The ‘Caste System’ in Nigeria, Democratization and Culture: Socio-political and Civil Rights implications
By Victor Dike
This essay examines the ‘Caste System’ inNigeria, and the influence of culture on its practice inthe society. It also discusses the socio-political andcivil rights implications of the caste system in thecountry. This article indicates some areas in Nigeria andaround the globe where the practice is common. The‘Osu’ caste system, which is a legacy of ourforefathers, is an ascribed status. It is Nigeria’sversion of ‘Apartheid.’ This system whichencourages segregation, is a threat to the democraticprinciple of freedom of association. And for this, itshould be abrogated.
Note: The Ibos refer to the lower caste group as‘Osu’ or ‘Ume.’ In this article, Iwill use the term, ‘Osu.’
Nigerians are known to hold dear their
customs and traditions. Our belief is our strength and
our weakness: strength in that it is an indispensable
nexus with our past; and it is our weakness because some
of our customs/traditions draw us back. In spite of their
apparent benefits, some of them are dehumanizing and
obsolete. This brings us to the real theme of this essay:
the practice of the ‘Osu’caste system in
Nigeria, and its sociopolitical and civil rights
As a democracy, no Nigerian by reason of social
background should be exposed to discrimination. The caste
system, which ostracizes the lower caste groups from the
rest of their communities, violates the people’s
civil rights. And the caste system, which has no place in
any modern society, has added to human misery in Nigeria.
For this, every peace-loving Nigerian should join hands
with the Archbishop of Owerri, Anthony Obinna, in
condemning the system (African News Agency, May 24,
In any heterogeneous society, the population is normally
subdivided into layers. This stratification makes for
clear distinctions of status or social class. Societies
with ‘slave’ culture would reduce some of their
citizens to a sub-human status. This allows for, and in
many ways encourages ethnocentrism, and hate. By
definition, ethnocentrism is the feeling that is
characterized by or based on the attitude that one’s
own group is superior.
At this point, it is necessary to touch on the issue of
social class as it relates to prejudice. For lack of a
better definition, social class is "a group of
people who participate socially with one another on equal
terms, or who would be willing to do so. They tend to
have similar manners, modes of speech, moral attitudes,
educational levels, and comparable amounts of material
prosperity" (Allport 1979, p.321). The type of
status that is attained by sheer personal effort is
termed an achieved status.
Comparatively, the ‘Caste System’ is an
ascribed or imposed status. One author defines caste as
"an endogamous status group which places culturally
defined limits upon the individual member in terms of
mobility and interaction, and on his nature as a
person" (Humphery 1941, p.159). Serious relationship
of love or intermarriage between the lower caste and the
rest of the community is usually forbidden. At best, the
society’s contact with the caste group is purely
This limited social interaction is colored by
prejudice. Prejudice means a judgment formed before
due examination and consideration of the facts – a
premature or hasty judgment. As it concerns the issue in
discourse, we can formally define prejudice as
"an aversive or hostile attitude toward a person who
belongs to a group, simply because he belongs to that
group, and is therefore presumed to have the
objectionable qualities ascribed to the group"
(Allport 1979, p.7). Ordinarily, prejudice manifests
itself in dealing with individual members of rejected
It is also appropriate to touch on the issue of culture,
because culture, in one way or another, influences the
propagation of the caste system. The Webster’s New
Collegiate Dictionary defines culture as the integrated
pattern of human behaviour that includes thought, speech,
action, and artefacts. It is also the customary beliefs,
social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious,
or social group. The culture of a group depends upon
man’s capacity for learning and transmitting
knowledge to succeeding generations. A society’s
heritage, values, and customs determine its social
Culture and Social Progress
As the definitions show, the culture of
a community influences the behaviour of the people, and
the pace of its socioeconomic development. George Will, a
columnist in the Newsweek Magazine, made a strong case
about the importance of culture in an article titled
"The Primacy of Culture." He pointed out that
the culture of a people – customs, mores,
traditions, values, institutionalized ideas – rather
than just legal institutions and economic policies, are
agents of progress in a society. He quoted Christopher
DeMuth, head of the American Enterprise Institute, as
having argued that the economic prosperity of Western
Europe and North America could be linked to a single word
"culture." George Will went on to say that the
spread of democracy, free markets, technology and
information is not enough to rescue many nations
"from the consequences of their cultural
deficits." He was quick to add that, "such
deficits, although not incurable, are intractable"
(George Will, Jan. 18, 1999, p. 64).
