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Eradication Of ‘The Bondage’ Of Osu (Caste) System: The Key Roles Of Igbo Traditional Rulers


Preamble: Osu System is an anachronistic cultural practice that exists in many parts of South-East, Nigeria and to an extent, some outlying communities across the Niger where some people are wont to deny its existence.

(part 1 of 2)

There were some attempts to really abolish this tradition in the past, but without much success. Presently certain individuals, traditional rulers and organizations are involved in an uncoordinated campaign to eradicate this unlawful and ungodly tradition.

The tradition is deeply rooted and has refused to die over time. Experience has shown that it is rather utopian to believe that it will die in time; concrete steps must be taken to stop the cultural practice!

There is need to explain in practical terms what it means, and state clearly how a coordinated approach of stake holders (with the traditional rulers as the main focus) would solve this thorny issue.

Traditional rulers being the custodians of culture and tradition have key roles to play in the eradication of Osu System.

Aims and Objectives

This write-up is meant to –

  • provide a brief definition of Osu System;
  • create more awareness about the continued practice of Osu System in the South-East;
  • explain the misconceptions about the tradition;
  • state the reasons for abolition of the tradition;
  • encourage traditional rulers to participate actively in the eradication of Osu System; and
  • propose a realistic approach to eradicate the tradition.

A. Definition of Osu System

Eradication Of ‘The Bondage’ Of Osu (Caste) System: The Key Roles Of Igbo Traditional Rulers
Eradication Of ‘The Bondage’ Of Osu (Caste) System: The Key Roles Of Igbo Traditional Rulers

Osu as defined in Section 1 (2) of Abolition of the Osu System Law, 1956 “includes an Oru, or an Ohu or an Ume or an Omoni, and also includes the descendants of an Osu, an Oru, an Ohu, an Ume, and an Omoni and any person subject to a legal or social disability or social stigma which is similar to or nearly similar to that borne by an Osu, an Oru, an Ume or an Omoni”. This means therefore that the terms – Osu, Ume, Ohu or Oru, and Omoni amount to almost the same thing, and in many cases they are used interchangeably.

There are, however, subtle differences between these terms which will be mentioned briefly. The so-called Osu is someone dedicated to a deity. There is presently no one that was dedicated to a deity that is alive; it is only their descendants that are stigmatized as Osus. Ume is another version of Osu. They were also dedicated to deities and in some cases served as priests of the deities. The Osus and Umes were made to wear long hair, segregated from the members of the society, and often lived close to markets and the shrines of the deities to whom they were dedicated. An Ohu or Oru was a slave. He was the property of his ‘master’ or ‘owner’. In some cases the so-called Ohus or Orus were sold by their ‘masters’ or ‘owners’ to people who later dedicated them to deities as Osus or Umes. Thus, somewhere along the line, they were free people (or free born) before they were converted to Osus, Umes, Ohus or Orus. For the purposes of this paper, Osu is used as a generic term for Osu proper, Ume, Ohu or Oru and Omoni.

Osu System is a barbaric and anachronistic culture that segregated Igbo society into the Dialas, that is, free born and Osus. In the olden days, it was an abomination for a Diala to associate with an Osu – regarded as an unclean and inferior person. A Diala would not even take shelter in the house of an Osu if it was raining or shake hands with one. Intermarriage between the two groups was forbidden. In short, there was no interaction between the Dialas and the Osus. This is an anachronistic and wicked culture, which some people are determined to perpetuate in various forms in the 21st century. It is posited here that this culture should be completely abandoned because it is evil.

Osu System was abrogated by Abolition of the Osu System Law of 1956 in the then Eastern Region of Nigeria. The focus of this paper is to ensure that it is also abolished in practice.

B. The Continued Practice of Osu System

Happily, the advent of colonialism and Christianity dealt a heavy blow on Osu tradition, and tremendously transformed Igbo society. The Dialas and Osus now worship together in churches and share Holy Communion from one cup, attend the same schools, work together in offices, live together in the cities, use the same markets, etc. The two groups were made to interact among themselves by circumstances beyond their control.

