The Osu Caste System in Contemporary Igboland - By Roy Chikwem

The discriminatory practice of the Osu caste system in Igboland has thrived against copious attempts to abolish this inhumane, sadistic, heartless and degrading treatment. Many statutes, laws, edicts and proclamations have been made over the years but Ndigbos have resisted every form of change in regards to their views about the Osu caste system. Notable Igbo rulers including kings and legislators have been known to have abolished Osu caste system in their communities but the people have refused to comply with such orders and proclamations. The Osu caste discrimination is a tradition that has outlived its usefulness and there is no basis for its continual usage in contemporary Igboland.  

In Igboland, there are traditionally two classes of people, the Nwadiala and the Osus. The Nwadiala are the free-born and literally, they are the “son of the soil”. The Osus are known as slaves, strangers, unclean, untouchables and outcasts. The Osu caste system dates back to hundreds of years ago when criminals, slaves and war prisoners were dedicated to deity gods, for them to serve and worship. Over the years, these deity god worshippers started marrying each other and as you would expect, they had children and their children had their own children and so forth. Today, descendants of these deity gods’ worshippers are suffering from the deeds of their forefathers and it is perceived that Osus are cursed. Although it has not been explored if their forefathers had a choice, being that majority of the so-called Osus were forced into serving the “communities” deity gods and others voluntarily rendered their services to these gods to evade being sold into the human slave trade. Ironically in those days, Nwadialas would go through the Osus to consult, communicate and appease the deity gods, which they also served and worshipped in their private homes.  

The Osus have been subjected to outrageous forms of inhuman abuse and discrimination such as disinheritance, denial of political appointment, denial of social club membership, denial of chieftaincy titles and denial of marriage to a freeborn. The Osus are mandated to live separately from Nwadiala and in most cases; they live closely to shrines and marketplaces. Osus in general are forbidding from drinking, eating, dancing and having any kind of sexual relationship with a freeborn. Osus are also not permissible to break the traditional Igbo kolanut, pouring libation and praying to God on behalf of Nwadialas at any community setting. Fundamentally Osus can be seen but not heard while in the midst of Nwadialas. The most insightful level of discrimination and gross human right abuse against the Osus are the denial of marriage to a freeborn. There is an Igbo belief that if an Osu should marry a freeborn, the entire family is cursed and contaminated.  Several marriage plans and arrangements have been aborted due to the Osu caste factor.  

Mid-last year, a young educated Igbo man, a successful business entrepreneur based in Atlanta (USA) had been engaged to be married to an Igbo lady, who was a medical doctor by profession. The young Igbo lady was already pregnant for this young man. During the customary family introduction, it was discovered that the lady was an “Osus” and immediately, their wedding arrangements were promptly abandoned and terminated. The lady later gave birth to a baby boy and now lives in Houston (USA) as a single parent. The young Igbo man has refused any form of contact with the lady and his child. With all the education, western culture, civilization and exposure to Christian, the marriage plans was unsuccessful and fruitless.   

The Osu Caste system is an inhuman, irrational and unjust practice. The million dollar question is why has Ndigbos resisted the eradication of the Osu caste system, despite our level of education and exposure to Christianity. Even highly educated Ndigbos have been known to participate in this level of degrading a fellow human being. Ndigbos as an ethnic group must look inward and devoid themselves of any form of discrimination that does not promote the spirit of brotherhood and togetherness among fellow Ndigbos. Ndigbos should understand that the continual survival and practice of the Osu caste system is in no manner, advancing the agenda of the Igbo people but taking us aback. The legal courts systems in the Igbo states need to ensure that anti-Osu laws are enforced by the police and offenders are duly prosecuted. Nigerian legislators at all levels must continue to pass legislation that ensures and guarantees the total ban on Osu caste discrimination. We as Ndigbos have issues that are confronting us as an ethnic group and we must abreast practices that foster Igbo unity and abandon practices that can only divide Ndigbos. The struggle to abolish the Osu caste system would have been the greatest task for Chief Ralph Uwechue led-Ohaneze Ndigbo pan-organization to get on but Ohaneze Ndigbo is preoccupied with fighting for who occupies the headquarters building in Enugu and one wonders whose interest they are really fighting for.
Roy Chikwem is the Director of the Chikwem Foundation, Inc. A-Not-For-Profit organization that advocates for the education of every Nigerian child.  He wrote from New Castle, Delaware, USA. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. This article was written on February, 2009.