Sunday 2 January 2022

Osu caste system: A dead myth or a reality?

Sixty eight years after the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and banned slavery in 1948, some communities in Igbo land are still discriminating against those they still regard as slaves. Investigations by the South East Voice revealed that in some of the communities where people discriminate against the so-called slaves, those who call themselves free-born do not allow the slaves to marry their daughters just as their sons do not marry those they regard as sub-humans.

To drive home the point, some parents give their children, pejorative names like Ohuabunwa meaning slaves are sub-humans. Although the situation is slightly different in Anambra and Abia States, the issue of slavery had been causing problems especially, in many communities in Enugu and Imo States.

Three Classes of people exist in Imo State:

In Imo State, three classes of individuals exist. These are the “free born” (Diala), the enslaved outcasts (Osu, Ohu or Oru) and Ume (those prone-to-die). Oral history has it that the early outcasts were “sacrificed” or willingly surrendered themselves to one deity or the order, to avoid being sold into slavery or the like.

In Imo State, three classes of individuals exist. These are the “free born” (Diala), the enslaved outcasts (Osu, Ohu or Oru) and Ume (those prone-to-die). Oral history has it that the early outcasts were “sacrificed” or willingly surrendered themselves to one deity or the order, to avoid being sold into slavery or the like.

These groups created by the people, predates the advent of Christianity in Igbo land, and has refused to die in the psyche of Ndigbo till date. According to the custom and tradition of the people, all the so- called free born had nothing to do with either the slaves or in their communities, including marriages.

Slavery abolished by the defunct Eastern House of Assembly

Due to the stigmatisation suffered by many people in the hands of their brothers and sisters over the Osu Caste system, the defunct Eastern House of Assembly, on May 10, 1956, abrogated the obnoxious practice through an act of parliament, but 60 years after, this has not done the required magic.

Church leaders wade in

However, some religious leaders in Imo State, including the Catholic Archbishop of Owerri Ecclesiastical Province, His Grace, Dr Anthony Obinna, and the Anglican Bishop of Okigwe South Diocese, Rt. Rev. David Onuoha, have been waging a spirited war against the practice.

Delivering a lecture recently in the United States of America, Archbishop Obinna said: “A close reading of Jesus’ relationship with the Jews, Samaritans and the Gentiles and his redemptive concern for each of these human groups, opened my eyes, my ears, my inner hearts and mind to a redemptive… concern among my Igbo folks.”

Obinna further said that identifying with all three groups in his racial Igbo family, recognizing the humanity in each sub-group, experiencing and realizing the deep dread, pain and misery    borne by individuals in each segment and across Igbo communities, he found himself rejecting, denouncing and renouncing any identification with all three sub-Igbo groups.

“I had to break up with and break out of all conscious, reflexive and subconscious attachment to each and all three groups and their fears. By a combination of God’s grace in Christ and by continued self-probing, I found a new and unbelievable freedom and courage, which I am offering to the Igbo once enslaved by Igbo-religious-cultural divides,” he added.

Although the cleric has been in the fore-front of this mission, many others across church groups are equally pushing it forward and doing away with centuries old inhuman customs, habits and barriers.

In Enugu State, the cases of Umuode and Oruku in Nkanu East Local Government and Ugbene and Ejuona in Nsukka Local Government, respectively are examples of man’s inhumanity to man.

The perpetual state of war in Oruku, Nkanu, which has led to large-scale displacements of their Umuode kith and kin, now scattered across neighbourhoods within the state, for nearly one decade, is unfortunate and should not be allowed to continue.

The Oruku people, who have always had the upper hand in the recurring violence, and their Umuode victims, had been in the same community as far back as pre-colonial times, even though Oruku was the pioneer in the order of settlement.

However, this innocuous fact of history has been turned on its head and, coupled with slavery and other unwholesome cultural practices, combined to create social stratifications that placed Umuode people on the lower stratum of the Oruku society till date.

It is the same story in Alor Uno Community in Nsukka, where the Ejuona people believe that although their forefathers came from Kwara State and settled at Alor Uno, the Ugbene people who reportedly settled later were now slaves.  In this regard, the Ejuona people reportedly smuggled certain obnoxious chapters which stated that Ugbene people were not qualified to hold any chieftaincy title, not to talk of political positions as they were said to be sub-humans.

The Alor Uno imbroglio has even permeated the Catholic and the Anglican churches which are the major religious organisations in the area as well as those who worship idols. In Alor Uno, it is an abomination for the Ugbene man or woman to pass through some designated bush paths or track roads reserved for the Ejuona man or woman.

In Enugu Ezike, Igboeze North Local Government where gerontocracy is practised, it is abomination for the so-called slaves to hold the ofor sticks which symbolise the presence of the forefathers or authority in the eldest village man’s house or other family heads, just as such people are not allowed to inherit family lands held in trust by the elders for the men in their respective communities.

In Ebonyi State, which is one of the six new states created in 1996 by late General Sanni Abacha’s administration when it was carved out of the old Abakaliki division of Enugu State and the old Afikpo division of Abia State.

In Ebonyi, slavery only existed in the psyche

Ebonyi State is popularly known as the Salt of the Nation apparently because of the large deposits of salt in the state, South East Voice investigations revealed that slavery existed in the psyche of the people due to some historic/ tourists sites used during the period of slave trade in the state. The only form of slavery now is in the form human trafficking.

