Taming Osu Caste System in Igbo land
Those who gathered at Nri, Anambra State on December 28, 2018, did not go for merry-making; they gathered there because of a burning issue that has torn into shreds Ndigbo in the South East and other Igbo-speaking people in other states. The issue is the obnoxious practice called the Osu Caste System.
At Nri, the gathering, which had in attendance traditional rulers from Anioma in Delta State, Imo, Abia and Anambra states among others, abolished the practice.
They gathering went further to ask for forgiveness from God and from those, who may have suffered from the practice.
Eze Nri, Obidiegwu Onyesoh, leading several other monarchs, phased out the caste system in all communities in Igbo land where the system was practiced.
A statement by the Chairman of the Eri Dynasty Traditional Rulers Forum, Eze Nkeli Nzekwe, stated: “It’s time to end this once and for all and unite our people for the new era. It’s time for our estranged brothers and sisters who were sold into slavery to return home. We are more than ready to atone for the sins of our forefathers and reunite with our kith and kin in America, Europe, the Islands, and beyond. It’s time.”
How It Started
The Osu Caste System is not new in Igbo history. It is an ancient practice across Igbo land, which strongly bars any social interaction and marriage between the Nwadiala (free born) and Osu (outcast), whose progenitors were enslaved, or dedicated to the deities of a community, or village.
Over the years, the practice has remained a vexatious traditional issue among the Igbo, and has defied solutions as generation-after-generation has tended to continue with it.
Although there existed other forms of abominable practices in Igbo land such as Ohu (slave) or Ume (those prone to die), the issue of Osu assumed greater attention due to what those affected pass through in the hands of fellow humans.
Beyond the despicable deprivation that victims undergo, they also suffer various forms of humiliation and stigmatisation in the hands of the supposed freeborn.
In communities where the practice holds sway, The Guardian gatherved that affected persons are kept in a state of permanent and irreversible disability and subjected to abuse and discrimination.
According to the immediate past Secretary General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Dr. Joe Nworgu, Osu people are “regarded as the property of the deity and are made to live separately from the freeborn, and close to the shrines and marketplaces. They are not allowed to have any form of relationship with the Nwadiala or Diala for short. An Osu cannot marry a freeborn. It is because of this that there are tons of investigations in Igbo land when marriages are announced. Elders from both sides travel and conduct investigations to inquire about the social status of the family. It is a bad practice, which should be discarded.”
He added that the early missionaries did not do much to eradicate this seeming apartheid in Igbo land, apparently based on their lack of understanding of the trend, or based on the need not to scuttle their missionary activities.
On how the practice started, Nworgu said that Osu was a deity feared in many communities, and in an attempt to prevent certain occurrences like being sold into slavery, or for protection, people started embracing the deity.
He stated that the funny aspect of the entire thing was that such persons were regarded as property of Osu, adding that there was a window for such persons to be accepted back into the society, that is after the required cleansing were performed.
But another school of thought is of the view that the practice was a fallacy meant to dispossess people of their property decades ago, especially given the level of ignorance that existed back then.
The source, however, blamed early missionaries for either failing to understand the issue and addressing it accordingly, or believing that the penetration of the gospel could help reduce the practice and make the people live together as brothers and sisters.
It was learnt that even many of those who embraced the gospel still held on to the practice as a custom that must live with them.
The system has also been traced to a time when people were offered to deities as sacrifice in order to cleanse the land after an abominable act had been committed, just as it was further alleged that the people, in an attempt to escape slavery during the invasion of Nigeria by European slave traders, ran to the dreaded deities for protection.
Earlier reports had it that people started avoiding those affected when it was discovered that some European traders who had pursued some of the affected persons into these shrines died, or suffered sever injuries. This stigma unfortunately followed those involved up to their unborn generations.
A celebrated writer, the late Prof Chinua Achebe, in his novel, “No Longer At Ease,” attempted to show the futility of the practice when he asked, “what is this thing called Osu?”
He had reasoned that: “Our fathers in their darkness and ignorance called an innocent man Osu, a thing given to the idols, and thereafter he became an outcast, and his children, and his children’s children forever.”
Achebe’s question arose following the frustration of one of the characters in the novel, Obi Okonkwo, who in spite of his education overseas could not marry Clara, the girl he loved on his return to Nigeria for the simple fact that Clara was an Osu.
He made futile attempts to convince his parents, members of his Umuofia Community and his friends that there was nothing special about being an Osu, and that people should be free to live in communities.
It got to a point that despite having parents who were Christians with his father being a Catholic, getting them to accept an Osu into the family was as difficult as climbing an Iroko tree with bare hands. His mother had threatened to end her life should it happen, thus underscoring the seriousness Ndigbo attach to the issue.
