By Emmanuel Onwubiko
Mr. Orji Nwokeoma (names not real) is a young Genetic Engineer based in the United Kingdom city of Manchester.
Schooled in some of the most respected IvyLeaque universities for his degree, post graduate and doctorate degrees in the field of Genetic Engineering with flying colours even as he was fortunate to land a big paying job with one of the best known British hospitals. But one thing was lacking to make his joy complete- his better half.
In search of completeness of his inner joy, Mr. Nwokeoma visits home often during the yearly Yuletide to be with his people in a community somewhere in the Deep South East of Nigeria.
During one of his visits he decided to go clubbing with some of his Childhood friends and whilst there he got in touch with Miss. Ifeoma Onyeachonamokwu (names unreal) who is incidentally a laboratory technician (graduating from Havard University in the USA) working in a tertiary medical facility in the Nigerian commercial capital of Lagos.
One thing led to the other then these two lovebirds made up their minds after their fourth meeting that they should become husband and wife but the man had to visit the home of the beautiful lady to fulfill the traditions and culture of the Igbo regarding traditional marriage. But if he thought he had begun the journey to the completeness of his happiness, he was wrong. The reason will be unfolded soon.
On this bright sunny day that the man was to take his Parents to his bride to be so they could do the usual rituals of traditional wedding, something sinister happened by way of a message brought to the family house of this groom to be.
In the letter the family of the girl asked that the marriage ceremony be put off as they wouldn’t give their blessing for their daughter who is a FreeBorn to be joined in matrimony to an OSU as a husband due to basic cultural abominations.
Downcast and frustrated, Mr. Nwokeoma jetted off back to his base in United Kingdom dejected just as the bride that never was fainted and had to be revived but the trauma of that sad experience that she couldn’t marry a man after her heart due to some cultural norms and practices didn’t go away for a considerable amount of time.
This practices of discrimination against persons considered as OSU has become so much of a burden in Igbo and some other Nigerian society. Efforts made in the past by different persons and groups to abolish it have all but collapsed. This is because people hold traditional practices with the tenacity as if to say it is about life and death.
So it was with joy to read that the Enugu State Governor; Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, has directed the immediate abolition of all harmful traditional practices, including ‘OSU caste system’, that deprive some indigenes of the state their rights and privileges.
Speaking during a protest march by some indigenes of Obuno Ndi Uno community in Nkanu West Local Government Area of the state, Ugwuanyi described such practices as “satanic”.
He said on no account would anybody be regarded as a slave in their community either on account of their ancestry or otherwise.
The governor noted that the Constitution had placed all Nigerians on equal pedestal, adding that the laws of Enugu State had also abolished all forms of Osu Caste practices in the state.
Ugwuanyi said: “Slavery and segregation have been abolished and as far as the state government is concerned, we do not recognize Osu Caste system.
“We operate the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
Ugwuanyi a former federal law maker expressed regrets that such challenges that bordered on dehumanising treatments of fellow indigenes had always emanated from Nkanu clan.
Ugwuanyi said that the time had come for the people to embrace Christian teachings and eschew all manner of injustice in their lives.
He said: “If you know you are holding anybody down in the name of whatever belief that is not godly please release such person and let them be free.”
The governor promised to look into the matter to ensure that the right things was done, adding that his administration would not tolerate injustice in whatever guise.
Earlier, the leader of the delegation, Austin Okoye who is the President-General of the town union, said the traditional stool had been vacant since 2016 when the former occupant died.
A chieftain of the community, Chief Okwudiri Agbo, said their kindred had over the years suffered all manner of injustice in their community.
Agbo said that they were called slaves by their brothers in spite of the fact that their clan had the highest population in the community.
He said: “My people make up 19 out of the 30 kindreds in our community. Yet we are vilified and regarded as slaves.
“I have never seen where the minority rules over the majority in a democratic setup.”
Agbo alleged that the state commissioner had conspired with their traducers to cause tension in their community.
This is just one out of the many cases of serious discriminatory practices against some citizens considered as Osu but because the culture is deep rooted in some communities it is difficult to predict straight ahead that just one statement from the Enugu State Governor can bring it to an end.
The effort to kick out and kill off OSU caste system should be embraced by all the political leaders of the South East and especially the Houses of Assembly including civil rights organisations.
The cultural discriminatory practice that ought to be checked as a matter of historic necessity is the OSU caste system which experts believe is common in Nigeria and Cameroun which can be traced back to indigenous religious belief system, practiced within the Igbo nation.
It is the belief of many Igbo traditionalist that the OSUS are people historically owned by deities, and are therefore considered to be a ‘living sacrifice’, an outcast, untouchable and sub-human (similar to the Roman practice of homosacer).
This system received literary attention when it became a key plot point in “NO LONGER AT EASE” BY professor CHINUA ACHEBE, the internationally respected novelist of the venerated memories.
This practice of classifying citizens as Osu violates human rights ideal and standards enshrined in both local and international human rights laws.
