The Osu caste system in Igboland can be traced back to an indigenous religious belief system practiced by our people before the incursion of Europeans into our homeland.
It is the belief of many Igbo traditionalists that the Osu are people historically owned by deities and are therefore considered to be a ‘living sacrifice’, an outcast, untouchable and sub-human.
In this 21st century, this form of discrimination is still very much alive in Igbo states such as Enugu, Anambra, Imo, Abia, Ebonyi, and Delta.
It is believed that modern-day Osus in Igboland are descendants of individuals who volunteered or, were sacrificed to the various gods.
These forefathers willingly or unwillingly pledged themselves and their descendants to certain Igbo deities. They enjoyed protection and privileges but were segregated from ordinary folks. These Osu people married, fraternized and socialized only among themselves.
This has become a socio-cultural practice that has had a far reaching impact on Igbo marriage institution than any other consideration as it is still a taboo just like in the days of old, for an ordinary Igbo person to marry an Osu person.
Obviously, the Osu caste system negates the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. It is one of the most important instruments of economic, social and cultural rights. It guarantees right to life and lots of other human rights and frowns at discrimination in whatever guise.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination prohibits discrimination on the basis of racial or ethnic origin in relation to a number of economic, social and cultural rights.
In the light of this, Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution also seriously frowns at any form of discrimination against fellow Nigerian. All forms of human rights are guaranteed in the Constitution. Specifically, chapter IV of the Constitution deals with fundamental rights of the citizens.
For instance, section 34 (1) provides that “Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person,” and accordingly, paragraph (a) specifies that “no person shall be subject to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment.”
Victims of the Osu caste system belong to this category of people that the constitution does not allow to be treated that way. They have every right to be accorded human dignity rather than be degraded and treated as outcasts because of the accident of birth and our ancient Igbo traditional beliefs. The veracity of the issue is that these people did not choose to be born as Osu.
If certain traditions whereby human sacrifices were made when a king dies have been abolished in some parts of Igboland, why are the communities in Igboland still holding tenaciously to the dehumanising Osu caste system that seeks to hold down some Igbo people in their own society perpetually?
Victims of the Osu caste system could lose their sense of worth due to the segregation and discrimination against them. For the women who could not marry on the basis of this discrimination, they could resort to prostitution with the attendant negative consequences on the society. We Igbos are so enlightened to allow this backward and negative tradition to thrive in our communities in its ugliest form in this 21st century.
Segregation or discrimination of this kind breeds social disharmony and undermines cohesiveness in Igbo land. It is about time the governors of the states in Igbo land, monarchs, opinion leaders, civil society groups, youths and all stakeholders rose in one accord to put an end to this scourge of mankind in a way that will not undermine our cultural heritage..
Written by Dunu Okigbo