Okechukwu: Osu Caste System breeds disunity, underdevelopment among Igbo, must be abolished
President, Celibacy International Initiative, Mr. Joseph Okechukwu is one of the conveners of the December 28, 2018 meeting, which took place at Nri, Anambra State, where traditional rulers from the South East and South South abolished the Osu Caste System. In this interview, he explained to LAWRENCE NJOKU why the move was made and the next line of action.
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What was the Dec 28 gathering at Nri, Anambra State all about?
Well, the event, which went very well, was not about Anambra State alone, but about the entire South East, South South and all Igbo-speaking parts of the country. In fact, we had traditional rulers who came from Ikwerre Land, traditional rulers who came from Eket in Akwa Ibom State; the traditional ruler of Anioma came with his entire cabinet and wife.
Traditional rulers from Imo and Abia states were well represented, and the traditional ruler of Irete, Eze Ethelbert, who recently abolished the Osu Caste System in his community, was equally there.
Having said that, let me add that what we did at Nri was something that is of paramount interest to Ndigbo. We used Nri as a point of contact due to the prominent position Nri occupies in Igbo history. So, the event was not about Anambra State, but about the entire old eastern region.
This is not the first time Osu Caste System is being abolished in Igbo land, what is the new thing that you have put in place to ensure that what has been abolished remains abolished?
What happened on December 28, 2018 was actually the first of its kind and I appreciate the fact that sometime in the past, there had been some kind of regional abolitions. What we did in Nri encompasses the entire South East and South South, and what makes it different from others is that we actually called out the victims and openly apologised to them. Those of us supposedly from the other side knelt down and apologised to them and sought their forgiveness and they openly forgave us and then we sought forgiveness from God, which was very symbolic, as it has never happened before.
So, what we decided to do going forward is to be able to build on what happened on December 28. We are going to have a very strong legal framework that is going to culminate into something that looks like an organisation. When we set that up, we are going to begin to deal with the issues involved in a robust manner.
We are going to have intervention centres scattered all over the South East and South South and we are going to have people send in report of cases that can be sorted out legally to make sure that the laws, which are actually on ground (which the old Eastern Assembly made in 1956 are activated). We are going to implement those laws because lack of implementation has been the problem. We really do not need to make any new laws, the laws are there already but people have not been paying attention to it because nobody has gone to jail for breaching it.
So, the next phase of the struggle is taking up cases, which we are not going to get the victims to pay because people are already volunteering to sponsor those cases. And when we get those cases, we will get our lawyers to prosecute them and we will ensure that somebody goes to jail as a result of this. When we send people to jail as a result of this human rights violation, it will begin to reduce the problem and people will get serious about the issue.
Why is the issue assuming prominence at this time?
The reason that this matter needs to be addressed now is because you and I know that we have come to a point in our lives as an ethnic group, where we need to do some form of soul searching. Of all the groups in Nigeria, the ones that need special attention are the people of South East and South South, in other words, those that made up the old eastern region. If you go to this region, we have been asking the question, what is it about us that politically and economically and otherwise we are not doing well? It has almost become a norm that we are not meant to produce anything reasonable politically, economically and everybody is asking questions.
If you go up there, we are saying what is this about the Igbo that we are so divided? But what we have found out is that we need to stop defending the anomalies on ground and we need to address these issues that pull us backward. Truly, we are a very divided people and if we fail to address these divisions, we will not come up with anything in the future, not to talk of making any strong in-road in the project called Nigeria.
For example, in the Nigerian nation today, we have nations that are thriving – the Yoruba (Oduduwa Nation) are thriving very well and Lagos is the central controlling point. That they have a very strong linkage binding them does not mean that they are trying to run away from Nigeria.
