Felix Ikem, Nsukka
Igbo communities are fast dismantling obnoxious practices including the discriminatory Osu caste system. Recently, the abolition of the inhuman practice by the people of Owerre Nsukka autonomous community in Nsukka Local Government Area of Enugu State, brought joy and excitement to the community.
The venue was the traditional ruler’s palace and the occasion attracted virtually every living indigene of the community. The enthusiasm that greeted the programme was more than Ofala and annual masquerade festivals.
The Osu caste system is an ancient practice in Igbo land. It discourages social interaction and marriage with a group of people, referred to as Osu (outcasts). This set of people; their fathers or forbearers were dedicated to deities to cleanse the land of some form of abomination and hence, seen as inferior to the Nwadiala (free-born).
In Owerre Nsukka, just like in any other community in Igbo land, the Osus are not even allowed to break kola nuts at meetings, pour libation or pray to God on behalf of freeborn at any community gathering.
To further humiliate them, the Osus could not marry the so-called freeborn and take traditional titles in the community. It is for the foregoing that meticulous investigation is done in Igbo land before any marriage is contracted.
However, the people of Owerre Nsukka having decided to jettison the archaic practice announced the abolition of the caste practice and advised everyone in the community to adhere strictly to the directive.
A statement, “Re: Abolition of ‘Ohu’ practice in Owerre Nsukka autonomous community” by the traditional ruler, Igwe Emeka Ugwu and president-general of the town union, Chief Daniel Attama, said: “The entire citizens of Owerre Nsukka autonomous community hereby announce the total abolition of the reprehensive ‘ohu’ (slave) practice in the entire Owerre Nsukka autonomous community forthwith.
“By this announcement, the general public and the entire citizens of Owerre Nsukka autonomous community are hereby advised to adhere strictly to the provision or pronouncement.”
Igwe Ugwu told Daily Sun: “Everybody was consulted including the youths, the Umu Ada, elders’ council, villages and they gave us a nod. So, we had to carry out their wish.” On the situation before the abolition exercise, the traditional ruler stated that it was indeed ugly, horrible, divisive and discriminatory:
“We could not intermarry, we could not help them; they could not be the eldest men in the community; they could not be part of Igwe’s cabinet and so many other forms of discrimination. But today, all those things have become past events.”
The monarch disclosed that the event was merely ceremonial because some of the erstwhile Osus were already absolved into his cabinet and as members and executives of the town union: “All these things were not obtainable before now.”
The traditional Prime Minister of the community, Chief Ozioko Paulinus Ozioko, said: “It may interest you to know that it is almost two or three villages that we are talking about here. I see no reason we should discriminate against them in this modern time in the name of Osu system. If any of my children wants to marry any of them now, I have no reason whatsoever to stop them from getting married.”
For Attama, there is no difference between racism in America and the Osu caste system practiced in parts of Igbo land: “In America, we hear about racism. You heard about how George Floyd was pummelled to death in America some weeks ago. There is no difference between racism and Osu caste practice. We were neither threatened nor arm-twisted to abolish the caste system in our community. We abolished it because it is anti-human, anti-developmental and totally abominable.”
Our reporter was not given the privilege of meeting some of the erstwhile Osus to avoid stigmatisation and reopening of the bad old time memory. However, Attama said: “They were overwhelmed with happiness for being integrated into the community. Their joy knows no bounds. Since they are now part of the community, there is no need to expose them again to the public.”
The abolition of the evil practice attracted appreciation message from the Catholic Bishop of Nsukka Diocese, Most Rev. Prof. Godfrey Onah. He expressed gratitude to the traditional ruler and people of Owerre Nsukka. Before the abolition ceremony, it was announced in almost all the Catholic parishes in the diocese.