- Osu/Ohu caste is a discriminatory practice in Igbo land since ages
- Traditional rulers, Religious leaders push for its abolition
- S/East communities call for an end to the practice over loss of life, inhuman act
Joseph Ezugwu is a successful business man based in Lagos. After years of searching for his missing rib, he finally found it in the person of Ogochukwu a successful banker from a neighbouring community. Two years of their dating has proven to him beyond all reasonable doubt that indeed Ogochukwu is his right person.
But unfortunately, Joseph cannot marry Chinenye, so said his parents. She is an Osu and so, cannot be married to a free-born like Joseph. All his efforts to make his parents reason with him proved abortive.
The case of Joseph is a true manifestation of man’s inhumanity to man currently going on throughout the length and breadth of over 95% communities in Igbo land.
More than two centuries after its abolition on the March 25, 1807 following the Slave Trade Act, the Osu and Ohu practices and its attendant consequences still continue to fester in some parts of Igboland, South-East Nigeria and there are elements in these communities that would rather die than see them abolished.
Osu caste system is an ancient practice in Igbo land. It discourages social interaction and marriage with a group of people, referred to as Osu (outcasts). This set of people; their fathers or forbearers were dedicated to deities to cleanse the land of some form of abomination and hence, seen as inferior to the Nwadiala (free born).
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.
Ohu caste at the other hand are people who were bought as slaves during ancient time. Their descendants or grand children are the ones being so maltreated as their fore fathers who were actually bought by their masters are no more.
WITHIN NIGERIA findings showed that they are therefore not allowed some rights as free born of such communities.
Worse still, many of such deities might have even been destroyed long ago, yet such individuals are still being tied to the discriminatory and obnoxious practices.
For this reason, 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 like age grade meeting, club meeting and so on.
However, in Igbo land 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 communities in Enugu state, the government carved out autonomous communities to solve the problem with the so-called Ohu or Osu having self-determination in their autonomous communities.
By and large, 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.
Despite all efforts by groups, including churches to end this evil discriminatory practice, like a proverbial cat with nine life, it has persisted leading to unnecessary enmities. Investigation showed that this practice is still dominant in many Igbo community.
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”.
The video, to say the least, generated a lot of both local and international concern over the said ancient invidious practice in our dear Igbo land. It led to many communities initiating a move to end the evil practice in their various respective communities. 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.
Nevertheless, there seem to be light in the end of tunnel as some communities are now bracing up to end the evil practice.
However, some communities have dropped the obnoxious practice. Ozalla community in Nkanu West local government area is one of such communities.
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.
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.
However, recently in Owerre Nsukka, in Enugu state, just like in any other community in Igbo land, the Osus are not even allowed to break kola nuts at meetings, pour libation or pray to God on behalf of freeborn at any community gathering.
To further humiliate them, the Osus could not marry the so-called freeborn and take traditional titles in the community. It is for the foregoing that meticulous investigation is done in Igbo land before any marriage is contracted.
In the same vein, some weeks ago, the people of Owerre Nsukka having decided to jettison the archaic practice announced the abolition of the caste practice and advised everyone in the community to adhere strictly to the directive.
In a statement, “Re: Abolition of ‘Ohu’ practice in Owerre Nsukka autonomous community” by the traditional ruler, Igwe Emeka Ugwu and president-general of the town union, Chief Daniel Attama, said: “The entire citizens of Owerre Nsukka autonomous community hereby announce the total abolition of the reprehensive ‘ohu’ (slave) practice in the entire Owerre Nsukka autonomous community forthwith.
“By this announcement, the general public and the entire citizens of Owerre Nsukka autonomous community are hereby advised to adhere strictly to the provision or pronouncement.”
Igwe Ugwu told our reporter that “Everybody was consulted including the youths, the Umu Ada, elders’ council, villages and they gave us a nod. So, we had to carry out their wish.”
On the situation before the abolition exercise, the traditional ruler stated that it was indeed ugly, horrible, divisive and discriminatory:
“We could not intermarry, we could not help them; they could not be the eldest men in the community; they could not be part of Igwe’s cabinet and so many other forms of discrimination. But today, all those things have become past events.”
The monarch disclosed that the event was merely ceremonial because some of the erstwhile Osus were already absolved into his cabinet and as members and executives of the town union: “All these things were not obtainable before now.”
The traditional Prime Minister of the community, Chief Ozioko Paulinus Ozioko, said: “It may interest you to know that it is almost two or three villages that we are talking about here. I see no reason we should discriminate against them in this modern time in the name of Osu system. If any of my children wants to marry any of them now, I have no reason whatsoever to stop them from getting married.”
For Attama, there is no difference between racism in America and the Osu caste system practiced in parts of Igbo land: “In America, we hear about racism. You heard about how George Floyd was pummelled to death in America some years ago. There is no difference between racism and Osu caste practice. We were neither threatened nor arm-twisted to abolish the caste system in our community. We abolished it because it is anti-human, anti-developmental and totally abominable.”
WITHIN NIGERIA was not given the privilege of meeting some of the erstwhile Osus to avoid stigmatisation and reopening of the bad old time memory. However, Attama said: “They were overwhelmed with happiness for being integrated into the community. Their joy knows no bounds. Since they are now part of the community, there is no need to expose them again to the public.”
The abolition of the evil practice attracted appreciation message from the Catholic Bishop of Nsukka Diocese, Most Rev. Prof. Godfrey Onah. He expressed gratitude to the traditional ruler and people of Owerre Nsukka. Before the abolition ceremony, Most Rev. Onah allowed it to be announced in all the Catholic parishes in the diocese
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 bad 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.
“You cannot stop your daughter from marrying 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.
In his view, in a chat WITHIN NIGERIA, 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 some time 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(freeborn) 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(ohu dedicated to deity) and Ohu mmadu(ohu bought by fellow human). Only Amu and Umu Mgbenye took titles, 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 that the tradition shouldn’t be practiced 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.