By ABDULSALAM NASIR
A Will or testament is a piece of legal declaration by which the originator, called the testator, names one or more persons to manage his or her estate and provides for the transfer of his property at death. The primary purpose of a Will is to nip in the bud any conflict or controversy that might arise among surviving relatives over the sharing of the property left by the deceased. On the contrary, many a Will and testament have turned out to be a Pandora Box that triggers and fuels inheritance-related disputes which at times could be vitriolic, vengeful and even vilifying to the memory of the deceased. In the Nigerian context, instances abound whereby “the living would not let the soul of the deceased rest in peace” as they bicker over his estate in what usually turns out to be a fight to the finish.
The latest “Will wahala” causing ripples across the Nigeria society is that of the late Igbo icon, Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Read at the Enugu High Court on November 30, 2012, about a year after his death, it has added to the growing perspectives about the dark and gloomy climate a Will can bring on a family of a deceased personality. Aside from the listing of a hitherto unknown daughter, Tenny Harman, as a beneficiary, the Ojukwu testament also willed the lion’s share of the late Ikemba Nnewi’s property – including his personal effects, monies and cars -to his wife, Bianca, a former beauty queen, who is currently Nigeria’s ambassador to Spain. While excluding one of his sons, Sylvester Ojukwu, from his recognized beneficiaries, the late Biafran warlord only gave his first son, Emeka, a paltry share.
Already a storm is gathering and the first few sparks of controversies have started flying, as one of the beneficiaries, namely Emeka Ojukwu Jnr. has rejected the declarations of the Will. Similarly, Bianca, who is vested with the power to replace Ojukwu on the board of the Ojukwu Transport Limited, OTL, or to appoint a representative in the management board, has been refused recognition by the flagship company, which was set up by the father of the late Igbo leader, Sir Louis Odumegwu-Ojukwu.
From this disturbing prelude, it appears Nigerians are set to witness another ugly family inheritance drama, with its unpalatable trappings of washing the family’s dirty linens in the courts and blunt accusations that might likely be derogatory to the memory of the late Igbo icon.
The uneasy development has made many to ponder about whether it is necessary to make a Will at all. As a fall-out of all these disturbing developments, many now wonder if it is not better to borrow from the wisdom of other national icons like Prince Bola Ajibola, a former Attorney General of the Federation, and Chief Alex Ekwueme, former vice president and respected Igbo leader and icon, who both avowed not to owe their offspring any inheritance beside giving them good education and a flying start in life.
Lawyers, however, argued that Will is not a modern invention, rather, it is something intrinsic in humans’ social existence, and that despite its associated troubles, Will continues to be a necessity.
Chronicle of three controversial Wills
It is becoming a recurring decimal, so much so that when a prominent man dies, when a man of means passes on, one of the unspoken questions on the minds of his family members and friends is: will there be another controversy over his Will? From past instance, the malaise is as inherent in polygamous homes just as it plagues close-knit monogamous families. Nigeria has recorded some vexing examples.
Below is a catalogue of three of the best known examples:
Okotie-Eboh: Siblings’ dog-eat-dog game
This is a locus classicus of the sort of bile and barbs of Will and testaments. Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh, a First Republic Finance Minister, who was among the top politicians that were assassinated in the first military putsch of January 15, 1966, was believed to have died intestate, i.e. without making a Will. Just too soon, his property became the bone of contention. The first act of litigation saw the family of the minister pitched against the late minister’s children as they were locked in a battle of rights over his vast property and money – estimated at 1, 909,424.88 pounds – locked away in a London bank.
His first daughter, Alero Jadesimi, and her mother, Victoria, consequently applied to the then Bendel State High Court for Letter of Administration, which was granted and was also duly registered in Lagos. While the case was at the apex court, the first daughter and her 13 other siblings agreed on a modality for sharing their father’s assets. Their accord stipulated that one-third of the estate be given to Mrs. Victoria Okotie-Eboh, while others, including Jadesimi, shared the remainder.
But in 1973, a Will was discovered which named the first daughter as the main beneficiary. Thus began the second act of wrangling to validate or void the Will. Jadesimi, the main beneficiary under the Will, approached a Lagos High Court in 1984, where she obtained a favourable judgment on May 24, 1986. However, the end was not yet in sight. Having been affirmed as the sole beneficiary of the Will, she went to the Supreme Court in 1992 seeking to rescind her earlier agreement with her siblings. This precipitated another round of litigation initiated by the other children who avowed that she was bound by “equity and good conscience” to abide by their earlier agreement. The judgment of January 6, 1998, favoured the other 13 children, ordering Alero Jadesinmi to abide by the agreement. This, in turn, provoked an appeal from the first daughter. The long-drawn battle came to an end on May 21, 2003, with the Court of Appeal ruling, which came 37 years after Okotie-Eboh’s death.