Ordinarily it would seem as if Osu System is a bygone issue. But this is far from the truth. In the past, the segregation was deemed to be right, and the two groups accepted their stations in life, as something ordained by God. Times have changed. The scales have fallen off people’s eyes. The wickedness of the tradition is now very clear, painful and unacceptable to all right thinking people (including Igbos), hence, the increasingly rising clamour for its total eradication.

Presently, Osu System is often practiced indirectly or in disguised ways. Still the result is agonizing. The reasons for its subtle manifestations include:

  1. It is unlawful. Osu System was abolished in the then Eastern Region of Nigeria by Abolition of the Osu System Law of 1956. It is also contrary to the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and other extant laws. Thus there are serious consequences for an open practice of Osu tradition.
  2. The realities of modern life have brought people together in the schools, markets, churches, hospitals, town union and village meetings, cities, etc. It is therefore impossible to brazenly discriminate against anyone as an Osu as was the case in the past.
  3. Many Igbos now see it as unjust, barbaric and idolatrous, but consider themselves trapped in it, that is, not knowing how to completely avoid it.
  4. The increasing close interaction between people on both sides has exposed the misconceptions that the tradition thrives on. More and more people have begun to realize that Osu is nothing, and exists only in the minds of people.

Despite the efforts to stop the tradition, some people are still ‘living in bondage’ and it is this man-made bondage that the traditional rulers are earnestly enjoined to use their good offices to discredit and stop.

The fact of the existence of Osu System is buttressed with the following points:

  1. There is discrimination in the area of marriage. The Dialas still forbid intermarriage with those regarded as Osus. Intermarriage between the two sides is still largely seen as an abomination. Enquiries are still made to ascertain the status of suitors and brides-to-be, and the proposed marriage will be called off if one of the parties is from the wrong side. Few people, however, are known to have defied the culture, and interestingly most of them are having blissful marriages.
  2. Some traditional rulers will not confer chieftaincy titles on certain persons, simply because they are called Osus. In such cases, the traditional rulers are known not to give any reason for such a denial (of privilege), as conferment of titles is the prerogative of traditional rulers. There are certain notable traditional rulers (branded as deviants by others) who have conferred chieftaincy titles without discrimination. This set of progressive traditional rulers also appoints members of their cabinets without discrimination thereby promoting love, peace and unity in their respective communities.
  3. In some communities it is still a taboo to admit a non-Diala into the Ozo title society. There are, however, certain communities that are working hard to stop entirely discrimination in this regard, and traditional titles are given to deserving and interested indigenes – a situation that has impacted positively on the communities in terms of unity, development, etc.

It is gratifying to note that some Igbo communities are becoming more progressive. In these progressive communities there is no more discrimination about who becomes a village or town union chairperson. This development is to be encouraged and extended to intermarriage as a way of ending the obnoxious tradition.

C. The Misconceptions About Osu System

There are so many misconceptions about Osu System, all of which border on superstition, idolatry, falsehood, ignorance, envy, etc.

  1. An Osu is perceived as one belonging to a deity, despite the fact that no person presently tagged an Osu was dedicated to a deity. It is believed to be generational. In other words, they are seen as unclean and unsuitable for marriage with Dialas; but dating is often overlooked. This sheer hypocrisy is an indirect admission that Osu is really nothing; it is only a superstitious belief. Those dedicated to the deities and the ones who dedicated them have all died. The descendants of those dedicated to the deities have repudiated the demonic covenant to which their ancestors were subjected to, and as such, have no connection with the deities. Igbos are ‘Christians’, as well over 95% of them ‘go to church’ or profess the Christian faith. It is, however, said that “many are called but few are chosen”. Christianity makes it abundantly clear that Osu tradition is unchristian, evil and unacceptable. “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 27). No one is superior to the other.

