One of the amazing experiences I have had was writing my LLB project topic “the Concept of Customary Law Marriage in Nigeria: Esan custom as a case study.” And today, I use Religious and Socio-Cultural tools and means in my counselling and therapy.

Recently, I have been thinking on the concept of Wife Inheritance. It seems to have been outlawed, but if we looked more closely, we would realize that it is still widely practiced. To understand customary marriage, we must understand the elements:

  1. People of the Opposite Sex

I do not know of and I have not heard of any tribe in Nigeria where marriage is between same sexes. The closest to same sex marriage in Nigeria is the extract of the Igbo tribe where a woman marries a woman not for homosexual relationships but for her to mate with her husband or other men and have children for her, in her husband’s name.  This is usually when the woman is unable to have children of her own, biologically. IVF seems to be a better option today for matters like this.

  1. Marriageable Age

Marriageable age in most cultures was puberty. However, for some tribes like Igbo, you could marry at any time but cannot consummate the marriage or even live together until the parties have attained that particular age of maturity for the purposes of sex.

  1. Parental Consent of the Girl is a must

Yes, parental consent in customary marriages is only a must on the side of the girl not on the side of the boy (unless he is not up to the age of consent as determined by the tribe or he has, but is still living with his parents).

  1. Bride Price is a must

This is the major thing that determines the validity of any customary marriage. And in this, the legal principle applies that consideration does not have to be enough but sufficient. So, it is not the amount that was paid but that something was paid.

  1. Right to Receive the Bride Price

Just as in our different organizations, not everyone can receive the bride price. It is not a general rule that it must be the father of the girl. In Esan for example, it is the head of the family that receives the bride price of all first daughters. Fathers can then receive that of their other daughters.

  1. Termination of marriage is by divorce, not death

This is where we understand the true concept of wife inheritance. Under customary law, the marriage is between the families not the couple. That is why it is not the couple that negotiate the bride price. This is also why Introduction and other things like wine carrying (depending on the tribe) is a must too.

In actual sense, although it is the groom that may provide the money, it is his father or the head of his family that actually pays it (depending on the tribe).

In most of our cultures, there are two ways of divorcing;

  1. Returning of the pride price, or
  2. Throwing the woman’s dowry out of the house.

Remember, Bride Price is what a man pays on a woman in marriage; the money not the items. Dowry is the items, most especially cooking utensils and others (including money) which a woman brings into her husband’s house in marriage. So that if a man beats and sends his wife away and her dowry is still in his house, it is not divorce. But if he also throws away all those things, it is divorce. Nollywood have tried showing us this by having a man pack his wife’s box and taking her back to her family.

Now, because a customary marriage is between families, everyone in the man’s family is the husband of the woman. So, even if her particular man dies, her husband is not dead. But because everyone in the family cannot be responsible for her and to her, she is assigned another man from the same family to perform the roles and duties of her late husband. This assignment of another man from the family to the “widow” is what many of us know as wife inheritance.

When it comes to wife inheritance (allow me use the term), there are three options;

  1. Take another man from the family.
  2. Remain in the family and care for your children, continue answering the name for you are still a wife, and do things with your in-laws as though nothing has changed.
  3. Return to your family and remarry if you want to.

The one people are fighting and the law is against is a (take another man from the family) b (remain in the family and care for your children, continue answering the name for you are still a wife, and do things with your in-laws as though nothing has changed) and c (return to your family and remarry if you wanted to) are at the discretion of the woman.

In b, this is where you see grandparent “dragging” for their grandchildren. However, they usually lose if the kids are minors because the Law of Succession gives the right of custody to a surviving spouse, ranking higher than a grandparent or uncle.

Many older women who don’t want to remarry choose b. For c. if a woman chooses to leave, she cannot leave with the kids, many families however agree she does in recent times. However, the kids will still answer the family name and when it comes to marriage or otherwise, whether or not the child has had any relationship with the father’s family, the father’s family remains the family for marriage and other traditional, customary, ancestral and place of origin purposes.

And customarily, if such a woman that leaves wants to remarry, the bride price goes to her late husband’s family.

It works in three ways;

  1. If she is in good relationship with the other family, they would send a representative to the wedding, or
  2. The girl’s family returns the bride price before the new wedding, or
  3. After the wedding, the bride price which the new husband pays is sent to the             late husband’s family.

Interestingly, b and c are still very much in vogue. Some families here are practicing it. It is a’ that people are not wanting as it has even become criminal under our laws.

So in reality is wife inheritance still in existence and practiced in Nigeria? With a 2 to 1, the answer is Yes!

Let’s go back to the moral validity of wife inheritance.

If you paid attention to the different shades of wife inheritance, you would realize that the purpose was to ensure that a widow still had a sense of family, belonging, care and every other thing she was entitled to when her husband was alive. So, by purpose, it was a good practice. But just like every other thing, many people abused it.

What do I think is God’s mindset about wife inheritance?

Simple; God is pro-freewill and choice allowing people make their choices! If widows are allowed to make their choice and not forced to live and mate with an assigned man whether she likes him or not, that form of wife inheritance would never have been a problem. For example, because women are allowed to choose from the second and third options of wife inheritance, many widows above 40 stay with their late husband’s family and refuse to remarry why some younger ones honour their in-laws when remarrying.

We cannot criticize a thing until we know the purpose. And we cannot continuously practice a tradition if it has been abused to the extent that its demerit outweighs the merit. We should always ask if something has outlived its purpose, too.

My name is Earl and I am Alright.

 You Rock!


Photo Credit: Pepertua