National Conference on Osu Caste System and Untouchability a Success

Keynote speakerIn October (21 – 22) the Nigerian Humanist Movement organized a national conference on Osu Caste system and untouchability.

The event, sponsored by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, was held at Imo State University in Owerri in Southern Nigeria .

The aims of the conference are as follows:

  •   To provide a humanist and human rights based response to caste discrimination in Nigeria .
  •  To identify contemporary manifestations of caste discrimination and concrete measures that could be taken to tackle them.
  •  To galvanize caste victims into action so that they can fight for their rights.
  •  To bring the issue of caste system to the attention of the international community.

Around 100 participants including humanists, human rights activists, intellectuals, teachers, and students, participants came from various institutions of higher learning across  Nigeria – Imo State University, Kaduna State University, University of Lagos, St Augustine’s College, Lagos, University of Calabar, Bowen University, Osun State, Federal University of Technology, Owerri, Federal Polytechnic Nekede, Abia State University Uturu, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Olabisi Onabanjo University Ago Iwoye, University of Port-Harcourt, Rivers State, Madonna University, Okija, Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri etc
Goodwill Messages
The conference received goodwill messages from eminent personalities and organizations around the world. The offices of the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Mr. Kamalesh Sharma, and President of the African Union sent messages of support and solidarity. The conference also got messages from the Amnesty International, International Dalit Solidarity Network, British Humanist Association, Secular Coalition of America, and Center for Inquiry, Minesota Atheists, Hudson Valley Humanists, Tata Institute for Social Science, National Association of Nigerian Students etc

Anti-Osu March
The conference started with a march against caste discrimination. The march commenced at Douglas Road in Owerri city and ended at the gate of the university. Nigerian Humanists led by Patrick Naagbanton marched with members of the Imo Mass Movement, carrying banners and chanting songs in praise of humanism and freedom, and in condemnation of caste prejudice and injustice. Some of the banners read. “Osu Caste System is evil” “Stop caste discrimination” etc.  Many people came to the street side to watch, cheer and collect conference flyers distributed during the march.
Sessions and Presentations
The opening session featured speeches and presentations form the NHM Chair and traditional ruler of Umuchieze autonomous community. Eze Dr Enyeribe Onuoha, Prof. JOL Ezeala of Madonna University, Uche Nwokocha of the National Human Rights Commission, Chief Johnson Okafor, Commissioner for Culture and Tourism, who represented the Governor of Imo State, Chief Ikedim Ohakim and myself.
In his speech, Eze Onouha blamed religious leaders, law makers and politicians for allowing the Osu caste discrimination to fester in the society. He pointed out that “Osu – and – Nwadiala dictotomy is a criminal practice which cannot be tolerated in a democracy” He enjoined the state governors in South-East Nigeria to announce plans to dissolve any autonomous community that does not eradicate the Osu caste system in its domain by the year 2012.”

In a keynote presentation titled The Osu Caste System of the Igbo of Nigeria -A Bizzarre Religious and Human Rights Desecration, Prof. Ezeala argued that “Osu caste system is the greatest human rights violation, which the clergy have allowed to destroy, socially culturally, and psychologically over two million of 16 million Igbo population.”
While Chief Okafor reiterated the commitment of the Imo State Government to eradicating caste discrimination, and upholding the equal rights of all individuals in the state. He commended the Nigerian Humanist Movement for organizing the program, and enjoined other NGOs and civil society groups to join hands with humanists in tackling caste division, hatred and prejudice.
In my speech titled “Lets Make Caste Discrimination History”, I noted that osu caste system was a stain in Igbo culture, conscience and civilization. I pointed out that the practice of untouchability is an indictment on the Igbo claim to common humanity and universal brotherhood. Nigerian humanists plan to take the case of caste victims to the African Commission on Human and People’s rights, European Union and the United Nations. Caste discrimination continues to wax strong among the Igbo despite a legislation passed in 1956 by the then government of Eastern Nigeria abolishing the practice. This social disease has been most pronounced in the areas of marriage and politics. Other presentations focused on caste discrimination, tradition and human rights.
Prof. G. Nwaozuzu traced the origin of the osu custom to an ancient practice that makes a person an untouchable for merely taking refuge in a shrine. She pointed out that the osu tradition is illegal, immoral, and absurd. Barrister Chidi Chimah, discussed the topic “Fundamental Human Rights and the Osu caste system.”

He argued that human rights are inherent and inalienable. And that the osu tradition violates and infringes on the human rights of victims including their right to dignity, and freedom from discrimination. He enjoined caste victims to come out and fight for their rights. Both Rev. Bartholomew Chidili and Mrs. Onyema maintained that a change of attitude – a kind of social engineering (Onyema) – was necessary in eradicating caste system.
Some victims of caste discrimination were at the event. And they narrated their stories and experiences. Osu people are subjected to all forms of violence, persecution, inhuman and degrading treatment by the so called freeborn persons.
Mazi Alexander Nze told participants how his house that was under construction was knocked down by free born because they said he married an osu woman.  Free born persons do not allow osu people to reside in their communities. This is taken as social defilement or contamination. Chief Christopher Eze narrated how his Eziama community in Imo State was attacked and burnt some years ago by some freeborn. According to him, the trouble started after a freeborn called a colleague an osu- a term which taken to be an insult by many across Igboland. In reaction this fellow went and mobilized some youths who dragged the freeborn to the shrine of the local deity – Osuala, and dedicated him to the local god – a ritual process which is believed to have made this freedom an osu.
 As a result of this, free born families went on rampage. They attacked and burnt homes and the market belonging to the osu community including the shrine of the local god-osuala.

But the most pathetic case was that of Amaka Uchendu. Amaka, a postgraduate student at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka told participants how the members of her community refused to have their father buried at home and instead buried him in a forest because the family was said to be osu. According to Amaka, caste discrimination forced her family to go from one church to the other in search of where they would be treated with dignity and respect. Still the discrimination continued in the churches. She stated that in her community, it was forbidden for a freeborn to marry an osu. An osu is not allowed to hold traditional title. Also it is an abomination for a freeborn to attend the wedding ceremony or funeral of an osu.
Engene Ogbuji, an Evangelist, discussed the challenges he faced when he wanted to marry. He said the family of the wife opposed their marriage because he was an osu. But in spite the opposition, they eventually married and are living happily today with their children. There were some victims at the conference who refused to speak because of social stigma. Many stayed away completely. One of them told me phone that he impregnated his girlfriend who is a free born, and when the parents of the girl found out that he was an Osu, they sold the child. There were presentations on caste discrimination in other societies – in Edo State by Jimkelly Abegbe. I read a paper on Untouchability in India by Babu Gogineni. While Norm Allen, co-Director, Center for inquiry – Transnational spoke on Combating Discrimination: Lessons from the American Civil Rights Movement.

The conference came to an end with a stimulating World Humanist Day Lecture on “The Need for Critical Thinking in Nigeria. The lecture was delivered by Dr Jide Akeredolu, a medical practitioner based in Lagos. Igbos and all Nigerians need critical thinking to tackle caste discrimination and untouchability. Humanity needs critical thought to uphold universal human rights and realize a society marked by justices, equality, dignity and self-respect. Many print and electronic media carried news, opinions and commentaries on the conference and the caste system. At the end of the event, participants issued a communiqué which NHM plans to circulate widely

Leo Igwe was there to cover the event  View Gallery

Osu national Conference  Keynote speaker
 participants  Presenter


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