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This research work is aimed at revealing the osu caste system and it’s practices in Igboland, A case study of Isiekenesi in Ideato South Local Government Area of Imo state.

The osu system could not be easily removed in Igbo land because of the attitudes of the Igbos toward their traditional religion, norms and traditions. Despite the fact that the church, government, schools and mass media are making drastic efforts in order to eradicate the practice of osu caste system in Igbo culture, it still persists.

It was on this basis that the researcher was prompted to write on osu caste system with regards to it’s socio-political consequences in Isiekenesi and on the society at large, thereby exposing it’s dangers. This work seeks to substitute for historical complacency- a stimulus to fresh action and goes to show according to Abraham Lincoln that ‘9 nations cannot be half- free and half slave’ which definitely would create an unprecedented division.





Title page                                                                                                       i

Approval page                                                                                  ii

Certification page                                                                                        iii

Dedication                                                                                                     iv

Acknowledgement                                                                                        v

Abstract                                                                                                         vi

Table of Contents                                                                                         vi i


Background to The study                                                                            1

Statement of Problem                                                                                  2

Purpose of Study                                                                                          4

Significance of the Study                                                                            4

Definition of Terms                                                                                     5

Scope of the Study                                                                                       7

Methodology and Review                                                                           7

Literature Review                                                                                        11

End notes                                                                                                       14


Socio- Political Organization                                                                     16

Economic Organization                                                                              18

End Notes                                                                                                      20


Initiation and Rites                                                                                     24

Types and ways of becoming Osu                                                                        25

Osu Place in Igbo Traditional Setting                                                      27

End Note                                                                                                        30


The Socio-Economic Consequence of Osu Caste System.                   31

Osu Caste And The Effects In Isiekenesi Town                                      33

Human Rights and the Caste System                                                        34

The Changing Status of Osu                                                                       42

Christian Attitude Towards Osu                                                               45

The Government And The Osu System                                  48

The Igbo Elites And The Osu System                                               50

End Note                                                                                 52


Summary Of Findings                                                                                 53

Conclusion                                                                                                    54

Recommendations                                                                                       54

Bibliography                                                                                                 56

Part II                                                                                                              60

Oral Interviews                                                                                            60





It is so appalling that our formal egalitarian society has been thwarted of its initial communal bond as a result of social stratification which eventually led to class inequality. This social stratification has been greeted with violations of human rights, man inhumanity to man, oppression of the less powerful etc. Worthy of note are the victims of Afro-Americans, American Indians in the United States, albinos in Africa, apartheid in South Africa, the caste in India. In Nigeria especially in Isiekenesi town of Imo State, this ugly incidence is reflected in the osu caste system.

Some particular set of humans were openly declared “persona-non-grata” They were despised, marginalized, discriminated against, ostracized and condemned because they are deemed to be of questionable ancestry. These set of people are labelled osu or caste. Despite the progress in education, industrialization and material wealth, the osu caste system remains a social ill in Igboland. People are classified into different group such as {slave}’Ohu” outcaste ‘osu’ freeborn Nwafo or Nwadiala etc.

This project is basically based on the osu caste system. It tries to examine the numerous myths posited to buttress its existence. The issue of ‘osu” had been prevalent in the olden days and still lingers till date such that those associated with the osu caste are highly dreaded and are not considered as earthly beings.

There are several myths attached to “osu” that they are regarded and associated with gods, no one dares touch them nor would anyone spill osu’s blood .Osu system is a social stigma and as such, a cob-web tied to any person, who is a descendant of such group described above. Despite the fact that osu caste is a social ill, it is sad to note that most villages in Isiekenesi in Ideato South L.G.A in Imo state have not realized its dangers. As people discriminate against others, it spurs resentment and threatens to instil insecurity among the populace. With this in view, Nzimiri notes that; “Discrimination has been regarded as enemy and evil bound to their tradition and superstations, it makes people resistance to change and new ideas and isolated from progress thus, unaware and   incapable of their changing environment and ever progressing world.”1


The consolidation of Christianity which strictly opposes social stratification, coupled with western civilization some of such problem associated with osu caste system seem to have diminished although there are still some noticeable discriminations against socio-psychological problems viz:-

  1. The fact that the osu belong to no common ancestral lineage, and have no symbols of a common real and known ancestor namely “Indichie” and “ofo’ and as such, they are believed to have no morality and no after life.
  2. Since osu was renounce as a sacrificed person, and sacrifice as we know, involves a transposition of an object, animal or person, from the secular to the sacred state. This transposition works a psychological change of attitude in the person who offers, contributes, provides for or performs the actual sacrificial ceremony. In the case of an osu, this change of an attitude determines and affects his future relationship with those who scarified him.
  3. It should also be noted that the inherent discrimination against this stratum purports a very serious social injustice. This unfortunate social system has continued to prevail all through to the present society. So many people embraced and accepted it as part of the custom of our people. Agitations for its abrogation are frowned at many quarters as a social engineer; therefore it is my view to investigate this conceptual framework and its resultant negative effects in Isiekenesi town.






