Osu caste system: Fury in Igbo land over continued practice
By Anayo Okoli, Dennis Agbo, Peter Okutu, Chinonso Alozie, Chinedu Adonu, Ikechukwu Odu & Jane Ikemefula
ENUGU — ONE social evil that is still being practiced in Igbo land is the Osu Caste system. This is despite effort by groups, including churches to end this evil discriminatory practice. Investigation showed that this practice is still dominant in many Igbo community.
Those classified as Osu are seen as second class citizens of such communities. They are not free born of such communities. Some communities trace their lineage to those bought as slaves or dedicated to deities. They are therefore not allowed some rights as free borns of such communities.
They cannot be the traditional rulers of the community, town union leaders or be given any chieftaincy titles. Other discriminations they suffer include intermarriage with the so called free born and even mixing up in certain places.
Incidentally, in some of these communities, the so-called Osu are the most enterprising, they are rich and their women are very beautiful and because of obnoxious culture, most of them marry from outside their communities.
Recently, a video trended of two lovers allegedly from Okija, Anambra State, who took their lives by drinking poison (snipper) because their parents refused to give their consent to get married to each other all because of Osu and Ohu caste practice.
Before their demise, the lovers were said to have left a written note entitled “Racism in disguise” which read: “How can we separate after six solid years of dating and getting so used to each other?
“How? Is it a crime to hail from Okija, Anambra State? We both are from Okija in Ihiala Local Government Area, Anambra State, Nigeria. We have always wanted to spend the rest of our lives together; we have always planned our future together.
“We have always struggled to secure a better future, now that things are gradually turning around for us; they are saying we can’t get married, all because of Osu and Ohu caste, all because of an ancient belief that has been abolished in other villages.
“The people of Okija chose to live in the past, all as a result of ignorance. God created everyone equally, so why would human beings discriminate just because of the ignorance of our forefathers?
“Why will we keep suffering for what we know nothing about; for something we didn’t do? Why do we still choose to stay in the dark?
“This is racism in disguise, yet we want to be treated equally in the white man’s land; charity they say begins at home. We made up our minds to end it all because we can’t stay without each other. Ndi Okija, say No to Osu Caste”.
Though the veracity of the video was not confirmed as at press time, it depicts the type of frustration such evil social practice has on the victims.
Despite the March 25, 1807 abolition of Slave Trade Act, the Osu and Ohu practices still continue in some parts of Igboland, South-East Nigeria and there are elements in these communities that would rather die than see them abolished.
The practice is most prominent in parts of Enugu State, precisely in Nkanu land or in the six local government areas of Enugu East senatorial district where cultural and political issues are laced with the segregation.
It also exists in parts of Nsukka, particularly Enugu Ezike community.
In the obnoxious traditional practice, an Ohu is not regarded as a free-born. They are seen as slaves and regarded as inferior beings in the society. They are called by different names in their various communities.
In some of the communities, the so-called outcasts live in cluster, distinctly apart, isolated from the area occupied by the free-born and most times, located at the community borders where they were used as a shield against external aggression from neighbouring communities.
In the primitive era, they were used for human sacrifices if the demand arose. Even though the new generations have defiled the practice to intermarry, the issue of the Osu becoming the King of the community is still a knotty issue being resisted which in some places had led to protests, clashes and conflicts between the two groups.
In some states, the government carved out autonomous communities to solve the problem with the so-called Ohu or Osu having self-determination in their autonomous communities.
Such was the problem in Obuno Akpugo community in Nkanu West Local Government Area of Enugu State, where 19 out of the 30 kindred units in the community protested to the Enugu Government House and alerted of possible war if a traditional ruler was imposed in the community.
The unresolved matter made the community live at parts, with each divide claiming to be autonomous in discharge of communal functions such as in judiciary, legislative and executive matters.
Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi while addressing the Obuno Ndiuno chieftaincy crisis warned them that the Ohu social exclusion and discrimination was unconstitutional.
He stated that such stigma has no place in the law and expressed sadness that some people still turn deaf ears to the Nigerian constitution and the Enugu State law that abolished the practice of Ohu caste systems, noting that such culture would not be recognized by the state government.
“Injustice is very bad and must be discouraged by all. We are all Nigerians and must have equal rights. Referring to someone as Ohu or treating him or her as such is unconstitutional, injustice and inhuman. My administration will not recognize such. It is ungodly,” Ugwuanyi cautioned.
We’ll set-up committee to monitor where it still exists —Ohanaeze Ndigbo
Also reacting to the issue, the deputy spokesman of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Mr Chuks Ibegbu warned against the Osu caste system, noting that any Igbo man that calls his fellow Igbo Osu or Ohu deserves severe punishment and even banished from Igbo land.
He wondered why some people continue to call their fellow Igbos Osu in the present century, noting that if the western world could abolish slavery many years ago, why should the Igbo continue to practice the obnoxious act.
He recalled that the old Eastern region had passed a law against the act many years ago.
“A committee would be set up to go from village to village to find out those who go against the will of the people on the matter,” Ibegbu disclosed.
