Photo courtesy Benblack
Image: Benblack
By Dr. Christopher G. Okojie, Ofr:

To non-Esan and even to modern people, some of the laws and custom affecting inheritance and adoption appear warped, primitive and senseless, but on taking a less cursory look, one would have to give credit to our simple and honest forefathers whose laws were designed to protect man and property in all eventualities. Many of the laws have deep-rooted reasons, and the apparent chaos modern Esan finds itself in today is a glaring testimony of a nation caught between quasi-European ill-understood customs and the desire to appear modern by wholesale disregard of one’s roots, laws and custom that had guided our people for centuries. Making things still more difficult was the shameless exploitation of administrative officers, handicapped by ignorance of Esan language, laws and custom. There was a saying followed with much laughter that each officer came and went with new interpretations of our laws! It is true that with each officer came new interpretations, but the fault and shame were not with the officers whose duty was to rule a people whose laws and custom were alien and in some' cases, the exact antithesis of European or British laws but with our irresponsible and bribed – soaked Chiefs and Councillors who had the shameless knack of giving different interpretations to the same Esan law, to suit the case the administrative officers might be reviewing. 

For example, in common English Law, it is the duty of an animal owner to tie or fence up his animals to ensure that they do not wander off to do damage to other people's property. This is the exact opposite of traditional Esan law: it is the duty of the property or farm owners to fence their farms to prevent cows, goats etc which lawfully wander about feeding, getting into their farms, if near the village. According to this Esan law, therefore, no farmer had the right to kill a cow because it destroyed his unfenced farm. A new administrative officer just coming into the country was sure to put his foot in it, if he depended upon the swinging pendulum of Esan Chiefs interpretation of what was the correct law!

The greatest havoc was wrought by this class of irresponsible’s misleading officers on Esan laws and custom affecting INHERITANCE. There was time they told administrative officers that an issue from a betrothed woman belonged to the intending husband but no officer who has studied Esan as such would be surprised if, reviewing similar cases on another day, was told by the very people that ONON NE EKELE OMON, YAN OMON! (He who pregnated a woman owns the issue)!

Therefore the difficulties of a sincere enquirer into these laws of inheritance are well-neigh insurmountable without a resort to more concrete and tireless methods, beyond the usual questions and answers. The enquirer must also bear in mind, all the time, that the insatiable acquisitive spirit of the Enijie influenced every law with particular reference to those of inheritance. The pure and correct Esan law is to be found in the villages far removed from the ever spreading tentacles of the Onojie. That he did things and got away with them did not validate such actions.

It will be more helpful to explain certain terms before these laws can be understood fully.

(I) OMON OSHO: A child from a lover.

(2) AREBHOA: This was a well known practice amongst people of Esan 'B'.

To a lesser extent it was practised in the other parts of Esan, but it was not as much a feature of the people. The custom is said to be forbidden in Ugboha, to my surprise.

An AREBHOA was usually a man's first daughter (his EHALE). She was not married out to a man. When she came of age she lived in her father’s house where anyone she chose could keep her as a lover. All the issues of the association belonged to the girl's father. The natural father of the issues had one reward: uninhibited companionship at the girl's father's compound. Only the well-to-do men could afford to have daughters and not to make money out of them for in Esan custom the suitor paid the BRIDE PRICE popularly called DOWRY, to the girl's father. In the case of Arebhoa no such price was demanded or paid, hence the natural father was merely a biological DONOR!

For the poorer classes who wanted to achieve the same object of Arebhoa, but could not afford to forego the bride price, there was a modification: it consisted of the acceptance of half the usual bride price by the father from the suitor; first an agreement was made that the marriage was going to be part-Arebhoa, and on this understanding the father accepted half the dowry. In this case the girl could go to the husband's place to live, for what mattered was the system of sharing the issues! The first issues of this rather queer marriage belonged to the father- in-law, and if the marriage was blessed with many issues, a son and a daughter were returned to the father in – Law. When these later had issues of their own, a reciprocal return was made; e.g. from the original marriage a son Oko and a daughter Otiti were returned to the father -in-law. When Oko had issues of his own he would return a boy while Otiti would return a girl to THEIR NATURAL FATHER. Queer and stupid, if one had just a superficial look at the arrangement. Why did our forefathers of Esan 'B' think of the system of Arebhoa, or its modified form that went by the name of OMOGBE?

