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Time to eliminate osu caste system in Igboland



“I WOULD rather die than allow you marry from that family”, said a father whose daughter wanted to marry an osu.

Osu caste system is an ancient practice in Igbo land that discourages social interaction and marriage with a group of people that were dedicated to deities and are seen as inferior to the free-born.

So many people have criticised the osu caste system for defying the basic human rights. A couple of scholars have likened the osu system to slavery, stating that it should be abolished.

However, it is still practiced in some parts of Igbo land and the maltreatment meted out to the osu has forced some of them to migrate to other countries, abandon marriages and commit crimes against humanity in Igbo land.

Abolishing this system will restore the dignity of human beings, promote peaceful relationship and reduce conflicts in society.

As can be expected, some specific claims or theories of origin have been advanced by some people. For instance, a culture and anthropology analyst, Mr. C. O. Dureke, claims that the system was introduced in Igbo land in the 14th century when the god, Kamalu or Amadioha informed a juju priest that the land had been defiled and needed purification.

Certainly, no one was told the nature of the defilement but according to Dureke, kamalu’s instruction was that an able bodied man was to be brought in the market square on an Afo Ukwu day, publicly dedicated to the gods and ancestors to atone for the sins of the living.

Ezeokoli disclosed that since the name of the man was osu, his descendants, according to the custom in Igbo land, had to bear his name.

Romeo Okeke, a writer from Anambra State, stated that there was a time when Nri people devised the system at the time when they emerged as priestly class in Igbo land.

Okeke said that as they realised that their job of spiritual cleansing was a source of power and influence, they began to make certain demands.

A consequence of not meeting those demands was an “Nri course” which had the effect of ostracising the person, group or community. In the absence of propitiation or compensatory payments and especially as the passage of time made it impossible to locate those who had pronounced the original curse, such people remained outcasts and in time, their descendants inherited the stigma.

However, needless to say, such theories and claims are speculative at best and cannot be relied upon. Beyond the vague but sensible notion that it must have originated in some sort of public dedication or sacrifice, we do not really know the precise origin of the osu caste system in Igboland.

What is known, according to Ezeokoli was that there was a time when there were more privileges than disabilities in being osu. Apart from their guaranteed personal safety and freedom (to kill or harm any of them was to incur the wrath of the deity that owned him or her] they had free access to materials such as food, drinks and clothing materials offered as sacrifice to their patron deities.

Since it was believed that petitions channeled through them received quick attention from the gods, some of them were usually approached to function as intermediaries between the society and the gods and were rewarded accordingly.

Perhaps, it is not certain exactly at what point in time being an osu began to carry a definite social stigma, so much so that even today, there are people who claim the absurd ability to smell an osu from a mile away (whatever that means).

At a point, people no longer merely avoided the osu but shunned them. They could not take part in any discussion on matters concerning their town or village.

They could not therefore be given any sort of political or ritual authority such as being bestowed a traditional ruler, initiated into Agbalanze or allowed to take Ozo titles. Osu stigma is so dreaded and their isolation so total. The indignities, humiliation and disabilities to which they were subjected are terrible.

There is no reason for this caste system to remain in these modern times. Slavery was abolished and no human sacrifice is going on anywhere in Nigeria except as a criminal offence linked to some dark cults.

The constitution of Nigeria declares every person free and equal before the law. All Nigerians are constitutionally entitled to fundamental human rights, which include the right to freedom from discrimination and the dignity of the human person to end the osu and similar in human caste system.

Wherever they are being practiced in Nigeria require a combination of cultural reforms, law enforcement and active sensitisation. Serious legal action need to be taken against any form of discrimination.

There have been calls on traditional authorities and churches in Igbo land to prevail on every community still practicing the osu caste system to stop.

Unarguably, a law was enacted in 1956, abolishing the osu caste system in Igboland but the law seems not to have achieved  the goal of  eradication or elimination of osu caste system.

It may be said that the answer to osu is not to make a law about it but to let education and the progress of enlightenment do the work automatically.

Sadly, this has not helped matters. Today, the educated are the advocates of osu caste. Why are some leading lawyers and other educated men openly supporting osu?