Slave market/ routes

The slave routes in Ezza and Afikpo served as a reminder of the infamous slave trade era in the state. There was another route and also slave market at Ezza. Quite a huge number of slaves who were taken off the shores of Africa left the country through this route.  The Slave Market Route, Ezza: Located in Ezza in Ezza South Local Government was where slaves were traded before being moved to other places during the slave and inter-tribal war years.

This development is no longer a phenomenon in the state. What is prevalent now is in form of human trafficking which had plagued the state for a long time due to high poverty levels.  However, speaking in an interview with South East Voice, the state police Spokesman, ASP George Okafor said the command had carried out a series of rescue missions to curtail the excesses of human traffickers in the state.

Okafor said that the masterminds of human trafficking were individual and organised criminal groups often involving relatives or other persons already known to the victims. According to him, contemporary human trafficking was an organized business just as the transatlantic slave trade with various linkages spread around the globe.

A dead myth in Anambra

In Anambra State, time was when the issue of Osu caste system was common in many parts  of Igbo land. In those days, those dubbed Osu were used by the free born for errand and menial jobs and they were not allowed to marry the free born.

The discrimination was so much that the government of the defunct Eastern Region had to set up a committee which eventually recommended the abolition of the system. Though it met resistance as the various communities subtly discriminated against the Osu, the fact that there was a law against calling anybody Osu eventually led to its final death.

As the subtle discrimination continued, many communities took the bold step to officially abolish it in their areas. For in instance the official abolition of Osu Caste system was made by Igwe Kenneth Orizu III of Nnewi about 22 years ago. Some other communities merely played it down and with time, it also died a natural death.

Also, it was learned that communities in Abatete abolished slavery shortly after the war. The leaders of thought in the area were said to have fined the so-called slaves which they paid to free themselves. It was said that after the payment of such fines, there were several days of merriment across the communities to signify the end of social stratifications occasioned by the Osu Caste system in the area and it had remained so till then.

A community leader, Chief Francis Nwafor said though the Osu caste system is dead, many families still make enquiries about family background before marriage and the reason was to avoid marrying an Osu. He however observed that these days when people meet in any part of the world and fall in love, nobody goes to check the family background of the two people involved before they get married, which has also helped to nail the Osu system.

He said: “The truth is that the so-called discrimination that characterized Osu system in this part of the world is practically dead. There is an Eastern Nigerian law that abolished the Osu caste system in the 1950s. With such extant laws, anyone who is derogatorily called Osu or discriminated against on that basis, could sue the person under the law. In fact, the Osu system has died a natural death in this state.

“In truth, the generation that perpetrated the abusive inhuman treatment on the Osu in Igbo land had also virtually dead and the present generation is less concerned about such old cultural practice of Osu caste system. Nobody talks about slavery in Anambra any longer even if it exists in the minds of some people. That is the truth.

“Today, those who were dubbed Osu in the past have been known to be ministers, governors, commissioners, presidents general of town unions among others in many communities. They also take chieftaincy titles without any inhibition.”

Slavery no longer popular in Abia state

In Abia State, the Osu and Oru caste practices seem not to be popular now and it is not a topic that is commonly. However, leaders spoken to roundly condemned the practice as a sin against God. Three traditional rulers drawn from the three senatorial zones of the state, in unison dismissed the existence of the practice in their areas.

For His Royal Highness, Eze Peter Ginikanwa of Ohonja, Ovim, in Isiukwuato Local Government Council of the state, “We have no such thing as Osu cast practice in our place. It is even forbidden to call somebody an Osu, let alone discriminating against such a person. We relate freely with everybody. Everybody is a free born here. We don’t discriminate against anybody at all.

“It is a taboo in my place to call somebody an Osu; it attracts heavy fine, because we don’t have such thing and we don’t believe in it. We believe that we are equally created by God Almighty, so who are we to condemn what God created and rate our fellow human being inferior or second class. No it does not exist in our area.

“I therefore condemn any person or group that believes in this and charge them to have a rethink and throw away such belief which is very much against God.” According to a Catholic priest who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not get clearance from his bishop to speak, “the people who still believe and practice the Osu or Oru caste  system are not of God.

“They lack wisdom. Who are they to discriminate against God’s creation, a creation. He made in His own image. Anyway thank God that we don’t hear of such things these days in this area. It is absolute rubbish to discriminate against fellow human beings. I call on the government to adequately punish any person that still believes and practices that type of nonsense.”

Also, a prominent traditional ruler from Umuola Egbelu, in Aba North Local Government, Eze Love Wogu, condemned the practice of any form of discrimination against fellow human beings, describing it as “ungodly.”

In Ngwa land generally, we don’t have such practice, we don’t believe in it, it is ungodly, unchristian. No good Christian will support such evil. God created us equal; therefore we have no right to discriminate against anybody. Anybody who does that is challenging God,” Wogu said.

Furthermore, the Towe l of Umutowe autonomous community, Olokoro in Umuahia South Local Government Area, Eze Godffery Onwuka, said that the osu or oru cast system is not known in his community and Olokoro in general, as the people regard everybody as equal and free born.

Onwuka said, “When we are searching for a wife, we don’t raise such issue because we don’t have such belief here; we don’t know what it means. Everybody is a free. In searching for a wife our people ask questions on the character and integrity of the family and not the issue of Osu or Oru because they are not known to us.” Those spoken to did not, however, comment on the origin of derogatory names like Ohuabunwa which some people bear in the state.

By Emeka Mamah, Vincent Ujumadu, Anayo Okoli, Chidi Nkwopara & Peter Okutu


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