Osu Caste: A Critique
By Emmanuel Okonkwo
The theme of segregation is not alien to any part of the world. No matter the appellation it is branded with, its existence cannot be denied. Once, the blacks were referred to as the ‘black monkeys’. In the United States, there was a glaring distinction between the white man and the black man. In South Africa, we were plunged into the dreadful arena of the Apartheid. In Nigeria, the story is the same. One wonders, are humans not made alike? Is there any justification behind this prejudice? Why is the concept of Osu prevalent? Why is it so powerful that the elites champions or are silent to it? If it is a culture, is cultural change impossible? Why does it still exist despite the laws made against it? This essay seeks to lare bare the origin, misconceptions and criticism against the Osu caste system, using the igboland of Nigeria as a case study. The method is both historical and analytical.
Prior before the advent of the colonial masters, the igbo people like every other tribe, lived within the confines and comfort of their culture and norms. The indigenous traditionalists believed in the earth goddess, deities and ancestral spirits under a creator called Chukwu, Obasi, Chi or Chineke (the supreme God). Their beliefs overwhelmed their culture and social lives. One of these beliefs is encapsulated in the word Ikpenkwumoto, meaning to judge uprightly. Thus the Supreme Court of Nigeria in Dabierin’s case took judicial notice of this cherished custom when she asserted that evidence (testimony) of the elders especially on land matters, are mostly true.
Again the Igbo’s cherished brotherhood, communality and relationships. This is buttressed in the word Umunna, Obinwanne, etc. Odimegwu recaptures it when he wrote ‘The African communalist family engendered dialogue and consensus as the mode of relations and method of governance in the traditional society’ (2007:298). Ogugua summarizes these cardinal virtues of the Igbo community into ‘Life, offspring, wealth, truth, justice, love and peace’ (2003). However beautiful and desirous that state of nature was, the dark fog of segregation lingered with it. A certain set of clan or clans are regarded as the ‘unclean’, ‘cult-slave’, ‘living sacrifice’, ‘outcast’, ‘slave of the gods’, even ‘the untouchables’. Living with them or marrying from them is highly forbidden. Such an act may even convert the defaulter (Diala) into an Osu. Surprisingly, the segregation that befell these unfortunate victims, is not characterized by hatred (for foods are given to the gods knowing the Osu’s eat from it, and arms are given to them), rather it culminated from a parochial and fanatical awe of the long aged belief of the ‘living sacrifice’.
THE ORIGIN OF OSU CASTE IN IGBOLAND
The true origin of the emergence of the Osu caste seems to be at large. Different stories are told about this living tale. For instance, Amadife tells us that the origin is traced to the era when the gods were believed to demand for human sacrifice during festivals, so as to cleanse the land of abomination. Then the people would contribute to the general purse for a purchase of a slave or for kidnapping one. This victims and their descendants became known as ‘Osu arusi’. For Ezekwugo, the origin is traced to the Nri Kingdom (the acclaimed ancestral home of the Igbo man). It is believed that the Nri’s possessed a hereditary power and thus do go about cleansing the various kingdoms of abomination. Any community that refutes to be cleansed are dabbed ‘osu’s’ or ‘untouchables’ (1987:10). Some believed they were descendants of travelers who were merely allowed to stay in the community. Others say they are bastards from non-Osu’s (Diala).
Finally, the stronger view seems to lean on ostracization. This occurs when a particular person or group refutes the decision of the King or the entire community. The people naturally begin to withdraw from the defaulter (this was a traditional method of punishment/criminal justice in the pre-colonial era). Sometimes, the king banishes the defaulter from the land. Upon the passage of time, from one generation to another, the victim or the children of the victim are then referred to as Osu’s together with their descendants.
