Survivors of the Asaba massacre during the Nigerian civil war have recounted their experience. The Asaba massacre was a sad experience which will remain indelible in the minds of the average Asaba people for time immemorial. The Asaba massacre is a term used to describe the mass killing of Asaba people by the Nigerian army in the early beginning of the Nigerian civil war that lasted for three and a half years.
Over a thousand Asaba people were brutally murdered in cold blood by the Nigerian troops who were frustrated following their inability to cross the River Niger to the east as a section of the Niger bridge was blown up by the Biafran troops.
The mass killing of the Asaba people occurred between October 7-10 of 1967. The war ran from July 6, 1967 to January 15, 1970. The war was fought following the secessionist moves of the Igbo Nigerians, otherwise called Biafrans. Then, it was called the Eastern region of Nigeria.
They were then led by Odumegwu Chukwuemeka Ojukwu. The war occurred after all attempt to resolve the crisis between the federal government then led by Yakubu Gowon and Ojukwu failed to yield any positive result.
Ojukwu had said the Igbos were not safe in Nigeria, responding to massacres of Igbo people in the north and west, following the coup and counter-coup of 1966. These pogroms, as the Igbo called them, had prompted thousands to return to their ancestral homes in the east or Midwestern regions.
Hence, he declared Biafra independence to give opportunity for his people for self-determination. This development was resisted by the federal government, leading to the long time civil war.
Elizabeth Birth and Fraser Otanelli, both professors of Anthropology and History in Florida State University, United States of America, gave vivid and clear details of the war which led to the killings and pillaging by federal troops on the Asaba people.
According to their research, after the conflict had simmered for a few weeks, Ojukwu made a decision that was to prove momentous, to send Biafran troops across the Niger to invade the Midwest and conquer the territory for the Biafra.
On 9 August, Biafran troops crossed into Asaba using the new bridge that had been constructed in 1966. The apparent purpose of the Biafran troops crossing over was to draw the advancing federal troops away from Biafra’s capital, Enugu, and perhaps even to capture Lagos.
The Biafrans, thereafter, spread west, overrunning Benin City and advancing as far west as Ore, barely a hundred miles away from Lagos, where they were halted after key bridges were blown up.
However, by late September, the hastily organized federal Second Infantry Division, under Col. Murtala Muhammed, had pushed back and retaken Benin City. By 4 October, they had forced the Biafrans back to Asaba, where they retreated across the Niger, blowing up two spans of the bridge and leaving the federal troops angry and frustrated at their inability to pursue their enemy.
The people of Asaba became the victims of the troops’ anger, with hundreds dying at their hands in the next few days. Before the war, Asaba was a quiet town known mostly for high levels of education; estimates of its population in 1967 vary from 20,000 to 30,000 people.
Although linguistically Igbo, the people of Asaba consider themselves distinct from their cousins in the east, often claiming the identity of Anioma and their region officially favoured the federal government’s idea of ‘One Nigeria’.
The Biafran troops had passed through Asaba without incident; however, as the federal troops advanced, reports were reaching the towns people of killings of Igbo by other ethnic groups in the Midwest, and people were anxious.
Many in Asaba undoubtedly held sympathy for Biafra and distrusted the government, justifiably believing that it had condoned previous atrocities against the Igbo; some, including the Asagba of Asaba (traditional leader), fled to the east or elsewhere.
Some of the civil servants had fled back to Asaba when non-Igbo civilians took the opportunity to slaughter many Igbos in Midwest cities like Benin and Sapele after these cities were retaken by federal troops. In spite of witnessing that horror, many still believed that government troops would not attack civilians.
The federal troops entered Asaba on 5 October; citizens were shocked when soldiers began going from house to house looting, demanding money and rounding up boys and men accused of being Biafran sympathizers, then shooting them on the spot or taking them in groups to execute elsewhere.
In some cases, soldiers were seeking specific individuals, who were executed, while others report indiscriminate group killings and a horrific episode when youths were lined up, ordered to dig a grave, stand in it and be shot.
On 6 October, in an attempt to end the violence, senior leaders met to plan a show of support for the government, in which money and gifts would be presented to the commander. This strategy had been used in other Midwest towns.
The next morning, hundreds, while some say thousands, of men, women and children assembled, with elders in front. Singing, dancing and chanting ‘One Nigeria’.
As the crowd reached a major junction, troops were said to have removed women and small children and began channeling men and boys of around 12 and upwards on to the square at Ogbe-Osowa, a village in one of Asaba’s quarters. Machine guns were then revealed and shooting began.
Witnesses report panic as the assembled hundreds were mowed down, starting with elders at the front. Some managed to break loose and ran into the bush, while others were shielded by the bodies of the dead and survived.
