By Frank Oshanugor
It began like a fairy tale from another land. One after the other, men of honour garbed in all immaculate white attires and shoes to match; stood up from their seats and stepped forward facing more than a dozen of journalists and cameramen to reminisce on the Asaba genocide some fifty years ago.
As these highly placed chiefs of Asaba told their stories on this fateful Friday, the 29th day of September, 2017 at a world press conference right in the palace of the Asagba of Asaba, His Royal Majesty (Prof) Chike Edozien; what initially looked like a moon light story that would easily evoke laughter at the end; suddenly began to send some chill down the spins of men.
If any of the visiting journalists from Lagos had expected some cheers after the narration by each of the chiefs, it was certainly a misplaced expectation as each narrator could hardly end his reminisces without tears almost running out from the eyes of men. Some narrators were emotionally helpless in a manner that obviously revealed the weakness of man when he carries the burden of sad memories of the past.
The people of Asaba, (the Delta State Capital) after 50 years of losing their loved ones in what was more of organized genocide by officers and men of the Nigerian Army have chosen to commemorate the anniversary with some activities that bring to the fore, a reminder of the unprovoked killings at the outset of Nigeria civil war when the people of the Eastern Region led by Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the Republic of Biafra.
In his opening speech, the Asagba of Asaba Prof. Chike Edozien (who was on medical vacation in United States of America) but represented by a high chief of the town and former Secretary and Head of Service in the old Bendel State, Patrick Isioma Goodluck Onyeobi told journalists that “the people of Asaba have decided to collectively come out and tell the world the story of our unfortunate and sad tragic experience of 50 years ago which has left many of our people badly traumatized. We are telling the story because we dearly love our country Nigeria and want it to remain united and indivisible. We would not like the same mistakes that led us to the unfortunate Nigeria civil war (1967 – 1970) which produced the Asaba Massacre of October 7, 1967 to be repeated so that history does not condemn us particularly the present generation of leaders of our country as history has done the Bourbons of France whom history recorded as having learnt nothing, forgotten nothing and mastered nothing from their history.”
To many of the journalists present at the conference, the question was: why should it take the people of Asaba so long a time before coming out in a manner as they are doing now to tell the world what happened on that fateful day of October 7, 1967. The answer as provided by the Chairman of Asaba October 7 Memorial Group, Mr. Alban Ofili-Okonkwo came this way: “The pains and anguish of Asaba people are severe and emotion has been high and we have been mourning the dead over the years, hence it has taken 50 years before we embark on the remembrance.”
Truly, emotions have been high and it can take only a steely heart to put together the sad narratives of that ungodly incident. Recalling his experience, a renowned medical practitioner, Dr. Cyprian Ngozi Allanah who was one of the highly placed chiefs at the conference gave a vivid account of how he almost lost his life to the Nigeria soldiers who came looking for men of Igbo extraction at the University College Hospital, Ibadan where he was practicing soon after graduation at the outset of the fratricidal war.
As he took time to reminisce on how he managed to find his way to Benin-City and later to Asaba in the heat of the war, Chief Allanah who is also the founder of Avenue Hospital in Warri, almost broke down as he recalled the brutality of the Federal Forces on his innocent and peace-loving people.
The 1966 coup which was organized by Major Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu and his colleagues of Igbo extraction and Major Adewale Ademoyega; a Yoruba had brought Nigeria’s First Republic government to an abrupt end. The Prime Minister; Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the Saduana of Sokoto, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello both of whom were prominent northerners were killed in the putsch. Also killed were the Finance Minister at the time, Chief Festus Okotie-Eboh from Midwest Region, the Premier of Western Region, Chief Samuel Akintola and others.
