Can Ugwuanyi eradicate Osu caste system?

Posted by News Express | 15 March 2017 | 3,389 times

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Mr Orji Nwokeoma (not real name) is a young genetic engineer based in the United Kingdom city of Manchester. He was educated in some of the Ivy League universities for his degree, post-graduate and doctorate degrees in Genetic Engineering with flying colours, even as he was fortunate to land a high-paying job in a popular British hospital. But one thing was lacking to make his joy complete – a better half. 

In search of completeness for his inner joy, Mr Nwokeoma visits home often during the yearly Yuletide to be with his people in a community somewhere in the deep South-east of Nigeria.  

During one of his visits, he decided to go clubbing with some of his childhood friends. During the outing, he got in touch with one Miss Ifeoma Onyeachonam (names unreal) who, incidentally, is a laboratory technician (from Harvard University in the USA), working in a tertiary medical facility in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos.

 One thing led to the other then these two lovebirds made up their minds, after their fourth meeting, that they should become husband and wife. But, as tradition demands, the man had to visit the home of the beautiful lady to fulfill Igbo cultural requirements regarding traditional marriage. If he thought he had begun the journey towards fulfillment of his happiness, he was wrong. The reason will be unfolded soon. 

On this bright sunny day that the man was to take his parents to his bride-to-be so they could do the usual rituals of traditional marriage, something sinister happened by way of a message brought to the family house of this groom to be. 

In the letter the family of the girl asked that the marriage ceremony be put off, as they wouldn't give their blessing for their daughter who is a free-born to be joined in matrimony to an Osu as a husband due to basic cultural abomination.  

 Downcast and frustrated, Mr Nwokeoma jetted back to his base in United Kingdom, dejected just as the bride-that-never-was fainted, and was later revived. But the trauma of that sad experience that she couldn't marry a man after her heart due to some cultural norms and practices didn’t go away for a long time.  

This practice of discrimination against persons considered as Osu has become so much of a burden in Igbo land, and some other Nigerian society. Efforts made in the past by different persons and groups to abolish it have all but collapsed. This is because Igbo people hold traditional practices with such tenacity as if it is about life and death. 

So, it was with joy to read that the Enugu State Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, has directed the immediate abolition of all harmful traditional practices, including ‘Osu caste system’, that deprive some indigenes of the state their rights and privileges.

Speaking during a protest march by some indigenes of Obuno Ndi Uno community in Nkanu West Local Government Area of the state, Ugwuanyi described such practices as “satanic”.

He said on no account would anybody be regarded as a slave in their community, either on account of their ancestry or otherwise.

The governor noted that the Constitution had placed all Nigerians on equal pedestal, adding that the laws of Enugu State had also abolished all forms of Osu caste practices in the state.

Ugwuanyi said: “Slavery and segregation have been abolished and as far as the state government is concerned, we do not recognise Osu caste system. We operate the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”

Ugwuanyi, a former federal lawmaker, expressed regret that such challenges that bordered on dehumanising treatment of fellow indigenes (in the state) had always emanated from Nkanu clan.

Ugwuanyi noted that the time has come for the people to embrace Christian teachings and eschew manner of injustice in their lives.

He said: “If you know you are holding anybody down in the name of whatever belief that is not godly, please, release such person and let them be free.”

The governor promised to look into the matter to ensure that the right things was done, adding that his administration would not tolerate injustice in whatever guise.

 Earlier, the leader of the delegation, Austin Okoye who is the president-general of the town union, said the traditional stool had been vacant since 2016 when the former occupant died. A chieftain of the community, Chief Okwudiri Agbo, said their kindred had over the years suffered all manner of injustice in their community. Agbo said that they were called slaves by their brothers, in spite of the fact that their clan had the highest population in the community.

He said: “My people make up 19 out of the 30 kindred in our community. Yet, we are vilified and regarded as slaves. I have never seen where the minority rules over the majority in a democratic set-up.”

Agbo alleged that the state commissioner had conspired with their traducers to cause tension in their community.

This is just one out of the many cases of serious discriminatory practices against some citizens considered as Osu, but because the culture is deep-rooted in some communities, it is difficult to predict straight ahead that just one statement from the Enugu State Governor can bring it to an end. 

The effort to kick out and kill off Osu caste system should be embraced by all the political leaders of the South-East, especially State Houses of Assembly, including civil society organisations. 

The discriminatory practice that ought to be checked as a matter of cultural necessity is the Osu caste system, which experts believe is common in Nigeria and Cameroun. And it can be traced back to indigenous religious belief system, practised within the Igbo nation. 

It is the belief of many Igbo traditionalists that the Osu are people historically dedicated to deities and, are therefore, considered to be a ‘living sacrifice’, an outcast, untouchable and sub-human (similar to the Roman practice of homosacer). 

This system received literary attention when it became a key plot point in No Longer At Ease by Prof Chinua Achebe, the internationally reputed novelist of venerated memory. This practice of classifying citizens as Osu violates human rights ideal and standards enshrined in both local and international human rights laws. 

