Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2018, 17:46 GMT

Nigeria: Rights of widows to inherit property in a civil marriage where there was neither will nor children; inheritor of the property upon her death

Publisher Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada
Author Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada
Publication Date 28 August 2000
Citation / Document Symbol NGA35236.E
Reference 2
Cite as Canada: Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Nigeria: Rights of widows to inherit property in a civil marriage where there was neither will nor children; inheritor of the property upon her death, 28 August 2000, NGA35236.E, available at: [accessed 21 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Two sources stated in separate telephone interviews, on 22 and 23 August 2000, that Nigerian law provides for a widow of a civil marriage to be entitled to the couple's property upon the death of her husband. However, both stated that the Nigerian reality is different and that this right of the widow will often be ignored, or challenged, by the family of her dead husband. The sources are the principal consultant with Alart Consultancy in Toronto, who is a political scientist by training and a specialist on Nigeria, and an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her research interests are: "symbolic and historical anthropology; cosmology, gender, and space; Igbo ethnography; West Africa.

Both sources stated that the law on civil marriages is modelled on British law and that it is clear from this law that inheritance is to be shared by the widow and the children. The associate professor said that the husband's family will often demand a hearing before a traditional court, a regular court, or both. Despite the clarity of the marriage laws, the rights of the widow are often not upheld in regular courts and "almost never" in traditional courts. The common view in Nigeria is that the family members are more closely related to the deceased by reason of blood, than is the widow. Particularly in cases where there are no children, the family will often suspect the widow had been  involved in the husband's death. The associate professor described the family as a "corporate group" that is very large and with varying degrees of links to the deceased. She said that if the man died without the couple having had children, it would be much more likely that the family would challenge the widow's inheritance rights. She added that a widow rarely inherits and that many women have fought for their rights in court, but with inconsistent results. In rural settings, widows are at a particular disadvantage where the husband's family is much more likely to go directly to traditional courts, which "always rule against widows." In an urban setting the regular courts may rule in her favour, but the widow will then often face the obstacles of getting the property back from the family. For instance, family members may have moved into the home, or taken the car, or cleaned out the family bank account. The associate professor said that a woman may sometimes demand a levirate marriage in order to ensure that she has access to her inheritance (23 Aug. 2000).

This same example was used by the principal consultant. She said that if a man dies intestate then the property is commonly divided amongst his family and that the widow's needs are generally not taken into account. As such, if a widow wants to ensure her financial security then she will marry into the family again. The principal consultant said that the law is one thing, but general practice is another. Challenges can be taken to court, both legal and customary, but the woman has to be quite strong to be able to handle the pressures a challenge would bring on. The law provides that when a marriage takes place under statutory (civil law), the legal courts have precedence over the traditional courts. However, despite this, the deceased's family will often take their claims to traditional courts.

Documentary sources corroborate some of this information. According to a report on microfinance in developing countries produced by the European Commission:

In Nigeria there are three recognised inheritance laws. According to statutory law a wife inherits half of the whole estate if there are no children, while under Islamic law the widow will get only one quarter of her husband's estate, but customary law says that a wife cannot inherit but can stay in her husband's family by agreeing to be inherited by one of his kinsmen. Courts have expressed the view that there is nothing wrong with the custom (Binns Mar. 1998).

Other sources also report the existence of these three laws (CRLP June 1998; EWD n.d.). With respect to the statutory law, Empowering Widows in Development wrote:

Customs are far more influential than modern law, and in all the ethnic groups, matrilineal as well as patrilineal, widows are deprived of inheritance rights.

In a speech delivered to the UN Commission on the Status of Woman this year, Hilary Clinton singled out Nigerian widows as the beneficiaries of a new Inheritance Law.

However, EWD's Nigerian partners are unaware of this new legislation, and not a single case has yet been brought under it.

Whatever the modern law may say on paper, a widows' rights are, in general, completely ignored by the deceased husband's relatives who regard his estate as their birthright. Very rarely does a widow attempt to claim her rights in court.

The few husbands who make wills usually do not make much provision for their widows ; if they do, the wills are normally ignored by the in-laws, resulting in the widow receiving nothing (ibid.).

A 30 November 1999 article from The News reports:

a number of men fight shy of making their wives their next-of-kin, a relationship recognised in law as conferring the rights to an individual's entitlements or property from a third party, especially if the man died intestate, that is, without a will. In most cases, younger brothers are accorded this status so as to keep things "in the family."

In a judgement issued in the city of Enugu, in eastern Nigeria, an appeal court wrote that "women should not be discriminated against in inheritance practices and ruled that a widow should inherit her husband's property" (Democracy and Governance Program in Nigeria n.d.; PANA 9 Feb. 1998). Described as a "landmark judgement on inheritance" the decision was over:

A protracted dispute between one Caroline Mojekwu, who challenged her uncle-in-law, Augustine Okechukwu, for denying her right to inherit her late husband's estate in Onitsha, also in eastern Nigeria.

Justice Tobi said he had no difficulty at all reaching his decision in that the particular custom, in the couple's Nnewi Oli-Ekpe, was "not consistent with the world in which we live today" (ibid.)

The article went on to note that

Critics say the women libbers have an uphill task in selling their new ideas to a largely conservative traditional setting where men still call the shots. …

Critics argue that it would take more than a single court verdict to change the situation (ibid.).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum. Please find below the list of additional sources consulted in researching this Information Request.

Associate Professor of Anthropology, Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 22 August 2000. Telephone interview.

Binns, Helen M. March 1998. "Integrating a Gender Perspective in Microfinance in ACP [Africa, Caribbean, Pacific] Countries." European Commission Directorate-General VIII Development. [Accessed 22 Aug. 2000]

Democracy and Governance Program in Nigeria, Lagos. n.d. "Buidling Partnerships in Governance." [Accessed 22 Aug. 2000]

Empowering Widows in Development (EWD), London, U.K. n.d. "Country Reports: Nigeria." [Accessed 22 Aug. 2000]

The News [Lagos]. 30 November 1999. Dotun Adekanmbi. "Nigeria; Tears for the Living." (NEXIS)

Panafrican News Agency (PANA). 9 February 1998. Toro Oladapo. "Nigeria; Inheritance Judgement Spurs Women's Activism in Nigeria." (NEXIS)

Principal Consultant, Alart Consultancy, Toronto. 23 August 2000. Telephone interview.

Additional Sources Consulted

IRB databases



Resource Centre. Nigeria country file. September 1997 - July 2000.

World News Connection (WNC)

Internet sites including:

Center for Reproductive Law & Policy (CRLP).

Empowering Widows in Development

Keesing's Record of World Events [Cambridge].

Copyright notice: This document is published with the permission of the copyright holder and producer Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). The original version of this document may be found on the offical website of the IRB at Documents earlier than 2003 may be found only on Refworld.

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