Obviously, the culture of a people is an important
variable in their social progress. Has the
‘slave’ culture of Nigeria (housemaid,
houseboy, master/servant relations, apprenticeship
without remuneration, etc.) any influence on the practice
of the caste system in Nigeria? Are the shrines our
ancestors left behind to blame for the growth of the
caste system? Is the caste system compatible with
Democracy and the ‘Osu’ Caste System
Contemporary democratic thought goes back to the 16th
century or earlier. Since then, the principles of
democracy have been discussed extensively by countless
scholars and political writers. But because of the
relevance of democracy to the issue in discourse, it is
necessary that we re-visit it here. John Locke, the
English philosopher, provided the basic landmark of
democracy in the 17th century. His writing in the latter
part of the 17th century developed in some detail four of
the cardinal concepts of democracy: equality, individual
freedom, government based upon consent of the governed,
and limitations upon the state (Macridis 1983, p.20).
Freedom, as it relates to democracy, involves freedom to
associate with others with nobody impeding the
process. It also involves freedom of thought and
expression, protection of civil rights, among
others. In Nigeria, the concept of democracy the
public has is political: sharing of resources, looting of
the treasury, etc. The main principles are strangely not
put into consideration when discussing the issue of
democracy. By definition, democracy is a "government
by the people as a whole rather than by any section,
class or interest within it" (Scruton, 1982,
pp.115-116). The term also denotes "a system of
government whereby the rights of the individual person -
political, civil, economic, are respected and protected
by the forces of government." It is "a
political system whereby the citizens determine their
mode of rule directly through participation (direct
democracy)" or "indirectly (representative
democracy) by selecting government officials to whom they
grant a mandate to rule. [It is] a rule by the majority
with respect and due consideration to the interest and
rights of the minority…" (Raymond, 1978,
pp.155-157). The portion of the definition of democracy
that is relevant to the issue at hand, is civil liberty -
freedom to associate with others.
Global Perspective on Prejudice
Prejudice - "thinking ill of others without
sufficient warrant" is not peculiar to Nigeria; it
is a global phenomenon (Rev. John LaFarge 1945, p.174).
The ‘Osu’ caste system is more discouraging
than racial discrimination, because it occurs among
people of the same nationality, and among people with the
same skin pigmentation. Comparatively, racial prejudice
occurs mostly between people of different skin colors
(e.g. black and white). And for this, it is not very
difficult to understand.
In South Africa, ‘Apartheid’ (racial
segregation) was the law, before the system was
dismantled in 1994. After that, Nelson Mandela was
elected the first black president of the country.
In South Africa, the English, it is said, are against the
Afrikaner; both are against the Jews; all the three are
opposed to the Indians; while all four conspire against
the native black. Most of the world, including Nigeria,
opposed the repressive rule of ‘Apartheid’ in
South Africa. Yet in Nigeria, we have till today
the caste system, which is as repressive, or even more
repressive, than Apartheid.
In the United States, racial discrimination (which is the
aftermath of slavery and slave trade) is still alive
today. Minorities, mostly people of African descent, are
being treated with callous disregard. However, federal
and state laws by the end of the sixties prohibits
discrimination in all places, and the law weighs heavily
on any person or organization found guilty of this
offence. It is proper to note that discrimination
is now in practice, but chiefly in covert and indirect
ways. It is not primarily in face-to-face situations
where embarrassment would result. There are
discriminations in employment, housing, and in marriage
(In fact, as I write this article, my job is on the line.
