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Enugu: How kingship tussle exposed ostracism practice in Ishi-Ozalla

It came as a surprise to many residents and indigenes of Enugu State recently when the people of Edeaniagu, one of the villages in Ishi-Ozalla town in Nkanu West Local Government Area of the state staged a peaceful protest at Government House, Enugu, alleging that they have been ostracised by Ishi- Ozalla town.

The issue of ostracism, which is associated with Ohu (slave) or Osu (outcast) or Mbiambia (settlers) system in Igbo land has been an age-long tradition, which modernity and religion have been battling to banish. It is a system where those who claim to be the freeborn (amadi) or aborigines are in a constant superiority contest with the former when it comes to kingship and in some cases, communal land ownership. In the olden days, to be an Ohu, Osu or Mbiambia, it will be difficult to aspire to the rank of Eze or Igwe (Monarch) of the community.

But the influence of religion and western education has had a serious toll on such practice in many parts of Igbo land. Some communities have gone ahead to abolish such practices of segregation or discrimination. However such practices are still apparent, though not so pronounced in few communities. In Enugu State, the ancient discriminatory practice of ohu/amadi (slave/ freeborn), is very much active in almost all Nkanu communities of Enugu East Senatorial District.

But the people of Ishi-Ozalla town in Nkanu West Local Government Area in a celebrated event unanimously abolished the practice in 2018. In 2018, Ndi Jinze, (the custodians of culture and tradition), traditional rulers, town union leadership together with all other stakeholders in the community, agreed to do away with the obnoxious past. They performed traditional rites to discard the ancient practice and created equal social status among all indigenes of the community. Dignitaries of Nkanu land were present at the ceremony to witness and lend their support. They included the Second Republic civilian Governor of old Anambra State, Senator Jim Ifeanyichukwu Nwobodo; former Minister for Power, Prof. Barth Nnaji, among many others.

Businessmen from the community and from other parts of Nkanu land, academia, politicians and people from all walks of life graced the occasion. The clergy were in their numbers led by the Archbishop of Anglican Communion, His Grace, Most Rev. (Dr) Emmanuel Chukwuma; representative of the Catholic Bishop of Enugu Diocese; Methodist Archbishop of Enugu Diocese, Rt. Rev (Barr) Christopher Edeh; Methodist Bishop Emeritus, Most Rev. M. U Ogoh; Chairman of Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria, PFN, in Enugu State, Bishop (Dr.) Godwin Madu among others.

The church leaders commended Ozalla community for ‘daring’ to do away with the past, acknowledging it as a historic event which they prayed would be replicated in other communities in Enugu State to eradicate the inhuman discrimination. Bishop Chukwuma in his homily, said: “Indeed the old things have passed away,” noting that one problem with Ndigbo was that they don’t forget the past.

He added: “All men and women were created equal by God and in his own image. Christianity came around to abolish fetishism and all other forms of bondage and social discrimination.” The traditional ruler of Umuanee- Ozalla, HRH Igwe Crescent Okafor, said: “The abolition of Ohu na Amadi is the assignment that God accomplished for us through his words which says ‘if those who are called by my name shall humble themselves and pray…”

It was because the above event marked the end of the caste system in the entire Ozalla that surprised many observers when the people of Edeaniagu village in Oshi-Ozalla staged the demonstration with the strange allegation of ostracism. But when the protesters also mentioned that one of their own Sylvester Nweke was prevented from contesting the vacant traditional stool of the Igwe of the town, it became apparent to discerning minds where the problem might be coming from. The state Governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, was also shocked to hear the allegation as he wasted no time in declaring that the state government would not tolerate the archaic practice of ostracism in any part of the state. He dismissed the report that the people of Edeaniagu village were ostracized from Ishi-Ozalla in Nkanu West Local Government Area of the state.

He told the protesters that such practice had no place in the state. The governor, thereby, suspended the March 22, 2021, proposed election to fill the kingship stool in the community, which was at the centre of the crisis. Ugwuanyi directed the Chief of Staff to the State Government, Mr Festus Uzor, to initiate peace talks between the various interests in the community. According to the governor, people in crisis cannot be allowed to go into such an election. Earlier, the leader of the group, Chief Munachimso Okoye, said they had gone to notify the governor about a looming crisis in their community. Okoye, a priestess of Edeaniagu village, described the current situation in their village as ominous. She said the community had been without a king since the death in 2012, of their traditional ruler, Igwe Frank Nweke, the father of former Minister of Information, Mr. Frank Nweke II.

She said the community had known no peace since then as some prominent politicians had hijacked the administration of the community. She said the constitution of Ishi- Ozalla Development Union empowered any of the 12 villages in the community to field candidates during the election of a traditional ruler. But in a quick rebuttal, the people of Ishi-Ozalla dismissed the allegation. A statement signed by Obinna Nvene, President General and Ikechukwu Igweonyia Ngene Public Relations Officer of Ishi-Ozalla Town Union, the community said: “The attention of the Ishi-Ozalla Town Union has been drawn to the allegations of ostracisation levelled against the entire community by some individuals within a section of the community.

“We hereby state without equivocation that no one has been ostracized from Ishi-Ozalla Autonomous Community. Ishi-Ozalla is a progressive and peace-loving community and together with the other four autonomous communities in Ozalla town – Etiti- Ozalla, Obeagwu-Ozalla, Okorouba-Ozalla and Obeagwu-Ozalla, on September 1, 2018, accomplished the widely applauded and historic Project for the Abolition of Segregation in Ozalla (PASO) which ended all forms of social discrimination in the entire community.

“Laudable as the initiative was, the greater Ozalla community recognised that segregatory practices had been in existence for centuries, and therefore established a standing committee known as the Ozalla Unity Committee (OUC) which principal responsibility was to nurture the abolition initiative and manage issues that may arise on a matter related thereto on an ongoing basis. What was achieved by Ozalla on September 1, 2018, was historic and to date has not been successfully replicated in any other community across Nkanu land and Enugu State in general.” The town union leaders called on all persons of goodwill within and outside Ozalla should see that achievement as a legacy worthy of preservation and should desist from actions or utterances that may undermine that historic initiative.

He said: “Most importantly, our people have lived together in peace and harmony through the ages and we must therefore resist any and all attempts to undermine the harmony and peaceful coexistence between and amongst the entire people of Ozalla.” The town union leaders said that they were surprised by the allegation by Munachimso Okoye that her village, Edeaniagu was ostracized and that one Sylvester Nweke, who happens to be her brother, was prevented from contesting the Igweship stool.

They said Nweke had in defiance to the constitution of the community and directives of the State Ministry of Chieftaincy Matters, which placed an embargo on chieftaincy elections crowned himself the Igwe of the community. And that when the matter was reported to the security agencies Nweke went into hiding, and that it took the intervention of the governor, Ugwuanyi to make Nweke denounce the title with a written apology that he would not do such again. The community stated that when the embargo was lifted and the governor gave the approval for the community to elect their traditional ruler, the Ministry of Chieftaincy Matters alongside the elders of the community set the process in motion, which includes that anybody interested should obtain the form from the selection community as well as from the Ministry with. They said that nobody was denied the right to contest.

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