Untouchability in Nigeria

Scornfully referred to as sacrificial lambs to the gods (ndi ejiri goro ihe in the Ibo language), the Osu are the s of Nigeria. They are stereotyped as lazy, dirty and dishonest, and are shunned by the rest of society for their alleged repulsive body odour.

IHN focuses on the plight of nearly two million unfortunate human beings who, despite legislation designed to help them overcome their social disability, continue to be at the bottom of society, and are generally considered the scum of the earth. The Igbo Disease
Untouchability is practised in Nigeria mostly among the Igbos in the South. While this abhorrent practice also exists in Edo State where those discriminated are called Uneme, this article deals with the situation in the Igboland where the practice is the most pronounced and well entrenched. The untouchables amongst the Igbo are known by different names – Oru or Ohu, Ume or Omoni, but the general name for them is Osu.

A person is untouchable as a consequence of being unclean, and because he or she possesses the capacity to defile others. An untouchable is held in isolation out of fear that the person would contaminate the rest of society. Such an outcast has diminished dignity, rights and opportunity. An untouchable is not fit for the companionship and association of decent and respectable men and women in society.
In Igbo traditional society there are two classes of people: the Nwadiala (Freeborn) and the Osu. The Nwadiala or the Freeborn are the masters, or the sons of the soil. The Osu are slaves, strangers and aliens, and they are subjected to various forms of abuse and discrimination. They live separately from the Freeborn, and in most cases, very close to the shrines or market places. It is said that the system originated some two hundred years ago when some people were dedicated to the gods and became ritual slaves. It then became a taboo for people to socialize with those who have been dedicated to the gods.

The famous Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe asks “What is this thing called Osu?”in his well known novel No Longer At Ease. He answers “Our fathers in their darkness and ignorance called an innocent man Osu, a thing given to idols, and thereafter he became an outcast, and his children, and his children’s children forever.”

The Osu are not allowed to dance, drink, walk, associate with, or have sexual relations with the Nwadiala or the Freeborn. The Igbo welcome ritual of presenting a kola nut to a guest who in turn breaks it is not available to an Osu. No Osu can pour libation or pray to God on behalf of a Freeborn as it is believed that such prayers bring calamity and misfortune. In his book, Ihiteafoukwu: The Echo of Igbo Culture, Nzewuba Ugwuh (2004, Ibadan:Cypress) captures the systemic discrimination meted out to the Osu: “They (Osus) cannot plant their crops near or close to Nwadiala (Freeborn) nor can they plant at the time Nwadiala plants or sows his crops and seeds. They cannot marry or be married among the people. They can only be buried at (sic) certain days of the week … they cannot be conferred with Ozo, Nze or Oji Ofo titles, nor can they become Akaraka (traditional ruler). An Osu cannot represent the community, nor act on behalf of the people.”
It is indeed regarded as an abomination for an Osu to rule or lead any community. Not too long ago, a person alleged to be an Osu was elected the head of a village council in Mbaise. But shortly after that, members of the community came under pressure from the surrounding communities and subsequently forced him to step down. How can it be otherwise in a community where it is even forbidden to buy seed yam from the Osu, as it is believed that this would lead to a bad harvest? Again, when a radical traditional ruler once wanted to honour an Osu with a traditional title, members of his community vehemently opposed it and threatened to kidnap and murder him if he dared honour an untouchable.

In 1989, there was a communal clash in Ifakala in Imo State, over the location of a water borehole. A section of the community refused to drink water from the borehole on the ground that it was located on Osu land. The bore hole had to be abandoned.
The Osu caste system is also very pronounced in the area of marriage. An Osu cannot contract a marriage with a Freeborn. Because of the Osu factor, marriages in Igbo society are preceded by investigations – elders from both sides travel to native villages to find out the social status of the other party. And if per chance it is discovered that one of them is an Osu, the marriage plan is automatically abandoned. There have been numerous cases where married couples have been forced to divorce because one of the parties was discovered to be an Osu – people believe that a Freeborn marrying an Osu is like inviting a “curse” on the family. In Chinua Achebe’s story, Okonkwo learns that his son Obi wants to marry Clara, an Osu. Okonkwo says: “Osu is like leprosy in the minds of our people. I beg of you my son not to bring the mark of shame and of leprosy into your family. If you do, your children and your children’s children into the third and fourth generations will curse you and your memory. It is not for myself I speak, my days are few. You will bring sorrow on your head and on the heads of your children. Who will marry your daughters? Whose daughters will your sons marry?”
Legislative Remedy

In 1956, the government of Eastern Nigeria passed a law abolishing the Osu caste system.

The law says: “Notwithstanding any custom or usage, each and every person who on the date of the commencement of this Law is Osu shall from and after such date cease to be Osu and shall be free and discharged from any consequences thereof, and the children thereafter to be born to any such person and the offspring of such person shall not be Osu. Osu System is hereby utterly and forever abolished and declared unlawful.” The legislation prescribes punishment for whoever practices the Osu system:
(a) prevents any person from exercising any right accruing to him by reason of the abolition of the Osu System; or
(b) molests, injures, annoys, obstructs, or causes or attempts to cause obstruction to any person in the exercise of any such right, or molests, injures, annoys or boycotts any person by reason of his having exercised any such right; or
(c) by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations or otherwise, incites or encourages any person or class of persons or the public generally to practise the Osu System in any form whatsoever, guilty of an offence and upon conviction shall be liable to a fine not exceeding six months.”
It further states “Whoever, on the ground that a person-
(a) if this Law had not been passed, would have become
Osu; or
(b) has refused to practise the Osu System; or
(c) has done any act in furtherance of the objects of this
denies to any person belonging to his community or section thereof any right or privilege, to which such person as a member of such community would be entitled, is guilty of an offence and upon conviction shall be liable to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months.”
(Cecil Geraint Amens, The Laws of Eastern Nigeria revised Edition 1963. Enugu: Government Printer 1964).

