The ‘Caste System’ in Nigeria, Democratization and Culture: Socio-political and Civil Rights implications

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This essay examines the ‘Caste System’ in Nigeria, and the influence of culture on its practice in the society. It also discusses the socio-political and civil rights implications of the caste system in the country. This article indicates some areas in Nigeria and around the globe where the practice is common. The ‘Osu’ caste system, which is a legacy of our forefathers, is an ascribed status. It is Nigeria’s version of ‘Apartheid.’ This system which encourages segregation, is a threat to the democratic principle of freedom of association. And for this, it should be abrogated.

Note: The Ibos refer to the lower caste group as ‘Osu’ or ‘Ume.’ In this article, I will 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 implications.

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, 1999).


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 superficial.

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 groups.

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 progress.

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?

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 States.

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 unpardonable homicide.

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 stereotyping?   

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 1970, p.547).

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 race.
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, p.518).

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 minute latter!

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 society.

Political Implications

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 community.

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 its people?

Possible Solutions

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 solutions are:

* 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
       ‘Osu’ caste system.
* 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 hate?
* 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 crusade!
* 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 fence.’
* 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 ourselves.’
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 millennium.

 Victor Dike, Sacramento, California


Allport, Gordon W. (1979) The Nature of Prejudice. 25th Anniversary Edition, Addison-Wesley Publication Company.
Azikiwe, Nnamdi  (1965).   “Essentials for Nigerian Survival,”   Foreign Affairs – An American Quarterly Review, April,  1965, vol. 43, No. 3, p.455.
Cose, Ellis (April 21, 1997); “Forgive and forget?” Newsweek, April 21, 1997, p.45.
Cox, O. C. (1948); Caste, Class, and Race. New York: Doubleday, 1948, p.393.
Humphery, N. D. & Lee, A. M. (1943). Race Riot. New York: Dryden, 1943.
Humphery, N. D. (1941). American race and caste. Psychiatry, 1941, p.15p
Lipset, Seymour M. and Raab, Earl  (1970).   The Politics of Unreason, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p.5.
Locke, John  (1993).   With an introduction by David Wooten,   Political Writings of  John Locke,  A Mentor Book, London, 1993, p.17.
LaFarge, S. J., (1945). in The Race Question and the Negro. New York: Longmans, Green, 1945.
Macridis, Roy C. (1983). Contemporary Political Ideologies – Movements and Regimes. 1983, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Toronto, p.20.
Mill, John Stuart (1993).  With an introduction by Alan M. Dershowitz,   On Liberty and Utilitarianism,  Bantam Books, N.Y., Auckland, 1993, pp. 20-21.
Okoro, Greg (1997) “A Social emancipation Crusade: The Hearts & Voices of Our Town: Reaching Out, Lifting Somebody” (1997). Unpublished Manuscript.
Smith, T.V., and Lindeman, Edward C., (1951).   The Democratic Way of  Life,  Mentor, N.Y, 1951, p.91.
Raymond, Walter J. (1978); Dictionary of Politics. Brunskwick Publishing Company, pp.155-157.
Scruton, Roger (1982). A Dictionary of Political Thought. Harper and Row Publishing Company, pp.115-116).
Soyinka, Wole (1972).  The Man Died,  Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, p.13.
Will, George (Jan. 18, 1999) “The Primacy of Culture”  Newsweek, Jan. 18, 1999, p.16.
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.

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