Can the Female Gender Rely on the Supreme Court Decision in Ukeje v Ukeje to Inherit the Obi or Igwe position of the Igbo Community: A Judicial Review of the Supreme Court Decision in Ukeje v Ukeje

It is a common knowledge that the Igbo tradition and cultural practice is primogeniture in nature. Black’s Law Dictionary (9thed) @ page 1311 define primogeniture to mean:

The state of being the firstborn male child among siblings. The Common law right of the firstborn to inherit his ancestor’s estate.

It is also trite that the female children in line with the practice of primogeniture are prohibited from partaking in the sharing of their father’s estate and as such barred from benefitting from their father’s estate in Igbo land. The Supreme Court in Ukeje v Ukeje has now abolished such practice. The Supreme Court of Nigeria speaking through Rhodes Vivour JSC in Ukeje v Ukeje (See:Olakanmi J. 20I5, Wills & Administration of Estates: Locus Classicus. Lagos: Panaf Press @ page 362.) echoed:

No matter the circumstances of the birth of a female child, such a child is entitled to an inheritance from her late father’s estate. Consequently, the Igbo customary law which disentitles a female child from partaking in the sharing of her deceased father’s estate is in breach of section 42(1)&(2) of the Constitution, a fundamental right guaranteed to every Nigerian.

Again, in Ukeje v Ukeje (Supra) the Supreme Court (Per Ogunbiyi JSC ) said:

I hold did rightly declare unconstitutional, the law that disinherits Children from their deceased father’s estate. It follows that the Igbo native law and custom which deprives children born out of wedlock from sharing the benefits of their father’s estate is conflicting with s.42 (2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended).

The above decision of the Supreme Court appears to be pigeonholed on s.42 (2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (CFRN) 1999 (as amended).I shall proceed to reproduce the said provision verbatim herein:

42(1) a citizen of Nigeria of a particular community, ethnic group, place of origin, sex, religion or political opinion shall not, by reason only he is such a person;
a) be subjected either expressly by, or in the practical application of any law in force in Nigeria or an executive or administrative action of the government, to disabilities or restrictions to which citizen of Nigeria of other communities, ethnic groups, places of origin, sex, religion or political opinion are made subject; or
(2) No citizen of Nigeria shall be subjected to any disability or deprivation merely because of the circumstances of his birth.

In the light of the above constitutional and Supreme Court authority one sole issue is formulated for determination, to wit: “Whether the female gender can rely on the Supreme Court decision in Ukeje v Ukeje to Inherit the Obi or Igwe position of the Igbo Community.’’ In Olowu & Anor v Olowu [1985] 12 SC Pt. 1 @ pg. 85 the Supreme Court (Per Obaseki JSC) has this to say about culture generally:

The Court which has been established by the British Government has the duty of enforcing these native laws and customs, so far as they are not barbarous, as part of the law of the land.”

Again, the Supreme Court in Zaidan v. Mohsse (1973) NSCC 516 wherein the fact in dispute is whether the Lebanon Muslim tradition should be used to determine the sharing of the estate of Late Y.K Zaidem situate at Warri. Ellias, CJN ruling in her favor said:

We are of the view, that, in this context, customary law is any system of law not being the common law and not being a law enacted by any competent legislature in Nigeria but which is enforceable and binding within Nigeria as between the parties subject to its sway. We are also of the view that anybody subject to such law is excluded from the operation of section 49 of the Administration of the Estate Law (Cap 1) of Western Nigeria 1959 applicable in Mid-Western of Nigeria. (Underline mine)

From the above, it seems custom and culture, like the law enacted by the National Assembly or a State House of Assembly is generally binding on the parties who have accepted it as their personal law except where such custom is found to be repugnant to the principle of natural justice good conscience and equity. However what is repugnant to the principle of natural justice, good conscience and equity is a question fact. It can only be determined by the Court.

It is thus a settled fact that the female gender in Igbo land are prohibited from taking over the Obiship or the Igweship of any Igbo community even if they are the sole surviving heir of a deceased Igwe or Obi and the mode acquisition of such position is by inheritance. “Obi” or “Igwe” is a title used for Igbo Monarch. Part 2 of the Traditional Rulers Law of Anambra State CAP 143 REVISED LAWS of ANAMBRA STATE Of NIGERIA,1991 defines ‘Igwe’ or ‘Obi’ to mean a title designated exclusively to describe the office, style, or title of a recognized traditional ruler.

