Sunday, October 18, 2009

Revisiting the Asaba Massacres

By Obi Nwakanma, The Orbit/Vanguard

My attempt this week is to bring some attention to the subject of the Asaba massacres, one of the haunting ghosts of Nigeria’s last civil war. I pay particular tribute to Emma Okocha – Onye Amuma Cable – author of Blood on the Niger, the chilling account of the Asaba massacres of October 7, 1967.

More than any other individual, Okocha has pursued the Asaba story with the temerity of a survivor, and the hardnosed instincts of a well-trained journalist. He has brought attention to the great evil that Nigerians love to forget: the attempt at selective annihilation of a people through acts of terrible war crimes.

Asaba has become Okocha’s life work; an obsession. He says it is to bring closure, and give final rest to those who perished that day in Asaba. But I suspect something much deeper and personal. Of course it is up close and personal for Emma Okocha. He is from Asaba; he survived the massacres; but his entire family perished.

The Igbo name their children, “Echezona/Echezola”- never forget, and “Odoemene/Ozoemena”- May this never happen again. These are names in recoil from harsh memory.

These I think are the profound sentiments that propel Okocha’s pursuit to reopen the case of the Asaba mass killings, compel the official acknowledgement of war crimes by the Nigerian government, and force a visible war memorial in honour of the dead of October 1967 – the “Asaba Memorial.”

Happily, Emma Okocha’s work is drawing attention to one of modern Africa’s darkest war crimes. Last week, the University of Southern Florida, Tampa, convened the Asaba Memorial symposium to reopen the issue, and unveil “the long-buried tragedy” led by the anthropologists Elizabeth Bird and Erin Kimmerle and Fraser Ottanelli, chairman of the department of history, in collaboration with the USF Libraries Holocaust and Genocide Studies Centre.

They have also recruited a Tampa Police homicide detective Charles Massucci to gather documents, record oral histories and to examine mass graves and recover evidence of the Asaba genocide.

Let me briefly place the Asaba tragedy in context for those who may either have forgotten, or who may not know about it, especially many contemporary Nigerians who may have been born after the war, and who ought to know the many evils that haunt Nigeria.

In May 1967, Eastern Nigeria declared secession from the old federation of Nigeria and declared itself the republic of Biafra. Eastern Nigerian secession naturally culminated in the Nigerian political crisis leading to the January 15, 1966 coup led by Emma Ifeajuna that overthrew the government of the first republic, and the July 29, 1966, led by Murtala Muhammed, and directed by Yakubu Gowon who subsequently took over as military head of state.

The July coup spiraled into the selective annihilation of all Igbo military officers and snowballed into a pogrom of the Igbo.

The Aburi agreements reached to stem the slide collapsed, and the Gowon administration in Lagos peremptorily dissolved the regions and created the twelve states on May 27, 1967, thus subverting as the government in the East saw it, the fundamental authority and rights of the regional governments, and complicating the East’s capacity to offer security to its people who had fled to it.

Odumegwu-Ojukwu, military governor of the Eastern region, on advise from the Eastern Nigerian Consultative Assembly declared secession, and announced the independent republic of Biafra three days later, on May 30, 1967.

The stage was set for an epic conflict. The government in Lagos declared war and attacked Biafra on July 6, fighting from Ogoja and Nsukka. By September, the Biafran capital was threatened.

That September, however, Biafra launched its own attack, a diversionary and tactical move through the Midwest; brilliant in conception, but poor in execution.

Brigadier Victor Banjo, leading the “Liberation Army” from Onitsha, made a lightning move into Benin City and was close to taking Lagos and Ibadan, in what then seemed a cake walk, when he suddenly lost the will to fight.

Old Biafra intelligence sources hint that Banjo had been told in unmistakable terms, in his meeting with the deputy British high commissioner in Benin, that the Brits might be forced to provide logistical support to Gowon from the sea, and attack Lagos with its special forces already nearby, off the coasts.

The prospects of the Brits bombing Lagos and turning “Yorubaland” into a bloody battle field forced Banjo to stymie the Liberation Army in Benin City, and order a hasty withdrawal. It also allowed the federal troops led by Murtala Muhammed to reorganize and retake the Midwest. Asaba was doomed from that moment.

The massacre of Igbo civilians began from Benin City with the arrival of the federal forces. Folks in Benin went house by house identifying and killing their Igbo neighbours. Murtala’s Army already war drunk thus arrived Asaba with bloodlust.

The account of what happened in Asaba is well documented in Emma Okocha’s Blood on the Niger. It is also the subject of my poem, The Horsemen, an elegy to that era.