CONFLICT BETWEEN OSU-ISM AND THE IGBO CONCEPT OF LOVE, UNITY AND COMMUNALITY
The Igbo community is once known for its belief in love, unity and communality. For instance, ownership of land was communal and not individualistic. Liberty was cherished and there was nothing like kingship at its inception. Anyi nile bu ofu (we are one) was the emblem. This was why the appointment of warrant chiefs in the indirect-rule system of Lugard led to its failure in the East. Igwe reports that one of the fundamental constitution of the Igbo society and culture is the spirit of liberty. No one community or village would want to oppress the other. No Igbo man would want to slavishly serve another under normal circumstances. The parable says it all – Egbe bere ugo bere nke si beya ebele nku kwaa ya (let both the kite and the eagle perch and stand and let the one that stands in the way of the other become powerless) – (1991:143). Ogugua further recaps the cherished principle of relationship, belonginess, solidarity and the common good. However Igwe noted that the spirit of liberty led to individualism and self-deceptive competition (1991). Perhaps, this was what intensified the ambivalent attitude towards eradication of the Osu crisis. The puzzle here is, how come a community of such values and morals should abhor the opposite of it’s values? Simply put, can belonginess and solidarity co-exist with segregation and ostracization? This may be referred to as ‘Identity Crisis’ in the words of Oraegbunam (2006:237). It is sad indeed to see us making a cultural change by adopting the bad sides of westernism, while we are ambivalent towards accepting the good sides, namely – Abolition of Osu-ism!
CONFLICT BETWEEN OSU CASTE AND THE LAW: A PHILOSOPHICAL EVALUATION
Right to freedom from discrimination is provided for by section 42 of the Constitution. The Constitution frowns at any discrimination of a person on grounds of the person’s community, ethnicity, place of birth or origin, circumstance of birth, sex, religion, political opinion or disability. What is not clear is – does the law frowns on the other person’s right not to want to middle or involve with an Osu?The cases of Nzekwu v Nzekwu  2 NWLR (pt 104) p.373 SC; Mojekwu v Mojekwu  7 NWLR (pt 512) p.282 CA, are to the effect that one’s entitlement cannot be denied on basis of discrimination. But surely, this does not extend to forcing a man to associate with another. For the right to associate includes the fundamental right not to associate. And if there is a right not to associate, then to an extent, there exist a right to discriminate. But this discrimination is attenuated and curtailed when a right of the other person to obtain something arises. In other words, in strict legal sense, an Osu as a right to go anywhere any man has right to go; to speak where any man has right to speak; to contest any post any man has a rightto contest; and to propose to any lady any man has right to. But these rights are all subject to the rights of those at the other end i.e the lady, the people to be ruled, the owner of the place etc. while they cannot deter him to apply, he cannot force them to accept. The solution may therefore lie in ethical persuasion.
The right to peaceful assembly and association is provided for in section 40. Association includes political parties, trade unions, or any association. However, the section limits this right to the dictates of the Independent National Electoral Commission with respect to political parties. By implication, the section forbids unlawful assembly and associations. Now the Osu’s right to associate with the people of his village (which is a lawful community), cannot be abrogated by the face that the community does not want him. Although one may argue that such right is dependent on the willingness of the other (community) to be associated with. On that regard I am forced to admit that this law is not breached. It will only amount to ethical and moral considerations. It is notorious that an Osu is prohibited from even coming into the gathering of the Diala (freeborn or non-Osu), not to consider him addressing them. His right to be heard is consequently denied. The right to freedom of expression and the pressisguaranteed by law. In Adewole & ors v Jakandeit was held that Section 39 affirms the freedom of expression to every individual and the press. Thus within the provisions of any act enacted by the national assembly, a person is free to own and operate any medium of the dissemination of information, ideas and opinions. Hence the right of press group is ensured too. So is the right of an Osu.
Onwubuariri tried to justify the Osu caste by implication when he classified the types of Osu to include: 1. The voluntary 2. The involuntary and 3. The mass consensus classification. While the last two are not the fault of the victim, Onwubuariri justified the voluntary type of Osu which reflects the victim’s choice to become an Osu. This type occurs when the victim, out of laziness, takes to the shrine and eats from the food of the gods. It is also voluntary according to him, when the victim resorts to the shrine for solace out of the fraustration or maginalization witnessed as a Diala. Thus if a man want to be an Osu who are we not to respect that? With greatest respect, I do not think psychologists nor humanists, will concur with Onwubuariri’s implied postulation. Frustration of a maximum depth can indeed cause one to act independent of one’s will (which should be a defense under section 24 and 28 of our criminal code). Thus it could lead to a natural mental infirmity, which psychologists would label ‘Abnormality’.