Osu is widely believed to be a generational curse, as if, once an Osu, always an Osu. This is why some people ignorantly argue that those presently regarded as Osus are partakers of the curses arising from the dedication of their ancestors to the deities. This theory is unfortunately given a biblical backing with Exodus 20:5 which says:

“You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me”.

The Scripture is wrongly used to justify the continued stigmatization of certain people as Osus. This is an unwitting self-condemnation because ‘it takes two to tango’. Going by the literal interpretation of the Scripture, the generations of the Dialas and the Osus are all under a curse, because their ancestors worshipped other gods and subjected themselves to the deities. But the good news is that, “…there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Thus everyone is free from any curse, believed to arise from the heathen tradition. This is in line with the Scripture in Ezekiel 18:

“What do people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel: ‘The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child – both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18: 2-4).

There is therefore, no curse attached to anyone or family by reason of Osu tradition. All those who were directly dedicated have since died, and their descendants cannot be perpetually stigmatized. Everyone belongs to God; there is no Osu any more.

It is common to hear people argue that the Bible recognizes certain people as Jews and others as Gentiles, as a justification for the Osu System. This view is unfortunately held by many Igbos and portrays ignorance of the Word of God. What they have failed to realize is that “anyone who is not a Jew” is a Gentile. (New International Version Bible Dictionary-Concordance). Going by this definition, all other races (including Igbos) are Gentiles.

The Scripture in Genesis 24 is misunderstood. It is also used to support discrimination in relation to marriage. It says:

“Abraham was now very old, and the LORD had blessed him in every way. He said to the senior servant in his household, the one in charge of all that that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh. I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24: 1-4).
Eradication Of ‘The Bondage’ Of Osu (Caste) System: The Key Roles Of Igbo Traditional Rulers
Eradication Of ‘The Bondage’ Of Osu (Caste) System: The Key Roles Of Igbo Traditional Rulers

It has been argued that Abraham did not want his son, Isaac to marry a Canaanite woman, because he was a stranger in the Promised Land and so did not want his descendants to be assimilated by the Canaanites. Consequently, he preferred getting a wife for Isaac from his own family and ethnic group in what can be termed endogamy (IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament). Also important was the difference in the cultural practices between Abraham and the Canaanites.

In the case of Osu System, Igbos are one people with the same culture. Thus there is no basis for discrimination in marriage citing Genesis 24: 1-4 as a justification for opposing intermarriage.

READ MORE: 65-year-old man nabbed for defiling minor in Ogun State

  1. Another mistaken belief about this tradition is that an Osu is prone to suffer unusual misfortunes like untimely death, accidents, etc. But this is unfounded. The fact is that, no one is immune from the challenges of life. The Scripture in Lamentations 3:22 says: “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed…”. Every family has its share of issues of life. It is therefore wrong to stereotype certain families as being prone to suffer calamities because their ancestors were tagged Osus.
  2. There is a general belief among Igbos, that the so-called Osus are very beautiful. Most people will say that their girls are usually very beautiful. Nothing can be further from the truth than this (belief). All beautiful Igbos are not those regarded as Osus. A simple survey of Igbo communities will show that no segment or family has a monopoly of beauty. The people regarded as Osus and the Dialas are the same – without any special difference in appearance.
  3. It is widely believed that the so-called Osus are usually rich. This is a fallacy. Are all the rich Igbos among those regarded as Osus? Do the so-called Osus have the god of wealth and the Dialas the god of poverty? The answer to the questions is just one word – no. Riches and poverty are not in any way determined by whether one is called an Osu or Diala.
  4. Some people hold the view that Osus smell or have offensive body odour. This is a figment of people’s imagination. Body odour could be caused, by many factors including, disease or lack of personal hygiene, but obviously is not peculiar to a set of people because they are called Osus. Those who have interacted with the so-called Osus know that the issue of body odour is fallacious. To be continued: (part 2 of 2)
    Jasper C. Elemike is the chairman of Initiative for Positive Cultural Change (IPCC). 08030811506

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