The Igbo people popularly known as Ndigbo are located mainly in Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo States of Nigeria. You can still find a reasonable number of Ndigbo in parts of Delta and Rivers States of Nigeria. They are geographically located east of the Niger.
The population of Ndigbo can be estimated at above forty million people. The dominant religion is Christianity. Few practice Islam and the others, the indigenous traditional religion known as the African Traditional Religion (ATR). The people refer to the Almighty God as Chineke, Chukwu, Ugwuanyi Agama, Ezechiteoke, Obasi, Obinigwe, Abiama etc.
ORIGIN OF OSU CASTE SYSTEM
No one is exactly sure when it started. However, one thing is certain and that is the existence of shrines in most communities in Igbo Land. Such shrines or deities are attended by priests and their followers. Such people served the daily spiritual needs of people who visited the shrines as the intermediaries. A school of thought posited that the deities were like institutions and with the growth of more powerful deities; the need for more hands in the service of such deities arose. With time, those devotees were given names like Ohu ma, osu, ohu arusi, oru alusi, achi-ebo etc depending on the part of Igbo Land. Those people and their offspring were further seen as sub human beings, the slaves and unclean class by those who regard themselves as superiors, free born and masters.
ASSOCIATION WITH DEITIES
People became associated with deities through many forms which are still contestable but the main methods were:
Nomination: There were instances where people were nominated by their community to serve a deity. They saw such a deity as the residence of their ancestral spirits and where it communed with the living. Such nomination can be to fill the position or the office of a chief priest or that of his assistants.
Unfortunately as time went on, those office holders and members of their households were branded ohu ma or ohu arusi and suffered various degrees of discrimination ranging from inequality of movement, choice of residence, the right of peaceful association, marriage and establishing a family. Their sons cannot marry outside their own class and they were reduced to second class human beings.
Ransom: As a result of oath taking in the shrines, there could be a claim that someone was killed by the deity and as a deterrent to others who would swear falsely, the victim’s property and a female member of his family is given out as a ransom to the deity.
Such a female is now the property of the alusi. No one can marry her except the chief priest and where that is not the case, she takes into prostitution, procreates and her offsprings, males and females automatically become equally the property of the deity.
Migration: Some people in the past were allocated a space in a community where they ran to for protection or whatever and the price tag for such an allocation is that they serve the community deity on their behalf in return. Such people covertly or overtly mitigated their freedom and that of their children yet unborn. Such children are now suffering for what they know nothing about.
Security: In the past when security of human lives was at zero level, someone who felt threatened could resort to the protection of a deity. Such threat included being killed or sold into slavery.
Anyone who willingly surrenders himself openly to the protection of a deity is dreaded and no one goes near him again for the fear of the owner (deity). The implication is that dreading him will also include disassociating with him and everything that represented him.
SOCIAL ILLS OF THE OSU CASTE
On March 20, 1956, the Owelle of Onitsha, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe in an address to the defunct Eastern Nigeria House of Assembly described the Osu Caste System as devilish and uncharitable to brand any human being with a label of inferiority due to the accidents of history. He went further and said that the objects and reasons for the abolition of the Osu Caste System are humanitarian and altruistic.
The government of late Dr. Sam Mbakwe in Imo State banned the Osu Caste System in the State. Also late Commodore Emeka Omeruah in the old Anambra State used bulldozer to demolish the Efuru Idoha shrine in Igbo Etiti Local Government Area of Enugu State. The late Ngozi Ero tried within her powers to do away with Adere Shrine and everything that related to it in Ero Community in Igbo Eze South Local Government Area of Enugu State before her death which some claimed was in the struggle.
WHY THE OSU CASTE SYSTEM IS STILL THRIVING IN IGBO LAND
Political Reasons: The various state governments in Igbo land over the years have not risen up to the challenges due to political reasons. There is always the fear that certain actions in that right could injure the feelings of some heavy weights which could in turn affect their political gains. If that is not a reason, what stops them from coming up with a common legislation on that?
In any community, there are people regarded as the custodians of the people’s culture and traditions. They can abolish the practice in their place and move a step forward in doing that which was never done before. An instance can be giving out their consenting daughters in marriage to the erstwhile Osu son. The people hitherto regarded as Osu can be allowed to occupy certain positions in the community such as Igwe, Onowu, Nze, Ichie etc. In a place like Enugu-Ezike, a former Osu can be allowed to be the Onyishi if longevity smiles on him.
The church should enforce all laws on Osu Caste System by preaching to their members and punishing disobedient ones publicly.
Economic and Social Reasons: In most communities, people referred to as the Osus flourish in business and other fields of endeavor. They are well placed economically to the extent that some people who cannot ordinarily compete with them use the Osu caste system as an excuse to put them in a disadvantaged positions on issues requiring open competitions.
Also, some chief priests and their assistants would want the system to continue endlessly because of what they gain from the system. Before the destruction of Efuru Idoha Shrine, the chief priest and his lieutenants tried in vain to resist the destruction with all in their powers.
The Osu Caste System is said to be a societal institution borne out of a primitive traditional belief system coloured by superstition and propagated by ignorance.
In the words of the Great Zik of Africa, no one should join in the encouragement of a system of society where one stratum can superciliously claim to be descended from the best brain and would, therefore, consign others to a scrap heap of their own invention and ostracise them socially.
The proponents of Osu Caste System should do well to remember the abolition of Slavery Act of 1806 and as well as the Magna Carta of 1215. They should equally remember that the government of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe abolished the Osu Caste System in Eastern Nigeria as far back as 1956.
The Osu Caste System is not only dehumanizing but outdated and should be discarded by every right thinking member of the society. It should be rejected and cast to the dustbin of history as all men are equal before the Almighty God.