I lived in the Biafran enclave during the Nigerian civil war until our part of the world was liberated by Nigerian soldiers. The transistor radio was my inseparable companion as it was the companion of most of our people during that war. We needed to hear from the radio where we were in the shifting map of the war so that we would know where to run to next. But you could never be sure of the information you got from your radio because propaganda was an important part of the war.
A lot of the information we got was simply passed from mouth to mouth and in the process the meat of the message may be mangled or messed up entirely. So information was one of the casualties of the war. But even after the end of the war we did not fully understand what went on at other theatres of the war. That is how the horrendous massacre of close to 1000 people at Asaba in Delta State, South South Nigeria remained unknown to most of us who were not close to the place of that pogrom.
In the last few days I have visited a few bookshops looking for a book that has given life to that mass murder. The book titled, “The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memories and the Nigerian Civil War” is jointly authored by an anthropologist, Professor S. Elizabeth Bird and a historian, Professor Fraser M. Otlanelli, both of the University of South Florida, USA. It is a book of history, 50 year old history of something that happened which should not have happened and which could happen again if we do not learn the lessons that we need to learn.
Here is the story. During the Nigerian civil war the 2nd Division of the Nigerian Army led by Lt. Col. Murtala Muhammed entered Asaba on October 4, 1967. Between October 4 and 6, there were reports that Nigerian soldiers had killed some men and boys based on the allegation that they were sympathetic to Biafran soldiers. In order to stop the killings the Asaba elders decided to embark on a rally on October 7 through the streets of Asaba in a show of solidarity with Nigerian soldiers. The parade was to terminate at a place called Ogbe-Osowa Square. They, men and women, were all dressed in white chanting “One Nigeria.”
At the Square they were addressed by a certain Major Ibrahim Taiwo whose voice traded strings of malevolence. It was an aggressive machine gun speech in which he accused the people of hiding Biafran soldiers in their houses. As he spoke, according to eyewitnesses, his anger rose like an awakening giant. He threatened to kill all of them. In fulfillment of his threat the soldiers separated the men and boys from the women and girls. He ordered the soldiers in Hausa to take the boys and men in groups of 10 for slaughter. Dr. Ify Uraih, one of the survivors recalls that his elder brother who resisted joining the first group of 10 was immediately gunned down. Some others who tried to escape were similarly killed. Dr. Uraih was 15 years old then. His father Robert and his two brothers, Emma and Paul, were killed. Dr. Uraih managed to escape. He came back the next day with a wheelbarrow to pack the bodies of his father and two brothers for burial. The young man with granite strength wanted to avoid the possibility of their being buried in an unmarked mass grave.
The killing reportedly lasted three days. Every family must have lost a son, a father, a brother, an uncle, a nephew. Every family must have left a widow or an orphan behind. Only the sick and aged who could not come out for the parade survived. The other survivors were those who had fled the city before the soldiers arrived. Fifty years later, the people of Asaba are flipping their memory file and recalling this sight from the deepest part of hell. As they rewind the tape the tears are rolling again but the people have done more than shed tears. They have a group called The Asaba October 7 Memorial Group led by Mr. Alban Ofili-Okonkwo. They had a series of events with the theme “Remembrance and Forgiveness.” Professor Wole Soyinka and Bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah were the keynote speakers.
At one of the events, Mr. Ofili-Okonkwo announced that a Maternity and School of Midwifery will be established at the place of the pogrom. It is to be named The Place of My Birth Hospital. As a hospital it will save lives and give birth to a new set of lives but the lives of those taken on October 7, 1967 are irrecoverable.
The Asaba Massacre emphasizes the bestiality, the irrationality and the beastliness of war. In that exercise there was neither rhyme nor reason. Both the guilty and the guiltless were summarily condemned and summarily executed. War does not ever decide who is right. It only decides who is left. War almost always never kills those who start it. The Biafran war never killed Yakubu Gowon or Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. They lived to tell the story of the war. Many others did not. Also, many soldiers who fight wars never truly know why they are fighting. They are simply told to fight and because they have sworn to fight, fight they must. William Lyon Phelps says that the “only war where the men knew what they were fighting for was the Trojan War: it was fought over a woman.”
Let’s step back a little bit and watch irony at work. The Igbos were recalled from Kano and other parts of the North by Ojukwu because there was an anti-Igbo pogrom. The Igbos came back to the warm embrace of the bearded one. The sabre-rattling went on between the two embattled leaders, Gowon and Ojukwu. Then war broke out. Asaba, an Igbo town belonged to the Midwest region not Eastern Region which was expected to be the epicenter of the war. But the war came to Asaba and killed Igbos again. So it can be said that it was the first pogrom that led to the next pogrom, the pogrom in Kano led to the pogrom in Asaba. For the Igbos this was double jeopardy. That is why IPOB should never have been contemplated because the Igbos have seen war in its darkest form and its unintended consequences.
It was Herodotus who said that “in peace sons bury their fathers, in war fathers bury their sons.” The conventional wisdom displayed by Herodotus was turned on its head in Asaba. In Asaba fathers did not live to bury their sons because fathers and sons were mangled by the cruelty of war. Only mothers and sisters lived to bury their husbands and fathers. The war in Asaba was, truly speaking, everyone’s funeral. But this pogrom should have taught Nigeria a lesson.
It hasn’t. We have had several mindless killings in the scale that you can describe as a pogrom. During the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo a whole town called Odi was reduced to ashes and an uncountable number of persons sent to their early deaths. Did we learn any lesson from it? Doubtful because if we did Zaki-Biam would never have happened. Since then Agatu in Benue State and other insane killings of unarmed people have taken place. This is a solid evidence of Nigeria’s low respect for human life. Of all the killings by AK 47 wielding Fulani herdsman no one has been tried and punished by officialdom. This is indicative of the fact that in Nigeria some lives are less important than others.
The events of early October this year marking 50 years of the Asaba Massacre were not well publicised by the media. This may be because the organisers did not place much premium on its publicity. The other reason must be because most of the editors manning various media today were not born 50 years ago. The other reason is that many people who are worrying about the travails of living in a recessed economy are really not interested in bad news of the past. They simply want to move on. But the past is a guide to the future. That future will be bleak if we do not learn the lessons that the past offers to us. Good a thing History has now been restored to our school curriculum after that temporary period of insanity during which it was guillotined.
War memorials are important reminders of the bestiality of war, and the need to avoid future wars. It is my opinion that the Federal Government should build a war memorial at the pogrom place in Asaba with the names and photographs of all the victims on display. The government should, also, apologise to the people of Asaba for that atrocity committed by federal troops 50 years ago. It will not bring back the dead but it will heal the unseen wounds of the Asaba people. It will.
President Muhammadu Buhari was one of the soldiers on the Federal side. Now he is the President and Commander in Chief, at a time that the Igbos need some warm embrace. He has done well by deciding to pay the Igbo policemen the arrears of their salary. He should take the next step by saying “sorry” to the people of Asaba. He did not commit the offence but he would be doing so because the issue has gained traction when he is the leader of Nigeria. It will send a strong message to our soldiers that such a systematic slaughter of our citizens must never happen ever again.