There are contemporary views from female folks in Igboland that cultural practices such as one obtainable in Igbo land which prohibits women from acquiring the Obiship or Igweship of a community could be classified as discriminatory under the Supreme Court decision in Ukeje v Ukeje and s.42 of the CFRN. We shall look at the extant Laws and judicial authorities for answers.
Section 4 CAP 143 Revised Laws Of Anambra State Of Nigeria,1991 provided that the Governor of Anambra State shall not recognize any person as a traditional ruler of a Town or Community unless the Governor is satisfied that such person-

a) Was elected or appointed in accordance with the-
(i) Customary law of the town or community concerned, or
(ii)town’s or community’s constitution, where documented[Underline mine]
(b)has broad support of his town or community;
(c)Is not under twenty one of age;
(d)Is not a full time public servant;
(e)Is ordinarily resident within the area of his town or community
(f)has not been convicted in any part of Nigeria of a capital offence or any offence involving fraud and sentenced to death or a term of impriosonment;or if he has been so convicted and sentenced, has received a free pardon;
(g)has not, under any law for the time being in force in Nigeria been found or declared to be unsound mind or adjudged to be a lunatic, or if has been so found, adjudged or declared has received a certificate of sanity
(h) has good reputation

It follows from the above that for the purpose of the Supreme Court decision in Ukeje v. Ukeje (supra) as it deals with female right to inheritance may not be applicable for the Obiship or Igweship of the Community in Igboland.The above law made it compulsory that community must select their Obi or Igwe strictly in line with the prevailing custom and tradition in such community.It follows where such community only recognizes only male right to the Obiship or Igweship as a matter of custom any deviation from such practice shall give the Governor powers not to recognize such traditional ruler. Section 4 CAP 143 Revised Laws Of Anambra State Of Nigeria, 1991 which deals with the procedure for recognizing and selecting a traditional ruler in Anambra state is not ambiguous and as such should be given their ordinary meaning in interpretation.The Supreme Court(Per Rhodes Vivour,JSC) in Biem v. SDP [2019]12 NWLR(Pt. 1687) 377@407 Para D-E said:

It has been said in a plethora of cases that the provision of the Constitution should be read and interpreted without embellishments. Where the words used are clear and free from ambiguity. They should be given their ordinary meaning.

Similarly the Appeal Court in Al-Maseer Law Firm v FIRS[2019] 12 NWLR(Pt. 1687)@pg 574-575 Para H-A said:

The law is that whenever a word or expression is defined in a statute to the exclusion of any other meaning that same expression may have. Thus, when something is specifically mentioned in a statute the intendment is that it excludes whatever is not mentioned.

In fact, where the Governor of a State like Anambra recognizes a woman as the Igwe or Obi of a Community such appointment or recognition might appear to be null and void as it shall be inconsistent with section 4(a)(i) CAP 143 Revised Laws Of Anambra State Of Nigeria,1991 already cited hereinabove. It may also do violence to section 4(b) of the same Law which provided that such recognition must enjoy the support of the community in question. It is most unlikely that where a Governor of a State appoints or recognize a woman as the Igwe of an Igbo Community that such woman so appointed or recognized may most likely not enjoy the support of the community and under section 4(b) CAP 143 Revised Laws of Anambra State of Nigeria, 1991 such appointment or recognition cannot hold water in law.

It also follows that since almost all the Igbo Community prohibits a female from being crowned as the King of the Community and perhaps the Constitution of the various Town Unions prohibits same in line with the extant culture does not in any way offends the decision of the Supreme Court in Ukeje v. Ukeje.The fact in dispute before the Supreme Court in Ukeje v Ukeje is whether a female Child is entitled to inherit his father’s estate contrary to Igbo custom and tradition that appears to prohibit same.

