On February 23, 2021, the Ogbor Autonomous community in Nigeria’s Imo state abolished what is locally called the “osu caste system,” a repressive and discriminatory practice that promotes social and economic inequality.
At a ceremony to end the practice, Joseph Onyekachi, then Acting President-General of Ogbor Town Union, had denounced the practice as a“ dehumanizing ancient practice that injures the psychology of those so-referred to.”
“From today,” he continued, “one is no longer an osu by being dedicated to a shrine or so branded.”
Since then, 119 villages in nine autonomous communities in Nsukka town, Nsukka Local Government Area of Enugu State, have formalized the eradication of the Osu Caste system in their communities, drawing from a collective decision by the monarchs, town unions and other traditional institutions in the communities.
Osu caste prevalence in Igbo land
The Osu caste system is an ancient but not so entirely outdated cultural practice common in eastern Nigeria. This practice is considered one of the most repressive, discriminatory systems that exist amongst the human race, and its continuous perpetration has caused indelible harm to those affected by it.
The Osus, as a group, are considered outcasts, ostracized from the rest of society to live with no purpose and ambition.
There is no consensus as to the origin of this practice.
Renowned Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who is from the Igbo tribe in southeast Nigeria where the practice is commonplace, in his book, ‘No longer at ease’, described the Osu as a person dedicated to a god, “a thing set apart, a taboo forever and his children.”
The consequences of being an Osu were generational- There was no social mobility for the Osu as they were born and were meant to die as nothing less than an Osu, with limited interactions with the outside world. They were not allowed to intermarry or socialize with the freeborn and were often excluded from participating in community events and other social gatherings.
The “freeborn” is known as the Nwadiala, and the “Osu” as the outcasts.
The Nwadiala is not tied down. They were free to travel, aspire and live the best of lives, while the Osu, believed to be condemned to a life of servitude to the gods, were seen as being of lower status and unclean. This practice, also prevalent in pre-colonial Igbo land, reflects how oppression and discrimination against people could be the strong undertone behind certain cultural practices sustained across generations.
The caste system is a repressive culture, denying people their fundamental human rights and freedoms. To be born an Osu is to be subjected to a life of discrimination, including outright denied access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities. They are also often subjected to physical and verbal abuse, and their social status is used to justify this mistreatment.
To say the least, the Osu caste system has been used as a tool of oppression by those in power to maintain social and economic inequality and control the victims’ mobility, as those born into the Osu caste often cannot move up the social ladder.
For centuries, this dehumanizing cultural practice and its discriminatory and oppressive system have many times been the reason why marriages are cancelled based on “Iju ese” or marriage enquiry, where the family in question goes to enquire about the intending family to make sure there isn’t anything in their lineage that could ‘pollute’ theirs or to ascertain that certain illnesses or medical condition do not run in the family.
To this day, certain communities still hold firmly to this practice and would rather die than see their children marry someone that“iju ese” has revealed to be an Osu.
Although some communities still hold on to this practice, others have progressed by moving away from it and allowing everyone to aspire and grow.
The wave of abolition of the practice continues to move across Igbo land. However, even as progress is made, there is still a long way to go in achieving a more equitable and just society, as the psychological trauma of the practice on victims lingers even beyond a generation and is an excellent case for why we all must join hands to end the practise everywhere.