The Osu Caste System in Igboland: A Critical Review


“Life in its natural state has the same meaning for everyone, but the Osu caste system seems to have changed the meaning of life for the group of people who are branded Osu”.

Igbo nation like other nations across the globe has certain cultures, beliefs, customs, and traditions; which comprises their dos and don’ts. Most of these customs were bequeathed to them from the generation of their forefathers. The disobedience and desecration to these traditions and beliefs are seen as a taboo. Hence, they strictly adhere to the rules even when they are inconsequential in the modern era where and when lot’s of technological innovations, civilization, and globalization has taken over.

In all these detestable and despicable traditions in igboland is the Osu caste system, which has in many ways; including historically and the present, become an instrument of hate, humiliation, discrimination, and disunity in the areas where they were being practiced.

In Enugu, Igbo, Imo and many parts of Nigeria, the osu caste, also known as Umuode in Enugu, are regarded as slaves or second-class citizens and are subjected to tons of inhuman and degrading treatment.

Newswatch 12 Jan. 2000; Africa Economic Analysis 13 June 1999- Reveals that “In Imo State alone, over 60 incidents have been documented since 1979 showing the inhuman treatments to which the osu are subjected…. In Akwa-Etiti, Anambra state, the osu and diala live in different sections of the town.

To critically review the Osu caste system in Nigeria, it is important to have a clear understanding of what Osu caste system means.

What is Osu Caste System?

Osu is a sacred and holy being deserved to lead a secluded life like a monk in order to salvage and save the people under him; a king and savior

Osu can also be defined as a belief system, a type of religious and traditional belief wherein a set of people should be favored against others. It is a name typically given to outcasts and slaves, who are also offered to the gods as sacrifice, as they have been banished from the society.

It is a caste system and invented conventional religious preposition established by our fore fathers through religious ceremonies with religious apparatus to serve as religious purpose.

The Igbo society refers to Osu with a variety of names, depending on the locality and the dialect. Such names have same connotations among Igbo speaking people. Osu is known as Adu- Ebo in Nzam in Onitsha. In Nsukka axis, Osu is called Oruma; it is referred to as Osu, Ume, Ohu, Oru, Ohu Ume, Omoni (okpu-Aja).

There have been several instances where young men and women of Igbo extraction have suffered emotional trauma as a result of this cultural malaise.

The practice of Osu caste system is hinged on religion, supernaturalism and theism. And Igbos are deeply religious and theistic people. Osu are regarded as unclean or untouchable because they are (alleged to be) dedicated to the gods

Osu is clearly seen as curse thus, umuosu are regarded as cursed people. This is the reason why it is considered derogatory and an abuse if you call someone an Osu, rather than calling the person a thief or an evil person.

Osu In Nigeria

The Nigerian constitution has declared every person free and equal before the law. Therefore, all citizens of the country are constitutionally entitled to fundamental human rights, including the right to freedom from discrimination.

With regard to the colonial administrators, it must be recognised that the administration was initially totally ignorant of the existence of Osu caste system and as such, did not discriminate in the governmental and systems organization and that offered a protective front to the Osu group. In their attempts to appoint people to handle public offices, the Osus were favoured and some of them were made warrant chiefs.

Having said this, there has been various move to abolish the discriminatory Osu caste system in the country. In 1956, the Eastern Nigerian House of Assembly passed a law abolishing it. Nevertheless, it was never implemented.

Despite the 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 May 1994, the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) called for the abolition of the caste. This shows that several attempts have been made to abolish this practice.

Making this change possible without destroying the cultural values is difficult. Again, the Igbo people have not come to terms with the prospects of compromising what they think is the basic inclinations of man. Despite the influences of Christianity and other secular legislations, a full assimilation of the Osu into the fabrics of Igbo society is still a journey far-reached.

Osu-caste system is equivalent to the Western racism which the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blaire on his glowing tribute at the funeral of the former South African President, Nelson Mandela opined as “immoral and stupid”.

Osu in Igboland

There are several versions which claim the origin of the Osu caste system in Igbo land but for the purpose of this piece, we will dwell on the claim which regards the Osu caste system as an ancient tradition which started from the time when igboland was administered by the laws of the earth commonly known as Odinani.

Indigenous religion is interwoven with Igbo cultural practices, and it is difficult for foreigners to fully understand and appreciate the good part of the Igbo culture. The indigenous Igbo regards himself as a meeting point of Mother Earth or “Ala”, which contains all physical creation and the ancestral spirit that is functionally linked to his ancestors. The Supreme Spirit “Chi-Ukwu” or “Chukwu” is the force of creation.

custodian of infinite power over everything. The Igbo man relates to this infinitely powerful God image through the deities that are ultimately linked to one’s “chi” or spiritual force

READ ALSO :Historical Look Into Ancient Anioma’s Female Circumcision Practice

An Osu can be identified in various ways. For example, some of them have scar in their body.Also, it is either their finger, or toes, or ear is cut off. Aside these features, a typical Osu is known to have a terrible body odor. The stench in their body is so stubborn that no quantity of perfume can remove it. Another method of identifyingan Osu is by the type of place they live, though this may not apply to all parts of igboland.