Go to the Hausa – (Arewa Nation) it is very united and thriving very well. But when you come down to the Igbo Nation, the people are so scattered and you are asking, why is it so? So, deep down in our own lineages, we are not making any progress. How in the world are we supposed to move forward in the 21st century if things like this continue to happen? It is 2019 for crying out loud and Nigeria is about to make a major turning point. Our people have nothing to put on the table. We have nothing to show for it. We have Peter Obi today being a vice presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), but we don’t have anything to show for it. What if Nigeria decides to divide today and say let each unit go its separate way, the Igbo will be the most turbulent unit because we don’t have anything to show for it. The rest of the people will go very well, but we are going to fight within ourselves because we are divided. So, at this point in our history, this is the most critical time for us to take a look at those things that divide us the most, and to make sure that we right the wrongs while there is still time. That is why we have to do this at this critical time.
An Osu, they say, is associated with a deity and must require spiritual cleansing to be able to associate with the freeborn. Was that taken into account during your meeting?
Well, the thing is that this is a common story out there that Osu is dedicated to a deity. Now you heard the part of a story that says that they were actually dedicated to a deity. The point is that, from where were they captured to be dedicated to a deity? Nobody is telling you that part of the story. These people were actually running away from being captured and sold into slavery. The only place they could find refuge was with the deity (Arusi), which the people dreaded in those days. People will come and give them a tip and said these slave traders are coming to capture you and most of them were very rich. Some criminal elements in our society were framing them up so that after selling them into slavery they would go and take over their possessions. Now, when they ran into those shrines, people started saying that they had become untouchable, and had become property of the shrine. Now, even when those things started, the white men who were behind the slave trade were still going there to look for them. After they (white men) went to one or two deities (Arusi) and were either struck dead or inflicted with one disease or the other, they started running away from them. That was when people began to revere the deity, and also said that the people were dedicated to Arusi. They also said that if the deities were so powerful, then we should not touch the people dedicated to them. That was when they started dreading these people. But the truth is that the people did not go there by choice, they went there because it was the most easily acceptable refuge available to them.
So, the other issue about dedicating them to Arusi is that when our people’s crops did not do well, they would say that the gods were angry with them (gods). At such times, they would say instead of sacrificing animals to them, let us give them human beings to appease them. These are all credible stories and the thing happened that way. These people have nothing actually to do with what happened during those days. So, if the people are coming out to say we are all part of the system, why should anybody be segregated against, and alleging that they are dedicated to Arusi?
The stories that you have been hearing that if you marry an Osu, things will start going bad for you; you will not have children, or if you have children they will all die are neither here nor there. None is true. I want to tell you that out of the several wealthy men we have in Igbo land today, about 60 per cent of them are people we classify as Osu.
This issue has been there for decades, and even after many of the so-called Osu have become born again Christians, yet there is this segregation. So we are saying that the fact that our ancestors have a history of doing things does not mean that it should be continued throughout our lifetime, and its time that everybody got out of this mind-controlled thing. Nobody needs cleansing to become a normal human being. If you are not a Christian and you indulge in idolatry and you have children who are Christians, what other sacrifice do they need to make for you to prove that they are clean? Why should they be held responsible for what their fathers did? That is why we are saying that these people should be allowed to live peacefully; there is no special punishment that should be meted to anyone because they are Osu. It is not possible. I have met people who are tagged Osu from every strata of life and the story is the same. There is no special punishment that should go to anybody because he or she is branded Osu.
The traditional ruler of Irete went ahead and crowned one of those described as Osu as a monarch. On that day, some expected that thunder was going to come down to destroy everybody, but as I speak, nothing has happened, and what I am telling you took place last year. So it is all superstitious and that is the point we are trying to make. We need to stop all these name-calling because we are losing the vigour and the fighting force we have in Igbo land. If these people disappear from our land and settle down somewhere else, it will not be healthy for our development. Almost all the Osu people that I have met, none of their children is married in Igbo land.
They are marrying Yoruba, they are marrying Hausa, and they are marrying Kogi and people from different places. Can you imagine the kind of enmity we are bringing upon ourselves in our nation in the guise of holding on to a tradition?
This tradition has divided us and needs to be done away with. People will come and if they hear anything that will be good for Igbo nation tomorrow, they will not want to be part of it. We are talking about a large chunk of our population. Osu has made it possible that we have no peace as brothers. On account of Osu, we have recorded the highest mass exodus in Igbo land. So, what are we doing? We are destroying ourselves. It is superstitious and it has to end.
