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Revisiting the Asaba massacres

By Obi Nwakanma
MY attempt this week is to bring some attention to the subject of the Asaba massacres, one of the haunting ghosts of Nigeria’s last civil war. I pay particular tribute to Emma Okocha – Onye Amuma Cable – author of Blood on the Niger, the chilling account of the Asaba massacres of October 7, 1967.

More than any other individual, Okocha has pursued the Asaba story with the temerity of a survivor, and the hardnosed instincts of a well-trained journalist. He has brought attention to the great evil that Nigerians love to forget: the attempt at selective annihilation of a people through acts of terrible war crimes.

Asaba has become Okocha’s life work; an obsession. He says it is to bring closure, and give final rest to those who perished that day in Asaba. But I suspect something much deeper and personal. Of course it is up close and personal for Emma Okocha. He is from Asaba; he survived the massacres; but his entire family perished.

The Igbo name their children, “Echezona/Echezola”- never forget, and “Odoemene/Ozoemena”- May this never happen again. These are names in recoil from harsh memory.

These I think are the profound sentiments that propel Okocha’s pursuit to reopen the case of the Asaba mass killings, compel the official acknowledgement of war crimes by the Nigerian government, and force a visible war memorial in honour of the dead of October 1967 – the “Asaba Memorial.”

Happily, Emma Okocha’s work is drawing attention to one of modern Africa’s darkest war crimes. Last week, the University of Southern Florida, Tampa, convened the Asaba Memorial symposium to reopen the issue, and unveil “the long-buried tragedy” led by the anthropologists Elizabeth Bird and Erin Kimmerle and Fraser Ottanelli, chairman of the department of history, in collaboration with the USF Libraries Holocaust and Genocide Studies Centre.

They have also recruited a Tampa Police homicide detective Charles Massucci to gather documents, record oral histories and to examine mass graves and recover evidence of the Asaba genocide.

Let me briefly place the Asaba tragedy in context for those who may either have forgotten, or who may not know about it, especially many contemporary Nigerians who may have been born after the war, and who ought to know the many evils that haunt Nigeria.

In May 1967, Eastern Nigeria declared secession from the old federation of Nigeria and declared itself the republic of Biafra. Eastern Nigerian secession naturally culminated in the Nigerian political crisis leading to the January 15, 1966 coup led by Emma Ifeajuna that overthrew the government of the first republic, and the July 29, 1966, led by Murtala Muhammed, and directed by Yakubu Gowon who subsequently took over as military head of state.

The July coup spiraled into the selective annihilation of all Igbo military officers and snowballed into a pogrom of the Igbo.

The Aburi agreements reached to stem the slide collapsed, and the Gowon administration in Lagos peremptorily dissolved the regions and created the twelve states on May 27, 1967, thus subverting as the government in the East saw it, the fundamental authority and rights of the regional governments, and complicating the East’s capacity to offer security to its people who had fled to it.

Odumegwu-Ojukwu, military governor of the Eastern region, on advise from the Eastern Nigerian Consultative Assembly declared secession, and announced the independent republic of Biafra three days later, on May 30, 1967.

The stage was set for an epic conflict. The government in Lagos declared war and attacked Biafra on July 6, fighting from Ogoja and Nsukka. By September, the Biafran capital was threatened.

That September, however, Biafra launched its own attack, a diversionary and tactical move through the Midwest; brilliant in conception, but poor in execution.

Brigadier Victor Banjo, leading the “Liberation Army” from Onitsha, made a lightning move into Benin City and was close to taking Lagos and Ibadan, in what then seemed a cake walk, when he suddenly lost the will to fight.

Old Biafra intelligence sources hint that Banjo had been told in unmistakable terms, in his meeting with the deputy British high commissioner in Benin, that the Brits might be forced to provide logistical support to Gowon from the sea, and attack Lagos with its special forces already nearby, off the coasts.

The prospects of the Brits bombing Lagos and turning “Yorubaland” into a bloody battle field forced Banjo to stymie the Liberation Army in Benin City, and order a hasty withdrawal. It also allowed the federal troops led by Murtala Muhammed to reorganize and retake the Midwest. Asaba was doomed from that moment.

The massacre of Igbo civilians began from Benin City with the arrival of the federal forces. Folks in Benin went house by house identifying and killing their Igbo neighbours. Murtala’s Army already war drunk thus arrived Asaba with bloodlust.

The account of what happened in Asaba is well documented in Emma Okocha’s Blood on the Niger. It is also the subject of my poem, The Horsemen, an elegy to that era.

But to put it quite simply, the troops under Murtala Muhammed and the late Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, both of whom also ironically met death on the same day in 1976, supervised the killing of the adult males of Asaba.

They had ordered them to dance at the town square, separated the men from the women, and killed them.

Ironically, one of those killed was Sydney Asiodu, a potential Olympic medalist and undergraduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His brother, Philip Asiodu was then a super permanent secretary in Gowon’s administration in Lagos.

Even then, Asaba was only one of the places where the Nigerian military committed war crimes of such horrendous magnitude during that war, and have sought to cover it up and even erase them.

Many of those who have strutted about as Nigeria’s military heroes indeed ought to be brought to account for their war crimes.

It is the legacy of impunity that continues to haunt Nigeria, and continues to breed the kind of viciousness that would lead to the mindless destruction of people be it at Umuechem, Odi or Gboko because no one yet has been brought to account for such horrendous acts.

The Asaba memorial will be an important first step towards full disclosure and possible restitution.


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