The reasons are to be found in Esan anxiety over ensuring perpetuity in a family, an attempt to curb extinction of an IJIOGBE or UELEN - the family unit. This could easily happen within two or three generations: Mr. ‘A’ inherited the property and wives of his father; now ‘A’ dies leaving only a daughter who was already fully married; i.e. the bride price had been accepted. According to Esan custom, a woman is never allowed to come from her husband's place to inherit her father's property, so the male next of-kin inherited the property and the door of A's father 's house was shut forever.

Now suppose 'A' had made his daughter an Arebhoa, all the children of this woman, male and female , could have been his own children, so that on his death he could have sons to bury and inherit his property instead of its passing to another door. Still more important was the fact that an Arebhoa had the same rights as a son: She could 'marry' wives who would be having issues for her and she could perform the burial ceremonies on her father’s death, exactly as if she had been a male.

Thus where the system of Arebhoa and Omogbe was practised it was rare for a man to die without an heir and in such places the custom of the Onojie inheriting the property of an heirless man was practically unknown.

(3) ADEBHOMON: This was a son a childless man or woman bought and adopted to the knowledge of his or her Egbele. On the death of the person such an adopted 'slave' could perform the burial ceremonies of the adopter and inherit the property according to Esan law and custom. 

(4) OMINJIOGBE: This was the head, (not by age) of the family or Uelen. It was a hereditary position in as much as each successor duly performed the burial ceremonies of his father and in Uromi, he must have performed the Ogbe ceremony too, the easiest definition of Ominjiogbe is the FIRST SON OF THE FIRST SON traced from the progenitor of the family. On the death of the head of a family his FIRST SON went through the burial ceremonies and assumed the senior position or headship of that family. His father's brothers, his own brothers and sisters, married and single came under his control and once a year the men paid him homage as the keeper of the family ancestral shrine during ILUOBO UKPE. In some parts of ESAN the term AKHEOA (House watcher) was used synonymously as Ominjiobe. In Ekpoma area this position of Ominjiogbe was held according to age of members of the family i.e. it went from one Odion to the next. The correct Esan custom recognized the OMINJIOGBE as the first son of the first son, the pivot upon which the family or uelen revolves.

(5) EHALE (FOREHEAD): A man's Ehale sometimes suffixed with NONODION (the first), is his first daughter, no matter whether she is the man's first child or not; what gives her that title and position of respect in the family is her being the FIRST FEMALE child of the father.

(6) BROTHER: There are two types - paternal and maternal, in Esan custom the maternal type assumes a position of importance when it comes to the question of inheritance.

(7) ABIEKHE: This was common amongst sons of rich men. As soon as a son was born to a man, that baby boy was given a wife, also a child! As would be expected the girl matured before the boy and so she started to have children which customarily were the lawful children of the boy not yet up to the age of puberty! When he came of age, the children he would get himself from this woman and the other wives would be inferior in seniority to the ABIEKHE - those ‘BORN TO WAIT'  issues, a wife got while her lawful husband was a minor!’ Sometimes some of these children were only a few years younger than their FATHER!

(8) CHILDREN FROM LEGAL HARLOTS: I term these women 'legal harlots' for want of a better definition. Harlots they were though they were accommodated by Esan laws and custom for the purpose of inheritance, which was the cornerstone of the family existence. A man who was incapable of having issues either through impotence, old age or some other handicap, called in his Egbele, slaughtered a goat at the ancestral shrine to exonerate his wives from blame and the sure ire of the departed spirits, should they commit adultery. From then on these were (in modern way of looking at things) licensed prostitutes and all the issues from this promiscuous married life, were, the lawful children of the handicapped man. Thus it was no polyandry. The only limitation to the freedom these women enjoyed was that they must not cohabit with any member of the husband’s family: they had to seek donors outside the husband's uelen! To cut obvious psychological trauma to the absolute minimum, whoever the wives chose must remain unknown to their husbands.

(9) ISSUES BY A WOMAN'S 'WIFE’: This sounds to a non-Esan perfectly dreadful and unbelievable but that was what it was and it was a widespread practice in Esan. A childless but very rich woman not wanting her property to pass to her husband and desiring fitting burial ceremonies, ‘married' a girl by paying the full bride price and bringing her to live with her. She was allowed to be ' kept' by any serviceable man of the guardian’s choice. All the off-springs of this association were the lawful children of the rich woman, that is, she was the legal though not the natural FATHER of the children! Again the man involved was merely a donor and for this privilege he gave the rich woman the services of a dutiful son-in-law.

Most of these customs- dictated by the all important Esan laws governing inheritance - had long begun to die out in Esan 'A' even before the coming of the white man, and with civilization even people of Esan 'B' began to realize the psychological harm any suggestion of bastardy could inflict on innocent children, and so these arrangements forced upon men afraid to die without heirs lapsed without any formal annulment.

