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

(part 2 of 2) Continued from part 1

D. Reasons for Abolition of Osu System

Osu System being a barbaric, unchristian, unjust and an unlawful tradition should be abandoned without further delay.
  1. It is a barbaric tradition. It was a form of human sacrifice involving dedicating people to heathen gods. It started some centuries ago when the ‘people were in darkness’. It is related to the killing of twins. This generation cannot afford to perpetuate the mistakes of their ancestors. Today, twins have become a blessing; thanks to Christian missionaries like Mary Slessor and the colonial government that prevailed on the people to stop killing twins. In the name of tradition, parents willingly killed their twins to appease the gods, believing that twins were an abomination. The colonial government sometimes used force to stop the practice, and today everyone is happy for it. It is nowadays incomprehensible that twins were killed in the name of tradition. It is common to hear people say that twins were killed in the past because of ‘lack of knowledge and understanding’. But it is baffling that even twins support the retention of Osu System on the ground that it is the tradition of the ancestors (that must be preserved).
Eradication Of ‘The Bondage’ Of Osu (Caste) System: The Key Roles Of Igbo Traditional Rulers
Eradication Of ‘The Bondage’ Of Osu System: The Key Roles Of Igbo Traditional Rulers

This is the time to jettison this awkward tradition that has kept everyone in bondage. It is erroneously assumed that only those regarded as Osus are in bondage. The truth is that everyone is affected in one way or the other. Many right thinking Igbos grapple with guilty conscience and embarrassment at the way people are discriminated against on the ground of this evil tradition. At times, people may socialize and drink from the same cup or eat from the same plate at parties or elect anyone as village or town union chairperson, but that is all pretense because when it comes to the real issues of intermarriage, joining title societies and to an extent conferment of chieftaincy titles, people go into genealogy, and exclude all those they had been hitherto relating with. The psychological pain experienced by people when they are discriminated against by those they regard as their ‘relatives’ and friends is devastating. It is obvious that this tradition institutionalized hundreds of years ago is evil.

  1. It is unchristian. It is a tradition that daily calls the people’s Christianity into question. It is iniquitous and contrary to the tenets of Christianity. The absurdity of this ungodly tradition is that it is observed by those that pride themselves as Christians. Love is a principal doctrine of the faith. The centrality of love is seen in Mark 12:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12: 30, 31).

Similarly, the Scripture in Romans 13 says:

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet, “and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13: 8-10).

The concepts of love and Osu are two parallel lines. The discrimination, mistrust and bitterness arising from this tradition are the antithesis of love. No one treats a loved one as an Osu or outcast. It is a tradition that scorns love which is an attribute of God. It has divided the society into two classes of people – the Dialas and Osus with attendant suspicion and subdued hostility between them. There have been several cases of godparents, Christian fathers and mothers, friends and kinsmen discrediting or rather betraying godchildren, brethren and others when enquiries are made in connection with marriage. This obviously is contrary to the tenets of Christianity. Christians are required to love God and everyone else as a proof of being in the faith. The Scripture in 1 John 4 says:

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and Knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only son into the world that we might live through him… Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (1 John 4: 7-9, 20, 21).

In the light of the above passage, the people should examine themselves whether they are in the faith, and if they are not, they should repent now!

All Christians are redeemed through the blood of Jesus Christ. Salvation is not the prerogative of the Dialas. It smacks of arrogance when some people consider themselves as saved and above ancestral curses only because they regard themselves as Dialas, and the others are seen as being irredeemable even though they are ‘born again’, ‘tongue-speaking’ and ‘demon-casting pastors’. The truth is that in the past, all Igbos were traditionalists who kept various idols and worshipped diverse deities. If they worshipped God Almighty in the manner genuine Christians do today, they would not have institutionalized Osu System which involved the dedication of people to deities. Thus no Igbo family or group should pride itself as superior to others. Christ has delivered all who accepted him as Lord and Saviour, from the power of the deities that once had dominion over them. The right attitude is that God:

 ”…hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13, 14).

The implication of the redemptive power in the blood of Christ is that there are no Osus or Dialas anymore because all Igbos have become one people in Christ Jesus. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither, slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28). There is no reason for retention of this tradition.

2 Corinthians 5:17 says: “… if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here”. The people now stigmatized as Osus are new creatures in Christ, and do not share at all in the assumed curses and reproach of their ancestors.

It is highly disappointing that Igbo ‘Christians’ (priests, church workers, Christian fathers and mothers) practice Osu tradition contrary to what they preach. This section is concluded with Matthew 5: 22 which says:

“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister Raca is answerable to the court. And anyone who says ‘You Fool’ will be in danger of the fire of hell”.