Why? Simply, because I am an African). The Ku Klux Klan,
the ‘Skin Heads’, and the "White
Supremacy" are among the ugly reminders of the
dangers of discrimination and prejudice in the United
Adolf Hitler’s hatred for the Jews, and the
atrocities his followers committed at the Auschwitz
concen-tration camp, are still very difficult to
understand. Here millions of men, women, and children,
mostly of Jewish descent were murdered. Between the
summer of 1941 and the end of World War 11 (1939-1945),
about two and a half million people perished at
Auschwitz, in the gas chambers and ovens. This was a
deliberate genocide, which represented what Adolf Hitler
had called the "final solution" of the Jewish
problem (Allport 1979, p.288). Discrimination and
prejudice against the Jews led to the horrible and
In India, the Hindus were regarded as the lowest caste
(outcasts or untouchables). And they performed the menial
jobs in the society. But India’s 1950 constitution
outlawed discrimination by caste (race or lineage), and
the country has since been working hard to bridge the
country’s bitter political divides. Gandhi had
promised the poorest and most downtrodden of the
India’s poor, the untouchables, that democracy would
free them from their misery. Now India’s outcasts
hold high paying jobs; and in the cities they can marry
from other groups. This notwithstanding, in the villages,
prejudice still exists against them.
In Yugoslavia, the present pogrom of the Kosovars (the
Moslem ethnic Albanians), by the Serbian military and
paramilitary forces, has ethnic and religious coloration.
The Kosovars are demanding political autonomy from
Yugoslavia, but Mr. Slobodan Molisevic and his military
might are crushing them. But NATO is not letting the
‘ethnic cleansing’ to go unpunished. The Serbs
are being bombed to submission.
In retrospect, if the apparent positive changes in race
relations are possible in the United States and South
Africa (multiracial societies), why not in Nigeria, which
is a nation of people with the same skin pigmentation?
Internal ‘Apartheid’ in Nigeria?
As I have earlier mentioned, it is relatively easier to
comprehend the gulf between "White and Black"
in the United States or in South Africa, but it is
difficult to understand and fathom the discrimination
among the Igbos, among the Ibibios, or among the Yorubas,
and other groups in Nigeria. Communities in the six
geo-political zones in Nigeria have one variety of caste
system or the other.
In the South-East, the people of Umuaka community in Imo
State, categorized "Amafor" (one of the
10 villages in the community) as ‘Osu’. Some
other minor lower caste groups found in many kindred are
given the pejorative Ibo expression of ‘ndi ejiri
goro ihe.’ This may be translated in English as
"those who are sacrificial lamb to the gods."
Marriage and relationships of love with the rest of the
community is abhorred. Those interested in public office
are not getting the necessary support from the community.
In other words, they are being denied the opportunity to
fully participate in the affairs of the community. And
this has hindered their social upward mobility in the
community. Some avid supporters of the caste system
would not even buy whatever they have for salel in the
market. Why this discrimination?
In the South-South, prejudice prevents the people of
Akwa-Ibom from marrying the people of Etinam Why?
Supposedly, the Etinams do not stay long in marriage. The
strange thing about this is that the people have the same
heritage, and have the same skin pigmentation.
In the South-West, the people of Oshogbo and Ogbomosho
discriminate against each other. Yet they are from the
same geographical area, and have the same ancestry - the
"Oduduwa" family. There exist a mutual
resentment between the Ijebus (Ijebuode) and the Egbas
(Abeokuta) on the one hand, and people of Ibadan on the
other. "If a marriage gets consummated, the
respective villages often invoke a curse/charm on the
couple, and families tend to disown their children"
for marrying from the rejected community.
Note: the above information were extracted from
interviews granted to Dr. Greg Okoro, by Prof. Umuna and
Mr.Odejimi, in Atlanta, GA, in 1997.
