The Obi of Otolo and Igwe of Nnewi in Anambra State, Igwe Kenneth Orizu, has explained why he abolished Osu Caste System.
Recall that there were major arguments and disagreements in Nnewi following the need to abolish the Osu caste system in Igbo land.
What is the Osu Caste System
The stigma of Osu hangs around many generations after, like bad odour, and here is why more people are talking about its abolishment.
In ancient Igboland, some families were set aside for the deities of the land (alusi), by the ancestors, for human sacrifice required to cleanse the land of abominations.
In those days, such families were considered outcasts or slaves, who were discriminated against and not accepted by the mainstream of society.
They lived on the outskirts of town and were often linked to slave trade and telling features of dreadlocks, which signified what they were in society. These people were considered Osu.
Prevalent in Anambra, Imo and some areas in Ebonyi states, the Osu caste system discriminates against these families and their many descendants.
The Osu are considered as “inferior”, as opposed to others who are considered “freeborn” or “Nwadiala”.
Though Christianity is the predominant religion for the Igbos, many still consider it a taboo in Igboland for a slave and descendant of slaves to be offered or taken for marriage by a free-born.
Free-born men and women are expected to investigate the origins and social class of an individual to be certain he/she is not an Osu before contracting marriage.
Marriage proceedings have been stopped only because investigations discovered either family was a descendant of an osu.
Abolishing this caste system
The Nigerian constitution declares every person free and equal before the law. Therefore, all Nigerians are constitutionally entitled to fundamental human rights, including the right to freedom from discrimination.
The move to abolish the discriminatory Osu caste system is not new. In 1956, the Eastern Nigerian House of Assembly passed a law abolishing it, but it was never implemented.
Despite grand efforts such as this, it would take a more granular approach and intensified cultural reforms to actually bring the Osu caste system to a permanent halt.
In an interview with Tony Okafor, Igwe Kenneth Orizu says he abolished the Osu Caste System for the women and dues to the “obnoxious conditions they were subjected to.”
He says –
“Nobody opposed the move. If there was any opposition, they didn’t come out to state it publicly. Till date, I’m still being commended for abolishing the caste system. I abolished the caste system because it didn’t have any value, in my opinion. In the old days, our people castigated them – those regarded as Osu. The story dates back to the old days when people found guilty of abominations were cast away to avoid the anger of deities. If any of such persons slept on the same mat with you, you became an Osu automatically. You would not sit on the same seat with them, otherwise you became an Osu. That was how they were treated and abhorred.
“But with the advent of civilization, the practice became laughable, especially after the Agbedo was cleared which now became one of the largest markets in Anambra. Part of the forest was also meant for the Osu people. After the Nigerian Civil War in 1967, there was a dance Osu girls came out with. It was so attractive that after the dance, many of them were impregnated by the so-called non-Osu people because they were so beautiful. Not only that, these same beautiful women were branded Osu in the day, but at night, many people would go for them. I thought that was outright deception. I told my people that the deceit must stop. By the way, who did God create and call Osu? It was man-made. So, it was largely because of those beautiful women and the obnoxious conditions they were subjected to that made me abolish the caste system in Nnewi to enable them to freely marry. And shortly after the abolition, many of them started getting married. We don’t have any problem with that again in Nnewi. We are one.”
According to the Vanguard, the caste system was abolished in Irete community in the Owerri West Local Government Area of Imo State, on July 14, 2018.
During the 1019th celebration of the New Yam Festival of Nri Kingdom in September, the Eze Nri Enweleana II, Obidiegwu Onyesoh, also declared the caste system abolished in his community.
He set December 28, 2018 as the date for the complete phasing out of the controversial tradition, and urged other major Igbo traditional rulers, to join to phase it out in their various communities.
Now, the Anambra state government has also adopted the date and backed the move to abolish the system completely.
Also speaking in Oraeri during the community’s 2019 New Yam festival, which also coincided with the official abolition of the Osu after over 500 years of practice, Eze Emmanuel Ezenriagu, described the Osu system as retrogressive, adding that his people were happy to put behind the system that reduced fellow human beings to second class citizens for centuries.
Ezenriagu said: “With the official abolition, anybody who discriminates against them will henceforth be sanctioned. With the ceremony we have performed in this community, those formerly described as Osu will start taking traditional titles and intermarry with others.
“Those who were hitherto referred to as Osu in this community have been bestowed with all rights and privileges enjoyed by the free-born. They are good people and many of them are intelligent and beautiful and everybody stands to gain by putting behind this obnoxious system.”
