Meribe v Egwu: Facts, Issues and Decision of the Court

The case of Eugene Meribe v. Joshua C. Egwu [1976] NSCC 181, is one of the Nigerian cases where the Court gave decision on the idea of “woman to woman” marriage in Nigeria. It was a locus classicus case and was argued until it went to the Supreme Court. The case was decided by Justice Madarikan, Justice Fatayi-Williams and Justice Nasir on the 19th of March, 1976.

In summary, the court held that any customary law which supports woman to woman marriage in Nigeria is against public policy and section 14(3) of the then Evidence act. That notwithstanding, the Supreme Court per Fatayi-Williams, also held that the purported woman to woman marriage is not really a woman to woman marriage and as such, it could not be classified as the type of marriage prohibited by the evidence act.

In this page, i will share with you the fact, issues and decision of the court in Meribe v Egwu. I strongly recommend that you listen carefully if you want understand this case properly.

Summary of Meribe v Egwu
Summary of Meribe v Egwu

Also see: Mojekwu v Mojekwu: Facts, Issues and Decision of the court

Facts of Meribe v Egwu [1976] NSCC 181

The case was first filed that the High Court of Umuahia and decided by Aniagolu J. The plaintiff (respondent) sued the defendant (appellant) who was representing the Meribe family. He a claimed declaration of title to “Uzo Ama Awom” (a parcel of land), a payment of N200 for trespass by the defendant and an injunction.

According to him, the land in dispute belongs to Nwanyiakoli, one of the wives of Chief Cheghekwu Egwu. Since Nwanyiakoli could not have a child, she had to marry her niece, Nwanyiocha, for her husband so that they will have a child and this act was supported by the custom of the people.

As time went by, Nwanyiocha had children for Chief Egwu, two of which was the plaintiff and Meribe Cheghekwu Egwu (the father of the defendant). Nonetheless, he argued that Nwanyiakoli was still his mother because she treated him as one. Nwanyiakoli breastfed him and made sure he went to school.

He also argued that after the death of Nwanyiakoli in 1937, he was the one who performed the burial ceremony of the woman and continued to farm in the said land. To corroborate his argument, the plaintiff brought two witnesses who confirmed the death of Nwanyiakoli and that the plaintiff continued to farms in the disputed land afterwards.

At the High Court of Umahia, the defendant only denied the existence of a custom that allows a woman to marry another woman in their land and said that the act was against public policy.

Before giving his judgment, Aniagolu J made the following observations:

Firstly, the court adopted the fact that it was Nwanyiakoli who went ahead to marry Nwanyiocha, her niece for her husband, since she was barren and could not have any child.

The court also adopted the fact that the plaintiff was the son of Nwanyiakoli and as such, he inherited the real estate of Nwanyiakoli, including the disputed land.

Lastly, the learned trial judge observed that the plaintiff actually made the necessary burial ceremony and that he continued to live in the said land afterwards.

Rejecting the argument of the defendant, the court held that Nwanyiakoli did not marry Nwanyiocha for herself but for her husband. The word “marriage” was supposed to be replaced with “procured” in this context.

Aggrieved with this decision, the defendant appealed to the court of appeal where he brought two issues. First was that the judgment of the trail Court was against the weight of the evidence.

Secondly, the defendant (appellant) raised the issue that the trial Judge erred in law when he said:

The Court is inclined to the belief, as submitted by plaintiff’s counsel, that the defendants are using their numerical superiority and their relative better financial position to attempt to deprive the plaintiff of the land which obviously had descended to him upon the death of his putative mother’, when there was no such evidence and allowed this belief and sentiment to influence his judgment.

Also see: Smith v Selwyn: Facts, Issues and Decision of the court

Issues raised by the court in Meribe v Egwu

1. Whether Nwanyiakoli’s marriage with Nwanyiocha was direct or whether it was and arrangement made because she was barren.

2. The consequences flowing therefrom under customary law;

3. Whether the said marriage entitled the plaintiff to inherit Nwanyiakoli’s house.

Also see: Causes the Aba women riot of 1929

Decision of the court in Meribe v Egwu

On hearing the appellant’s case, the Supreme court held that the trial court was wrong as there was no evidence showing that the applicant was in a better position than the plaintiff (respondent). However there was evidence that the appellant was trying to snatch the plaintiff of the land. But this does not go to the root of the matter.

On whether Nwanyiakoli married Nwanyiocha for herself for Chief Cheghekwu Egwu, the Supreme Court held that the trial court was correct in the way it appreciated the marriage between Nwanyiakoli and Nwanyiocha and thus the appeal must also fail. The supreme court further dismissed the appeal of the appellant and reduced the amount to be paid by the plaintiff to N135.00.