Communities in the North-West, North-Central, and
North-East have the same gory stories of discrimination
from their kinsmen. This kind of behaviour, to say the
least, has no place in this world at the twilight of the
20th century, and the beginning of the 21st century. In
fact, Nigeria can not be seen as a democratic nation (our
current democratic transition, the transition from
military to civilian rule started on May 29, 1999), until
this destructive and divisive discrimination among
Nigerians is eradicated.
Like the Africans in the United States, the
‘Osu’ groups in Nigeria have their own labels
too. What are the causes of the dehumanizing social
The ‘Osu’ Caste System and Stereotype
With almost a uniform agreement among white Americans,
African-Americans in error are labelled as lower class
"in mentality and manners." However, stereotype
"is an exaggerated belief associated with a category
[generalization]. Its function is to justify
(rationalize) our conduct in relation to that
category" (Allport 1979, p.191; p.234). Why do
people avoid the ‘Osu’ caste groups? Some
people may tell you it is because they "steal; they
are dishonest; they are dirty; they have repulsive body
odour; and that they are lazy." Yet some people have
many other flimsy reasons, which are not necessary to
recount here. How can anyone believe all these labels?
Unfortunately, people invoke all these type of images to
justify their prejudice. And this is dangerous. According
to psychology, the possession of stereotypes may
interfere with even the simplest rational judgment. There
is scarcely any Nigerian who does not know a stereotype
about the rejected group in his own community, even if
one professes not to hold one. The caste system is an
inhuman treatment that appeals only to the base and
primitive mind - those who are not actively in touch with
events in the modern political world. Some people
would argue that the ‘Osu’ caste system is
simply a way to preserve our custom and tradition. But
for any reasonable person, it is a pure "politics of
unreason" at its highest level (Lipset & Raab
Everything we know, including our knowledge of rights and
wrong, "is an inference that we have drawn on the
basis of our experience" (Locke, as cited in Wooten
1993). The handicaps the Africans suffer in the United
States are socially similar to those the ‘Osu’
groups suffer in Nigeria. The only clear difference
between "a white person and a black person" is
skin pigmentation. But in Nigeria, we are all
Negroid. Any person who has experienced the racial
discrimination in the United States will understand the
havoc this obnoxious tradition has caused on the
so-called ‘Osu’ groups in Nigeria.
It is hypocritical for a person to hate discrimination in
a distance society, while at the same time gently or not
so gently embrace and propagate the same evil in his own
country, or community. If Nigerians are sincere in
their profession of unity and oneness, they should haste
and enfranchise this group. Because "An
injustice unresolved…burns a hole in the heart"
(Cose, Newsweek, April 21, 1997, p.45). And that’s
why these groups are pretty bitter!
Social and Civil Rights Implications
The story of the human race, from age to age, is full of
the struggle to enjoy certain fundamental rights. These
rights include freedom from inhuman treatment; freedom
from slavery; freedom from discrimi-nation; freedom of
thought, assembly and association, and other rights which
are "reasonably justifiable in a democratic
society" (Azikiwe 1965, p.455). And any culture that
abridges freedom of association, is a violation of the
people’s civil rights. For this, the culture
should be abrogated, because it is an insult to the human
An article in the Punch of January 10, 1996 by Mr.
Kupoluyi, resonates my hatred for this repugnant and
inhuman tradition, which our forefathers implanted in our
mists and unfortunately cherished. In the article, a
university graduate who was on a
‘youth-service’ program in a town in Imo State,
was discouraged from dating a beautiful lady who caught
his attention, because she was a member of the so-called
‘Osu’ group (Punch Jan.10, 1996, p.10).
