There have been several contentions amongst Igbo brothers or family members as regards who really is to inherit the properties of their father who had died without leaving a Will and as such this post fill narrow to this special circumstance.
The general rule of the Igbo customary law on who is to take the place of the father after his demise is founded on the concept of PRIMOGENITURE.
Primogeniture is the process where the eldest male in the family takes the place of the father and is either known as “Okpala”, “Dio-okpala”, “Diokpa”.
The Okpala or Diokpa has the status of head of the family.
The status of Okpala may be acquired by birth or subsequently. The first male child of the deceased is the Okpala.
However, where an okpala dies during the lifetime of his father, that status will rollover to the next male son of the father
Now, where the father dies, the okpala succeeds him as the head of the family. A female cannot be the family head no matter her seniority in the family.
The okpala inherits the father’s ‘ofo’ and other objects of worship and where the father had during his lifetime held a transferable title, the okpala inherits the title.
With regards to the personal properties of the father which the father didn’t make express Will for, the following rules apply. The okpala inherits his father’s furniture to the exclusion of his brothers and the widows. He also inherits his father’s wearing apparels and other articles of dressing.
Where the father left behind some money, the money is inherited by all the sons and not just the okpala alone.
As regards land and landed properties, the okpala inherits, as of right, the late father’s dwelling house – ‘obi’- and the immediate surrounding compound. See the case of Nwafia v. Ububa.
He is also entitled by virtue of his position to one distinct piece of land sometimes called “ani isi obi” i.e, land for the head of the family.
The right to inherit the other lands and houses is vested in the other sons. In the absence of other sons, the right to inherit such property is that of the eldest brother.
The okpala plays an important part with regard to his deceased father’s lands and houses which is outside the family house occupied by him.
The real property of the deceased father vests on the okpala and it s the duty of the okpala to manage and administer such property for the benefit of himself and his brothers and half brothers.
In the case of Ejiamike v. Ejiamike the court held thus;
“The eldest son has the right to manage and administer the real estate of his deceased father for the benefit of himself and his brothers. The widow has no such right to her late husband’s estate. In the exercise of his right, the okpala is accountable to his younger brothers”.
The okpala in Onitsha society has been likened to a trustee or a manager or a caretaker as regards other family land and landed properties.
It should also be known that economic plants and trees are inherited collectively by the sons of the deceased.
Female members under the Igbo customary law do not possess the right to inherit land; i.e neither the daughters nor the widows of the deceased have rights in respect of his real estate.
The position above was reinstated in the case of Ugboma v. Ibeneme, where it was held that women are not entitled to inherit land from their father.
However, female children may succeed to their father’s kola tenancy in Onitsha. See the case of Udensi v. Moghoh
Under the Igbo customary law, there are two (2) modes of distribution of properties where the father dies without expressly telling how his properties should be shared.
The modes are “per stripes” and “per capita”.
Distribution per stripes usually takes place in polygamous families. The estate is shared into as many as possible places as there are many wives and sons- “usoekwu”.
In the case of distribution per capita, the estate is distributed among the individual sons.
Where distribution is per capital, the heirs take their respective shares in order of seniority so that the eldest son has the right to take before others.
In the case of distribution per stripes, the respective “usoekwu” take in the order in which the eldest sons in them were born. This means that the “usoekwu” with the eldest son will take first.
The share for each “usoekwu” is received by the eldest son in that unit on behalf of himself and his brothers.
There is what is regarded as the Iri-Ekpe custom in some parts of Igbo land.
Under the Iri-Ekpe custom, where a man dies without leaving a will and is not survived by any son, brother or father, his estate would be inherited by his eldest nearest paternal male relation i.e the eldest surviving male from his father’s lineage.