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Osu: Inside lives of South-East underdogs

Sixty-three years after the then Eastern Region of Nigeria enacted a law abolishing the practice of the osu caste system, the practice still persists. What are the challenges and progress made so far in the effort to abolish the system? Why has it persisted despite interventions by government and traditional rulers? Daily Trust on Sunday writes.

In parts of Igbo land, the osu caste system is a tradition that discourages social interaction and marriage with a certain group of persons whose forefathers are said to have been dedicated to deities, otherwise known as alusi in local parlance. As a result of their status, the osu, as the victims of the system are called, are socially separated from the freeborn (nwadiala).

While some of them were dedicated to deities, others were freeborn who committed various crimes and were banished or ran to such deities; hence they became osu.

The dateline of this tradition is not certain, but it is said to have started when the Igbo were governed by traditional laws, known as odinanina.

Originally, the osu were made to live in shrines or marketplaces and were not allowed to have any relationship with the freeborn. Also, they were not allowed to break kolanut or say prayers on behalf of the freeborn.

However, with modernisation, the system has faced stiff criticisms and resistance by those who feel it is inhuman and against the right to freedom of association. Investigation by Daily Trust on Sunday reveals that despite various proclamations by governments and traditional rulers claiming to have abolished the system, many Igbo communities are still deep in the practice, including those calling for its abolition. It is said that most traditional rulers and prominent individuals hardly allow their wards to marry an osu.

Our correspondent further gathered that the osu are highly successful in their areas of endeavour,  educated and highly placed in government because they were the first to embrace western education in Igbo land since the colonial masters did not discriminate against them. However, despite their successes in government and education, they are still struggling to marry the freeborn of the society and take certain titles, which are highly respected in Igbo land.

However, the only thing that has been successfully abolished from the practice is a public reference to a person as an osu.

Despite modernisation and Christianity, no freeborn marries an Osu, no matter his or her wealth or position as it is still considered an abomination to do so.

On March 20, 1956, Igbo legislators in the Eastern Region House of Assembly in Enugu abrogated the practice, declaring it unlawful and a crime punishable by law.

In his address to the defunct Eastern Region House of Assembly on March 20, 1956, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe described the osu caste system as “devilish and uncharitable,’’ saying it was wrong to “brand any human being with a label of inferiority due to an accident of history.”

According to Azikiwe, the objects and reasons for the abolition of the system were humanitarian and altruistic.

“No one should join in the encouragement of a system of the 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,” he said.

Also, a former governor of Imo State, the late Chief Sam Mbakwe, banned the system in the old Imo State.

In 2018, during the celebration of the New Yam Festival of Nri Kingdom, Eze Nri Enweleana II, Obidiegwu Onyesoh, also declared the caste system abolished in his community and urged other major Igbo traditional rulers to join in phasing it out in their various kingdoms.

Furthermore, many years ago, Igwe Kenneth Orizu III of Nnewi also abolished the osu caste system in his domain. But Chief Francis Nwafor, who hails from the community, said although the system had been abolished, many families still made enquiries about family backgrounds before marriage, and the reason is to avoid marrying an Osu.

During the eighth traditional rulers’ seminar in Awka, the Anambra State capital recently, Governor Willie Obiano called on them to do something drastic to abolish the practice.

Speaking with Daily Trust on Sunday, the traditional ruler of Oko, Igwe Prof Laz Ekwueme, said the osu caste system was long overdue for abolition in Igbo land, adding that every human being was created equal; hence there’s no reason for segregation.

HRM Igwe A. U Obiora of Ikem Igwe Ekwueme said, “We should not be talking about the osu caste system because it is no longer fashionable. There have been modernisation and civilisation in the tradition.”

He said traditional rulers were doing a lot in their various communities to see that the practice was abolished. He added that some communities had already abolished the practice.

