Asaba: Of memories and motivation

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It happened in broad daylight. One of the most horrifying atrocities of the 20th Century. Up there with the Armenian Killings that led to the word, genocide, entering our lexicon, the killing of Jews in gas chambers by Nazi Germany, and the Rwanda Slaughter. And it took place in our backyard. In Asaba, 50 years ago. I was there. And nearly became part of what is statistic today instead of memories that help us say never again.

We shudder in the face of inconvenient truths in Nigeria. In my view, that is why we repeat the same mistakes and deeper bitterness where the right preservation of memories trains the generation next not to repeat those mistakes. But others act differently and I saw an example in visiting the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda. Walking through the memorial with my wife on a recent visit to Rwanda, all I could think of was the Asaba Massacre of 1967 and a little of the South African Apartheid Museum.

This weekend, Asaba remembers. They remember being counselled that it was wise to welcome advancing federal troops not in pursuit of retreating Biafran soldiers with warmth of dancing. The troops ordered men to one side and women to the other. In cold blood, machine gun fire from more guns than the Las Vegas shooters pointing down at music concert revellers left Asaba a town of orphans. In their hundreds, more likely thousands, men, including many who had dramatically escaped a pogrom in the northern parts of the country a year before stared death in the face. As the white of their ceremonial traditional clothes soaked up the crimson of the blood that gave them life, some saved the lives of others they fell on who played dead. Under some of these dying men were their young sons.

For a long time after the smell of death from one of the more savage moments of the 20th century. But the air would clear. What has not cleared for many is pain from one of the darkest spots in Nigerian history.

Two American professors, Elizabeth Bird and Fraser M. Ottanelli, who have been researching this scare spot recently published a book entitled, The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory, and the Nigerian Civil War. Their tracking of the conspiracy to cover up what happened in broad daylight between Lagos and London shows why an International Criminal Court is a good idea and candidates for trial in such a court should not just be the people who perpetrated the dastardly act.

The resourceful enterprise of the Americans brings so much more of the journey to the moment and the role of bringing life back to the experience by new media. Traditional media had, of course, buried the issue like the Federal Government and the British Government.

My classmate, Emma Okocha, was first to chronicle this experience in book form with his volume, Blood on the Niger. It was a narrative that brought back the experience of my being “captured” shortly after those killings by the federal soldiers still minded to line men up. But common sense was setting in by then and other soldiers quickly arrested the leader soldier who lined us up. I still remember the shock of then Lt. Col. Nathaniel Nasamu who realised what was about to happen after we were lined up.

Such memory should not be denied a generation. The US is currently mourning what they are calling the greatest massacre in recent American history with the death of 58 in Las Vegas. But Asaba was multiplied by 20.

It takes leadership to get people to forget such horrible experiences. But there is no evidence of that happening in Nigeria. This is the kind of moment that the leadership of the country should fly to Asaba, apologise, inaugurate a memorial to that sad moment and say never again. But for some reason we keep missing opportunities.

Prof Pat Utomi is Founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership

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