How Mid-Western Ibos  suffered during civil war

By By Phillip Asiodu
The Asaba Massacre of 7th October, 1967 and other incidents of killings of civilians in Asaba Division

Mr. Emma Okocha in his book “Blood On The Niger” has with great skill and painstaking research told the story in some detail of the terrible and horrendous pre-meditated massacre of  hundreds of able-bodied male citizens of Asaba on 7th October, 1967.

That was the climax. Earlier on the 5th and 6th following the conquest of Asaba by the Federal Army from the rebel or Biafran forces after the last stand by the latter around. St. Patrick’s College area, dozens of civilians were apprehended and shot.

The chilling truth is that despite those earlier killings, true to their hospitable traditions, their belief in Federal Nigeria, their long history of sending out generations of civil servants and teachers to serve all over Nigeria during decades of British Colonial Administration, the participation of their grandfathers and fathers in the nationalist struggle for Independence and their commitment to the maintenance of one Federal Nigeria where equal rights are guaranteed, they trooped out in hundreds.

They had been urged by their leaders to join in a mass civic welcome for the victorious Federal troops and re-affirmation of loyalty to the Federal Government. They obeyed and assembled at the square only to be mowed down by machine guns already in place and camouflaged with greenery.

When the massacre started, other people were flushed out from their homes and marched to the killing fields to be slaughtered. Equally gruesome and abhorrent was the gunning down in their homes of Federal and Regional Government pensioners in their eighties and seventies, who had served Nigeria well in their long working lives and had come to associate the Nigerian Army with the virtues of discipline and orderly behaviour and so did not imagine at all that they stood in any danger from the conquering Federal troops.

The horrors were unprecedented and unbelievable.

These terrible things happened. The state of communications was very bad. Very scanty information was received at first in Lagos at the Supreme Headquarters of the Federal Military Government or in the newspaper houses even remotely indicating the extent of the massacre. Within a week, some terrible stories were reaching Lagos.

There was however no official account or confirmation. It will be months later from eye-witness accounts when it was possible to gain access to a few of the men who escaped and the children and women before whose eyes the horrors were enacted that the truth will be known.

This is perhaps, why there is not much detailed description of those terrible events in the histories of the Civil War published by people on both sides of the divide. Mr. Okocha’s important book came out in 1994 – 27 years after the tragedy.

There must of course, have been some deliberate suppression of reports by the perpetrators of the crime because such acts were completely contrary to the instructions and briefings issued by the Federal Government and the Supreme Headquarters to Army officers even before the first shots were fired in the Civil War.

A code-of-conduct in the form of a small slim booklet was issued to the troops. It contained the essential provisions of the Geneva Convention as regards the treatment of civilians and prisoners-of-war.

The war aim of the Federal Government was to preserve Nigeria as one entity and to ensure proper reconciliation and rehabilitation to enable Nigeria to resume rapid economic growth and development.

The Federal Government commenced the war in July 1967 as Police action. It was after the Biafran incursion into the Mid-West that the Federal Government proclaimed all out war.

On the other hand, the original reason given by the Biafran leaders for secession was the lack of safety and security for Ibos and other Easterners outside the Eastern Region. Biafran propaganda kept recalling the mass killings of Ibos and some other Southerners in May and September 1966 in the North and the forced evacuation of Ibos and some Easterners to the Eastern Region.

It continuously evoked the spectre of genocide and annihilation of the Ibos should the Federal Government of Nigeria conquer Biafra.

Therefore, nothing could be more damaging to the goals and objectives of the Federal Government than the massacre at Asaba and the mass killings in other nearby towns, particularly Ogwashi-Uku, Isheagu, and Ibusa.

Here we must recall also that the un-resisted conquest of the Mid-West by Biafran forces on 29th August, 1967 had led to harassment of Mid-Western Ibos in Lagos and the arrest and detention of many innocent persons who had been denounced to the Army or Police by their non-Ibo co-tenants or neighbours. I still have in my records a long list of such hapless individuals.

Immediate Federal Government Action

The information reaching us in Lagos may have been incomplete but it was alarming enough for me to address a memorandum to the highest level of Federal Authority on 30th October, 1967 from which I quote the following excerpt: “Three weeks after the total liberation of the Mid-West, the situation in the Ibo-speaking areas of the state remains alarming.

Many able-bodied men in the Ibo-speaking areas are still in hiding. Women and children are being cared for by priests or the Federal troops. In Asaba town, extensive damage was done to life and property with inevitable traumatic effect. It is still not safe for Ibo-speaking people to travel between Agbor and Benin.

In Benin itself, violence is still rife. Ibo-speaking civil servants of the state most of whom have through fear and other reasons failed to return to Benin have been dismissed with effect from October 6. Services have to be maintained in Benin and to this end, people are being drafted, some from the Federal Service.

It is believed that certain directives specifically exclude the further recruitment of Ibo-speaking elements of the Mid-West for this purpose.”

Nigeria today — Which way forward?

The Political Situation

Nigeria has since 1999 been governed under an elected Civilian Regime. Elections to national state and local government Executives and Parliaments were held under civilians in 2003, and 2007. These elections were far from acceptable as true democratic expressions of the will of the people. There are many parties. There is free expression and no crude repression.

The Judiciary  is fairly independent and still commands the respect of the people. The quality of governance, as regards responsiveness to the needs of the people, efficiency and effectiveness, transparency and the absence of corruption is still very poor.

We have the framework of democracy but the politicians are yet to embrace the democratic spirit and usages. Most of them see politics as a commercial investment to be rewarded immediately with lucrative patronage and huge profits. There is also no internal democracy in the competing political parties.

However, there is still hope for reform before it is too late. There are many organizations of civil society demanding behavioural change and constitutional reform. The pressure for change is increasing and the present situation is unsustainable.

There is also the demand for the creation of more states including an Anioma State hived off from the present Delta State. Some Anioma people believe that this will bring them salvation and free them from the present situation in which they consider that they are not given adequate participation and an equitable share of state resources notwithstanding the fact that the Delta State capital is Asaba.

However, one cannot see that the solution of Nigeria’s governance problems lies in the further proliferation of states. States since 1975 have largely been demanded by would-be state leaders as a way of accessing more of the national revenues, oil revenue, not as the basis for more diversified and rapid development for the benefit of the masses.

•Being excerpt of speech delivered by Chief Philip C Asiodu, CON, Izoma of Asaba, at the University of Southern Florida Asaba Memorial Project Symposium

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