However, some communities have dropped the obnoxious practice. Ozalla community in Nkanu West local government area is one such community.
On March 31st 2018, the custodians of culture and tradition, which comprised of the traditional rulers, town union leadership together with other stakeholders in the community, agreed to do away with the obnoxious past.
They performed traditional rites and discarded the ancient practice thereby creating equal social status among all indigenes of the community.
Dignitaries of Nkanuland who were present at the ceremony to indicate their support included the second republic civilian Governor of old Anambra State, Senator Jim Nwobodo, former minister for Power, Prof. Bath Nnaji, businessmen, the academia, politicians, and people from all walks of life who indicated solidarity to end the evil as they poured encomiums on the leaders of the community.
We’ll excommunicate faithful who still practice Osu Caste system —Catholic Bishop
The clergies were also in their numbers at the ceremony. They were led by the Archbishop of Anglican Communion, His Grace, Most Rev. Dr Emmanuel Chukwuma; representative of the Catholic Bishop of Enugu Diocese; Methodist Archbishop of Enugu Diocese, Rt. Rev. Christopher Edeh; Methodist Bishop Emeritus, Most Rev. M. U Ogoh; Chairman of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, PFN, in Enugu State and Bishop Dr Godwin Madu among others.
The church leaders commended Ozalla community for ‘daring’ to do away with the past, acknowledging it as a historic event which they prayed would be replicated by other communities in Enugu State to eradicate the inhuman discrimination.
Archbishop Chukwuma in his message said that indeed the old things have passed away; noting that one problem with Ndigbo was that they don’t forget the past. He further said that “all men and women were created equal by God and in his own image. Christianity came around to abolish fetishism and all other forms of bondage and social discrimination.
The entire Igbo should stop segregation. From today, we have stamped our feet that the old things have passed away, what we should pursue now is unity and love, a new beginning covenant with God.”
The traditional ruler of Umuanee-Ozalla, Igwe Crescent Okafor, who took the initiative, said that the abolition of Ohu caste was the assignment that God accomplished for the community.
SEV, however, observes, that despite the abolition of the practice in some communities in Enugu State, some people never wholeheartedly embraced it as discrimination between the two classes of people are still prevalent, particularly on the issue of marriage.
In Nsukka area, where the practice is still active, the Catholic Bishop of Nsukka Diocese, Most Rev. Prof. Godfrey Igwebuike Onah, has threatened to excommunicate the faithful who still practice the Osu caste in the Catholic community.
The bishop made the decision known during the diocesan pastoral council meeting, even as he described the practice as “reprehensive and abominable” and threatened that any faithful who still practice the system should be barred from receiving the Holy Communion.
He was said to have directed all parish priests in the diocese to find out where such ugly practice still exists in their area.
Following the bishop’s directive, Owerre Nsukka Autonomous Community, in Nsukka Local Government Area of Enugu State, recently abolished the practice in their community.
The decision which was taken by the traditional ruler, Dr Felix Ugwu; the President General of the community, Chief Daniel Attama, and other decision-making bodies in the community, renounced the reprehensive practice to engender peace, unity and development in the community.
Meanwhile, at Imufu community in Igbo-Eze North Local Government Area of Enugu State, the practice is still causing ripples as the Onuaje family is still being denied of taking titles on the ground that they are Osu.
The development, according to community sources, has brought disunity and blood amongst the people and also resulting in stagnated development.
The sources said that efforts made by some elders in the community who are against the continued retention of the practice met stiff resistance from those who believe in the practice.
However, the Parish Priest of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Imufu, Rev. Fr. Rufus Achinike, has waded in and has begun to fill gap created by the practice in the community.
A source told South East Voice that he called a meeting of stakeholders in the community and had imitated plans to bring the practice to an end before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and expressed hoped that with COVID-19 subsiding, he would result to initiative to abolish the evil practice.
In his view, the traditional ruler of Ihe Nsukka autonomous community in Nsukka Local Government Area of Enugu State, Igwe Dr. George F.O Asadu, lamented that the Osu caste system brought unnecessary discrimination amongst the members of the community before he abolished the practice in 2015.
According to him, those classified as Osu were not allowed to inter-marry and take tittles with those regarded as free-born. He explained that some of those classified as Osu gave themselves to deities to save them from undue molestation and threat to life from those regarded as the original owners of the land.
“There used to be maltreatment of the Osu class. When I was growing up, there was a serious war between Amu class and Osu class in my community which bothered on denials and discrimination by the former against the latter.
“We had Amu, Umu Mgbenye, Ohu Nmor and Ohu mmadu. Only Amu and Umu Mgbenye took tittles, but the two Ohu classes were not allowed to take tittles and inter-marry with the Amu, and Umu Mgbenye classes. The two lesser classes were greatly intimidated which made Ohu Nmor to run to deities for protection from Amu class which took the highest tittles and sold the Ohu classes at will.
“The practice created disunity and hatred amongst us. I advise communities where it is still being practiced to abolish it because all human beings are created equal by God. If there were Osu class, they are dead by now.
