Widowhood in the Nigerian Society, being a paper delivered by Titilola Akinlawon SAN at a Widows Support Program held in 2010.



(Support Group for Widows and Single Mothers)

Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos.




The Christian Perspective

(Administration of Family Property)

Held on Saturday, 19th June, 2010 at St. Anthony Catholic Church, Gbaja Surulere, Lagos


Delivered by:                                   TITILOLA AKINLAWON (SAN)

                                                        President, Catholic Lawyers

                                                        Association St. Agnes Parish

                                                      Catholic Church,  Maryland







        In many Countries, law and practices concerning inheritance and property lead to serious discrimination against women. As a result of this uneven treatment, women may receive a smaller share of the   husband’s property at his death or none at all, than would widowers if in their shoes. In some instances, women are granted limited and controlled rights and receive income only from the deceased’s property. Often Inheritance rights for widows do not reflect the principles of equal ownership of property acquired during marriage.

          Under Customary Law for example, it is assumed that the widow and her children will be taken care of by the relatives of the  deceased husband and father. In practice, this is usually not the case, as widows and her children are dispossessed by relatives of  the family assets and are forced to move back to the widow’s  parent’s home. It is often the women themselves, who renounce under social pressure or not to their fair share of inheritance. In  Vietnam for example, women rarely inherit or have any say over   their parent’s land or husband’s land use right, due to traditions and  customs. In the northern part of Nigeria where Shari’ah law is  practiced, the percentage or amount of inheritance is established for men and women.

          It is critical to note that women’s illiteracy in legal matters and lack  of empowerment are major obstacles in their enjoyment of the rights they have. For this reason, this seminar aims at empowering the “women” regarding their rights as widows.



  1. Widowhood: The state of having lost one’s spouse to death is termed “Widowhood” or occasionally “viduity”.

          It refers to the state or period of being a Widow. The Greek word for widow means bereft, being left alone, and thereby suffering loss.   A widow is a woman whose husband has died and who has not married again. On the other hand, a widower is a man whose wife has died and who has not married again.

          In the scriptures we see a classical example of two women; Naomi  and Ruth. The book of Ruth tells the story of these two women, how they became widows and what they made of life after the demise of  their husbands. Naomi is the older of the two women and is the   mother-in-law to Ruth. She left Bethlehem, her home city to Moab,    with her husband and two sons. When she returned to Bethlehem  many years later, she came back empty, without a husband and   without her sons. Her testimony in Ruth 1:13 reveals an embittered woman for she confessed, “…the hand of the lord is against me.”

          Naomi, as a widow struggled with certain challenges that widows often face. She experienced loneliness. She had to face life without  her husband. She experienced rejection, change of identity and she  was stigmatized. Her name, Naomi meant ‘pleasant’ but after life had dealt her the hard blows, she said ,”Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Lord Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me”  (Ruth 1:20). Mara means “Bitter”.

          The same can happen to any widow. The sister who used to be pleasant and cheerful may suddenly become withdrawn, moody and   edgy. She may be disempowered, maltreated and exposed to societal injustices.

  1. Family Property: In this context, family property will be taken to mean the property of the deceased husband, left behind for his wife, children and other members of his family.




          The Plight of a Widow (Inheritance and Intestacy)

          Where a relationship ends with death, the financial rights and claims of the survivors will be determined by either the will or by the law of  intestacy, this is because, when a man dies, he does so in one of   two circumstances with respect to the estate he leaves behind,  namely testacy or intestacy. A man dies testate if at the time of his death, he has the valid will by which he disposes of his property. He dies intestate if he had no will at all, or if his will turns out to be invalid.

1)      Testate Succession: Wills

          Where a testator makes a will before his death, there is usually no problem. The importance of having a will is not far-fetched as he would have stated carefully all persons he intends to benefit from his estate, and those who will not benefit from it. Where any dispute arises, a widow may proceed to take legal action to enforce the letters of the will.

2)      Intestate Succession: (No Will)

          Where a person dies without a will it is called intestate succession,   then disputes will normally arise. It is therefore important to analyze the three (3) systems of law governing intestate succession to see  how widows and their children are usually treated.

  1. Common law

          Under the Common law, where a person who contracts a Christian marriage outside Nigeria subsequently dies intestate (without a will),   domiciled in Nigeria, his estate will be distributed in accordance with   English Common law. The rule was laid down in the case of Cole V  Cole 1898 1 NLR at page 15.  In that case it was held that under English law, the widow and her son are entitled to inherit the estate  to the exclusion of the deceased’s brother.

          In England, The Statutes of Distribution, 1670 and 1685 and the  intestate’s Estates Act of 1890 in applying the Rule set out in the    above stated case further provided the benchmark for distributing the deceased’s personal estate as follows:

i         One third to the wife; and

ii        The remaining two-thirds being shared in equal portions amongst the children.

