Appraising the December proposed abolition of OSU caste system in Igbo land

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By Okechukwu Keshi Ukegbu

Currently, hope rises for the outcast, also referred to as “Osu” in Igboland as discriminations against them, God willing, will end on December 28 this year.

This is courtesy of traditional rulers in the South East region. It will be recalled that recently the traditional rulers in the South East endorsed the abolition of the obnoxious practice by December 28. The monarchs in a statement noted that the event marking the abolition of the Osu caste system in Igbo land would take place at the Nri Palace in Anambra State.

According to the Regent of the ancient Nri Kingdom, Prince Ikenna Onyesoh, as saying it would be “spiritually suicidal” for anyone to continue with the obnoxious Osu practice after it had been abolished.

The regent also noted that come December 28, 2018, more stringent spiritual implications will be pronounced from Ikpo Eze-Nri against such devaluation of mankind, after an extensive spiritual abrogation exercise.

The proposed abolition of the Osu caste system recently got a boost as the Anambra State Government endorsed the date. In a letter of endorsement by the Commissioner, Anambra State Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Indigenous Artwork, Culture and Tourism, Sally Mbanefo, to the Director, Celibacy International, the commissioner gave assurance that the state government’s unflinching support to abolishing the practice in Igbo land.

The letter reads: “Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Indigenous Artwork, Culture, and Tourism has been inundated with your efforts in raising awareness on the traumatic stigma of Osu/Ohu/Ume Caste system. As a ministry, we also commend your selfless and bold commitment to the abolition of this demeaning caste system in the land.

“Consequently, we wish to express our unflinching support to abolish the scourge of this unfortunate practice in Igbo land. We, therefore, have no reservation, whatsoever, in endorsing your project to abolish the Osu practice”.

Also, the support of the religious world is not spared in this laudable project. Endorsing the December 28 deadline for Osu abolition, Bishop Obi Onubuogu of The Rock Cathedral, Enugu, is leading a cross-section of high profile South-East religious leaders to Agukwu Nri for the abolition exercise.

It is apt to do an appraisal of efforts of notable individuals and organisations to end the obnoxious practice. One of such efforts is that of late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe. In his historic address to the defunct Eastern Nigeria House of Assembly on March 20, 1956, described the Osu Caste System as” devilish and uncharitable to brand any human being with a label of inferiority due to the accidents of history”. Zik further explained that the objects and reasons for the abolition of the Osu Caste System are humanitarian and altruistic.

In the words of the Great Zik of Africa, “no one should join in the encouragement of a system of society where one stratum can superciliously claim to be descended from the best brain and would, therefore, consign others to a scrap heap of their own invention and ostracise them socially”.
Similar efforts were made by late Dr. Sam Mbakwe who banned the Osu Caste System in the old Imo State. Also, late Commodore Emeka Omeruah in the old Anambra State used a bulldozer to demolish the Efuru Idoha shrine in Igbo Etiti Local Government Area of Enugu State.

Osu caste takes the form of slavery and slave trade whereby a person(s) is/are bought as a slave(s) and dedicated to a god. The people are, subsequently, viewed as the representatives of the god. This practice is, of course, humiliating and negated both legal and biblical perspectives on individual freedom. Where it is practiced, an Osu is not allowed by the traditional law to marry a free-born. He or she is neither permitted by the traditional law to keep other forms of relationships or affiliations with those regarded as free-born. The caste had undergone several adjustments during the era of colonialism, had been affected by the decree enforced by the white man to abolish the slave trade.

It is a bit difficult to trace the exact period when the Osu Caste System started. But one thing is glaring: the existence of shrines in most communities in Igbo land which are attended by priests and their followers encouraged it. The priests served the daily spiritual needs of people who visited the shrines as the intermediaries. According to a school of thought, “the deities were like institutions and with the growth of more powerful deities; the need for more hands in the service of such deities arose. With time, those devotees were given names like Ohu ma, osu, ohu arusi, oru alusi, achi-ebo etc depending on the part of Igbo Land. Those people and their offspring were further seen as sub-human beings, the slaves and unclean class by those who regard themselves as superiors, free born and masters”.

The treatment meted out to the Osu flouts the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 1 of the declaration states: “All human beings are born equal in dignity and right. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. Article 4 of the same declaration states: “No one shall be held in slavery and slavery shall be against the land”It also negates the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1806 and as well as the Magna Carta of 1215.

The practice of Osu cast system is clearly painted in Chinua Achebe’s “No longer at ease” where Obi Okonkwo’s proposals to marry Clara was vehemently opposed by his people because Clara was an Osu. The annoying thing is that the discrimination persists despite the high presence of Christianity in southeast-Nigeria, and despite the biblical injunction which says: “in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, and neither freeborn nor slave.”

Several reasons have been adduced as factors sustaining the flourishing of the Osu Caste System. They are political, economic and social. It is advanced by some schools of thought that why some governments are dragging feet in nailing the practice finally is the fear of upsetting some heavyweights- an action which could affect their political fortunes.

Down the lane exposes the economic and social reasons which suggest that people referred to as the Osus flourish in business and other fields of endeavor. They are well placed economically to the extent that some people who cannot ordinarily compete with them use the Osu caste system as an excuse to put them in a disadvantaged position on issues requiring open competitions. Also, there are elements in these communities where the Osu Caste System is upheld who are accused of making some fortunes from it and would do anything within their reach to make sure that this source of fortune would not dry up.

The prevalence of Osu Caste System despite numerous efforts to abolish it challenges the church greatly as an agent of change and social mobilisation. In the past, some changes recorded in history have been masterminded by the church.

On this note,the church should enforce all laws against Osu Caste System by preaching to their members and punishing disobedient ones publicly. The church can go a step further by giving out their consenting daughters in marriage to the erstwhile Osu sons. On the other hand, the people hitherto regarded as Osu can be allowed to occupy certain positions in the community such as Igwe, Onowu, Nze, Ichie, among others.

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