I) ADOPTION: Adoption of a child must be done at the ancestral line and with the full knowledge of the adopter's Egbele. Before the Egbele elders assembled, he announced that he wanted to adopt, usually a familiar brother by a different mother, as his son and heir. A goat was slaughtered, to make the spirits of departed ancestors dead witnesses to the adoption! The flesh was shared with everybody wishing him well. In the eyes of the living and the dead this boy had become his lawful child. Should he have real sons later in life, these would be junior to the adopted son. Similarly a rich man could adopt a slave who could bury him inherit his property. The one important premise in the law of adoption is that it must be with the sanction and knowledge of the Egbele; a goat slaughtered at the ancestral shrine was a MUST! With these terms explained I can now proceed to examine the laws of inheritance as they affected children, wives, property, titles etc in traditional Esan society.


Let it be understood at the onset that it was a basic Esan law and custom. It's when a man died his property and all he possessed were inherited by his CHILDREN in the first instance. If he had no children then the right to inherit his property passed to his MATERNAL BROTHER. If he had no each brother then the eldest PATERNAL BROTHER was next in line of inheritance. Failing to have children, maternal brother and paternal brother, right to inheritance passed to the OMINJIOGBE of the UELEN. This Ominjiogbe might be his uncle or a cousin.


Basically the first son inherited the father's property and shared to any of junior brothers and sisters AT PLEASURE. It is true that some brothers, particularly the second and third could challenge his unfairness in taking everything to himself and report the matter to the Egbele. In this, the Egbele should only advise, they could not force the first son to part with what has due to him by right. Secondly, no wise brother would inherit what had been relinquished by his senior brother under duress, for soon, as a rest of himself, wife or children falling ill, he would have cause to return his elder brother to sue for peace: peace in this instance would only be possible after due reparation: removing the cause of annoyance on his brother's side! Thus, no junior brother can inherit any of his father property unless with the full consent of his senior brother. Even property, such as houses, coconut trees etc, a father gave to the younger children in his lifetime, could be successfully demanded by the first son, unless the deposition was made at the ancestral shrine before the Egbele.

In theory, while the first son would be within his right to inherit everything without sharing to any of his brothers, for the sake of peace and harmony in the family, he and he alone, gave something reasonable to some of his brothers. It also paid him to do so, for during the burial ceremonies of their father, all those who had received or expected something in the way of inheritance, were bound to assist him with money, goats or even cowl depending upon the wealth of their dead father and the value of the property that came or will come into their possession.

Should the first son be a minor the next of kin, maternal brother, ordinary brother, or Ominjiogbe in that order would be the inheritor, but it would be incumbent on him to take the minor as his ward and treat him exactly as his own child. He had the right to marry out any of the minor's sisters but it was his duty to marry wives for the boy and his junior brothers when they come of age. The ever constant fear of the swiftness of action of the departed ancestors over injustice or cheating made the inheritor particular of honest and so turned over the non-perishable property he had inherited whether the heir grew up; in other words he had held the property in trust. It would be cheating the boy and the spirits, if he wilfully sold all the cows and goats and pocketed the money leaving nothing for him to inherit later. HE could sell one or two for himself or sell all to get money to marry for the young man. What really mattered was that he must TREAT THE BOY AS HE WOULD HIS OWN SON AND ALL HE HA

(b) WIVES:

The first son inherited all the wives except his own mother who was usually inherited by the uncle or the Ominjiogbe. If neither wanted the woman, any old man in the Uelen would be asked to inherit her since it was against custom for any woman, not a daughter of the family to live as such, she had become a widow. (EI MIEN OKHUO ELINMIN - Dead men have no wives but if the man had many wives, the first son at pleasure, and for the sake of harmony, would give some of them to the more senior of his brothers. If one of these wives was an Onojie's daughter, she went home free, since an Onojie's daughter by custom was not inheritable. The reason for this was in the olden days when the Onojie was a dignified monarch; he took no bride price from his sons-in-law: the princesses married for love. If any of them lost her husband and she did not want to leave her children in that village, whoever was to inherit her, had to re-marry her by going ‘TO SEE' the Onojie, with the strict understanding that whatever that sight cost, was no bride price!

There is yet another aspect of inheritance of wives. If a man inherited the wife of a brother or of an Ominjiogbe or the wife of any member of that Uelen, when he himself dies, such an inherited woman is not inheritable by the dead man's heir. The right to inherit that woman passes to the next senior brother of the dead man.