But to put it quite simply, the troops under Murtala Muhammed and the late Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, both of whom also ironically met death on the same day in 1976, supervised the killing of the adult males of Asaba.

They had ordered them to dance at the town square, separated the men from the women, and killed them.

Ironically, one of those killed was Sydney Asiodu, a potential Olympic medalist and undergraduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His brother, Philip Asiodu was then a super permanent secretary in Gowon’s administration in Lagos.

Even then, Asaba was only one of the places where the Nigerian military committed war crimes of such horrendous magnitude during that war, and have sought to cover it up and even erase them.

Many of those who have strutted about as Nigeria’s military heroes indeed ought to be brought to account for their war crimes.

It is the legacy of impunity that continues to haunt Nigeria, and continues to breed the kind of viciousness that would lead to the mindless destruction of people be it at Umuechem, Odi or Gboko because no one yet has been brought to account for such horrendous acts.

Reactions from Nwakanma readers:

Chigozie says:
October 18, 2009 at 7:34 pmThe annihilation plans of the Igbo race by Hausa/Fulani Yoruba hegemony are too many to enumerate. Col Mobolaji Johnson, the then criminal governor of Lagos State once ordered the execution of Ika Igbos in Lagos bragging that “an Ibo man is an Ibo man no matter from what state”.

One inhumane incident I can never forget in my life is an air raid that happened near my neighborhood on a market day in 1968. Around 12:30 at the peak of our local market Afor Umuohiagu 2 mig fighters circled around the market and its vicinity and disappeared. 15 minutes later another British Camberra medium-sized plane dived low at the center of the market and did an acrobatic summersault in the air, the crew of two white men were seen laughing and waving at the people. As soon as the plane disappeared a heavy bomber with earth-shaking noise circled the market and dived low releasing series of bombs in and around the market place. When the heavy bomber left another one came repeating the act of the first plane.

When the raid was over there was wailing and uncontrollable cries within the place. As the news of the massacre spread around the towns and villages, people rushed in to look for their dead or wounded relatives. Body parts were scattered here and there, the market looked like a pool of blood. That day many children were orphaned while many other victims either got amputation or serious wounds.

After so many years I still have nightmares of the ethnic cleansing called civil war. Since then I see the idea of one united Nigeria as a death trap for Igbos.
My fear of Nigeria is made stronger for the fact that the war criminal are still alive and many of them ruling Nigeria and deploying JFT very close to our borders. It troubles me also that the chief militants of our neighbors in the Niger Delta trust the Hausa/Fulani Yoruba soldiers. Perhaps they were either too young or not born during the genocide. Besides these soldiers cannot differentiate an Igbo from Ibibio, or Ijaw for that matter.

joseph N says:
October 18, 2009 at 4:52 pmlet us not open old wounds, Ali Chukwuma once said, if you consider the devastation that took place in Onitsha, he did not believe he will ever see Onitsha again. Let us forgive all the blood suckers who deprived us of the company and contributions of our siblings.
Their reward awaits them.

Michael Chuks says:
October 18, 2009 at 1:28 pmMy first encounter with the Asaba genocide story was from our neighbor in my childhood days. She always sang this soul-touching song every morning of how innocent Asaba youths were murdered during the Biafran war in Asaba. She lost all her siblings in that genocide.
While the Asaba genocide is yet to be acknowledged, Gowon moves around with a facial grin and like a psychadelic in his Nigeria prays talk-show. But deep inside him, I know Gowon must be a very sad man for the blood on his head and how he was used and dumped by the people he thought he was working with. And with the recurrent religious crises in Jos, Plateau, no one need to tell Gowon where he belongs in the ugly history of Nigeria.

Kotoko says:
October 18, 2009 at 10:30 amAs an eye witness of 1966 coupe in Kaduna; the Northern Araba progrom;
another at Makurdi bridge. On the break of the conflict, I saw genocide
from Ubolo Eke, Ubolo Afor at Nsukka and the death of late Col.Chukwuma
Kaduna Nzogwu at the Nsukka university campus. Personally met with
Brig. Banjo and Ifeajuna, crossed to Asaba from Igbariam, advanced to
Ore and were asked to withdraw. Witnessed actions in the Rivers from
Borri, Bony, Degema, Abonima, etc; and moved to Calabar where SS Nigerian ship shelling could not stop. Then to Abakaliki, Ogoja, Obubra
Ikom; setting stage on city defences like Enugu, Port Harcourt, Owerri;
Aba, Umuahia; Onitsha and Abagan Junction cum Post Office (Anambra).
Fought against Col.Adekunle’s (Black Scorpion) at Port Harcourt before being replaced by Brig. Olusegun Obasanjo’s (Otopus).; Murtula Muhammed (Div.), at Onitsha. Asaba is not the only spot massacre of civilians and war crimes were numerous. For instance, Col. Adekunkle
was charging civilians safety fees arround Port Harcourt sector., and not
all captured Biafrans were handed over to the International Red Cross
alive. Possibly, there might be some Biafran children sent over to Gabon for medical attention that have not been accounted for.

