Geoffrey Anyanwu, Awka
“We said that it started here when we were administering Igboland, then we have now abolished it here, in essence we have abolished it all over Igboland. It is now left for each community to make sure that they persuade the common man to accept what is necessary.”
Those were the words of Eze Adama Gburugburu Na Igbo Nile, as he performed the traditional abolition of the obnoxious Osu caste system in the ancient community of Oraeri, said to be the origin of the discriminatory way of life.
Saturday, September 14, 2019, was historic as Oraeri, in Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State, traditionally and officially abolished the Osu caste system in the community and symbolically in all of Igboland. The abolition was part of this year’s Onwa Asato festival of the monarch, Eze Nri Emmanuel Ogochukwu Nriagu (Eze Nri XXI), who allegedly holds the original Ofo and Otusi of the first Eze Nri in Igboland.
The ceremony was colourful and attracted sons and daughters of the community who showed great enthusiasm in the decision to abolish the age-long system that caused segregation among people. Leading others in the rituals, which took place at the Eke shrine, was the Okpala Eri XIII of Oraeri, Eze Adama Gburugburu na Igbo nile, Anthony Nwafor Okafor, who performed all the rites.
Performing the ritual with two cows (male and female) and other materials, he made the pronouncement that the Osu caste system was from that day abolished in the community and all over Igboland. At the Eke shrine, it was while some categories of people entered and sat in the shrine, such as the elders, Ndi-Ndi-Ndi (a grade of women) and the cabinet chiefs, that the Eze Adama Gburugburu proceeded to perform the rituals. When he finally pronounced the abolition, there was thunderous shout of joy by the people even as cannon shots (egbe-ala) were released.
After the abolition, the monarch, his cabinet and the people retired to the Obi (palace), where the Eze Nri broke kolanut and blessed his people. Given that no human eats from the hands of Eze Nri who, according to tradition, is half man and half spirit, the Okpala Eri had to break the kolanut so that the people could eat.
From the Obi, the monarch and his cabinet moved to the civic centre after welcoming some guests, including the Speaker of Anambra State House of Assembly, Hon. Uche Okafor, where the main Onwa Asato was held.
Speaking to Daily Sun shortly after, Eze Adama indicated that the Osu caste system originated from the community. According to him, the person who first put the people into the caste system there at the Eke shrine happened to be the Okpala Eri the fifth or sixth, as the case may be, and he was the Okpalaji.
“About 500 years ago, Okpalaji had some people that Oraeri people acquired from inter-town war, then, people were angling, ‘kill them,’ ‘kill them.’ He said, why? But when he saw that the fire was too much, he went and gave them to the Eke shrine, kind of giving them to God through the Eke shrine or Eke altar. Eke is not God, that is not what we believe. So, he gave them so that people would leave them alone and they were left alone.
“Then much later, during the time of slavery, some people saw that if they left themselves in their own homes, they would be picked up and sold into slavery, so they went in and said protect us. Of course, they had to get the permission of the Okpala that was there then because you don’t just go in there and say you become Osu,” he said.
On the essence of the rituals performed at the Eke shrine and why it was done there, the Okpala Eri said: “With this ceremony today, we have said, you can marry, we have abolished everything about Osu, the whole town accepted it, you saw how the people accepted it in unison. Like I said before, the first Osu were put into that shrine by Okpalaji about 500 years ago; if you want to take them out, you have to do it there.”
Eze Nri Nriagu said the Onwa Asato festival, in some areas like Onitsha, was called “Ovalla,” explaining that it was the day when the king felicitates and fetes his people: “I will present some gifts to them as is customary and they in turn will pay homage to me.
“Again, one major thing that makes today very important is that it marks the total abolition of what we call Osu caste system in Oraeri and Igboland. Why I said that is because I hold the original Ofo and Otusi of the first Eze Nri in Igboland. You may like to know that there are only two towns in Igboland that have the title of kingship we call Eze Nri, others have maybe Obi or Eze or whatever, but Eze Nri is for two towns only, Oraeri and Agukwu Nri.
“So, once we have abolished the Osu caste system, our people who have been living in bondage since 500 or 600 years ago, we don’t know when, are now free and freeborn forever. Our governor gave us an injunction that we should try and stop this, it’s an ancient custom, that people that are in bondage, we should liberate them. So, we have liberated them there in the Eke, if you were there you would have seen wonders.”
Eze Nri said that some of the then Osu were in his cabinet now, adding that anyone who goes ahead to label or isolate them would face serious sanctions: “This town is peace-loving and we go by our word. If anybody does it, whatever sanction I pronounce is binding on them and they will pay it.
“But I pray and we all hope that nobody is going to do that because these are nice people, men and women; they are very nice. Their ladies are very beautiful, their young boys are very handsome; their men are very rich, in fact. We are already integrating with them. Today is just the formal ending of it both here and all over Igboland.”
A visibly overjoyed president-general of Oraeri Town Union, Okey Atuenyi, said even God despised the Osu caste system because it is anti-human: “So, today, the people of Oraeri have decided with one voice to abolish it. By so doing, henceforth, whoever was previously stigmatised as being Osu or whatever has been made whole. He is now a free born which is the Igbo perception, because before God everyone is equal and free born. Even though the caste system has been dying down in the Oraeri but the entire community has chosen today to put a stop to it.”