By Festus Ahon
Over 1,000 unsuspecting indigenes of Asaba, the present capital city of Delta State were massacred 53 years ago by the Federal troops who were trying to repel Biafran soldiers during the Nigerian civil war which lasted for about three years.
Precisely in August 1967, three months into the Biafran war, Biafran troops invaded the then Midwest Region, to the west of the River Niger. They spread west, taking over Benin City, the present-day capital of Edo State and even up to Ore.
Federal troops attached to Nigerian Second Division under the command of Colonel Murtala Muhammed repelled and pushed back the Biafran soldiers to the Niger, where they crossed the bridge back into the Biafran city of Onitsha, few kilometres away from Asaba.
The Biafrans sensing danger, blew up the eastern spans of the bridge so that the Federal troops would not able to pursue them beyond that point. The Federal troops who were perhaps frustrated, entered Asaba around October 5th, ransacked houses, killing men and youths in the hitherto quiet town, which they claimed were Biafran sympathisers.
Reports suggested that several hundred may have been killed individually and in groups at various locations in the town. For fear of further attacks and killings, leaders summoned the people of the town to assemble in the morning of 7 October, hoping to end the violence through a show of solidarity for “One Nigeria.”
Hundreds of men, women, and children, the majority of them wearing white Akwa ocha, their ceremonial attire paraded along the main street, singing, dancing, and chanting “One Nigeria.”
At a junction, men and teenage boys were separated from women and young children and gathered in an open square in Ogbe-Osowa village. Unfortunately, the Federal troops brought out machine guns, and orders were purportedly given by Major Taiwo Ibrahim, who was Second-in-Command, to open fire on the people.
Reports had it 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. The bodies of some victims were retrieved by family members and buried at home, while others were buried in mass graves, without appropriate ceremony.
Many extended families lost dozens of men and boys as the Federal troops occupied Asaba for many months, during which time most parts of the town were destroyed, many women and girls were raped or forcibly “married”. A good number of citizens fled the town and returned until the civil war ended in 1970.
The total death toll during early October was over 1,000, although the exact numbers were likely not known.
Ibrahim B. Haruna has sometimes been named as the officer who ordered the massacre, following a report of his testimony to the Nigerian Human Rights Violations Investigations Commission, known as the Oputa Panel. Reports had it that he claimed responsibility as the Commanding Officer and without apology for the atrocity.
Haruna took over from Murtala Muhammed as Commanding Officer of the Second Division in 1968. While there were no eye-witness reports of Muhammed ordering the killings, he was the Commander in the field, and therefore should take responsibility.
Asaba people marked the 50th anniversary of the massacres in October 2017 with a two-day commemoration ceremony, during which a new comprehensive book on the massacre, its causes, consequences, and legacy, was launched: “The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory, and the Nigerian Civil War,” by S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser Ottanelli (Cambridge University Press).
The book, which written based on interviews with survivors (military and government figures) and archival sources, discussed how and why the massacres happened, and the impact of this community trauma, decades after the event.
The civil war was fought over the secession of Biafra (the predominantly-Igbo, former Eastern Region of Nigeria). Asaba is predominantly occupied by the Igbos but was never part of Biafra. The people of Asaba typically identify as Anioma.
Today, the Asaba people still live in pains of the unprovoked massacre, which is being described as unfortunate.