There were other areas innocent civilians were deliberately lined-up especially males suspected as Biafran soldiers and women suspected
to be spying for Biafrans were killed. Some women were captured by the
Nigerian soldiers, raped and kept as sex-slaves with them in the trenches.
There were reports of civilians who refused to leave their homes were
deliberatel locked-up in the same house and set ablaze by Nigerian
soldiers simply for being Igbos. Churches and market places including
hospitals were bombed . Patients were bionetted in some hospitals
especially orthopedic patients whose limbs were suspended for mere
suspicious of being Biafran soldiers. There were war crimes and lootings.
Typical evidence of lootings were the interceptions at Nsukka, Enugu and Oghe in Enugu state ;Abagana, Umuahia, Abriba, Calabar ,Obubra;
Port Harcourt and Afikpo areas. There were trully evidence of genocide
committed during the Biafran war upon which evidences might be hard
to assemble as a result of post war reconstructions, (ie. erecting building
on a war mass-grave site out of ignorance, adversely distorts evidence).
Obasanjo for some reason installed discipline when he took over from
Adekunle in Port Harcourt sector. Sympathetic nations were not allowed
to ship food to Biafra unless handed over to the Nigerian government. first.
Catholic (CARITAS) who insisted on night flights at make-shift strips at
Uli and Okigwe, were regularly bombed and many volenteers killed. Nigerian planes were predominantly manned by Egyptian and Arab pilots. Some Nigerian troops were also led by foreign mercenaries as “Field Advisers”.

Ray says:
October 18, 2009 at 9:16 amYoruba men are never to be trusted, the yorubas are double-headed, thats excatly what Banjo exhibited. ‘May the souls of my Asaba brothers rest in perfect peace’.Amen.

The Asaba memorial will be an important first step towards full disclosure and possible restitution.

saint says:
October 18, 2009 at 8:40 am@Omo Nuan…The midwest did not do anything offend the eastern Nigerian before Ojukwu ordered his troopers to invade the midwest and when the brifra troops arrived ,they planned to kill the midwest governor who escaped by the teeth of his skin; Also the people of the midwest were molested,killed and ladies raped by the brifra soldiers before they were recused by the FG military. The brifra soldiers over-ran and conquered the people of the midwest and they felt oppressed.They never gave the midwest a choice of either staying in Nigeria or joining brifra;They wanted to force their military might on the midwest.
The Asaba massacre is wrong and Nigeria needs to address that issue and ask for forgiveness .And I join other nigerians in asking for a federal monument build in asaba to remember the wrong that the nigerian state committed and honour those whose lifes were taken in the massacre; The country’s military did the same thing in odi, gbaramatu, benue state and if they are not stopped ,we can never tell if town or city they will massacre next.

meniru says:
October 18, 2009 at 8:26 amnever heard of an asaba massacre! now that i know, it will take its rightful place in with odi and zaki ibiam. thank you obi nwakanma for dusting up this historical fact of consequence as we hereby group muritala mohammed alongside olusegun obasanjo as disgruntled genocidal maniacs of nigeria.

George says:
October 18, 2009 at 8:01 amNigeria is suffering her kama for the killing of Igbo pregnant women, children and innocent civilians. Everyone who took part, condoned or supported the massacar, wether living or dead, will pay very very dearly for it. It will grow from personal Kama to national kama because those lives belong to God and the crimes so committed offend God. Nigeria will NEVER make progress until appologies and restitution are made to the Igbos and others so affected.
Omo Nuan says:
October 18, 2009 at 5:18 amThe whole of Anioma was marked for anihilation. While Cyril Iweze an Anioma man was fighting for Nigeria against his Igbo Kinsmen, his home town Isheagu was razed by the war criminals. Ubulu Uku, Igbuzo, Ogwashi Uku were not spared. Nigeria must atone for these atrocities. The complicity of other Midwesterners in the massacres shall never be forgotten either even though Ogbemudia tried to make amends.