Not a Single Prosecution!

The legislation abolishing the Osu caste system was lauded by progressive minds as a major step toward the eradication of this cultural scourge. But unfortunately the law has not yielded the desired results – it only succeeded in driving the whole system underground. The Osu are no longer openly and verbally attacked as used to be the case. But their socio-cultural and political isolation and discrimination especially in matters concerning marriage and leadership continues. 50 years after the enactment of the law that abolished the Osu system no one has been prosecuted or convicted for breaking the law.

In 1997, a person alleged to be an Osu was made a chief of a community in Imo State. But six months later, the community was engulfed in a crisis. And when the case was brought to the court. The presiding judge noted that though the abolition of the Osu system was in the statute, it was “an unenforceable law.” The chief was dethroned so that peace may reign again in the community!

The 1956 laws have been ineffective in tackling the Osu system. Some say that the Osu system is not an issue that can be resolved through legislation: it is a traditional practice that requires a traditional solution.

Traditional Approach

Some traditional rulers and communities have taken steps to eradicate the Osu system. Community leaders have issued proclamations and declarations against the practice of untouchability. For instance, (Dr) Enyeribe Onuoha, the traditional ruler of Umuchieze – and currently the Chairman of the Nigerian Humanist Movement – has spoken out against the practice of untouchability in his community: “discrimination against Osus in Igboland in modern times is irrational, illegal, unjust, superstitious, extremely primitive and archaic, and opposed to human rights. It is one Umuchieze tradition that should immediately be abolished!” However, statements and declarations like this have fallen on deaf ears amongst a people who think that traditional and social norms especially those hinged on the supernatural are sacrosanct and should not be tampered with.

According to the Igbo tradition and culture, it is only in one’s ancestral home that one can have the full rights of a Freeborn. So, another traditionalist solution being proffered is that the Osu should return to their ancestral home. The fact, however, is that no one – not even the Osu themselves can trace their roots or locate their ancestral homes.

The Role of Religion
The Osu are untouchable because they are dedicated to god. The dedication to god makes the Osu’s untouchability a permanent, irreversible and unchangeable disability and stigma. The Osu system is sanctioned and sanctified by traditional religion which prevailed before the advent of Christianity.

The advent of Christianity made little or no impact on the Osu system. Most church leaders have been reluctant to confront the issue head on for fear of alienating the majority. And this has created a situation where the Osu system is practised by Christians. In some churches the harvest offering of Osus are kept separate from those of the Freeborn. Dr. Onuoha noted this about the Christians in his community (The Land and People of Umuchieze Owerri: Austus Printers and Publisher): “Umuchieze Christians still believe in the dividing line between the so-called Nwadiala or Nwafor and the Osu – sons of the soil and bondsmen. “Bondsmen” are descendants of certain individuals who were bonded to the W’iyi goddess or to Amadioha in the olden days.

They were appointed slaves of the shrine and declared untouchable: sacred. Christians of today bluntly refuse to stop this discrimination based in the traditional religion”. The Church has come under severe criticism for failing to address the Osu issue. Ernest Emenyeonu made this expressly clear when he said “The Igbo are among the most zealous Christians found anywhere on earth, yet neither Christianity nor education had done anything decisive to eradicate the Osu system. The Clergy, the Bishops and Knights of the Church all preach against the Osu system but their utterances are mere words that are not meant to reflect personal beliefs and actions. The Church in Igboland is famous for its Eucharistic Congresses, its Synods, and its Assemblies. In many of these gatherings, the Church hierarchy in Igboland may go as far as to condemn racism in South Africa, racism in Eastern Europe or attack racism in America but would never address the issue of the Osu system in Igboland. It is a classic example of removing the mole in the other man’s eye while ignoring the big and gaping sore in your own eye. To this extent the Church in Igboland is an abysmal failure in social responsibility”.

The Humanist Way Forward

One should not blame the Church for not tackling the Osu issue in Nigeria. The Church – like the Osu caste system – is rooted in religion, in theism, in superstition and in supernaturalism. When it comes to the Osu issue, religion is part of the problem and therefore cannot be the solution. A radical and lasting solution lies outside religion, outside theism and outside supernaturalism.

The Osu caste system will continue so long as the Igbos embrace religion, spiritualism and supernaturalism. Untouchability will not be eradicated until Nigerians in general begin to realize that the gods and spirits are imaginary beings, not objective realities. They need to understand that gods and spirits were concepts used to control and organize society at the infancy of the human race. If one does not believe in any god or spirit, the idea of treating someone as an untouchable because the person is dedicated to a god or spirit would make no sense.

Politically, the government must try to enforce the law abolishing the Osu system. State authorities must get communities to remove from their constitutions provisions that bar Osus from contesting local elections and from receiving traditional titles. The Nigerian state must rise up to its duty of protecting the equal rights of citizen irrespective of his or her sex, ethnic origin, religion or birth status.

Most importantly, the Igbo must begin to envision a new society where people will live and interact freely with each other without division and distinction on the basis of touchability and untouchability.
Leo Igwe is Executive Secretary of Nigerian Humanist Movement and an IHEU’s Growth and Development Committee representative in Africa.

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