Also speaking to our correspondent, the special adviser on chieftaincy affairs to the governor of Anambra State, Mrs. Queen-Vera Okonkwo said, “The state government has taken the bull by the horns to ensure effective and practical approach by involving the traditional rulers, who are the custodians of culture. The state government will, based on the input of the traditional rulers, enact further laws to abolish the practice of the Osu caste system in the state.”

The Anambra State Commissioner for Information and Public Enlightenment, Mr. C. Don Adinuba, told Daily Trust on Sunday that there was already an existing law that abolished the osu caste system in the state and the whole of the eastern region, but unfortunately, implementation has been the problem.

Mr. Adinuba said, “You know there is one thing in having laws and another thing in the implementation. In the states in Igbo land, when you want to marry they will ask for your people and when you fail to provide them, you are seen as an unserious person. Our collective nature is still a hindrance to the abolishment of the practice. In places where marriages are contracted without family members, nobody should be talking about it now.

“However, the practice is gradually dying. The way it was years back is not the same way it is today. Governor Willie Obiano called on the traditional rulers to use their powers to effect the implementation of the law banning the practice.

“Nowadays, people go to cities, meet girls of their choices and get married and nobody cares to ask questions. It is only when you are marrying within the neighborhood that the issue of osu comes in.

“Before now, the freeborn were not allowed to associate with osu or even drink together, but today, this aspect is relaxed.

“Again, when you want to take an Ozo title or aspire to become a king in your community, that is when the issue of osu comes up.” Speaking with our correspondent on phone, a retired Anglican Bishop of Isuikwuato/Umunneochi Diocese, Abia State, The Most Rev Samuel Chukwuka, urged states in eastern Nigeria to take drastic actions on the implementation of the law that abolished the osu caste system in the region in 1956.

Chukwuka said there was no need to continue to discuss the abolition of the osu practice because there’s already a law banning it in the region. He added that anybody found practising it risked imprisonment. He, however, said that various state governments in the region should pass additional laws to strengthen the reinforcement of the existing one.

He said, “Each state government in Igbo land should pass stringent laws against the practice to make it more criminal, as well as make the already existing law more effective and functional.

States should constitute committees to implement those laws. Committee members should be sent to various communities to monitor compliance.”

Asked whether he could allow his child to marry an osu, Rev Chukwuka said there was no how he would be championing the abolition of the system and still stop his children from marrying anybody. He, however, said marriage should not be forced on anybody.

His Royal Majesty, Igwe of Ikem in Anambra East Local Government Area, Igwe Aaron Uche Obiora, said it was time to truly abolish the obnoxious practice, saying it had caused a lot of problems in the society.

Igwe Obiora said, “This practice has been existing from time immemorial. We all came out to see it, but there is the need for us to stop it because anybody addressed as an osu quickly gets very angry and can go to any length to seek revenge.

“Honestly, I am of the opinion that the osu caste system should be abolished. This has created much problems in the society. When you call someone an Osu, he can do anything to you .The law passed in 1956 abolishing the system should be strengthened by various state legislatures to discourage people from the practice.’’

He added that the1956 law abolishing the system was outdated; hence there should be a new one.

“When people go outside to marry, nobody cares whether they are osu or not. It is only when the person wants to marry from the neighborhood that the issue of osu comes up,” he said.

Asked whether he would allow his child to marry an osu, he said, “No,” but added that if any of them insists, he would only advise him on the danger and consequences of his action traditionally.

An expert in Igbo culture and tradition, Dr. Alex Anedo of the Department of Igbo Language, Culture and African Studies, Nnamdi Azikwe University, Awka, Anambra State, took our correspondent down memory lane on the osu system. Anedo said it would be difficult to abolish the system in Igbo land as no one would force a freeborn to marry an osu.