If the consequence of calling someone ‘a fool’ is hell fire, what then is the result of treating any person as an Osu? No one should go to hell because of ‘nonsense’ Osu tradition!

  1. It is unjust. A tradition that holds certain members of the community in contempt on the basis on their ancestry is unjust and unacceptable in the contemporary world. Some victims of this wicked tradition
    Osu System: The Key Roles Of Igbo Traditional Rulers (part 2 of 2)
    Osu System

    have found it difficult to recover from the psychological trauma they suffered. People’s dreams and happiness have been shattered with impunity because of this anachronistic tradition. Marriage proposals are known to have been called off, when upon an enquiry one partner is discovered to be an Osu. This is sheer wickedness, as people are made to suffer unnecessarily in the name of tradition. Some ladies are unmarried or married against their choice because of Osu System. Some ladies in this category were prevented from getting married to suitors who were said to be Osus, and Diala suitors never came. In many communities, it is common to see an increasing number of spinsters, and this obnoxious cultural practice is partly responsible for it. Must this be allowed to continue?


  1. Related to the above point is the fact that, some people rather than face this injustice, embarrassment, and humiliation have decided to settle in the cities where they are treated with dignity. Some have even stopped going to their villages or only visit when compelled by circumstances, like burial ceremonies involving close relatives. These are people who would have contributed immensely to the development of their communities, and it appears they are lost or are ‘fast being lost’, because of this wicked tradition. Anyone who is sensitive to the plight of others will realize that this cultural practice is hurtful and has caused hardship and misery to the people stigmatized as Osus. It has no merit. A culture that is counterproductive cannot be tolerated.
  2. It is unlawful. Some people ignorantly think otherwise on the ground that it has existed since time immemorial. This is where most people including some traditional rulers have erred – claiming that it is the tradition of their fathers. Culture in this context relates to beliefs and customary practices prevalent in a particular society. Osu tradition is unlawful because it is repugnant to natural justice, equity, good conscience and is contrary to statute laws. The tradition is unreasonable. It does not have regard to general ideas of justice. It is contrary to the provisions of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Abolition of the Osu System Law of 1956. Section 42 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria guarantees the right to freedom from discrimination. Section 42 (2) provides that: “No citizen of Nigeria shall be subjected to any disability or deprivation merely by reason of the circumstances of his birth”.
Section 3 of Abolition of the Osu System Law, 1956 provides that:

“Notwithstanding any custom or usage each and every person who on the date of the commencement of this Law is Osu shall from and after such date cease to be Osu and shall be free and discharged from any consequences thereof, and the children thereafter to be born to such person and all the offspring of such person shall not be Osu, and the Osu System is hereby and forever abolished and declared unlawful”.

Section 6 of the Law further provides that:

“Whoever on the ground of the Osu System enforces against any person any disability whatsoever and in particular, but without prejudice to the generality of this section, with regard to –

  • marriage; or
  • acquisition or inheritance of any property; or
  • joining of title societies; or
  • observance of any social custom, usage or ceremony, is guilty of an offence and shall upon conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months”.

Osu System is manifestly evil and has been abolished by law, but is still widely observed in many parts of the South-East. There is need to abolish it also in practice.

E. Roles of Traditional Rulers in the Eradication of Osu System

Traditional rulers have important roles to play in the ‘total eradication’ of Osu System. They are the custodians of culture. However, they cannot uphold barbaric and unlawful traditions. This is in line with Section 21 (a) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria which states that “The State shall

  • protect, preserve and promote the Nigerian cultures which enhance human dignity and are consistent with the fundamental objectives as provided in this Chapter”.

The traditional rulers should first embrace this change, because they cannot give what they do not have. By way of advice, it is necessary to state that they must be courageous, because people who are steeped in tradition will oppose them.

In order to effectively abolish the Osu tradition, the traditional rulers should –

  • educate their people about the need to abandon the tradition;

Traditional rulers could collaborate with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), churches, etc. in the sensitization programme.

  • lead by example;

The era of hypocrisy is over. They should show a good example in order to motivate their people. For example, they should not discourage intermarriage involving their own children. Their steadfastness or hypocrisy will to a large extent, determine the success or failure of abolition of the tradition in their communities.

  • encourage intermarriage in their communities as evidence of abolition of the tradition;

Discrimination in the area of marriage is the main stronghold of Osu System, and breaking it is vital to the abandonment of the tradition.

  • award chieftaincy titles without discrimination on the basis of Osu or Diala;

A recent survey conducted by a certain NGO revealed that majority of the traditional rulers in the communities practicing Osu System were unwilling to award chieftaincy titles to their people regarded as Osus. This attitude is quite wrong because these people are patriotic indigenes who have contributed meaningfully to the development of their communities; some have even served as chairpersons of village or town unions.