Legend and stories told from time immemorial has it that the OSU caste system is associated with the mode of worship of the people in the ancient Igbo society whereby some people are specifically commissioned to serve at the various shrines even as these people presumably conscripted to serve at the sacred African shrines were isolated from the larger society and their children and descendant were not allowed to mingle, inter marry with children of the free-borns.
Just like other analysts, a Humanist Mr. LEO IGWE clearly traced the origin of OSU caste system to the mode of worship of the people in ancient Igbo society whereby certain category of people are conscripted to serve at the various shrines.
His words: “At a point in the history of the Igbo in southern Nigeria, people were being born, described and divided into groups – the Diala (Nwadiala) and OSU”.
“The Diala are called the sons of the soil they are the free borns. The Diala are the masters. They have and exercise their full right as human beings”
“While the OSU are slaves, the strangers and the outcasts. They are accorded inferior and sub human status. They are treated the way blacks were treated in America before the civil rights era. They suffer oppression the way Africans suffered in South Africa under the apartheid regime” Igwe stated.
The Diala relate with OSU as master relates with a slave as a healthy person interacts with a leper to avoid social defilement and contamination. But a free born person can become OSU by being dedicated to local god or spirit.
Many gods and spirits abound in Igboland, which the people believe in, worshipped and made sacrifice to before the coming of Christianity even till date.
So traditionally, according to this scholar, the OSU lives close to the shrines of these gods and the local market. A free born also becomes an OSU if he/she is acquired or adopted as a slave.
He wrote also that to distinguish the status of the slave from that of the other members of the community, the slave and his/her descendants are regarded as OSU.
“The OSU is not allowed to marry from the community. He or she can only marry an OSU from elsewhere. And the children and all the generations are and remain UNTOUCHABLE”.
“Today in Igboland, many people are OSU by inheritance. In fact there is no longer original OSU. Instead what we have are millions of innocent human beings who are alleged to be OSU just because they were born into a family or lineage of someone once regarded as OSU, these millions of people in Igboland live with this OSU stigma which haunts, hurts and hamper their lives, self-esteem and development till death”.
The OSU status, he asserts is permanent, irremediable and irreversible.
Though in some communities,according to bim, there are rituals to cleanse reserve or redeem the OSU disability. But these have been largely ineffective and have not succeeded in riding the thoughts and mind of Igbos of this social disease and malaise.
“Also some Christian churches have preached against OSU practice. But these sermons have fallen on deaf ears and have not in any way impacted on this despicable belief and practice”.
“In fact the OSU caste system is now practiced in the churches. In some churches, some freeborn avoid sitting or holding hands with those alleged to be OSU during service, and there are reports that in some churches the harvests of the OSU are kept separate from that of the freeborn”.
In the 50s, the government of the then eastern Nigeria attempted to eradicate this obnoxious practice. It passed a legislation abolishing the OSU caste system. But this legislation was not and could not be enforced.
Historians say at best it drove the practice underground. Hence today, many people are afraid of calling or addressing others openly and publicly as OSU.
“Besides that, the OSU prejudice is very much alive in Igbo communities”, Igwe concluded.
Specifically in 1956, the eastern region of Nigeria passed the OSU caste law which makes it criminal to refer or treat somebody as an OSU or outcaste. Observers believe that till date nobody has been persecuted for violating the anti-OSU law which supposedly abolished the practice
The OSU in our contemporary society are increasingly dehumanized, traumatized, isolated psychologically and socially and denied all forms of fundamentals rights.
What should be done is for the Enugu State Governor who has commenced the process of publicly championing the just cause of abolition of Osu caste practices should do much more than sermonisation.
Abolition of a traditional practice that has lasted over a thousand years would need much more than mere popular soap-box grandstanding and semantic gymnastics.
Ugwuanyi has the support of well meaning human RIGHTS bodies to step up the campaign through the partnership of a combination of social forces and mobilisers.
Although Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi the governor of Enugu State is right to hold the view that under the Nigerian Constitution such practices that segregate citizens into slaves and free borns have been abolished but he has to know that there is more to it than mere constitutional provisions.
Traditions are deeply entrenched and such practices as Osu caste system is cast in stone as long as people are concerned.
There are basic metaphysical factors that ought to be debunked before a successful campaign against the practice of Osu caste system can be achieved.
It is believed that certain ancestral curses follow any violator of the tradition of not mixing up with Osu especially in marriage so there is the need for greater awareness to be created on the need to respect constitutional provisions by accepting all citizens as equal in the eyes of the law.
Theologians of repute and qualified exorcists should quickly meet on this issue and seek for empirical and sacred ways of weakening this belief system of Osu practices.
On the part of the state assemblies in the South East just for emphasis, legislation should be passed in line with extant customary laws prohibiting Osu caste system in the South East of Nigeria.
I also understand that parts of Kogi and Edo also have similar discriminatory practices. Let governments of those States do the needful to ensure that all citizens are indeed equal before the law.
*Emmanuel Onwubiko is Head of HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION (HURIWA).