By Emmanuel Unah
Everywhere you look in Calabar, Cross River State capital, you find estates which have been abandoned due to squabbles over the sharing of inheritance. The squabbles are sometimes so fierce that machetes and dreaded charm, ekpetiaba (kills within five days), are used by desperate members of families to eliminate or subdue siblings in order to take ownership or the lion share of estates.
The recourse to squabble is occasioned by the fact that the tradition of Efiks, who predominantly inhabit Calabar, gives every member of the family of deceased parents the right to share in inheritance, including females, unlike in other traditions, like the Igbo, where women do not have claims to the estates of deceased parents. Sometimes the struggle ends in court and drags on for several years during which all parties to the dispute stay off the estate, thus occasioning the dilapidation of the property.
The struggle for estate can also overshadow the burial of the deceased. There was the case of an aide to a former governor of Cross River State who died in a car crash. Following the death, the wife and family members became embroiled in a struggle over the man’s estate while his corpse was delayed for burial for days. There was also the case of a journalist, Edem, who made claim to one of the houses of a deceased woman he called “aunt”.
Edem, who works with a national newspaper, said he had been engaged in legal tussle over a two-storey building in an estate with a popular politician, Bassey, who he described as his uncle and is now late, until 2008. He told Sunday Vanguard that litigation over estates left behind by dead relatives sometimes drags for decades and a lot of money wasted in the process by those contending for the property.
“Some of these cases drag on for a long time, from the High Court to the Appeal Court and up to the Supreme Court and, until they are decided, nobody has the right to assume ownership or authority over any portion of the land or property” , Edem said.
Narrating what led to the prolonged tussle between him and his late uncle, Bassey, Edem said his deceased aunt was very rich and died without her own children; so she willed her estates to her brothers, sisters and their children. Meanwhile, in his own case, the journalist said the woman wrote: ‘The house I live in should go to my brother, Edem.’ He narrated: “But my uncle claimed that the property was willed to my father and not me since the woman wrote ‘my brother’; and I am not her brother, so the property should become his own since my father was dead”.
He said the man failed to take cognisance of the fact that he bears “Edem” like his father and that the woman had always referred to him as ‘brother’ since the demise of his father. “My father died many years ago when my aunt was still strong, so if she wanted to will the house to my father, she would have changed it before she died since my father had passed on many years before her”.
There was also a celebrated tussle between two brothers, James and John, which raged for years over the ownership of a hotel in Calabar left behind by their late father. The hotel, located close to a strategic roundabout near the University of Calabar, was a source of constant physical combat between the two brothers until Cross River State Ministry of Justice intervened.
A source close to the two told Sunday Vanguard that the elder brother was in Cameroon doing his private business when the father was alive and, when the man died, the younger one took over the running of the hotel and, by the time the elder came back and demanded for a part of the estate, his sibling told him off and that was what led to the fight until the Ministry officials came and a shared the place. They gave the bigger portion to the elder brother and the other to his sibling while erecting wall across the two portions. Even with the sharing, the relationship between the two was so fractious such that a spoon from one section of the hotel could not cross to the other and no one, even the customers, was allowed to take drinks or food from one section to the other.
There is a current case in court where a young man, Ndifreke, who soon after the demise of his father, allegedly grabbed the documents of the property of the deceased, located along White House, and before his other siblings could realise what had happened, he had sold the estate to a People’s Democratic Party, PDP, stalwart for eleven million naira. He then went to Lagos and squandered the money. When he came back, he was arrested while other members of the family are battling to recover the estate from the PDP chieftain.
Cases on inheritance are so many in Calabar. In the state Ministry of Justice alone, the department that administers estates for families is overflowing with files as there are over four hundred such cases currently being handled by the Administrator General of the state . Mr Joe Abang, the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in the state, said he is not relenting, his efforts to ensure that every member of families involved in such cases is fairly treated.
“Yesterday I had a two-hour meeting with the director in charge of the administration of estates. It is in that unit that there was a complaint that the ICPC had to come here. I have told the head of department there that for every estate that he handles, I should be informed no matter the circumstance”, Abang said. According to him, most Africans tend towards polygamy but the present generation of Africans seem to be more polygamous than their grandfathers.
“The younger African man marries one wife because the Bible says so, but the grandfather who married four wives was better off because everyone in the community knew the wives but this one has one wife and thirty concubines. And in his life time, he was seen as a good man with one wife with three children, but when he dies the concubines start coming and they come with children who have same features and more resemblance of the man than the ones in the house”, the Commissioner said.
He said in law, facts speak for themselves; so one cannot shut out those who are not “officially” known in the family who just came in out and, to compound matters, the man may have died without a will.
“We can see from such scenario, the man has just created a problem for the entire society especially those who are in the administration of justice and estates. Woe betide you if you share the estate among five people because, after six months or one year, those who did not hear that the man is dead may suddenly hear and start coming from Kaduna, Abuja, Ibadan and you cannot shut them out. You then begin to readjust and the others will say they don’t know those ones because their father did not mention them and so trouble starts”.
He said the ministry usually gives a window period after giving due notices for the sharing of estate of a person who dies interstate so that others can come and make claims.
“There is no way two people cannot fight when money is involved; what someone takes to be common, two people can fight to death while struggling to take possession of it. That pair of sandals, that shirt, that jean trousers that you think are common could lead people to killing one other. The complaints would come but to save people from the greater evil of fighting aimlessly, it is better to make a will before one passes away. Let us know his 20 wives, where they live and what is assigned to each beneficiary.”