He said, “What you should understand is that every society is stratified and everybody is not equal. In every system, all human beings are not equal. In Igbo society, humanity is not equal; we have the rich and the poor; we are stratified. We have amadi at the highest level, ume at the second level, then ohu or oru, and lastly, osu. Amadi are the freeborn of the society, the ume are also freeborn, but they have problems of early death or some abnormal conditions, and the oru or ohu are slaves bought by the rich men and sometimes prisoners of war, while the osu are those who by one way or another ran to deities for protection or are scarified to deities. Once you run to a deity for protection, you are owned by the deity, and sometimes a deity may demand for a human being; and luckily, if the person is not killed, he will be serving the deity and cleaning the compound. If he gets married and begets children, the children belong to the deity; they are osu. In this case, the deity owns them.

“The osu are sacred and untouchable human beings. People do not interact or relate with them because of the fear of the deity that owns them. Once you do anything with them and blood comes out, the deity will go after you. People are afraid of associating with them for fear of deities that own them and not for their inferiority. They are sacred human beings.

“Even in India, there are untouchables. Our own is better because during the advent of the white men, our great grandfathers felt that it was better to allow them to go and suffer under the white men. Fortunately, they embraced education and were made warrant chiefs and continued to be kings of their communities.”

On whether the traditional rulers can abolish the practice, he said, “It is very difficult for traditional rulers to abolish osu practice because they did not institute it. After all, the Igbo just embraced kingship. For osu practice to be abolished, we must go to the aka ji offor, the real traditional custodians; the kings cannot abolish it. Some kings have made attempts to abolish the practice but failed because it is not within their powers.

“In my community, Ikem in Anambra east, the traditional ruler, Eze Bernard Okafor, had tried to abolish it but failed. When the elders asked him, ‘If an osu calls a freeborn a thief, what would be the reply since they cannot call him osu?’ He did not give an answer and that ended it.

“I also learnt that some time ago in Igbo-Ekwu, Eze Martins Eze had wanted to abolish the practice and the elders asked him to start by allowing his son to marry an osu. He refused and did not raise the issue again.’’

It was learnt that although there may be some kings who are osu, they cannot be allowed to perform the traditional breaking of kolanut for the elders to eat.

Anedo continued, “Again, if somebody who is an osu wants to take the ozo title, he is not given the authority directly. He is asked to go to the bush and pick it, but the freeborn is given directly.

“The best way to abolish it is to ignore the discussion entirely as the world is growing and things are changing. If we continue to discuss it, our children will be curious to know what osu is and the problem will linger.

“I suggest that another way to abolish the osu caste practice is to look for the deities where their forefathers ran to for protection and do ritual cleansing.”

On the effectiveness of the deities, he said people’s beliefs were strong, adding that even if a deity has been abandoned by the people, for the facts of fears, their consciences will always be there.

Anthony Okafor, a journalist in Awka, said the practice had no relevance in the 21st century; hence people should ignore it and move forward, adding that if he had not married he would have married an osu, just to see the alleged consequences.

Speaking to Daily Trust on Sunday, some elders of Ikem communities, who are above 90 years old, said they did not know how and when the practice started and had no idea of how to abolish it. They, therefore, called on osu to continue to marry among themselves as they would never allow their children to marry them.

Ozo Ikegbunem Nnegboo, 98, said the osu caste system would be difficult to abolish, adding that government could abolish it on paper, but in reality it won’t be easy.

Ozo Ikegbunem Nnegboo Ozo Nnegboo said that in their community, the Igwe gave titles to some osu because they made money, but he died after three market days (12 days). He said those so crowned could not come to an Ozo meeting with their red caps, but that their titles were recognised.

He said, “Let the government make their laws, but we will still respect our traditional and natural laws. If you look around, most of the people in government are osu, they have the money, education and power, so they want the practice to be abolished.”

Also speaking, Obiayili Okafor, 98, an Ozo titleholder, said the osu were human, just like other people and that nobody could kill them, but they should marry among themselves.

Okafor said, “We stay together, drink together, smoke together, but we cannot marry one another. I cannot give my daughter to an osu, but any person who wants can give out his daughter to marry them.”

Another elder of the same age, Iduu Udenze, said his father did not tell him how to abolish the osu caste system; hence he would not be able to abolish what he did not know how it started.

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