The blood of these Igbo men on the Niger shall not be in vain. Gowon has apologized but Nigeria must pay reparations for the country to know peace. Otherwise, Nigeria will never progress or know peace until she atones for the blood of my people killed in cold blood!

Kenice says:
October 18, 2009 at 5:09 amWhen some of these war criminals turned war heroes talk about the civil war they tend to gloat over the fact that a generation of people were almost wiped out in a dastardly pogrom. The evils of what led to the civil war and the atrocities of the civil war itself can never be wished away. The consequence is what Nigerian and Nigerians are suffering today. The full closure and renaissance of Nigeria can only come when the government of Nigeria recognises the evil done to its citizens during and after the war; including those atrocities in Zaki Biam, Umuechem, Odi etc, as well as on going religious instigated massacres and offers the necessary apologies and takes steps to ensure adequate restitution to those affected.

saydtruth says:
October 18, 2009 at 2:47 amGowon and his hausa generals past and present one, with objs and yuroba generals past and present ones,some are death some of them still alive, have commited genocide against us because of oil, telling us one nigeria. in one they want inpose their nosseess sharia on us. they dominated govts in all level.
Harry Biosah, Santa Clarita, Ca. says:
October 18, 2009 at 2:22 amObi thanks for this masterpiece.What baffles me however, is why the
indigenes of Asaba were singled out for such treatment ?Brig. Banjo’s
name does not sound Ibo to me either. I am quite happy, that Mr Okocha
has documented what one can describe,as a very important aspect of our
history.Hopefully, we all can learn something from this as we reflect on our
past to serve as a navigator into what we believe will be a glorious future
for all true Nigerians, devoid of bitterness and conspiracy to deny certain
ethnic groups their rightful place as equal citizens of our sovereign country.

laz onunkwo USA says:
October 18, 2009 at 2:05 amHe who lives by the sword dies by the sword . Murtala Muhammed, the modern-day hero of the Hausa-Fulani paid for his evil acts towards the Igbos.Firs to deal with him was Hannibal Achuzie wiped off his entire Division of the Nigerian army and he was recalled to Lagos where Anthony Ochefo disciplined him for gross indiscipline,incompetence and mis-managementof human and material resources under his command.Then Dimka finally wasted the beast!

Nwimo Udoye says:
October 18, 2009 at 2:00 amI became aware of the Asaba Massacre, the day Gen. Murtala Mohamed was assassinated. My Asaba friend then was jubilitating, instead of joining the euphoria of National Mourning, that followed his now seeming well deserved death. He later told me the story. All his brothers survived because their mother had a prescience of an impending doom and talked the brothers out of attending the “welcoming party” for the about to be “butchers on the Niger”. Nothing justified the wanton killing and the blood thirsty manner it was carried out. It was clearly against the Geneva Convention and other UN agreed conducts in war, particularly as civilians were concerned.
I have Googled and searched Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia. Information on the Asaba genocide and in deed other genocides associated with the Nigeria/Biafra war was sketchy. People who have the details should do the Igbo race a favor by documenting these gruesome Igbo historical events on the Internet, for posterity. We owe it to our younger generations of Igbos and Nigerians and the world, majority of whom have not heard this story.
There is no Statues of Limitation on genocide, even if it remains in the theater.realm of conscience/subconscious. Gen Haruna is still alive, I believe. Murtala met his Nemesis, but is still adorning the face of the N20 Naira note and named after many Nigerian landmarks, including the old Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Umuahia, Abia State, in Igboland. What a shame! Gen Yakubu Gowon am sure is living through his own sins every day till the rest of his life.
The collective history of the Igbo race should bind us together, just like the Jews and Armenians and Albanians, whether we are in Delta, Lagos, the North and other parts of former Eastern Nigeria. There is much that bind us together than divide us. These butchers whether during the Pogroms or during various genocidal acts during the prosecution of the war, did not discriminate among the various Igbo hues. Other non Igbo ethnic minorities of the East were not spared either, even in more recent religious riots in the far North. I dare any Boko Haram/Islamic Fundamentalist Jihadist from the Far North, to differentiate the Igbo from the Efik, Ijaw, Annang or Ibibio Christian or for that matter Ikwerre, Ogba, Aniocha/Western Igbos, from Igbos of the Core Igbo states of the Southeast.
The innocent dead in the Asaba Massacre should not be forgotten. Just Gowon has tendered his apology to Asaba people, we equally expect same from the remaining living actors in the tragedy and the Nigerian State, to follow suit. Only then would full closure be possible. Germany apologized to the Jews and only recently, Turkey accepted their role in the Armenia genocide. This act will not portray weakness, but humanity at its b

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