By Tony Eluemunor
One terrible aspect of the Asaba massacre is not only that it actually occurred, but that 53 years after that grim and despicable flaunting of the worst of the human spirit anywhere, Nigeria does not recognise it as a national tragedy.
Thus, every 7th of October, only the people of Asaba commemorate that gruesome mass murder, which meets all definitions of GENOCIDE. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines genocide as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a group of people because of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, or race. The term, derived from the Greek genos (“race,” “tribe,” or “nation”) and the Latin cide (“killing”), was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-born jurist who served as an adviser to the U.S. Department of War during World War II.
The term was coined in 1943 by the Jewish-Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin who combined the Greek word “genos” (race or tribe) with the Latin word “cide” (to kill).
That such an unprovoked gruesome mass murder of hundreds of people took place at Asaba, is not in question anymore. What really happened that October 1967? As Emmanuel Andrew Chukwuedo Nwanze, BSc. MSc. Ph.D. DIS, Professor of Neurobiochemistry and former Vice-Chancellor, University of Benin said in a lecture: “Asaba people came out from their homes and places of other engagements in response to a call to come out and welcome and receive the conquering Federal troops. When the troops requested them to separate into groups of males and females, they naively complied, never having ever witnessed such an event before. The men were marched away to the more secluded axis of Ogbe Osowe- Ilo-Umuaji-Ogbe Ilo. When the guns started blazing it was too late to escape. The staccato over, only the groans of those on the throes of death could be heard with blood flowing freely: indeed ‘blood on the Niger’. The few alive or not completely dead who had been clobbered to the ground by the falling dead could be heard calling on the soldiers to come on and finish the job. Hence the weak cries of “See me, I never die o”
Mr. Chiedu “Cassy” Juwah was about ten years old then. He recalled that “People were dancing in a welcome party at OgbeIlo field. Then soldiers stopped the music and a grim business began. That was how Asaba became a town of landladies. My cousin who had survived the pogrom at Kano, his dad and two elder brothers, were shot. I hid and returned home. The following day, 7th, we were rounded up and shepherded to Oma, opposite today’s Grand Hotel, That’s where we were separated. At Ogbe Osowe, the men were separated from the boys and the women, and I, a boy, joined the women in going to the Convent, now St. John Bosco’s Church at Nnebisi Rd, and Ogbe Osowe became a killing field. My brother, Augustine Juwah, who passed out of St. Anthony’s College in 1964, pretended to be dead and hid among dead bodies there as a machine gun belched fire and death. By 8.pm he made his way home and we started our flight; first to Achala, and from there to Ubulu-Uku. Some people returned home days later and were still killed in the house-to-house combing by the military.”
The Federal troops thundered into Asaba on the 5th. The Biafrans had melted away as the immediate commander, the late Col. Joe Achizia (a son of Asaba), opted to retreat to Onitsha as a lorry load of cutlass was all he was given to defend Asaba with. He blew up the Niger Bridge. Then, the indiscriminate killing started. It turned horrendous on the 6th and became hellish on the 7th.
About 1, 000 persons died in Asaba in those gruesome three days. Yet, more died later as the town’s folks fled into the bush, trying to escape to the nearby towns and villages. Many were caught outside the town while escaping and were decimated, others died from hunger and unhealed wounds inside the bush.
In fact, the killing spilled into Ogwashi-Uku, and several other towns in the Anioma Delta North Senatorial District. In Ishiagwu, a coastal village to which Biafrans would travel to from around Oguta to buy food stuff, having crossed the lordly River Niger by canoe, the Federal troops visited one night and simply killed 400 people who failed to escape and burnt down the village – even as a General Cyril Iweze, a son of Ishiagwu, was fighting on the Federal side. Ibusa suffered genocide and the entire surviving population fled into the bush.
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As late into the war as 1969, the killings were still on. A Benin-City based medical Doctor, Patrick Anyafulu said: In 1969, a company of Federal troops was ambushed and decimated by Biafran troops on the road leading to Asaba from Oko. That incident brought the horrors of war to my sleepy, rustic village. The whole village was razed to the ground. We escaped death through Providence…a heavy rainstorm the previous night delayed their advance from Asaba, and fishermen who had gone to check their nets saw them and alerted the whole village. Shells were already landing in the village and the air was filled with the whine of bullets. We escaped into the forest and lived there until 1970!”
So, why has the Federal Government, which has recently acknowledged the evil inherent in denying the late MKO Abiola his June 1993 electoral victory, refused to even recognise the atrocity committed against Asaba and other Anioma towns? As hard as that insult upon injury is difficult to swallow, it is pertinent to remember that for years the Asaba massacre was a totally hushed up topic.
A London Times correspondent, Bill Norris, who passed through Asaba in mid-October 1967, sent back photos of hellish destruction there and noted that the town appeared to be largely abandoned. But he said nothing about the genocide. He explained in a 2012 interview that he did not know about the massacre. The first mention of mass killing in Asaba appeared in the London Observer, almost four months later, when Africa correspondent Colin Legum conûrmed that Federal troops took part in the killing. However, his (second-hand) account claimed that a group of ‘implacably hostile’ Igbo attacked troops by surprise as they watched the welcome dance, leading to retaliation.
Even both pro-Biafra and pro-Nigeria writers of book on the Civil War left the Asaba massacre well alone. The Nigerian Army made no attempt during or after the Civil War, to investigate the Asaba Massacre. Yet, The London Observer commented on it on 21 January 1968, Le Monde, the French evening newspaper, wrote about it on April 5, 1968, LOOK, the British magazine, did same and even a Canadian Member of Parliament, who served as the UN Observer, Stephen Lewis, was mentioned in the London Observer on October 11, 1968. Yet, the then Nigerian High Commissioner to Britain, Brig. B. O. Ogundipe called the reports “wild rumours”. The Times of London reported in 1968 that Biafran propaganda had instilled fear of federal soldiers in Igbo people, but these fears were unfounded. A year later, the Times reported that an international observer team had “been unable to ûnd one single trace of mass killings of Ibos”.
An Asaba indigene, Sylvester Okocha, then senior civil servant in Benin, wrote to the International Committee of the Red Cross describing what had just happened. His letter was intercepted by the military, he was arrested, tortured and incarcerated in Lagos.
Now, the truth is out…and it is horrendous. There are only two choices left for Nigeria: to keep ignoring this sordid fact and allow the sore to fester and become food for agents of national disunity or address it so that healing can begin. Yet, the silence has really ended, what continues is national self-deception. An Asaba indigene, and journalist, Emma Okocha published the book Blood on the Niger in 1994 (his father was a victim of that massacre). It lifted the lid off that story and has remained a condemnation on the government’s official silence on the Asaba massacre – that terrible blot on Nigeria’s history.