Chief Anthony Okafor, a Pharmacist, who presided over the abolition ceremony at the community square, said he had been campaigning for the abolition for several years, expressing joy that his effort had finally paid off.
Okafor said: “When I took the title of Okpara in 1990, I took it upon myself that Osu Caste system must be abolished in our community. It was not easy at the beginning. In the past four years, I chose to be sampling people’s opinion on the matter and it was during that period that I found out that many people in our community also wanted the system abolished, but did not know how to go about it.
“About three months ago, we renewed the campaign and happy enough, the leadership of Oraeri Development Union and our traditional ruler were in support.”
In his speech, the President General of Oraeri Development Union, Mr. Okey Atueyi said the community had taken a bold decision and commended everybody in the area for their support in putting the discriminatory system behind.
“You can see how happy the people are. This ceremony has made this year’s New Yam festival special and it was therefore not surprising that our people returned in large numbers from all over the world to witness the historic event,” he said.
Also speaking, the councilor representing Oraeri Ward in Aguata Council Area, Hon Briggs Ikpegbu commended the people of Oraeri for their unity and taking a collective decision on the issue. He was optimistic that with the abolition, more progress in community development would be recorded in the area.
Igwe Kenneth Orizu who has been on the throne for 57years (since 1963), also spoke on why he discourages wasteful spending at funerals and traditional marriage ceremonies.
“I looked at the way we conducted funerals here; it was associated with wasteful spending and was affecting the people, so I thought something must be done about it. I made consultations and we decided to cut everything down to the barest minimum. Today, you can hardly see any funerals in Nnewi with wasteful spending. If anyone violates the rules, there are attendant sanctions for that. We collectively achieved the feat, so nobody is complaining about it.”
Also on Ofala, a new but old tradition now done yearly to celebrate his coronation, Igwe explains that –
The “Ofala Nnewi was a white man’s concept. He probably borrowed it from the Onitsha area. Like I said earlier, the naked eye was not allowed to see the Igwe Nnewi in the beginning. If you were a man and you dared try to see him, you would be sold as a slave and if you were a beautiful woman, you would be automatically given to the Igwe as his wife.
“So, the whites didn’t like that Igwe was not seen by his subjects. He suggested to Igwe Nnewi to have a day in the year when he would make a public appearance to interface and interact with his people. That was the origin of the Ofala festival here in Nnewi. It was an opportunity for the monarch to meet with his people and interact with them and for them to pay homage to him.
On what happens if it is not celebrated, he added that “If there are exigencies, Ofala can be postponed. There is no implication whatsoever on the kingdom by so doing. I had once cancelled Ofala celebration here, nothing happened. But that was the only year it was not celebrated since my reign in 1963.”
More importantly, on why the Igwe of Nnewi is born and not made or elected, unlike many traditional stools in the country, Igwe says –
“Out of the four quarters in Nnewi, Otolo is the head and it’s the one that produces the monarch, traditionally and customarily. Our forebears put it that way and it has been kept that way and it will remain so. The ascendancy to the throne of Nnewi monarchy is by birth and not by election. Whoever is the first son of the monarch succeeds him upon his death, unless he does something grievous against the people and custom of the land. This practice is known to everybody in Nnewi. It’s enshrined in the Nnewi Constitution.”
Apart from Ofala other significant festivals significant to the history of Nnewi and its people are – Igba Ota, Igbu Ichi, Ikwu aru, and Igbu Ichebili.
According Igwe Kenneth Orizu, “most of these festivals, however have been stopped because of modernisation.
Things still considered as taboo for the people of Nnewi and others who live in or visit Nnewi are –
- We don’t eat ‘Eke’ (python)
- women don’t climb palm trees in Nnewi.
- Also, women don’t pluck kola nuts.
- We don’t eat ‘Ewi’ (local rabbits) because of the historical relationship we have with it.
Still on taboo, Tony Okafor asks if there are things considered as taboo for traditional ruler of Nnewi too or things that culture does not allow him to do?
Igwe says –
The Nnewi king does no wrong.
On a sad note, while speaking on Nigeria’s achievement, he says –
“I’ve yet to see anything worth celebrating in Nigeria. It’s unfortunate that Nigeria can’t produce pins and razors as small as they are. If they produce them, I’ve yet to see them. We rely so much on imported goods, yet we keep boasting that we are the giant of Africa. I have yet to see any positive changes in this country. Nigeria has not met my expectations.”