Memories and motivation – Death in Asaba

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Pat Odinachi Utomi

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, Fifty years ago. I was there. And nearly became part of what is statistic today. Instead of memories that help us say never again, that blemish on our history that splashed blood on the white of our Green, White, Green flag continues to be the great unknown to many Nigerians.

We shudder in the face of inconvenient truths in Nigeria. In my view, that is why we repeat the same mistakes and deepen 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 to which I had taken my children years before so they better understand human nature.

This weekend Asaba remembers. They remember being counseled that it was wise to welcome advancing Federal troops hot 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 and more men than the Las Vegas shooter pointing down at music concert revelers, they 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 twentieth century ruled Asaba. 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 sore spot recently published a book: 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. I continue to be proud of being one of those that campaigned for the Court to be established and live in hope for the second court on Economic Genocide from abuse of power. Corrupt leaders may need to go there.

The resourceful enterprise of the American scholars bring so much more of the journey to the moment including their interrogative of 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.

The Nigerian Civil War was on at the same time as the second Indo – China War, better known as the Vietnam War. It is instructive that six months after the first of the two Asaba Mass Killings, an American Platoon in Vietnam led by Lieutenant William Calley entered a South Vietnamese Hamlet of My Lai. On March 16th, 1968 they killed between 347 and 500 unarmed civilians, far fewer than the people who died in Asaba. But the My Lai Massacre, as it came to be known, would define the prism through which I saw the war in Vietnam.

Calley would be tried and convicted as the image of My Lai assaulted the American conscience. Remarkably, hardly have I met any of the victims of Asaba who seek revenge or even the kind of justice that Americans often call for in the wake of hate crime.

It could be weakness, which encourages the repeat of such conduct in our history, but it may be a strength that has kept us from the worse that comes from reprisals. I think of the nearly 1000 years of hating and remembering hate of yesterday in the Balkans, which made Robert Kaplan’s reflections in Balkan Ghosts prophetic about what would happen to the Yugoslavia project when Josef Broz Tito would die.

Where there is good leadership the leaders channel the emotions from such into positive energy that upgrades the quality of nation building. People like General Gowon did well on that score but not all have been quite as effective.

On those dimensions of how the emotions of those experiences are deployed, it is worthy of note that in my own journey what those moments have triggered in me are neither emotions of resentment or recollections of my grandfather who fought in Burma in World War 11 being shot, unarmed, in his late 70s by teenage soldiers of second division in front of his home. Indeed what I often remember are the Captain Mathiases who restrained the more untrained and undisciplined soldiers of the second division.

When I make the point that there are up to 30 states in Nigeria, which if I traveled to and checked into a hotel, someone would be upset that I came to their neighbourhood and chose not be their guest, because of the closeness of our friendship, I do not forget that some of those friendships came from those times.

Not documenting these kinds journeies perpetuate the view that Nigeria is the home of injustice. This may explain some of the feelings that people vent in social media.

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 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. He was a family friend and recognised I could have missed turning 13 on his watch. That, of course, ended my war experience and I was back in school in Ibadan within weeks.

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 twenty.

It takes leadership to get people to forget such horrible experiences. But there is no evidence of that happening. 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.

• Pat Utomi, political Economist and Professor of Entrepreneurship is Founder of the Centre for Values in Leadership.

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