“How can you classify someone you knew when he was born as Osu? We should take everybody as our brother and sister and work together for the progress of our communities.
“We are all human beings before God and should not discriminate”, the monarch admonished.
From Imo state, the traditional ruler of Ihiagwa Autonomous Community in Owerri West local government area, Eze Lucky Ajoku, condemned the practice of Osu caste system and likened it to the practice of slave trade in the days of colonial rule.
He lamented the negative impact of such practice in Igbo land, saying that it has dehumanized human race in the society. Besides, the traditional ruler said that some people conferred on themselves unnecessary superiority over others through the practice of Osu caste.
He called for total integration of everybody, saying it would be one of the strong ways to defeat the evil practice.
“It is an unnecessary observance of practice. Something that dehumanizes degrades a fellow human being is bad. There is no realistic or sincere origin, rather people just observe it.
“It makes people to begin to feel unnecessarily superior and belittling others but remember this was the same thing we condemned in the days of the colonial masters and someone is here practicing such absurdities, it is the same thing with slave trade because it dehumanizes human being”, Eze Ajoku said.
On the best way to stop it in Igboland, the monarch said: “A lot of people talk too much but they do little of what they say. This is what should be ordinarily forgotten.
“Many are saying why this practice should be stopped completely but some people in their crude mind are still bent on doing it.
“You can see both the churches and even the traditional institutions have condemned it, in its entirety but for some people, I don’t know why it still exists. It is just that some people are very careful in observing it; as for condemnation, it has been condemned and written off but in practice some people are reluctant to adopt such decision to do away with such Osu system. In the Christian mind as well as in civilized minds, it is very wrong.”
From Ebonyi state, both the traditional institution and the church condemned the practice.
It is a wicked practice —Eze Moses Okafor Ngele
In the views of traditional ruler of Ishiagu Kingdom, Eze Moses Okafor Ngele, the practice is wicked as it is contrary to the principles of fundamental Human Rights as enshrined in the Constitution of the Country.
“The custom or tradition has to a large extent led to the loss of innocent lives, termination of beautiful relationships and clashes between communities in Igboland. It is quite a long time I heard about the activities surrounding Osu practice. The coming of Christianity into Igboland has drastically reduced the active influence and general acceptability of the Osu cast system.
“It is disheartening and even disturbing that because of it, a community or a people have remained in isolation contrary to the design of God. This man-made ideology should be jettisoned.”
Also, Pastor Brutus Edafe of Dominion City Church condemned the practice, describing it as an old fashioned ideology in human existence.
“For me, the practice is contrary to God’s words and should not be allowed in the circle of humanity. God created human beings in His image and likeness and so, nobody has the right to debase, neglect and undermine his fellow man or woman.
“This practice has even made most people to undermine their relationship with God. It has led to unfulfilled dreams, untimely death and sad endings for all those directly and indirectly affected by the Osu custom.”
Enugu state has since banned the practice —Igwe Ekere
The traditional ruler of Ogrute autonomous community in Igbo-Eze North Local Government Area, Enugu State, Igwe Wilfred Ekere has expressed surprise that there is something like Osu again in Enugu state. According to Igwe Ekere, the state government has since banned the practice.
The monarch pointed out that the people regarded as Osu in the olden days were those people who were dedicated to deities free born “Nwadiala” disassociated themselves from.
“It is very difficult to say that somebody is an outcast these days because of migration. Hausas, Yorubas and other ethnic nationalities have moved from their respective places and relocated to Igbo land and mingled so who will discriminate against them as Osu.
They intermarry with Igbo people and have children. Some people even marry foreigners which you don’t know if they are Osu as their wives. Other neighbouring communities can migrate to another community, reside there and get married to each other.
“So, there is nothing like Osu caste now, except that lineage that we know in the olden days that are dedicated to deities. They were regarded as Osu because they were sacrificed human being to the deities and the free born refused to associate with them.
“Even as I speak to you, if you call someone outcast, Osu he will sue you and win because Enugu state government frowned at it.
The state government banned calling anybody outcast “Osu”. They said you should not call anybody or regard anybody as outcast Osu.
“Osu is no more and if it still exists, we don’t know who is Osu anymore. People are leaving together now. And you cannot call a Hausa man, Yoruba or neighboring community man that leaves with you an Osu. If you call anybody Osu, they will jointly sue you and jail you and it will serve as a deterrent to others”.
“You cannot stop your daughter from marry a man because he is an Osu. If you try to stop her, she will pack to the man’s house because, they are handsome, beautiful, rich and connected”, Igwe Ekere said.
However, the Umuda Ofeme community in Umuahia, Abia State still neck-deep in the practice of Osu caste system. A source from the community lamented that the monarch and some leaders have refused to let the obnoxious practice go.
“Osu is an old fashioned tradition it shouldn’t be practice at this modern world that Christianity has taken over. It will be a nice thing to put an end to this so the people will live freely”, a worried member of the community said.
Written by Kartia Velino