  1. Administration of Estate Laws of various states


          For a deceased person who is married in the Church or Under the   Marriage Act, and dies intestate, his estate would be governed by   the provisions of statute. In the case of Lagos, it is the  Administration of Estates Law Section 10 of the Law provides that      “where a person dies intestate and administration is granted under this Law in respect of his real and personal estate, that estate shall be deemed to have been vested, from the      date of his death until administration is granted, in the Chief  Judge….” Section 49 of the same Law stipulates that the estate   of an intestate would be distributed as follows:

i         If the intestate leaves a spouse but not children and no parent or brother or sister then the surviving spouse inherits the estate.

ii        If the intestate leaves children whether he had parents or siblings then the surviving spouse shall take the personal chattels absolutely and 1/3 of the real estate while the children would share the remaining 2/3.

iii       If the intestate leaves no children but a spouse and a parent or siblings then the surviving spouse shall take the personal chattels   absolutely and 2/3’s of the real estate, while the parent takes the  remaining but where there is no surviving parent then it goes to the  siblings.

iv       If the intestate leaves children but no spouse then his estate would devolve on his children.

v        Where the intestate leaves no spouse or children but both parents, then the parents shall inherit equally.

vi       If the intestate leaves no spouse and no children but one parent  then  the surviving parent shall inherit absolutely.

vii      But where the intestate leaves no spouse, children or parent then the estate would go to his siblings of full blood, if there is none, then   siblings of half blood. In the absence of this, then grandparents, if none, then uncles and aunts of full blood. In the  absence of this then uncles and aunts.

viii     In default of any of the above, the estate of the intestate shall belong to the state as bona vacantia and in lieu of any right of      escheat.

     Where the intestate, in the alternative, is married under native Law    and Custom i.e in a situation where all the husband did was    to carry wine and pay dowry under Igbo Custom or underwent engagement under Yoruba Custom without going ahead to marry  his wife in the Church or going to the Marriage Registry, then in intestacy his estate would be regulated by his custom.


  1. Customary law

          The patterns of intestate succession under Customary Law in Nigeria have almost as many variations as there are ethnic groups in the country. We shall therefore examine five (5) major systems of   succession patterns.


  1. The Yoruba system (Lagos, Ogun, Ojo, Ondo and Kwara States).

          Under modern Yoruba Customary Law of intestacy, the children of the deceased are entitled to his real property to the exclusion of  other blood relations[1].

          On the death of the intestate, his landed property devolves on his children as family property. This includes family property under the   control of the deceased.

                   While all the children of the deceased have rights to the family property, its management is under the control of the “Dawodu” who   is the eldest surviving son of the deceased.

          There are two systems of distribution recognized by Yoruba   Customary Law – “Idi-Igi” and “Ori-Ojori”. Under “Idi-Igi”, the estate    is divided per stripes, i.e. among the mothers – wives of the  deceased – the children taking the portion of their respective    mothers, equally. In the case of “Ori-Ojori”, property is distributed  per capital among the children of the deceased.

  1. The Igbo System

          The cardinal principle of Customary Law of succession in Igbo land is primogeniture, i.e. succession by the first born of the male line. The   exception to this role exists in Afikpo and Bende areas of Imo State which are bi-lineal.

          Under this principle, the eldest male in the family is known as   “Okpala”, ‘Diopkala’ or ‘Diokpa’. He inherits the father’s personal    “Ofo” and other objects of worship, furniture, the widows, wearing    apparels and other articles of dressing of his father. Where the intestate left behind some money, it is inherited by all his sons. The    sons also inherit their father’s farming implements, tools and live  stock. Succession to the intestate’s real estate is determined by the     nature of the particular property. The eldest son inherits, as of right, the late father’s dwelling house called “Obi” and the immediate       surrounding compound. In addition, he is entitled to one distinct    piece of land called “ani isi obi” – i.e. land for the head of the family.           The right to succeed to the other land and houses is vested in his  sons as a body.

          Under Igbo customary law, females do not possess the right to inherit land, neither the daughters nor the widows. A daughter will   only be entitled where the “Nrachi” ceremony has been performed     for her. This ceremony is performed where a man has only  daughters but no son. In order to ensure the continuation of the family line, he persuades one of his daughters not to marry but to   remain in the family with the hope of bearing a male heir.

          In Igbo customary law, two modes of the distribution of intestate  estate are recognized as well – per stripes and per capital.   Distribution per stripes usually takes place in polygamous families.  In the case of distribution per capital, the estate is distributed  among the individual sons.

          Note that in some parts of Igbo land, “Iri-ekpe” custom obtains. By  this custom where the intestate died without sons, brothers or       father, his estate is inherited by his eldest paternal male relation, who is called “Oriekpe”.