Another purported justification seems to have its root in Aristotle’s conception of equality. Aristotle believed that equals should be treated equally. The implication of this postulate is that we are not all equals. But does the veracity of Aristotle’s postulation extend to the discuss at hand? No! I do not think so. The initial stage for status scrambling must and should be a fair and equal platform. It is upon the success or failure of one’s prowess that the later status should be determined. But then again, the ethical implications are too alarming to ignore.
Moreso, on the argument for punishment; as necessary as punishment may be, ostraicization raises the ethical question – should an innocent B suffer from the crime of A? I do not think so either. Why should the descendants suffer from their father’s deviance? Besides, the difficult dialogue between the corrective or punitive justice system is awakened! If the people have claimed to be bound by one constitution, then they should refrain from taking the laws into their hands!
Again, some have argued that the Osu discrimination is divine as it is mandated and exemplified by God himself. The book of Genesis chapter 3, marked the first banishment and ostracism of Adam and Eve. We all, today, suffer from that wrong. Lucifer himself was banished by God and he suffers the ever-labeled name of Satan. He is likened to an Osu. What is the difference between and Osu and the then Gentiles? The stigmatization of the Samaritans? The Christians and the Jews? And yes! Why is segregation common to all parts of the world?
The above arguments, except one, can be dismissed by the simple logical truth – that the world is doing it doesn’t make it right. Otherwise, why is the world gradually reversing? Why did the nation agree to shun discrimination? What informed the Magna Carta? Why did Nigerians applaud the anti-gay law but frown at the punishment stipulated for defaulters? Regarding the biblical argument against God himself, I am forced to humbly delve into the spiritual, for the spiritual cannot be comprehended with the physical alone. Therein lies the age-long border between the Rationalists and the Empiricists. First, let me say there was no ostracization, but a mere banishment of Satan and Man. The book of Job chapter 1 verse 6, records the devil coming into the meeting with the sons of God. That meeting must be periodical and for the devil to attend and have his place and spoke with God (a thing any Osu will die to witness), then Satan is nothing near an Osu in the sense of the word. Neither is man rejected by God, less John 3:16 would not have existed.
Secondly, every sin can only be punished based on its quantum meruit. This is both ethical and natural. If sin is sin, then the punisher will be grossly unfair. Infact some armed-chair Christians have argued that God would have terminated Satan’s life than allow the present conflict. Many have died, and the punishment for death ought to be death. This is to say that Satan’s punishment is either suitable or alleviated – a perfect ethical justice. As for man, the rule was if you want to stay here, don’t do this. Man failed. The natural consequence is you can’t stay here. But because the offspring must not suffer, and the purity of the innocent offspring to stay on board has been contaminated and stolen, Christ had to die to redeem not only the innocent but to give chance to the banished to purify himself and come back. It is on this note that I commend certain rumored but unnamed villages which allows a ritual cleansing of the Osu to come back into the fold. Although the unanswered question would be, will it ever be the same?
From this research, it is my submit that Osu caste still exist within the Igboland, some are well pronounced some are whispered as a result of Religion and Education. It is also prevalent in all parts of the world under the disguise of some other names. While the law prohibits segregation of these victims, the law does not and must not mandate forced relations. The solution to the acceptability of the Osu’s, lies more on ethical and moral persuasion. Seminars in conjunction with the local government and the village chiefs and heads should be made to sensitize the people against the dreaded impart of Osu caste. The world is gradually sinking into the Hobbessian state of nature. But this state of nature is false and caused. The John Locke’s state of nature must be redeemed. We must begin afresh to value the true virtues, less we all shall fall. And what a fall would be there my countrymen!
© Emmanuel Okonkwo 2014.