This research work is aimed at giving an expository view-point of osu caste system as a method of social stratification in Isiekenesi town.

  1. It hopes to highlight the history of Isiekenesi, and within that context, to unravel the osu caste system among the people of Isiekenesi.
  2. The study also aims at demonstrating how the osu caste system operates among the people of Isiekenesi.
  3. It discusses the various ways the practice has impacted on the town and people of Isiekenesi


This research work is significant in so many ways:

  1. It will serve as a reference material to future researchers, especially in the area under discussion.
  2. It will expose the leadership of Isiekenesi to the evils of this lingering evil practice, and motivate them to halt it.
  3. The work is expected to awaken the spirit of some researchers who may wish to investigate the Igbo caste system and other aspects of the system elsewhere.





Lewis (1969) defined caste as “an endogamous and hereditary subdivision of an ethnic unit occupying a position of a superior or inferior rank or social esteem in comparison with other such sub divisions.”2


Roland (1976) stated that “culture is that complex whole which includes, belief art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”.3


According to J.M Okafor (1985)“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 saviour”.4


Okeke Igwebuike R. (1986) defined the osu caste system as “an invented conventional religious preposition established by our fore fathers through religious ceremonies with religious apparatus to serve as religious purpose”.5




Bohannan in his African Outline stated that a slave in this sense refers to people who are attached to domestic group by non-kingship links of a sort that contains element of servility.


Freeborn is neither a slave nor an outcaste and has legal right to participate in any societal activities he/she wishes.


Titled men and elders who are held in high esteem in Igboland.


This refers to an endorsed marriage system which only people of a social stratum, marry one another.


This refers to putting an end to an old custom, it was measured as follows:-Mass education of people, legislation of government giving it enough to die off.


This study covers the social history of Isiekenesi in Ideato South Local Government Area of Imo State. Isiekenesi has an estimated population of 674,000 people, the component villages of the town are: – Dimagu, Okohia, Awala, Umuaghobe, Umuojishi and Isieke

The segment of population of Isiekenesi that formed the subjects of our research include the educated and illiterates, the old and the young, animists (that is the traditionalist) and Christians alike; titled elders and non-titled elders and people servants.


Research setting

This research covers Isiekenesi in Ideato South Local Government Area of Imo State. Isiekenesi has a population of about 80,000 people based on 2006 National Census. Isiekenesi consist of six autonomous communities. This includes: DIMAGU, OKOHIA, UMUAGHOBE, AWALLA, UMUOJISHI and ISIEKE.

In the pre-colonial era, Isiekenesi was a typical agrarian society. Today, commerce and trading has become the predominant economic activity of the people of Isiekenesi. They are well known in trading of cash crops, raffia palm and palm oil, and other agricultural commodities. Most of their cash crops are taken to the market depending on the market that falls when they intend to sell their farm produce (Eke, Orie, Afo and Nkwo).

In terms of social structure, the traditional economy of Isiekenesi gives to a feudal type of government. Here we find some of the elders among the “Umunna” lording it over the younger ones on the other hand, we have the wealthy, the middle class, the poor as well as the cult slaves (Osus) in the modern economy.

Politically, the form of government is that found elsewhere in Igboland. The insignia of a titled man varies, the thread of the ivory ark, the red cap with feathers, and the horse plume which could also be carried in the hands. A titled man is immediately recognizable, always and everywhere. The basic unit of Igbo life was the village group. The village was a same face to face society. In traditional Igboland, enlargements of scale offered no obvious advantages and the same-scale of her political institutions made true democracy possible.  An early visitor to a Niger Igbo town said that he felt he was in a free land, among free people, another visitor, a French man, said that liberty existed in Igboland its name was not inscribed on any monument. The political unit in Isiekenesi are the family and the village group or clan. In other words, it corresponds to household sub-lineage, village and village group but generally, the political system is organized along a wed of kingship relations. The people of Isiekenesi are also religious people. Most of them are traditionalist though the era of modern age has transformed most of their religious ideas to embrace Christianity. There also exists a number of local deities believe to form part of the destiny of the village or town. The local deities have local shrines where sacrifices and feast are held. There is a remarkable culture of Isiekenesi town in the Igbo traditional kindness to visitors, which begins with the offering of the kola nuts to the visitors is enriched in the communities of Ideato South. The kolanut is indicating that the visitor is very much welcome. The ritual of the offering of kolanut is inspired with the giving in prayers and blessings or lobby to the supreme God and other deities, for the protection of the visitor and the host. This seems to be a custom to the people of Isiekenesi in any traditional ceremony, the presentation of African salad (abacha). The Okonko festival of Umuezeala-Ogboko is very rich and unique, there are also several social titles which feature outstandingly throughout Isiekenesi in Ideato-South. The chieftaincy titles are very common and highly regarded. They include; Eze (king), Okenze, Nze, Ozo, Ichie, Durunze etc. on the other hand, an Nze has to be a free born, and neither father nor forefathers, ought to have been slaves or Osu, cult slaves dedicated to a god. He must be of a respectable character and be a responsible citizen. There is also the cylindrical ceremony like the ‘iwa akwa’. This is a festival in Isiekenesi which takes place once every year normally during the harvest season. This is when the New Yam harvested are eaten. People who reside outside Isiekenesi who are natives of Isiekenesi come back for this festival. There is also another ceremony that normally take place whenever two people are about to get married. This is called ‘iju ese’. Both families go all out to investigate on their families to find out if any of the couples involved in an osu. This signifies that the institution prompting the osu is still recreated hence the residence of the institution. There is also some market symbols for instance, they don’t fix occasions or do burial on Afoukwu day. This means that the market is held sacred by Isiekenesi people. And this is a typical example of the resilient traditional value encroaching on the modern.

