…Day Ekwueme, Soyinka, Okowa, Nwodo, Duke, Kukah others gathered to honour victims of Asaba massacre
By Festus Ahon
IN the wake of the Nigeria civil war, the people of Asaba witnessed the most traumatic moments of their lives when the Federal troops entered Asaba about October 5, 1967, ransacking houses and killing civilians, claiming they were Biafran sympathisers.
Sensing danger, leaders of the Asaba community, summoned their people to assemble in the morning of October 7, with a view to reassuring the Federal troops of the support and loyalty to the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Hundreds of men, women, and children, many wearing the ceremonial white ‘akwa ocha’, their native attire, who thronged the streets, dancing and chanting songs of “one Nigeria”, were reportedly opened fire on by the Federal troops under the Second-in-Command, Major Ibrahim Taiwo at Ogbe-Osawa village after teenage boys were separated from women and young children in the open square.
It was gathered that over 700 men and boys were killed, some as young as 12 years old, in addition to many more killed in the preceding days. While the bodies of some victims were retrieved by family members and buried at home, others were buried in mass graves, without appropriate ceremony.
The Asaba people who may not have recovered from the shock 50 years after, lost dozens of men and boys to the massacre which many termed as the bloodiest during the civil war. It was also gathered that the Federal troops which occupied Asaba for many months, wrecked serious havoc in the town as many women and girls were reportedly raped or forcibly “married,” and large numbers of citizens fled, often not returning until the war ended in 1970.
Natives of Asaba, last week converged in the town, attracting prominent Nigerians, including Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State, former Nigeria’s Vice President, Dr Alex Ekwueme; Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka; former Governor of Cross Rivers State, Mr Donald Duke; former Deputy Governor of Delta State, Chief Benjamin Elue; business mogul, Chief Sonny Odogwu; Archbishop Emmanuel Chukwuma; Igwe Laz Ekwueme; Bishop Hassan Kukah and a host of others to mark the 50th anniversary of the ‘Asaba massacre’ with the theme: “In Pursuit of Rebirth”.
Speaking as Special guest of honour at the ceremony, Prof. Wole Soyinka frowned at the practice of naming national institutions and infrastructure after leaders known to have committed grievous crime against humanity.
Soyinka said the memory of the innocent people killed by federal troops in 1967 were being desecrated with the naming of streets and important public infrastructure after the perpetrators of the Asaba Massacre.
He said: “How do we talk to future generations about corruption if they find a street named after Gen. Sani Abacha? Do we not think it is about time that somebody took the bull by the horns and wiped out the memory of such individual? It is a small restitution.
“We do not say dig up Abacha’s remains and put in the evil forest, but do not leave, lying around, the provocative symbols, the trauma that this nation went through. What does that make of the ethical foundations from which they pull them out to assist in peace keeping in areas all over the world in the enthronement of peace in the world?
“We are saying that to complete that archway of healing through which all of us must pass, the capstone is restitution,” he said while joining others to advocate restitution to complete the healing process for the October 7, 1967 massacre.
While saying “restoration is only possible ultimately, when it is closed by a consciousness of remorse and compensation, no matter how symbolic”, Soyinka recounted his experience before the civil war finally broke out. He said the Asagba of Asaba, Prof. Chike Edozien, hosted him in his house as mediation efforts intensified to avert a full blown war.
He said; “It was here that I crossed through the bush paths, through the then Biafran enclave on behalf of not just myself but of a group which believed passionately that the civil war was still avoidable.” He said that his experience, inspired his publication: “The Man Died”.
He however sued for forgiveness, adding that the knowledge and wisdom derived from such experiences were ingredients that helped to shape the moral foundations of nations.
On his part, Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta State, said; “the prevention of a repeat of such massacre (the Asaba Massacre) starts on the benches of schools; education and places of worship, prevention of hate speeches and prejudice, by weakening the grounds for ignorance, by promoting how to live together and by cultivating respect for all people because, in a world where the local is, but one click away from the global, we need a renewed commitment to dialogue, tolerance, reconciliation and understanding.
“Today, people are using the power of mass communication provided by the internet and social media to propagate bigotry and to demonize other groups to advance their radical narrow goals. In our interconnected world, there still exists the deadly potential of propaganda to exacerbate sectarian tensions, terrorism and persecution of ethnic, religious and political minorities.”
Dr Alex Ekwueme called for activities that will deepen Nigeria’s unity and ensure that it remains an indissoluble entity.
National President of Ohaneze Ndigbo, Chief Nnia Nwodo in a solidarity speech, decried the level of impunity in Nigeria and the Chairman of the occasion, Mr Donald Duke called on Nigerians to resist anything that could lead to such killings.
Chairman of organising committee for the event, Ogbueshi Ofili Okonkwo said; “every Asaba woman, man or child carries a memory of genocide, it is a communal memory of loss and anguish that has stayed with us for 50 years. On 7th October, 1967, soldiers of the 2nd Division of the Nigerian Army entered Asaba where their activities led to the deaths of more than 700 innocent Nigerians.
“All we want is to remember our dead and ensure that future generations of Nigerians know that no good comes from war.”
Bishop Hassan Kukah, who also spoke in the same vain, described the Asaba Massacre as a black spot in the nation’s history, stressing the need for Nigerians to embark on the process of healing with mutual trust and love.
Recounting their personal experiences during the period, other speakers warned against keeping the memories for future generations, enjoining the Federal Government to build a memorial plaque with the names of victims in Ogbe-Osawa Quarters in Asaba metropolis, the spot where the most heinous acts of violence were committed against the Asaba people .
Highpoint of the ceremony was the unveiling of a book co-authored by Prof. Elizabeth Bird and Prof. Fraser Otanelli of the University of Florida, Tampa on the event and entitled: ‘The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory and the Nigerian Civil War’. This was on the second day of the ceremony.