FRA Williams: Battles of lawyers
At the time of his death on March 26, 2005, at the age of 83, Chief Friedrich Rotimi Alade (FRA) Williams (SAN) was Nigeria’s foremost legal luminary – an acclaimed constitutional lawyer, an Attorney-General in the defunct Western Region of Nigeria, the first Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), the first African to be appointed Queen’s Counsel (QC). Regarded as a colossus, a lawyer who had left his indelible footprints on the floor of law courts, a litigator’s delight and a man whom Nigerians, both young and old, literate and illiterate, have come to know and address as ‘Timi the Law,’ there couldn’t have been a better learned man of law. Even when he was bedridden by stroke, he had his wits with him and still gave directions for many legal cases from his sick bed.
Given that his four sons – Ladi, Kayode, Folarin and Tokunbo – are lawyers of repute, among them two notable SANs, one would expect that there shouldn’t be any rancour over how to share his N26billion estate after his death. However, problem started when the children, believed that their late father died intestate and, therefore, agreed on a formula to share their late father’s estate. However, a 1954-Will eventually surfaced. While two of the sons adhered by the gentleman’s agreement they had, the other two preferred to abide by the terms of the Will. The ensued dispute degenerated to the extent that the four blood brothers, born of the same father and mother, split into two different camps – Ladi and Kayode on one side, and Folarin and Tokunbo on the other. Their rift trickled down to their wives as well as the grandchildren of the late legal luminary, many of whom, like their illustrious grandfather and fathers, are lawyers, but couldn’t practice in their grand father’s law firm because the firm, at the time, was controlled by one of their uncles. ?The battle over the Will of the late legal luminary lingered for six years before a Lagos High Court, in its January 31, 2012 judgment, ruled against an application praying that the children resort to arbitration under the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1990.
MKO Abiola: A pottage of mess
The conflicts and controversy surrounding the will of the late Bashorun MKO Abiola is a case study of the kind of “peculiar mess” that could be spawned by a Will, multiple Wills or its absence in a polygamous setting. Till date, the family of the late business mogul, whose political adventure ended in a tragedy, is still at odds over how to distribute his octopus wealth, reportedly worth tens of billions of naira. ?The key problem has been the existence of multiple Wills, which muddled up the situation. Aside the two signed Wills of 1989 and 1994, there had been emergence of an unsigned 1993 Will, which, like the previous two, prescribed that Abiola’s children take a paternity test.
At a time it appeared the family was finally emerging out of the quicksand, another devastating revelation emerged that the late Aare Ona Kakanfo of Yorubaland had inked a “last Will” on June 7, and 9, 1994, shortly before his arrest and incarceration by the late maximum ruler, General Sani Abacha. This further muddled up the affairs. The new Will, which revoked all “testamentary dispositions made by me with the exception of the Wills I have for any realty or immovable assets I may have in England, Wales and Nigeria,” purportedly covered all Abiola’s liquid and other assets as well as property in all forms situated worldwide.
The Will itself came with inherent controversy with regards to the validity of its joint administrators, His Royal Highness, Shehu Idris, the Emir of Zaria, a well-known friend of Abiola, and Onwuka Kalu. While the latter has a letter from Abiola confirming the validity of the Will, (“As we have agreed, it is important that I tidy up my affairs…Accordingly, I have drawn a Will for some of my assets in which I have appointed His Royal Highness, the Emir of Zaria – Alhaji (Dr.) Shehu Idris and you as executors), the former, on the other hand, cast aspersion on its validity arguing that at no time during the lamented’s lifetime was the issue of the Will discussed between them.
“Even if Abiola had discussed the issue with me during his life time,” he was reported as saying in a media report; I would have declined to administer the Will because it is against the principles of Islam. And as a religious leader, I couldn’t have accepted to do that.”
As with the 1989 Will, the 1994 version was rejected by the majority of the Abiola Family. Nine years after the demise of the billionaire politician, various parties in his family continued to bicker while their lawyers’ bills became astronomical, gradually eating into the Abiola fortune.