In September last year, during the celebration of the new yam festival of Nri kingdom (believed to be the birth place of most Igbo groups), Eze Nri Enweleana ii, Obidiegwu Onyesoh, abolished the system in his community.

Most traditional rulers in Igboland also proclaimed the abolishment of osu caste system in their domains towards the end of last year but the question remains, has the system been abolished in practice?

Prince Dike Kingsley, a knight in Anglican Communion and chairman, Mgbidi and Oru-West indigenes resident in Enugu State has this to say.

“It is interesting to note that traditional rulers  in the south east zone (Igbo land), championed by Eze Nri have kick started campaign against the obnoxious osu caste system.  The traditional rulers held a meeting on November 19, 2018, where they decided that December 28, 2018, would be set aside for phasing out the caste system in all communities in Igboland.

I believe that these traditional rulers have commenced the awareness in a grand way. They should go beyond this by allowing the so called osu people to break kola nuts in meetings involving villagers.

Anyone who tries to intimidate them or tries to prevent them should be taken to court and if found guilty, must go to jail. This will definitely serve as deterrent to others.

“Churches should also join traditional rulers in profound campaign against osu caste. There ought to be constant preaching to people to eschew discrimination meted to this group of people. Osus are treated as inferior persons to the class of then Ndiala people.

They are made to live in shrines or market places and not allowed to have any relationship with the real born. These are human beings created the way other beings were created by God.

This form of maltreatment and punishments has made the Osus to flee to other countries for survival.

“Since the introduction of modernisation or civilisation in Igboland, the Osu caste system has been criticized by people who feel it is against human rights. This is against freedom of association.

Some of the punishments meted out against the Osu in Igbo land include’, parent administering poison to their children, disinheritance, ostracism, denial of membership in social clubs and violent disruption of marriage ceremonies.

There is absolute need to encourage marriage between Osus and real born. Anyone who comes to disrupt the marriage, must be sent to jail.

The traditional rulers should by now be bestowing Ozo titles to these people. People also ought to be made aware of the law abrogating the practice of referring to people as osus .

The law came into existence on March 20, 1956. Igbo legislators in the then Eastern House of Assembly, Enugu, did that. The fine imposed helped to discourage the public expression of the word, osu”.

Chief Raymond Ikeotu Ijeoma, a public servant and analyst of culture also said, “I greatly support the eradication of Osu  in Igboland.

The system is quite discriminatory and against the fundamental human rights of freedom of association. Why would people be forced to disassociate themselves from others?

This is condemnable at this stage in life and those found to be behind the discrimination or those found practicing the osu caste must be brought before the public to be ridiculed after they must have been arraigned in courts.

“As Christians, Christ died and his death has taken away all our sins. He made us to understand that there is no Jew or Gentile and with this, everyone is equal before God.

Therefore, I urge Reverend fathers, pastors and  all clergy men to always preach against osu caste in their churches at all times. The church needs to expose those who are still in the practice and once they are exposed, everyone will know that those who still think of the osu caste system are living in the dark.”

Chief Edward Okotu also stated: Osu caste system is not advisable. The fact that every human being is the creation of God and by that has the right to life, freedom of movement, freedom of speech and worship, and this are some of  the things they deny an osu person.

They are only allowed to interact within themselves. Freedom came to man through Jesus [ Act 4 vs 12]; so freedom is only in Christ . If a man is not in Christ, he is not free because freedom is in Christ, and Christ has destroyed the work of partition.

“The way forward in Igboland concerning osu caste system, it’s only Jesus that can settle that. When we all come to the knowledge of the freedom of man in Christ, understanding the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins, and has put to end the so called osu  (2 Corinthians 5  vs 7).

“However, we need to understand what Christ has done for us on the cross, because if we do, we will know that osu dose not count.”

To completely abolish the osu caste system in Igboland, traditional rulers in Igboland should not only heed to the recent advise by Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State at the 2019 traditional Rulers Council Seminar at the Government House, Awka ,recently by brainstorming to take a position on osu caste system , among other issues but also match their words with actions.


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