Isiekenesi also operates patrilineal descent system of kingship in order words, Isiekenesi is organized on kingship lines with strong kingship ties in religion, economic and political affairs.

The kind of union being blood-ties and the land.

Our choice of this place is because not much study has been made on the osu caste in Isiekenesi. And this explains why we are carrying out this study in the first place.



Osu caste system can in literally terms be defined as an institution which is composed of individuals dedicated to Igbo local deities. The dedication often takes the form of sacrificial appeasement to the deities which in the olden times demanded for human servants or slaves.

According to Chinua Achebe, in the “things fall apart”, most clearly defined an osu as a person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart-a taboo forever, and his children after him. He could neither marry nor be married by a freeborn. He was in fact an outcast, living in a special area of the village close to the Great shrine. Wherever he went, he carried with him the mark of his forbidden caste, tangled and dirty hair. A razor was a taboo to him. An osu could not attend an assembly of the freeborn, and they in turn, could not shelter in his roof. He could not take the four titles of the clan, and when he died, he was buried by his kind in the evil forest 6

In most cases, according to Okafor J.M.“Osu and Ohu have semblance and the two should not be confused with each other, their origin could be the same but the use to which they are put when brought home is what makes difference. It is the use to which each is put that determines their status in the community. Nevertheless both osu and ohu could be bought with money. Both could be victims of kidnapping, both could be war captives while osu was consecrated to a juju-god by which act he became an out caste, there was nothing so much demoralizing as to be designated or called an Osu”.7 The osu system was practiced in many parts of Igboland, but it had its tap root, in the Imo State, Mbano to be precise.

In most parts of Igboland, the system in which some members of the community were designated as osu was very rampant. A person could become an Osu if he was originally bought and dedicated to the juju god of the land. In those days any of the gods could speak to its people through divination that it was in need of osu its own slaves if the towns people had no ready human being, generally a man and a woman, they will go a far-off and buy. Such was the norm and practice which was rampant in ancient Igbo culture especially before the advent of white missionaries.

Reverend Basden-1988-246 wrote that osu was a slave, but owned by the god. His descriptions below paint a vivid picture of the system in his plain language a living sacrifice he has no prospect of regaining his freedom and restricts his movements to the precincts of the shrine he is attached, to the osus were distinguished from free men by their busy hair and absence of one ear.8

On the Osu system, Cardinal Francis Arinze a renowned Igbo cardinal of the catholic communion 1980:91 write that ‘Osu is a person who is specifically consecrated to a spirit that has a shrine he is symbolically immolated and is then left to live as a child or slave of his alusi(deity) .

Malinowski .B. described osu as more or less like the untouchables of India and probably was in worse position. As osu was regarded as a degraded human being not fit for the companionship and association of descent and respectable men and women in the society an out caste fit only to be sacrifices to the idols for the propitiation of the gods.9

The laws of Eastern Nigeria -1963-provide the legal authentic and acceptable definition of Osuin Nigeria viz;

“Any social way of living which implies that any person who is deemed to be an osu or ohu is subject to certain prescribed social disability and social stigma. An Osu may be a person who was sacrificed to a shrine or as social rights pariahs with no social rights which non Osus are bound to respect”.10










End notes

  1. Izimiro; Studies in Ibo political system, London. 1972, p-27
  2. Lewis J.; Anthropology made simple, Lond. 1976, p-118
  3. Roland De Vaux,; Ancient Israel, Lond, 1976,p-85
  4. M. Okafor: The Challenge of Osu Caste System to the Igbo Christians, Onitsha, veritas, 1993,p-63
  5. Okeke Igwebuike. R : The Osu Concept in Igboland p-10
  6. Chinua Achebe.C; Things Fall Apart, p142.
  7. M.,Okafor.. The Challenge of Osu Caste System to the IgboChristians, Onitsha, Veritas, 1993, p-63.
  8. T. Basden ; Among the Ibo of Southern Nigeria, Lond. (1966) p-109.
  9. Malinowski, B., Crime and Customs in Savage Society, London, 1969, p 120
  10. Laws of Eastern Nigeria, 1963, vol 1




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