In the novel, Obi’s father, Okonkwo, on learning about the marriage to Clara summoned Obi and said to him: “Osu is like leprosy in the minds of my people. I beg of you my son not to bring the mark of shame and leprosy into your family. If you do, your children and your children’s children will curse you and your memory – you will bring sorrow on your head and on the heads of your children.”
In Igbo land, there exists other minor or lower caste groups found in many communities going by some very derogatory names, and in some other communities, the Osu or slave is regarded as a worthless human being.
How The Practice Has Impacted Igbo Land
Investigations showed that the practice of Osu has caused much pains and divisions in Igbo land than it has contributed in the improvement of the fortunes of the people.
A community leader from Enugu State, Chief Nnaji Ezenna, told The Guardian that the maltreatment meted out to Osu victims has forced many of them to migrate to other countries, many development projects abandoned, marriages dissolved, and pregnancies terminated.
While maintaining that several crimes have been committed against humanity and groups in Igbo land in the name of Osu, he explained that the “practice of Osu Caste System has caused communal strife and wars between the victims and the freeborn in Igbo land.”
He referred to the hostilities between Umuode and Oruku in Enugu State, as well as, parts of Nsukka, where two communities do not intermarry because one is regarded as slave and the other freeborn.
Ezenna lamented that the ugly trend has continued despite the existence of laws against discrimination and interference with human rights, adding: “I suggest that something drastic should be done to eradicate this obnoxious system. There is the urgent need for all Igbo leaders of thought, traditional rulers, governors, the clergy and everybody that matters to come together and enact a law banning outright, this system in Igbo land as there is no basis for its continued existence.”
One of the victims, Mrs. Joy Orji told The Guardian: “You can’t imagine the pains I have gone through. When I wanted to get married, several men refused to marry me. They said I was an Osu. Back in school my friends could not associate with me because of the Osu thing, but thank God that through His grace, I later got married and presently I have children. It is not the type of thing anybody can wish even his/her enemy.
“My parents were Christians and never associated with idol worshipping, yet there were discriminated upon because according to my people, we came from a lineage that was regarded as Osu. Going to the market to buy an item was a problem, and we had to relocate to save the rest of the family. Where my siblings presently reside is not our ancestral home. That is how bad the situation has been.”
It was learnt that of the about 40 per cent Igbo regarded as Osu, half have relocated, or married outside Igbo land in order to avoid the stigma associated with the practice. Majority of those affected are said to be either wealthy, well educated, or doing well in their various concerns and have vowed not to have anything to do with the Igbo as long as they live.
Joseph Okechukwu, President, Celibacy International confirmed this much when he said that the practice has continued to affect the political, economical and social development of Igbo land, adding that until it was solved, Ndigbo would continue to flounder in the scheme of things in the country.
Efforts To Discourage The Practice
Until the December 28, 2018 pronouncement, the Osu Caste System was very prevalent in Anambra, Imo and parts of Ebonyi, Abia and Enugu states, While a little of it is noticed in some parts of the South South states.
Prior to Nigeria’s Independence, the old Eastern Parliament had moved to address the issue. The move was based on the level of stigmatisation suffered by many people in the hands of their brothers and sisters in the name of Osu.
The defunct Eastern House of Assembly (now comprising South East and South South zones) on May 10, 1956, abrogated the obnoxious practice through an act of parliament. The act barred people from denigrating one another in the guise of being related to Osu. But while this worked especially as it concerned Ohu, who of course freely lived with the people, Osu victims have continued to be traumatised in various communities in the zones.
Further investigations revealed that events leading to the country’s independence, and the Nigeria-Biafra war seriously weakened the operation of the act abolishing the practice, as there was no will power to implement it.
But miffed by its negative effects, especially as societies embrace modernity, some communities and institutions on their own began to abolish the practice. During the celebration of the New Yam Festival in Nri Kingdom, last year, Eze Nri Enweleana 11, Obidiegwu Onyesoh abolished the system in his community.
In July last year, it was abolished in Irete in Owerri West Local Council of Imo State, as the traditional institution and indigenes of the community gathered to put a stop to the obnoxious system, which they said had caused disaffection and ill-feelings amongst them.
Traditional ruler of the community, Eze Ethelbert Ekwelibe, who made the pronouncement during the annual “Nta” (hunting) Cultural Festival said as the chief custodian of the culture and tradition of his people, he decided to abolish the caste system because it was inhuman, ungodly and satanic.
