            The general rule of customary law where a land owner dies instate is that his self-acquired property devolves on his children as family property. The head of the family is the eldest male child of the deceased who occupies the family house and holds same as a trustee of the other children, male or female. However, the rule is different in certain localities.
            In Benin and Onitsha communities, for instance, the deceased’s property devolves to the eldest son exclusively, in accordance with the rule of primogeniture, under which the eldest son is expected to look after younger children and may dispose the house over the wishes of other children or treat it as his own property. Among the mark is group of the verbe of Northern Nigeria, the rule of primogeniture applies, whereby inheritance is by the youngest son, which applies to bar other heirs of the deceased land owner.       
            The rule of primogeniture is plainly unfair to the younger children of the family, hence is repugnant to natural justice, equity, and good conscience. Nonetheless, it has been argued that the system accords with native ideas, particularly the role of the eldest son as the “father of the family” who has a legally binding obligation towards the children.
            The right of the eldest surviving son to succeed his father in the headship of the family is automatic and arises from the fact of seniority. Only the father, as the owner and creator of the family property can deprive the eldest son of this right, by a valid direction made with the aim of ensuring that the affairs of the family are properly managed by a person qualified on the grounds of intelligence and education to do so. In the absence of any such direction by the father, the right of the eldest son cannot be taken away without his consent. But a right that arised by the operation of the law is liable to be abrogated or modified by a change in customs. An example of such right is the right to Igiogbe house, which exists in Benin Kingdom.
            In customary law generally, a husband cannot inherit his deceased wife’s share of her family property, for the husband is treated as a stranger who is not entitled to share in property of the family of which he is not a member. In Canterick V. Harding, the deceased landowner left property for his three daughters, one of whom was the plaintiff’s deceased wife. The plaintiff’s husband claimed a third share of the property by virtue of his deceased wife’s right. It was held that the plaintiff had no such right. Strict Senso, a widow is not entitled to share in the property of the deceased husband at customary law!! An exception is where she has taken another husband (other than the brother of the deceased husband), in which case, she loses her right of occupation and maybe asked to leave12.
            This seemingly unfair practice exit by virtue of intestacy, for under native law and custom, the devolution of property follows the blood. Consequently, a wife or widow, not being of the blood, has no claim to any share13. An exception to this practice does exist: when a widow chooses to remain in her husband’s house and in his name, she can do so even if she has no children. This is to ensure her maintenance. Although she cannot transfer any of the husband’s property outright, if the husband’s family fails to maintain her, then she has a qualified right to be let part of the house to tenants and use the rent to maintain herself 14.
            Her interest in the house of farmland is merely possessory and not proprietary, so she cannot dispose of it. In one instance, a widow remained with the only daughter in occupation of the late husband house at Onitsha, improved it, let part of it to tenants from whom she collected rent, and in all other respects treated the house as her own for 44 years. Upon her death, she devised it by will.  The banquest was ruled void against the husband’s relations, on the principles of memo dat guod non habet.
            This custom offends the principle of natural justice, equity and good conscience. Why? The widow, during their marriage and during the deceased husband’s life, might have toiled to bring about the acquisition of such property. It is therefore not only repugnant to natural justice, but also morally repulsive to deprive her of ownership of such property. Even the Holy Bible states that “a man shall leave his parents and leave unto a woman and shall become one flesh”!15 How can a mortal alter the creation of God? Husband and wife are truly one body and one blood, hence they should share what belongs to them equally, and should be free to exercise their rights via devise 16.
            On the other hand, a husband’s deprivation of inheritance in his deceased wife’s share of her family property is justified. The principle of memo dat quod non habet aptly applies here. The same condition exists as regards deceased wife’s ante-nuptial property. Nonetheless, his right of inheritance in his deceased wife’s real property depends (conditional), first, on whether the wife left any surviving issues; and, second, whether the property was acquired before or during overture; but certainly, wife’s ante-nuptial property goes to her children jointly and in default of her children goes to her relatives and never to the husband, though he has a right over personal property. This customary principle was affirmed in the case of Nwugege V. Adigwe 17.
            This is an administrative suit from Onitsha in which the claim by the head of the family of a deceased widow for a letter of administration of her estate was opposed by her husband’s son by another wife. The letter was held to be the proper person to administer the estate. The court rejected another proposition of the customary law of Onitsha laid down by six redcap chiefs who gave evidence in the case; that where a man marries a woman who has a house and lives with her as a husband and wife there, the house goes to the wife’s family on her death. The court gave as a reason for rejecting this proposition that in laying it down, the chiefs explained that under their custom, it was unheard of that a man marries a woman and lives with her in her house, which is equivalent to accepting the custom that a woman should marry a man and not otherwise.
            But since there is no express rules of customary law covering the specific point, the court was free to arrive at a decision in accordance with the principle of natural justice, equity            


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