The Arts

October 5, 2020

Remembering the Asaba Massacre 

Remembering the Asaba Massacre 

By Ify Iloba

October 6 and 7, 1967 will ever remain unforgettable to Asaba people. They were the days the Nigerian Army led by late General Muritala Muhammed, attempted to wipe out all the male indigenes of Asaba because they were seen as Igbos and relations of Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, leader of the 1966 coup that claimed the life of some northern Nigeria leaders. Emma Okocha’s book, Blood on the Niger is the book that elevated the Asaba massacre to global discourse. With this review presented at the Asaba Reading Club event tagged “Asaba massacre: The peril of geographical location” at time blood is flowing again, this time ironically in the midst of those whose relatives were used to carry out the Asaba massacre, we say, never again!

Blood on the Niger authored by Emma Okocha and published by Gomslam Books is an extremely graphic and historical non- fiction piece. It is a well-researched book spanning 304-page of lucid yet unbelievable unfolding horror. The book tells the tale of a people and the fate meted out by those considered guardians, friends, and neighbours. It comprises of 10 chapters and closing pages. It is written in the style of an academic piece and covers the period of the Nigerian civil war which spanned 6th July 1967 to 15th January 1970 and the years that followed.

The civil war was fought between the government of Nigeria headed by General Yakubu Gowon and the secessionist state of Biafra led by late Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu. The war was known as the Biafran War or the Nigerian-Biafra War. According to numerous sources and facts also garnered from the book under review, the conflict resulted from political, economic, ethnic, religious, and cultural tensions shortly after the country’s independence from colonial rule; a resulting military coup and counter-coup, persecution of the Igbos in northern Nigeria which eventually translated to the persecution of people the writer called Western Ibo – they hailed from the Midwest and the South-South region particularly (see the map depicted on page 16 of the text under review for a clearer reference);

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The people from the Midwest and the South-South region dominated different spheres of post-colonial Nigeria life including the civil service, hospital management, the military, government, trade, and commerce.  There was also the hustle for control of the lucrative crude oil production in the region as a catalyst spearheading the war.

Other writers on the subject matter include Frederick Forsyth – The Biafra Story, The 12-day revolution by Major Isaac Jasper Adaka Boro and The Biafra war-Nigeria and the aftermath by Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe, The man died: Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka by Wole Soyinka to mention but a few.

Blood on the Niger tells the tale of the Western Ibos. It takes its name from the summary execution of young men of Western Ibo descent and indeed others whose origin could not be ascertained at the time of their execution as they had integrated with the natives, including perceived Biafran symapathisers by the river banks…their bodies tossed into the River Niger and carried away as the blood flowed.

As victims of the brutal treatment unleashed by federal troops, the region groaned from suppressing or voicing decades of pain, unacknowledged and stifled for fear of the impact of the same under the notion of One Nigeria.

The book begins with several introductory pieces that feature quotes concerning the war from world leaders and influencers including Richard Nixon, former president of the United States of America, The Vatican, as well as several international press reviews from notable media establishments from around the world.

In its introductory chapter, the profile of the Midwest as an administrative centre, would eventually lead to the systematic massacre and felling of Western Ibos.  Subsequent chapters feature the Biafran invasion of the Midwest, the resulting quagmire of the Western Ibos who were looked upon with suspicion by the federal troops. There also followed the mauling of unarmed civilians who were summarily executed in several pockets spanning the entire region as shown on the map depicted in the book eventually culminating in the dance of death on the 6th day of October 1967 where over 3, 000 men were slain in one day at Ogbeasowa in Asaba as they gathered to welcome Federal troops.

Apart from the significant massacre where the men were separated from women and children, then killed, the gun-toting, gum-chewing soldiers of the federal troops were seen acting with a list exterminating and redeeming at will. They claimed to be acting on orders. Whose orders?  They raped and plundered – power-drunk on spoils of war from a welcoming populace; the power of life and death literally in their hands!

I must pause here to acknowledge that the book cover – a one of its kind, a wall mural interpreted in bronze and commissioned by a proud son of Asaba, Prof. E.A.C. Nwanze, to commemorate the massacre – is indeed a fitting choice.

Other chapters in the book featured the obituary portraits and laudable achievements of victims of the massacre cut down in their prime, the strive for redefinition, relevance, and rehabilitation in the aftermath of the killings. The attempts at healing – an opportunity presented by the Oputa panel, and the failure of the government to acknowledge and perhaps rant restitution to the region by adopting the white paper from the panel as well to date. There was also Gowon’s apology viewed by many as personal.

Critique on the book includes the arrangement of chapters which could have been better managed to allow for a seamless flow of reading as there was a certain back and forth which caused the reader to scamper for reference and counter reference in different parts of the book to enjoy for smooth reading and understanding. The pictures should have been better presented in gloss print. It would also have been great to know the constitution of the International observer team on page 160 for posterity’s sake whilst the introductory and closing pages could have been better managed for a seamless reading and reference. There are also one or two forgivable typographical errors.

Emma Okocha’s Blood on the Niger is a chilling, enlightening, and well-researched documentation of a story that needs to be told over and over again. Though not for the faint of heart as it is a tale of graves so shallow pointing fingers of the dead could be visible, an account of guests rising from hearty meals to gun down their hosts – It is a shocking and telling tale. I strongly recommend this book to anyone who seeks to understand the reality of the massacre. For answers, pull up a chair and read Blood on the Niger.