Exactly how many died in this incident is unclear as figures released of between 500 to 1000 cannot be accurate. Sporadic shooting continued for hours, until darkness caused the soldiers to disperse. Some families were able to retrieve bodies for traditional burial in their compounds, but with surviving towns people fleeing, many more went unclaimed and were later buried in mass graves or thrown into the Niger.
Witnesses report seeing piles of bodies in the street before it was considered safe to begin burial. With the loss of so many men, a huge burden fell on women as they faced the task of rebuilding their families’ lives alone.
One Felicia Nwandu described her return to Asaba after a few weeks in the bush. She said: “We have no home to enter. Our house was burnt down. Everything. In fact, you know, the bags they put rice and beans, that is what we tied, because there were no clothes, there was nothing for us to hide our nakedness.
“We suffered … later we saw some Christian organizations, they gave us salt, you just put your finger in the salt and then put it in your soup so you can get that taste. A lot of children suffered from kwashiorkor, people were dying just like that. We ate rats, lizards, all these things just to survive.”
Emma Okocha, author of ‘Blood on the Niger’, described how after the death of his father, his mother felt unable to care for him as the youngest of several surviving brothers. She handed him over to a Catholic nun, who then raised him.
Aged 14 in 1967, Martina Osaji, another lady, lost her father and up to 40 other male relatives. Her mother was a refugee in Biafra, so Martina was taken in by a Catholic priest who had studied under her father, until her sister finished secondary school and could take care of her.
Many families lost father and all male relations to the massacre. Women therefore took up the responsibility of building the families and providing for the need of the few females left over. Some women went crazy having lost all that belong to them to the pogrom.
Some male children were murdered in the presence of their mother, watching their children dying in their sight and they could not prevent the killing. It was a pogrom and a gruesome one at that. Asaba people have continued to remember this massacre and have called for an apology from the federal government to the people.
While Yakubu Gowon tendered apology to the people over the unfortunate incident, reports revealed that Major Gen. Haruna had said he owe no apology to the people as his actions in the murder was motivated by the need to maintain the unity of Nigeria.
In October 2001, Ibrahim Haruna, who was the then General Officer Commanding, Two Division of the Nigerian Army during the civil war, said he had no regret for the Asaba massacre which he supervised.
He said whatever action he took was motivated by a sense of duty to protect the unity of Nigeria.
He said: “As the commanding officer and leader of the troops that massacred the men in Asaba, I have no apology for those massacred in Asaba, Owerri and Ameke-Item. I acted as a soldier maintaining the peace and unity of Nigeria.
“If Gen. Yakubu Gowon apologised, he did it in his own capacity. As for me I have no apology,” explaining, however, that “it was as barbaric as the 1966 coup; it was as barbaric as the pogrom, if there was also any other atrocity, the Kano extrajudicial killing was as barbaric as that.”
The people of Asaba marked the October 1967 massacres with a prayer service, a procession, and public event, all on Sunday, October 7, 2012. On October 7, 2013, the people of Asaba also marked the massacre for the fourth year.
Bishop Chukwuma of Enugu gave the keynote address, and the assembled crowd was able to see the considerable progress made on the monument at Ogbe-Osawe in Asaba, the present day Delta state capital.
But one challenge from the massacre that has remained till today is that illegitimate half sons and daughters gotten from loose Asaba women in the genocide have turned scavengers, selling Asaba land indiscriminately to any criminal who could give them money for illicit and worthless life style of women and alcohol.
More than four decades since the events of 1967 –68, the trauma is still felt, leaving a pervasive sense of unresolved grievance. At one level this is personal—surviving individuals still mourn the loss of so many loved ones. At another level, there is anger that this trauma has gone so long unrecognized.
It was gathered that at the time of the massacre, most media organisations existing then were pro-government newspapers, they could not give real details of the war, hence, outsiders did not actually get full details of what transpired in Asaba. The government suppressed the media during the days of the war.
The only mention of Asaba massacre appeared in the London Observer almost four months after the killings. Before the fact that most reporters were staying in Lagos and relying on briefings from the government who told them lies, the reporters never traveled out of Lagos to see developments for themselves.
Clearly, the Asaba experience is only one among many stories of suffering left by the civil war. However, it presents singular characteristics that had a major and unique impact not only on the progression of the war but also on the deeply entrenched ethnic hostility that continues to linger today.
Asaba, while suffering one of the worst systematic killings of civilians by federal troops, was in the midwest region, which had not joined secessionist Biafra. Indeed, all those who died in the massacre of 7 October were killed while pledging support for ‘One Nigeria’ and condemning secession.
As noted above, Asaba’s tradition of civil service had contributed to a sense of allegiance to a united Nigeria, along with trust that federal troops would behave appropriately.