Democracy demands that the human personality in its
course of development should be allowed to proceed
without artificial forces or barricade, so long as this
development does not violate the safety and reasonable
rights of others. For this, the struggle for social
development should not be limited to the
"accumulation of material things such as cars, cash,
TVs, stereos, computers, and super highways" (Okoro
1997). The social development of a nation or a community
must include, among other things, justice, fairness, and
equal treatment for its citizenry. In this way the
nation will achieve, at least for a long time to come, a
desirable "unity in diversity" (Allport 1979,
Thus, any society which is by "affirmation
democratic" is expected to "provide and
protect…" the civil rights of its population
(Smith & Lindeman 1951, p.19). And any person
who violates a person’s civil rights should be given
due consequences without fear, or favor, ill will or
affection. Can citizens of Nigeria learn to seek their
own welfare and growth, not at the expense of their
fellow men, but in concert with them? The Nigerian human
family does not have any meaningful solution to the
‘Osu’caste problem yet. The answers to the
problem are already late, but we do want them to be a
The caste practice is anti-social, because it hinders
people’s free social interaction. Everybody in the
designated ‘Osu’ area is automatically pariah,
irrespective of ones beauty, level of education or
wealth. They are regarded as the lowest species of
mankind, and are treated with contempt. In a society such
as Nigeria where laws are disregarded, they are often
exposed to public ridicule. The subjection of an entire
community to perpetual social misery is an irrational
human behaviour, which has brought the democratic ideal
down to ruin. The abrogation of this evil practice in
Nigeria (and where else it exists) is not a repudiation
of the many meaningful traditional and democratic values
that engender moral and spiritual development in any
The caste system is politically palatable in Nigerian
communities. Some traditional sentiments are
unfortunately expressed, by those who believe in
the preservation of our primitive heritage and customs,
whenever the issue is mentioned. Some of them may
shift uneasily in their chairs; yet other may even tiptoe
away, at the mere mention of the word ‘Osu’.
Those individuals who observe this tradition with
reverence treat any of the so-called ‘Osu’
person with callous disregard.
Like ethnicity, the caste system influences people’s
voting behaviour in Nigeria. Avid supporters of the
system would not give their political support to people
from this group who are seeking public offices. Many
communities may not even elect the best politician from
this group to represent them. A priori, such a person may
be twice as efficient as his ‘non-Osu’
counterpart, yet he will not be supported. This,
undeniably, prevents them from contributing as they
ordinarily would to the socio-political and economic
development of their communities. Rightly or wrongly,
when one is divorced from his community he is likely to
‘careless’ in the affairs of the
Plainly, ardent supporters of this tradition would regard
as insane, any person who suggests the jettisoning of
this evil practice. In fact, by writing on this issue,
some people may even think that I have committed an
abomination. Thus, cultural and customary pressures make
it difficult for individuals whose private attitudes are
against the caste system to fall-short of its forensic
condemnation or its outright eradication. Any person who
resists the social pressure, by refusing to hate and
avoid the proscribed groups may be greeted with derision
or social persecution. Some people might even vote
against him if he is running for public office. For
instance, in the United States friendly social relations
with Africans by ‘Whites’ in some parts of the
society brings accusation of "communism" or
"nigger-loving" (Allport 1979, p.237). But as
human beings, we should bear in mind that, historically,
the common culture of any system that violates human
rights is not only inhuman, but also anti-democracy.
The effects of the caste system are like those of racial
prejudice. Some people might argue that since race
is "God-given" the disparate treatment of the
groups in the society is normal. That a person like the
lady in the Punch article, and a host of other
individuals of good character, should be deprived of
God’s given right and privilege of free association,
is purely preposterous. This is tantamount to drawing a
definite circle or building an impenetrable wall (iron
curtain) around a group, or banishing them for
life. This tradition must go, because it holds us
back. These people are human, and all human beings
should have the opportunity to participate in
relationships of care, and to be loved. How can Nigeria
eradicate the caste system, which divides and alienates
There are no easy solutions to the complex issues of
prejudice and discrimination. But as human beings, we can
not cease to search for answers to our problems.
Solutions toward the ‘Osu’ system should
concentrate on effecting some changes in the social
structure (with legislation) and in personal structure
(with education). Meanwhile, some of the possible
* Legislation: Appropriate and an enforceable
legislation will go a long way to reducing, if not
eradicating, discrimination against the so-called
‘Osu’ groups in Nigeria. There is a
considerable gap between a law ‘on the book’
and a law "in action." Without competent
enforcement, any law is a dead letter.