From your investigation, what percentage of Igbo people does the Osu thing affect?
My brother, from what we have done so far, I think about 30- 40 per cent of our population is made up of these people that we call Osu today. Not just Osu alone, we are also talking about Ohu and a lot of them that communities and villages are dedicated to them.
For instance, I am from Enugu State, and Awkunanaw makes up a large part of the state. In Awkunanaw, most of them potentially are the Ohu people. Go to Imo State, and you will see a whole village that is labeled Osu people. You can imagine 30-40 per cent of a population, if not more than that. What else do you have left?
What role do you think state governments in the zone need to play to support this campaign?
Our governments have a very big role to play. For instance, as we are setting up this legal framework to enter the next stage of the struggle, we need them to support us by bringing out and enacting these laws in the various Houses of Assembly in the South East and South South because it was the old Eastern House of Assembly (which was made up of these states) that enacted these laws. What a state House of Assembly needs to do is to bring up the law and make it more stringent in order to guard against violation. But if for any reason they cannot do that, then we will continue with what we have. Anambra State has re-enacted its own already, and so if all state Houses of Assembly can do similar thing, it is going to make our job so easy and it is going to be machinery for unity rather than division. There will be so much love, there will be progress and our people are going to enjoy it. That government that will support this, I tell you will be remembered for long.
Are there obligations for the Osu and free born from what you have done?
What I have always told our people is that we should bury this negative ideology. I have seen so many people, especially on the social media with so many ideologies and people trying to taunt the other over nothing in the guise of Osu. So many nonsensical ideas that people are coming up with just to substantiate this evil. What I need our people to do is to take a cue from other people – the Yoruba people. If a Yoruba person goes to a place and sees somebody that may not even speak Yoruba fluently, they will grab you as one of their own. They want to make you part them and be politically inclusive. Everybody is looking for partnership and brotherhood, people are synergising.
If a Hausa man hears you speak Hausa in Abuja, you have a contract done already. Why is it that our people cannot tolerate one another and reduce the squabble around them? Let us begin to remove these things from our psyche; let us begin to allow our children to get married. If you are a mother and your child wants to get married, what you should try to do is to ensure that she is not getting married to a gangster or lazy man, who does not think about the future. If she is getting married to a decent man, please allow them to get married. I said it when I started this journey that God said that if we don’t do this, Igbo will continue to live in disunity in this country and we will never get up from the ground where we are, and from the ground where we are, we will even dig our graves much deeper.
With the call that we obeyed on December 28, I believe that our people should take a cue from that and begin to live a new life. We have Igwes who said that their daughters are getting married to Osu people. The Eze of Nnewi allowed his grand child to get married to someone called Osu. It also happened in Irete. We are one people and we need to have that in mind because that is the only way that the Igbo nation needs to arise and have their pride of place in this nation.
When are we expecting this legal framework?
Between now and the next six months, it may even happen before then, that is in the next four months from January. Our expectation is that before the end of this year, some persons are going to go to jail for violating this law. Let me give you an example, in Enugu State, a certain man broke down and began to cry because he was going to court over his ancestral land that somebody forcefully took away from him.
When they got to the court, the man who took the land openly declared in court that a slave has no right to land ownership. He said this in court and nothing happened. Cases like these are cases that our organisation wants to take on and make sure that whatever they have taken from such persons are returned, and I promise you that people will go to jail for acting in like manner because if people don’t go to jail over these things nothing will happen. The guy who represented the Osu people who spoke to us at Nri said as he was speaking his people had been chased away from their ancestral land because the other people said Osu cannot live alongside them.
Another man who came with him said a lady shook hand with a so-called Diala and the lady was fined N10, 000 for shaking hand with an Osu. All these are happening in the 21st century. I am telling you that if not that I am a true Igbo son that God has blessed; I would have rejected the Igbo nation and joined another tribe. How can such a thing happen because you shook hands with somebody? So, our people need to wake up and stand up against this evil because it is madness; it is wicked, and has to be dealt with. So, between now and the next five to six months, that legal framework will be reactivated and people are going to go to jail for mistreating others.
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