          Among the Igbos also, apart from depriving the Widows of  inheritance rights they also make her suffer inhuman treatments such as:

  1. Having to lie on a mat or sit at a designated place for many days.
  2. Wearing a set of clothes which will be burnt after the  burial ceremonies.
  3. Shaving of the hair.
  4. Being made to swear to an oath of innocence.
  5. Being made to drink water used in washing the corpse of the late husband.
  6. Compulsory wailing as proof of innocence.

iii.      Bini System

          Succession under Benin customary law is also governed by the principle of primogeniture. But unlike succession under Igbo    Customary Law, on the death intestate of a father, the eldest son succeeds to all his disposable property to the exclusion of the other brothers and sisters.

          In practice, for the purposes of maintaining family peace and    harmony, the eldest son at his discretion gives some part of the   estate to his younger brothers.

The exclusive succession right of the eldest son is accompanied by the obligation to perform the deceased father’s funeral ceremonies. He is also obliged to provide maintenance for the younger children and other dependants of the deceased. He is also entitled exclusively to the estate of his deceased mother. However the daughters usually take her personal apparel and household utensils.

  1. The Ijaw system

          The succession rights among the Ijaws depend on the type of   marriage contracted by the person’s parents. The children of the “Iya” (or big-dowry) marriage and their mother have succession  rights in their father’s family. On the other hand, in the case of  “Igwe (or small-dowry) marriage, both the children and their   mother belong to their mother’s family. The children will inherit from   their maternal uncles or relations.

  1. In the Northern state
  2. a) Islamic Law: The rights of succession under Islamic law are set out in the Koran. If a Moslem dies intestate, his male children must  have equal shares and the female children half – share each. The widow is entitled to one quarter of the estate. But if there are   children or grand – children, her share will be reduced to one-eight. Where there is a plurality of wives, they share the one-quarter or  one-eight equally between them. If a woman dies intestate, her  widower is entitled to half her net estate, and if there are surviving    children to one-quarter.

          A single daughter is entitled to half the net estate. If there are two  or more daughters they get two-thirds, divided equally among them. An only son will be entitled to the whole estate or to the remainder  after payment of the shares of any ancestor who is entitled to succeed.

          In the light of the foregoing, it is obvious that in some states, widows are more often than not discriminated against and not  properly catered for after the deaths of the husbands, save for situations where they are saved by a will.


          The issue that arises then is: What should a Christian Widow do  when maltreated and humiliated for no fault of hers and left empty  handed with her children? Should she speak up or throw her hands  in the air and say. “It’s our culture.” The answer is definitely NO! It    is not our culture. It is barbaric and against God’s will. She should  not keep quiet when a lot can be done. Infact the Courts have   declared that some of these cultures cannot be enforced because  they are contrary to equity, fairness and good conscience. In such circumstance, I would suggest that widows should rally around  themselves for courage to challenge some of these cultures in the Courts. Maybe the best thing women should do is to ensure that they impress it on their husbands (a) to tidy up by leaving a Will (b)   marry them in the church or registry (c) better still to acquire assets in the name of the wife or even the children.

          The following hints from a book written by a Christian Widow Dr.  (Mrs) Atinuke Amao-Kehinde titled “Widowhood: How to survive a  time of Loss” will be of help to any person(s) going through such experiences of life:

  1. Pray for wisdom to deal with every situation.(Proverbs 4:5-9)
  2. Pray for Guidance and believe that God will give you directions as to what to do. With God piloting your affairs, you can never go wrong  (Proverbs 3:5-6).
  3. Let the peace of God rule your life and guard your heart. When you are calm under God, each condition will sort itself out. You cannot think creatively when your mind is upset.(John 14:27)
  4. Saturate your consciousness with faith. (Mark 11:23)
  5. Read the promises of God and relate them to your present circumstance. (Jeremiah 15:16)
  6. Remind yourself of one great truth: Hard experiences will pass away, so hold on with God’s help.
  7. Depend on God instead of brooding over your setbacks. Recognize where you are now in this journey and where you would be in the days ahead.
  8. Think of practical ways by which you can support yourself. Be diligent, God is not interested in poverty. Rely on God for ideas and insights.
  9. Don’t neglect your children. Your children need the stability that only you can give and you need it too.
  10. Set goals for yourself. Analyze your skills and potentials.
  11. No matter the Hardship, have a forgiving disposition towards those who may hurt you (Matt 5; 11). These may be in-laws, friends or  relatives. Forgiveness is a sign of true sonship.
  12. Avoid self-pity. Be determined to surmount all the problems that come your way.


         The Christian life is not trouble-free. We each go through similar problem and hardship just as the non-believers do. Yet we do so in the knowledge of his sovereignty. No matter what we go through, God shares in our suffering and comforts us in our loss. No matter the battering by circumstances of life, God is in control and you can address your anguished questions of Why? How long? Do you care? With the assurance that all is well no matter what.

[1] Adeseye Vs Taiwo 1956 Vol. 1 FSC 84

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