Let me use this
medium to appeal to the new democratic government of
President Olusegun Obasanjo
to adopt bills that
would outlaw any form of discrimination in Nigeria,
especially, those based on the
* Education: The main purpose of education
(intercultural education) is to remedy ignorance, so that
prejudice will decrease. It is important that the youth
are exposed more to this type of education, because they
are our future leaders. Planting the right ideas in their
mind will destroy the stereotypes that surround the
groups, and develop friendly attitudes. Formal education
and home (parental) education are important; the teaching
of virtue is good for any society.
* Religion: Religious leaders should exhort their
followers to practice brotherly love. The church taught
us that we are all equal, and that there should be no
persecution, for any reason, of any group. ‘God hath
made of one blood all nations’ and all people. Why
* Contact: Social programs that encourage contacts
with the ‘Osu’ groups are necessary to
eradicate the prevailing stereotypes about them. Contacts
and acquaintances make for friendliness. The government
(federal, state, and local) should sponsor these
programs. Communication can help break-up barriers with
groups that are quarantined. Please open up, and join the
* The Mass Media: The mass media should disseminate
appropriate information to the public. For any solution
to be effective, the mass media must play an active role.
* Individual Therapy: This will help to change the
attitudes of the ‘die-hards’ and those ‘on
* The Court and law enforcement: The Nigerian judicial
system, which has been tainted with bribes, should be
restructured and equipped to handle discrimination cases.
And the police should be trained on the nature of
discrimination. To the police officer: do not sit on any
discrimination case if the victim refuses to offer you a
bribe. Because justice delayed, is justice denied!
The solutions indicated here are not by any means
exhaustive. It is certain that efforts to eradicate
this social cankerworm in Nigeria may be resisted by the
ignorant and illiterate class. But any person who thinks
that the human flesh would make interesting meat should
pinch his skin to see how painful it feels.
One of the reasons why democracy had for long eluded
Nigeria (I hope that our present experiment will hold),
was because of our inability to pull out of the mire of
yesterday’s thinking. The society should
discard any primitive ideas and attitudes that will drag
us back. The caste practice is one of those, because it
is anti-democracy. The whole nation is bound to lose if
we fail to make meaningful use of all the human resources
available to us. If Nigeria cannot settle this
important issue of concern, the fault must lie not in
Nigeria as a nation, but on its dramatis personae: that
is, the characters of the politicians who are running the
affairs of our communities. Posterity will most probably
see it in the same fashion as Shakespeare did, when he
said to the immortal ‘Julius Ceaser’ that the
‘…fault is not in our star but in
This takes me to another important area of concern -
leadership in Nigeria, which unfortunately, is beyond the
scope of this essay. Nevertheless, it suffices to
say that in order to solve crucial problems in the
nation, our people must ensure that those elected to
manage the affairs of Nigeria are people with strong
political will. Our inability to move forward has been,
in my modest opinion, due to leadership ineptness.
Nigeria needs a leader who possesses the power to
‘invoke the alchemy of great vision.’ And
Nigeria needs a national leader who is incapable of being
infected by the virus of inordinate political ambition.
So, let us talk about this evil system; and let us act on
it. Remember Wole Soyinka’s pragmatic dictum:
"the man dies in all who keep silent in the face of
tyranny" (Soyinka 1972, p.13).
And as Martin Luther King, Jr., points out, "I have
a dream that one day the children of slaves and the
children of the slave-masters will join hands…and
walk together as sisters and brothers" (Rev. Martin
Luther King, Jr., 1963). Finally, let us join hands and
push back this wall of ignorance for justice, fairness,
equity, individual freedom, respect, and harmony. This
should be Nigeria’s challenge for the next
Victor Dike, Sacramento,
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Will, George (Jan. 18, 1999) "The Primacy of
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See All African News Agency (May 24, 1999) "Catholic
Bishops Agree on Need to Abolish Bad Customs" for
Anthony Obinna, Archbishop of Owerri, Imo State.
Transmitted 13 June 1999