An example is given by the case of Prince Ekute, the son of Olumese of Ugboha, who inherited Oduaki, wife of Udaghe. His first son Ireyokan thereafter began to cohabit with Oduaki, now his father's wife and to save the young man from the wrath of the departed spirits, Ekute gave the woman to his son as a wife. This stunned Eguare elders who quoted this law that got Odionwele Ekute into trouble. The furore was so much that Ekute was forced to flee the village where he was leader to Eko; here he died round about 1913. Eguare elders maintained that an inherited woman was not the inheritor's property that he could pass unto his heir or do what one pleases with. The Eguare interpretation is in accord with Esan native laws and custom. In 1992 Ekute's grand-son Eimujede Okoinemen was the Odionwere of Eguare Ugboha.


All dues 0n sisters not yet married fell on the first son. He married them out to anybody he liked and accepted the bride price. The yearly dues and services from husbands of sisters already married also became his right.


Those who had become men and shared from the father's property, join in the heir in performing the burial ceremonies according to their means what they inherited. They usually then after separated to build their houses around the family house, or where there was friction, they move out of the family Ominjiogbe to any other part of the village. The junior brothers who were minors were taken in by the first son who they served as the father. It was his duty to care for them, pay their dues and taxes to the community and marry wives for them when they came of age. 


Kola nut, Dica-nut, coconut, pear and pepper-fruit trees, all form of inheritable property. They all became the property of the heir and if a minor, the next-of-kin had took possession of them. But when the boy grew up the trees were handed over to him. Roofing leaves plantations were treated in like manner. 


Cows, sheep, goats, pigs and fowls became property of the children. The first son had right over them, but if they were many he shared some of the animals with the more senior of his brothers. In a large family where the heir was wise and peace loving he shared such property ACCORDING TO DOOR'S, that is he ensured that at least one child of every wife of his father, had a share of what their father left behind. Where the heir was a minor and the animals had been inherited by an uncle, on coming of age the surviving herds were handed over. Like the products of economic trees) he was free to sell or make use of them during the nephew's minority. As previously noted the uncle, or whoever was acting for the minor owed it this conscience and the fear of the ever-watching departed ancestors that before had very cogent and fair reasons for selling any of the animals, such as during famine, when he was involved in trouble or if he wanted to do something that would be of benefit of the rightful heir. It would be quite unequitable for him to sell off all the animals because he wanted to buy himself a chieftaincy title.

(g) DEBTS:

Assets and liabilities were in Esan custom inheritable. A man's unpaid debt raises squarely onto his first son and to no one else. Like property, he must bear the consequences of the debt alone with the difference that the other children of their father helped to pay the debt AT PLEASURE. There was only one way in Esan custom by which he could avoid inheritance of his or her debt: if the father died leaving huge debt which the heir did not want to face, all he did was to renounce his claim TO ALL INHERITANCE property, wives and all! That of course included assets and LIABILITIES! Egbonughele then buried the dead man, and since technically, the man had and WITHOUT AN HEIR, the Onojie inherited his property and liabilities; that since no one would go to demand payment of money owed from that red member of the community, the debt became a BAD DEBT!


The man could dis-inherit any of his children, usually in anger as a result of ever wickedness and repeated damage by the son, by slaughtering a goat the ancestral shrine with the announcement that from then on, that such on was no longer his son. If he did this and the quarrel was unsettled before his death, the next son would take precedence. Such a dis-inherited, I had no claim to the dead man's property. Usually a son seeing his father the mood that could take him thus to the ancestral shrine, ran helter skelter round the Edion's houses to come and intervene. Invariably they are post-haste and poured oil on the troubled waters. If the goat had been led before the arrival of the Egbele, the hasty and angry man was made slaughter another goat to renounce all he had said. An appropriate fine; then inflicted on the stubborn son.

In the case of an Onojie's heir, this would not be permissible since two sets of property were involved. There was the private family property and state property or title which was not the holder's personal property, with result that he could not do as he pleased with the latter. If he inherited his first son, it was only in connection with the personal property, he had no authority over what happened to the Onojie title after died. Were this safeguard not made, many Enijie could have made use his power to wreak vengeance on their first sons, with whom there was love lost!


The position or lack of position of female children is emphasis throughout in Esan Native Law and Custom and aptly expressed in the idiom: OKHUO ILE AGHADA BHE UKU (A woman never inherits the sword!) or EI IE OMOKHUO HE OLE IRIOGBE, literally meaning you do not have a daughter and name her the family keeper! - She would marry and leave not only the family but the village, a wasted asset!