“I know that the issue of the Osu Caste System has been with us since time immemorial. I think this should not have been in the first instance as it has created two classes of people within the Igbo society. Within these classes, some are considered as freeborn (Nwadiala) and others as Osu (outcast), who should not intermingle socially and even in marriage.
“Therefore, the decision to do away with the caste system was done after due consultations with clan heads, traditional institutions, and indigenes of the community who overwhelmingly supported the abolition of this discriminatory practice in our community. Before now, they were restricted from intermarrying, while they were also not allowed to participate in certain traditional privileges.
On October I, last year, 24 traditional rulers in Oguta Local Council of Imo State endorsed the abolition of the caste system in order to free affected people from stigmatisation.
The royal fathers believed that the caste system had caused major deprivations, dehumanisation, stigmatisation and lack of marriage among a particular class of people in the society considered to be slaves.
The resolution was taken and endorsed at a joint meeting organised by a civil society group, Initiative for The Eradication of Traditional and Cultural Stigmatisation in Our Society (IFETACSIOS).
Chairman, Council of Traditional Rulers in Oguta Local Council, Eze Franklin Okafor who led the royal fathers, described caste system as “man’s inhumanity to man.”
Okafor said that in Igbo land, those considered to fall among the class of Ume, Ohu, Osu and Diala caste systems do not enjoy common relationship with others.
“This system is evil and devilish; our people cannot intermarry with others, while a major deprivation is meted on the affected people due to fetish tradition. We have resolved today that we will partner with IFETACSIOS to carry the crusade against caste system to the entire Igbo land and ensure that it is abolished,” he said.
Another traditional ruler in the area, Prof. Dele Odigbo, noted that many of the affected persons had committed suicide, while others went on exile due to the fetish tradition.
He said that the Ume, Osu, Ohu and Diala caste systems were against the constitution of the country, and a violation of right of association, adding that those considered to be Osu fall into the class that are deprived of certain privileges in the society, adding that the resolution would liberate the people from bondage, and make them have a sense of belonging in the society.
Last July, some retired bishops of the Anglican Church renewed the battle against the continued existence of the age-long caste system.
The clerics, which included former Bishop of Ihiala, Bishop Raphael Okafor; former Bishop of Niger West, Bishop Anthony Nkwoka (both in Anambra State) and former Bishop of Isiukwuto/Umuneochi, Bishop Samuel Chukwuka, at a sensitisation forum tagged, “Conference of Coalition on Osu Caste System,” appealed to leaders of thought and other stakeholders in Igbo land to end the Osu stigma.
They expressed surprise that the Igbo has not been able to end the obnoxious system over 60 years after the defunct Eastern Nigeria enacted a law abrogating the practice throughout Igbo land.
The clerics equally regretted that even political office holders, particularly South East governors, the legislature and traditional institutions, which ought to be in the forefront of the battle against the Osu Caste system, were paying lip service to the issue.
Describing the practice as wicked and retrogressive, the bishops vowed not to relent in the struggle until justice was achieved.
In the same vein, other church leaders including the Catholic Archbishop of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province, His Grace, Anthony Obinna; the Anglican Bishop of Okigwe South Diocese, Rt. Rev. David Onuoha, have spoken several times on the dangers of continuing with the practice.
They insisted that there was no reason for the caste system to remain in these modern times, stressing that slavery was abolished long ago, and no human sacrifice was going on anywhere in Nigeria, except as a criminal offence linked to some dark cults.
December 28 Abolishment And The Way Forward
Many who heard about the outcome of the December 28, 2018 Nri gathering have praised organisers of the event for its success, especially with the symbolic appeal for forgiveness.
But the fact is that announcing that the issue has been abolished in Igbo land without processes aimed at implementing it, even at the grassroots level amounts to waste of time and resources. This is based on the fact that 60 years after a law was enacted abolishing the practice, most communities where the practice held sway have refused to let go.
Joseph Okechukwu, one of the organisers of the Nri meeting said the moribund law abolishing the practice would be reactivated in a matter of months, and would be implemented in all the states of the zone.
He stated that a committee to monitor and handle the implementation would soon be set up, adding that until a penalty was pronounced in the form of jail term to any offender, the practice will not stop in Igbo land.
Okechukwu noted that already, the group had summoned lawyers, ready and willing to prosecute cases in court concerning such primitive practices, adding that cost of the legal services would be borne by the organisation.
He, however, appealed to state governments in the region to assist the organisation by providing the right atmosphere to enable the legal framework to thrive, just as he expressed gratitude to traditional rulers in the zone for their commitment to ending the scourge.
Anambra State Commissioner for Diaspora Matters and Culture, Mrs. Sally Mbanefo, assured that the state government would support any initiative geared towards ending the practice of Osu Caste System in the state.