Legends and stories from time immemorial have it that the Osu caste system is associated with the mode of worship of the people in ancient Igbo society. At the time, people were specifically commissioned to serve at the various shrines, even as the people presumably conscripted to serve at the sacred African shrines were isolated from the larger society and their children and descendants were not allowed to mingle, inter-marry with children of the free-born.

 A humanist, Mr Leo Igwe, like other analysts, traced the origin of Osu caste system to the mode of worship of the people in ancient Igbo society whereby certain category of people were conscripted to serve at the various shrines.

 His words: “At a point in the history of the Igbo in southern Nigeria, people were being born, described and divided into groups – the Diala (Nwadiala) and Osu. The Diala are called the sons of the soil, they are the free-born. The Dialaare the masters. They have and exercise their full right as human beings. While the Osu are slaves, the strangers and the outcasts. They are accorded inferior and sub-human status. They are treated the way Blacks were treated in America before the civil rights era. They suffer oppression the way Africans suffered in South Africa under the apartheid regime.”

The Diala relate with Osu as master relates with a slave, as a healthy person interacts with a leper to avoid social contamination. But a free-born person can become Osu by being dedicated to a local god or spirit. 

Many gods and spirits abound in Igboland, which the people believe in, worshipped and made sacrifices to, before the coming of Christianity even till date. 

So, traditionally, according to this scholar, the Osu lives close to the shrines of these gods and the local market. A free-born also becomes an Osu if he/she is acquired or adopted as a slave.

 He wrote also that to distinguish the status of the slave from that of other members of the community, the slave and his/her descendants are regarded as Osu

“The OSU is not allowed to marry from the community. He or she can only marry an Osu from elsewhere. And the children and all the generations are and remain untouchable.

“Today, in Igboland, many people are Osu by inheritance. In fact, there is no longer original Osu. Instead, what we have are millions of innocent human beings who are alleged to be Osu just because they were born into a family or lineage of someone once regarded as one, these millions of people in Igboland live with this Osu stigma which haunts, hurts and hamper their lives, self-esteem and development till death.” 

 The Osu status, he asserts, is permanent, irremediable and irreversible. 

Though in some communities, according to him, there are rituals to cleanse, reverse or redeem the Osu disability. But these have been largely ineffective and have not succeeded in riding the thoughts and mind of Igbo people of this social disease and malaise.

“Also some Christian churches have preached against Osu practice. But these sermons have fallen on deaf ears and have not in any way impacted on this despicable belief and practice. 

“In fact, the Osu caste system is now practised in churches. In some churches, some free-born avoid sitting or holding hands with those alleged to be Osu during service. And there are reports that in some churches the harvests of the Osu are kept separate from that of the free-born.”

In the ‘50s, the government of the defunct Eastern Nigeria attempted to eradicate this obnoxious practice. It passed a legislation abolishing the Osu caste system. But this legislation was not and could not be enforced.

Historians say at best, it drove the practice underground. Hence, today, many people are afraid of calling or addressing others openly and publicly as Osu

“Besides, the Osu prejudice is very much alive in Igbo communities,” Igwe concluded.

Specifically in 1956, then Eastern Region of Nigeria passed the Osu Caste Law, which makes it criminal to refer or treat somebody as an Osu or outcaste. Observers believe that till date nobody has been persecuted for violating the anti-Osu law, which supposedly abolished the practice.

The Osu in our contemporary society are increasingly dehumanised, traumatised, isolated psychologically and socially and denied all forms of fundamental rights.

What should be done is for the Enugu State Governor who has commenced the process of publicly championing the just cause of abolition of Osu caste practice, should do much more than sermonisation. Abolition of a traditional practice that has lasted over 1,000 years would need much more than mere popular soap-box grandstanding and semantic gymnastics. Ugwuanyi has the support of well-meaning human rights bodies to step up the campaign through the partnership of a combination of social forces and mobilisers. 

Although Ugwuanyi, the governor of Enugu State, is right to hold the view that under the Nigerian Constitution such practices that segregate citizens into slaves and free-born have been abolished, but he has to know that there is more to it than mere constitutional provisions. 

Traditions are deeply entrenched and such practices as Osu caste system is cast in stone, as long as Igbo people are concerned.  

There are basic metaphysical factors that ought to be debunked before a successful campaign against the practice of Osu caste system can be achieved. 

It is believed that certain ancestral curses follow any violator of the tradition of not mixing up with Osu, especially in marriage. So, there is the need for greater awareness to be created on the need to respect constitutional provisions, by accepting all citizens as equal in the eyes of the law. 

Theologians of repute and qualified exorcists should quickly meet on this issue and seek empirical and sacred ways of weakening this belief system of Osu practice. 

On the part of the state assemblies in the South-east, just for emphasis, legislation should be passed in line with extant customary laws prohibiting the Osu caste system in south-eastern Nigeria.  

I also understand that parts of Kogi and Edo have similar discriminatory cultural practices. Let governments of those states do the needful, to ensure that all citizens are, indeed, equal before the law.

RIGHTSVIEW appears on Wednesdays, in addition to special appearances. The Columnist, a popular activist, is a former Federal Commissioner of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA). He can be reached via 08033327672 (sms only) or via

Source: News Express

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