The woman could never be the family keeper. Whatever passed on to passed on to her man, in order words the Esan believed the daughter to, a drain on the family and hence she should be disconnected by marriage; quickly as possible. In Esan law and custom, particularly in Esan A' were the system of Arebhoa were unfavoured, the family property was very jealously guarded against its possible passing into the hands of daughters;

In the laws of inheritance therefore, the woman had no place, in fact, she was one of the inheritable properties! The respect paid to the Ehale non Odion, was special and only lasted the father's lifetime really. During the father's lifetime when he shared certain property, a thing rarely done except when the old man felt the end was near, and even then, he had to be very careful what he shared and how he went about it, because ELINMIN YIYI OBE EGBELE KHUAN OLE A (The dead man makes bad laws but the living elders over-rule!), he might give something on the feminine line like Ivie (Coral Beads), clothing, a goat etc, to the daughter. If he had a cow or even two he could not successfully give one to the first daughter, even while he lived. When a father shared things like food, they were usually divided into two big lots: one for the sons who shared theirs in Odugha. While the daughters irrespective of seniority, went to the women's quarters to divide theirs, obviously showing that they had no place in the main house 0f Odugha.

During the burial ceremonies, however, the Ehale had a place, albeit far inferior. Irrespective of her age to the first son's, whose place might many, many years down according to age.

It was this attempt to keep property in the family that led to the custom of a woman, however wealthy, not being allowed to bury her father, since who performed the ceremonies inherited the property. If she was influential and her brothers were minors, she could prevail on the Egbele allow her to perform these ceremonies, strictly on the understanding that she only doing this because she did not want their father to remain unburied that she did everything on behalf of her brothers. Another thing which, designed to preclude her from inheritance was the custom which bade the woman from handling UKHURE, since she could not do this, could not take possession of the family shrine and hence she could not end to perform the burial ceremonies and hence own the family property.

She was the only child of her father; the next male in line of succession is to perform the burial ceremonies, the woman and her wealth fading only behind, so that after the ceremonies, she had no claim to property.

This type of burial is only allowed to prevent property in the family passing side the family and village as would otherwise happen if the daughter had not permitted by the Egbele to perform the burial ceremonies of her father the laws of inheritance as they affect women need some qualification as an Arebhoa and being the only child of the dead person.

Arebhoa: As already said, an Arebhoa was equivalent to a son. She should perform the burial ceremonies and inherit all the father's property except the title if had any, and the wives, of course, In this case the reason forbidding other types of daughters having this right is satisfied: though an Arebhoa, a woman had inherited property, she and all she inherited did not leave the family or the village.

Property of a woman: When a wife died her property was inherited by children. If she has only one child and already married, she came home, formed the burial ceremonies of her mother and inherited what she left behind. But if the woman had no issue, the husband inherited her sessions.


Outside of a slave, I have been quite unable to find an example of a man Esan without a next-of-kin since the village community was organised on Orikin system; thus it was impossible for a "FREEBORN" of the village lie without a living cousin however distant. The term 'without a next-of, in Esan tradition, is therefore a misnomer.

In districts traditionally 'blessed' with very autocratic Enijie such as Irrua, Uromi,  Ewohimi, the property of any man dying 'without a next-of-kin' passed onto the Onojie. In actual practice this meant anybody dying without a son. Favour-seeking informants or evil-minded men wanting to get their own back on a dead man, were always quick to go and make a report to the Onojie that such and such a man had died without an heir. A message was at once fired to the Ekosi (the titled man) of that village demanding EVALLE which meant the dead man's farming matchet and hoe, the euphemistically a way of saying 'ALL HE POSSESSED IN THIS WORLD’, including unmarried daughters! As recent as 1895, a few years before the white man came with a more balanced law and order. Idiata, an influential Okhaemon in Agwa - Irrua, died leaving only a daughter called Ebode. Despite the fact that this was a Chief himself, all his property, including Ebode, Wall swallowed up by the acquisitive Eromosele the Great.

In most other districts in Esan, my enquiry revealed that it was only slave, whose home could not be traced, that died without a next-of-kin, the property of such a man could be taken by the Onojie, but even then, the reason for this was sheer greed and oppression; in those days, how could slave die without a next-of-kin? He must have been owned by somebody, otherwise he was no slave. "However it was the desire to avoid the long tentacles of the octopus who ruled at Eguare as Onojie, that led our fore-fathers to design the system of Arebhoa, Adebhomon, children from legal harlots etc. Still it is painful for me to admit that even in the year, 1992 this autocratic practice lingered on. In the main, they are people who die without relatives, however distant, whose properties are still being claimed by some Enijie.) I am painfully aware of properties of even princes and princesses not slaves, being taken over from people with sisters, cousins etc.