It does not by any stretch of imagination appears to be in conflict with s.42 of the CFRN which prohibits discrimination by whatever name. While no judicial authority at least known to the author has pronounce the exclusive reserve of Igwe or Obi position in Igbo land for male gender as a cultural practice that is repugnant to the principle of natural justice, good conscience and equity; cases must be treated on their own merit. Section 42 of the CFRN must also not be read and interpreted in isolation. Infact, S.5 (2) of the CFRN vests the power of enforcement of all laws made by the State in the Governor. The said section reads:

5(2) Subject to the provisions of this Constitution the, the executive Powers of a State-
(a)shall be vested in the Governor of the State and may, subject as aforesaid and to the provisions of any law made by a House of Assembly, be exercised by him either directly or through the Deputy Governor and Commissioners of the Government of that State or Officers in the Public service of that State; and
(b)shall extend to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution all laws made by the House of Assembly of the State and to all matters with respect to which the House of Assembly has for the time being power to make laws.”(Underline Mine)

In construing the Supremacy of the CFRN as to this regard the Supreme Court (Per Katsina-Alu JSC) in Action Congress v INEC (2007)12 NWLR (Pt. 1048) @ 259 Paragraphs B-D said:

It is a settled principle that a provision of the constitution or a statute should not be interpreted in isolation but rather in the context of the constitution as a whole.

Similarly, the Supreme Court in Ellelu-Habeeb & Anor. v AG Federation [2012] 13 NWLR (Pt.1318)@ pg. 520-521 said:

Each provision of the Constitution is supreme and thus forming part of the law. A section of the Constitution must not be read against the background of the other sections to achieve a harmonious whole.

It follows for the purpose of section 42 of the CFRN it must be given combine reading with S.5 (2) of the CFRN which vests the power of enforcement of all laws made by the State in the Governor. For the purpose of these sections in Anambra State, the Governor of Anambra State is duty bound to enforce Section 4 CAP 143 Revised Laws of Anambra State of Nigeria, 1991 to the letter which deals with the procedure of recognizing a traditional ruler in Anambra State.

It seems for the Constitution of any community in Anambra to be acceptable for the purpose of election or appointment of a Traditional Ruler the said Constitution shall contain the customary laid down procedure for the appointment of Traditional Ruler. Section 13(1) CAP 143 REVISED LAWS of ANAMBRA STATE Of NIGERIA, 1991 provided that:

(1)The town or community constitution of a town of a town or a community shall consist of-
(a) a detailed statement of the customary law of the town or community regulating the selection, appointment, suspension, deposition, rights, privileges of the traditional ruler of the town or community which the traditional ruler represents;
(b)Prerogative of customary code of conduct of conduct existing between the traditional ruler and the town or community concerned and identifying the person or persons or group or body of persons qualified in section 11 of this law.

It consequently, follows that custom and tradition is the springboard for the determination of how the Igwe or Obi of Igbo Community is elected, appointed, and recognized by the government. The Constitution of such Igbo Community at least in Anambra State is not expected to go beyond the ancestral laid down procedure for the selection of the Igwe or Obi. It thus follows that the Supreme Court decision in Ukeje v Ukeje is strictly about female right to inheritance from their father’s estate in Igbo Land and has nothing to do with the procedure for the selection of Igwe or Obi of the community.S.42 of the CFRN can also not be imported for this purpose.


Chike Henry Izuegbu Esq. is a Solicitor and Advocate of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. He graduated Second Class Honors (Upper Division) in Law and Political Science respectively.He received a Merit Award from the National Population Commission,Offa LGA in 2013 for a distinguished one year service to the Commission. He holds the Commendation of Nigerian International Model United Nations as the Rapporteur for Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) for the 2011 Convention year. As a Student Delegate he had an audience with the Swiss Government. He also served as the Ambassador for Malaysia at the International Model UN for the 2011 convention year. Among his numerous public policy engagement he is a Graduate member of the Nigerian Institute of Management (chattered), Associate members, Institute of Strategic Management, Nigeria and Institute of Business Advisors Ibadan. He is a member of Rotary Club International. He is presently a Research Consultant and a Law Practitioner with B.S Nwankwo SAN & Co. No 1 Owerri Road Nnewi. He has rendered research services in the sphere of governance, international law, Public Policy, Constitutional law among others to persons and institutions in Nigeria, United Kingdom, and United States among others. Barrister Izuegbu was recently elected the Secretary-General of Nza-Ozubulu Development Union. Comments on this article can be reached to him through this medium:[email protected] through his mobile number: 07036758285.

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