  • appoint members of their cabinets without discrimination;

It is still a taboo in some communities to appoint so-called Osus as members of the traditional rulers’ cabinets, but it is acceptable to receive favours and donations from them as indigenes of the communities.

  • stop making enquiries about Osu or Diala status of their subjects for non-indigenes in relation to marriage.

It has been observed that some non-indigenes now approach traditional rulers for this information. This absurd culture  engenders betrayal. It is morally reprehensible that traditional rulers should betray their people or undermine their interest.

Traditional rulers should eschew discrimination on the basis of Osu or Diala if they are to make any meaningful impact on the ongoing effort to stop the cultural practice.

F. Solution to Osu System

A school of thought considers Osu as a spiritual problem. It is believed that there are curses attached to it, which require communal spiritual cleansing, irrespective of the fact that the people are already Christians – who are supposed to have been redeemed by Jesus Christ. A survey carried out recently by an NGO showed that this is the predominant view of people, irrespective of their various religious inclinations.

Another school of thought sees it as purely a social problem. The argument is that they have been redeemed as stated above in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Colossians 1: 13, 14, and as such do not need further prayers or spiritual cleansing. The concern here is the stigma. This is the official view of churches, because Holy Communion, fellowships, prayers and other church activities are conducted without discrimination. Quite unfortunately, for most Igbo Christians, non-discrimination in relation to the tradition is practiced only in the church. Thus treating it as purely a social problem appears to be theoretical, at least for the sake of immature Christians who are “wavering between two opinions” (1 Kings 18: 21).

The third school of thought combines elements of the first and second schools of thought. Eradication of the tradition therefore requires spiritual and sociological approaches considering the mindset of the people.

The truth is that Osu is nothing. People from both sides interact without adverse consequences. People (though few) have intermarried successfully. Christians from both sides worship together and share Holy Communion from the same cup in the church feeling blessed rather than cursed. Transfusions are carried out in hospitals without questions about the donors. There is also no discrimination in markets, sporting activities, etc.

The above notwithstanding, many people are superstitious, believing that the deities still have power over them, despite their everyday profession of Christianity. Many are still influenced by public opinion, and will not permit intermarriage unless it is approved by the community. There are also those that are indifferent to the tradition, but will not be the first to break it – they are also easily swayed by public opinion on the issue.

Statute laws have failed to abolish the tradition in practice, because they are contrary to the mindset of the people. Considering the fact that Igbos are ‘Christians’ as explained above, a realistic solution to the problem should take cognizance of their faith. It is pertinent at this juncture to caution against using idolatrous means like offering sacrifices to the deities. It will only compound the problem. The Scripture in Mark 3 is very instructive and says:

“So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s goods” (Mark 3: 23-27).

The above passage shows that from the Christian perspective, it is impossible to use idolatrous means to drive out the demons assumed to be behind the tradition.

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

The solution proffered here is that the traditional rulers in the South-East and the general public will gather at any convenient place of their choice (with the state governors; members of the national and state assemblies; local government chairmen and the councilors; representatives of churches, religious organizations, socio-cultural organizations, youth organizations, NGOs and other interest groups in attendance) for a corporate prayer. This will be a liberation prayer to stop Osu tradition. Thereafter, it will be declared abolished in all its ramifications by the traditional rulers in collaboration with the South-East governors. A week afterwards, a similar libration prayer (organized by the traditional rulers) will be held in all the affected communities in the South-East. All Igbo indigenes are to be involved in the prayers – wherever they may be. The bushes at the shrines used for the dedication of people as Osu may be cleared. The discrimination will end and bygones will be bygones.

Corporate prayer is advocated in order to boost people’s faith in the finality of abolition of the tradition. The Scripture in Matthew 18 says:

”Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18: 18-20).

The importance of prayer in this regard is shown in Mark 16:17 which says: “…In my name they will drive out demons…”.

Managing the post Osu society requires rules that will be strictly enforced. A penalty should be imposed for breach of the rules. In the post Osu society, there shall be no more –

  • enquiries about Osu status of suitors and the brides-to-be;
  • discrimination in marriage;
  • discrimination in the award of chieftaincy titles;
  • discrimination in admitting people to title societies; and
  • discrimination in appointment of a traditional ruler’s cabinet.


Igbo traditional rulers have a moral obligation to ensure that this evil cultural practice is discredited and abandoned. Eradication of Osu System would mean the liberation of Igbo society from the bondage inherited from past generations. The time for the change is now.

Let us speak out against ‘bad cultural practices’ and vices.

Jasper C. Elemike is the chairman of Initiative for Positive Cultural Change (IPCC). 08030811506

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