Any set of people seen to be living close to a stream, shrine, or market are popularly believed to be Osus. It is equally important to note that most Osus are easily identified in many cases, by their level of material possessions, education, and development.

It is said that because the Osu do not have sufficient land to farm and carry out other local activities, some fathers allowed their children to serve white missionaries who in turn trained these children. This is how the children of the Osus became educated and wealthy more than the legitimate indigenes.

The deity being worshiped at that time, known as Ala, issued all the rules that must be adhered to so that the inhabitants will be blessed in the land which Chukwu, the supreme God gave them. Those who went against the laws were outrightly banished to avoid the wrath and punishment of the deity. So, these banished set of people are known and referred to as Osu.

The Osu caste system in Nigeria is designed in a way that it accords some roles and privileges to an Osu. It is said that the Osus occupyan important and prestigious position in the traditional setting in igboland, especially in places where the practice is strongly recognized. In some communities, the Osus serve in the shrine as priests; just the same way as mass is being served in Catholic churches. Although the Osus occupy the sacred position of a cult priest, they are still seen to be powerless and without prestige by the freeborn.

Another role of the Osus in igboland is that they are given the responsibility of keeping vigil when the house slaves and their master had gone to farm, especially at noon time. This is in addition to their role of safeguarding the lives of young parents and their children, against any possible attack from kidnappers.

The trans-Atlantic slave trade contributed to the frequency of inter-clan wars, which often resulted in neighboring communities raiding each other for slaves and other booties. The Osus were forbidden to be combatants in warfare for fear of spilling their blood, which could unleash the wrath of the deities. Some defenseless small communities were often compelled to seek refuge in the premises of nearby shrines in order to avert impending doom when under sudden attack from superior invading forces.

Once the deity’s high priest acknowledged and granted them protection from attack and harm to the refugees, they were automatically converted to the Osu status. In some circumstances, prisoners captured during inter-communal wars were sold off, and their new owners could elect to enlist some of them to Osu status by giving them away as gestures of and placation to a local deity.

In the face of the continued discrimination against the Osus, several implications of the system came to bare. The implication comprised the advantages and disadvantagesof the Osu caste system in igboland, as well as the efforts to abolish the age long inhuman tradition.

Social Consequences of the Osu Caste System

There are series of social consequences of being an Osu, especially when it has to do with relating with people in the community. For instance, an Osu is not permitted by tradition to marry a freeborn (diala). It is generally believed in igboland that if a freeborn goes into any sexual relationship with a branded Osu, that freeborn automatically becomes an Osu.

Therefore, before a person begins a marriage process in igboland, to avoid getting connected to an Osu, and to stay away from the stigma it brings, the parents and guidance of the individuals involved will embark on doing some findings. The essence of this exercise is to avoid marrying a branded Osu.

Another social consequence or segregation an Osu faces is in the case of crowning an Osu a king or High Chief over a freeborn. It is seen as a sacrilegious act in Igboland to make an Osu a king over a freeborn, even if the person is the most qualified in the community. Members of that community would rather appoint an unqualified person to rule them instead being subject to an Osu.

Abolition of Osu Caste System in Igboland

Following the continued obnoxious tradition wherein a set of individuals are being marginalized,proactive steps were taken to successfully abolish the Osu caste system. The move started first during the 1019th celebration of the New Yam Festivalof Nri kingdom, which is believed to be the origin of most igbo groups.

The osu system cannot be easily removed in Igbo land because of the attitudes of the Igbos toward their traditional religion, norms and traditions. Despite all the efforts made by the church, government, schools and mass media in order to eradicate the practice of osu caste system in Igbo culture, it still continues to exist.

The Osu caste system which is strongly practiced in Imo, Anambra, and some parts of Ebonyi states never associated with families marked as Osu just because they were dedicated to some local deities. Though efforts are being made to abolish this inhuman practice by igbo traditional groups and the federal government of Nigeria, it is still secretly observed by some communities in igboland. This therefore is a clarion call on the church, government, the civil society and all stakeholders to jointly scrap this wicked act on humanity.


Kingsley Okezie is an experienced Web Content Writer and a commentator on social and political issues. He believes that writing is a tool for social change and mental development.  He is a graduate of History and International Relations from Abia State University, Uturu, Abia state. He currently lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

Twitter: @okezie_Kingsley

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