The military had subsequently taken over government from the civilians and Major-General JohnsonThomas Aguiyi-Ironsi emerged as the new head of state but six months later, he was killed in a counter-coup staged by officers of northern extraction obviously in revenge of the Nzeogwu-led coup. Ironsi who was abducted by the coupists in Ibadan lost his life in the process. This triggered off a chain of gory events which ultimately culminated in the declaration of war by the Federal Military Government led by Yakubu Gowon against the people of Eastern Region who had declared the Republic of Biafra; seceding from the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Attempt by the Gowon regime to halt the secessionist move became imperative but regrettably, the Federal Forces in the process breached the rules of engagement as they turned against innocent civilians of Asaba origin right in their town killing hundreds of men and teenage boys in the guise that they were Biafra sympathizers.
A recap of the gory story was that in 1967 at the thick of the fratricidal war, the Nigerian Federal troops forced the seceding Biafra troops back across the Niger into Onitsha which lies directly across from Asaba. In a bid to stop the enemy’s pursuit, the Biafrans blew up the Eastern span of the bridge on the Onitsha end. The Nigerian troops no sooner had they arrived Asaba than they began ransacking houses and killing civilians at random claiming they were Biafran sympathizers.
In a bid to stop the rampaging troops, Asaba elders and leaders had quickly summoned their town’s people to assemble in the morning of October 7, 1967 hoping to end the violence through a show of support for “one Nigeria.” However, after hundreds of men, women and children had paraded along the main streets in support of a unified country, men and teenage boys were separated from the women and young children after which the federal troops opened fire, killing the people in cold blood.
It is estimated that more than 700 men and boys were killed; some as young as 12 years old. This number excludes the many who were killed in the preceding days. The federal troops went ahead to occupy Asaba for many months during which much of the town was destroyed, women and girls raped or forcibly married. A large number of citizens fled and never returned until the war ended in 1970.
As men of Asaba gave reminisces on the massacre in an atmosphere that was somber and nightmarish, some of the visiting journalists at the conference shared in the betrayal of emotion when Dr. Ify Uraih almost broke down in tears as he narrated how he helplessly watched the killing of his father and brothers by the federal troops on that October 7, 1967. He was about 15 years old then and had escaped execution like others by the whiskers.
All through the press conference, it was a gale of sad stories not worthy of narration without a feeling of revenge, but nay, revenge is certainly not what the people of Asaba want at this time of Nigeria’s history. They are not even asking for reparation or trial of the living perpetrators of the pogrom at the International Criminal Court at the Hague.
According to Alban Ofili-Okonkwo, the 50th anniversary of the Asaba Massacre with the theme “Remembrance and Forgiveness” is a time to declare that Asaba people “have chosen to rise above the pain and anguish of the past and explore forgiveness. It is a time to heal and bring closure to this sordid event.”
A major highlight of the anniversary would be the presentation of a book on the genocide titled “The Asaba Masscre – Trauma, Memories and the Nigeria Civil War.” It is written by renowned Anthropologist, Prof. Elizabeth Bird and co-authored by distinguished historian Prof. Fraser Ottanelli both of the University of South Florida, United States of America. The book in its scholarly exertion is bound to unearth novel facts that would bring to fore new insights about the horrific event.
The book presentation, according to the event organizers will be preceded by the hosting of a Colloquium on the Asaba Massacre with the theme “In pursuit of Rebirth” with eminent scholars, statesmen, renowned industrialists and other distinguished citizens of the world in attendance. The four-day anniversary activities which would officially commence on October 5, 2017 with one-minute silence for the Asaba martyrs at noon would round off with a thanksgiving service in churches all over the world on October 8, 2017.
One of the highpoints of the anniversary would be the erection of a befitting monument in memory of the dead. According to the October 7 Memorial Group chieftain, the monument which is coming as a maternity centre of world class standard will be where “life will be delivered, nurtured and celebrated as a symbol of our shared humanity. He added that this landmark memorial “is expected to symbolize remembrance and forgiveness as the ultimate healer as encapsulated in our phrase “Asaba – a land without malice.”
According to Ofili-Okonkwo, the maternity would be open to people of all races, religion and political affiliation without discrimination.