It was heart warming when, late last year, some traditional rulers in Igbo land of South East Nigeria declared December 28, 2018, as the day to finally abolish the age-old Osu Caste practice.
The Osu Caste system is an ancient social discrimination practice that had refused to die over many generations. It discourages marriage and other forms of social interaction with certain groups of persons called Osu, who are often seen and treated as inferior beings, different from Nwadiala or diala (free born).
The Osu are regarded as persons dedicated to the deities in ancient times, and were used as human sacrifice to appease the gods of the land if the society deemed it necessary, especially to stave off adversity or calamity.
Those who fall into this category include individuals and families of those who committed great abominations against the gods of the land and were subsequently cast away to avoid the abomination spreading and afflicting the entire society, or offered to the gods as tokens of appeasement to avoid the wrath of the gods on the community as a whole.
Another group to fall into this unfortunate caste are those who refuse the orders of the reigning kings or those who fall out with their communities. For such people, the greatest punishments was to ostracise them, banish them or brand them as outcasts.
There are other social outcasts called ‘ohu’ or ‘oru’. This group is chiefly made of families of those who were forcefully sold into slavery and later settled in communities other than their places of birth.
Over the years, many Osu tried to escape their social deprivation by moving far away from their communities. Despite the coming of Christianity, civilisation, modernity and democracy, this practice has dug in, refusing to die a natural death.
Over the years, the people in this category are harshly discriminated against when it comes to chieftaincy positions, land inheritance and membership of certain societal clubs, among others. The one that brings the problem to the surface most often is when it comes to marriage. Many aspiring couples have had their dream futures shattered when one of the families rejects the union on the basis of the other partner being Osu. In fact, the first enquiry made about the family of a possible marriage partner is whether they are Osu or Ohu.
The December 28, 2018 declaration will not be the first time an attempt was made to end this social problem. In 1956, the Eastern Region House of Assembly enacted a law banning people from calling others Osu and imposed a hefty fine as deterrent. There have been other attempts by individual communities to stem the practice, to no avail.
This time round, the move to end it is coming from the town regarded by most as the birthplace of the Igbo nation, Nri in Anambra State
The Regent of the ancient Nri Kingdom, Prince Kianna Onyesoh, was quoted as saying it would be “spiritually suicidal” for anyone to continue with the obnoxious Osu practice after it had been abolished.
According to him, on December 28, 2018, more stringent spiritual implications would be pronounced against such devaluation of mankind after an extensive spiritual abrogation exercise.
On his part, the chairman of Eri Dynasty Traditional Rulers Forum, Eze Nkeli Nzekwe Kelly, said the event of December 28 was very significant “because such a thing has never happened before. The last time in history anything close to this happened was 200 years ago.
“And mark my words, after these abolition and atonement exercises, anybody who continues to uphold these practices will have themselves to blame.”
As a newspaper, we align ourselves totally with the positions expressed by the aforementioned monarchs. First of all, these people are suffering for no fault of theirs. Also, all human beings are equal before God, and both our constitution and various charters on human rights confer on everyone inalienable rights and liberties, including the right to life, to own and inherit property, to the dignity of the human person, freedom of association and protection from all forms of discrimination.
We commend those behind the latest move to end this unholy practice. However, the push to end the Osu caste system needs a more holistic approach than just the ceremony of December 28, 2018.
We advocate that authorities in the South East copy from Western countries where there are laws against racial discrimination and offenders are publicly shamed and punished.
Also, there should be cultural reorientation among people of the region to disabuse the minds of those who tenaciously cling on to this practice.
One practical way to lay this matter to rest is for the monarchs spearheading this latest campaign and other prominent individuals to give out their children in marriage to those they have recently cleansed of the Osu stigma. That will send the right signal.