The Asaba massacre was a fallout of the Saturday night coup of January 15,1966 co-led by Ifeajuna, the first black African to win gold in an international sporting competition and Nzeogwu.
“Our enemies,” Nzeogwu said,”are the political profiteers,the swindlers,the men in high and low places that seeks bribes and demand 10 percent; those that seeks to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office…”.It was a coup to unite the country, to stop ballot papers from disappearing,to stop rioting,looting ,arson and corruption in the army.
The unrest following the coup, codenamed Leopard led to a series of bloody riots against the Igbo in May 1966 and the counter coup of July 29,1966.Soldiers as reported by the New York Times of October 2,1966 actively encouraged and joined the mobs in the massacre of the Igbo in Northern Nigeria. Soldiers opened fire on a large group of Igbos who were fleeing the pogrom as they attempted to board an aeroplane in Kano. The Igbos in the North then hungry and exhausted from running from the pogrom turned to their oppressors to beg “nyem mmiri”-give me water. Their killers not knowing the meaning of the save our soul (SOS) word “nyem mmiri” derisively started calling the Igbos “nyamiri”. The Hausas has to this day knowingly or unknowingly come to regard the Igbos as “nyamiri”. This would be a precursor to the Asaba massacre.
The elders, Chiefs and the Consultative assembly,because of these tragic events,the Federal government’s helplessness and the failure of the Aburi Accord mandated the then Governor of the Eastern region,Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu to declare the Eastern region an Independent and Sovereign State of Biafra. “It was not so much a declaration of independence”,Ojukwu noted in an interview in 1999,”It was more a demarcation of a line- this far,no further”.
Having thus demarcated the line beyond which the then people of the Eastern region would be safe,everyone in the young country was full of hope not just for life but that the black man would in Biafra find his place among the comity of nations. This was demonstrated in their ingenuity. They refined their crude oils, powered their machines and everyone was happy. This happiness was shortlived and the ‘Japan of Africa’ was killed with the July 6, 1967 firing of the first shots into Biafra by Federal troops.
This is not an attempt at promoting hatred towards anyone,group of persons and /or any section of the country. This is rather an attempt at remembering the victims of the October 7,1967 Asaba massacre.
The people of Asaba by way of life and language are Igbos. Some people in Asaba however do not want to be addressed as Igbos preferring the rather so called Niger Delta. In a bid to cut off advancing federal troops the Biafran soldiers set out to occupy Asaba and made for Ore. They were halted by the Second infantry division led by Colonel Murtala Muhammad. The Biafrans were made to retreat to Onitsha after they blew up sections of the Niger Bridge.
The leaders of Asaba led by the Asagba-in-council and the Omu of Asaba decided the best way to ease tensions was to welcome the advancing Federal troops with drinks and traditional woven clothes. The men who were sent to deliver the gifts did not make it back.
The leaders then ‘ordered town criers with gongs to summon everyone to assemble the next day to welcome Federal troops and offer a pledge of loyalty to “one Nigeria. In a mark of peace and submission the traumatized people of Asaba wore ‘akwa ocha’,a white traditional woven cloth.They sang, danced and chanted ‘one Nigeria’ just to placate the Nigerian killer soldiers.
The Federal troops not satisfied by this goodwill gesture decided to separate the males among the ‘one Nigeria’ chanting Asaba marchers from the females .Women tried disguising their male children as women by giving them their skirts. It was a scene better imagined than experienced. The women and small children were sent away while the men were channeled between two rows of soldiers in Ogbeosowa and made to dance to the death music of the Federal troops machine guns. It was an organized war crime the scale of which has never been seen before. The killer Federal troops in Fela’s word left ‘sorrows,tears and blood’.
These killer soldiers not satisfied with their criminal acts stayed behind to loot,steal and rape young girls and the women they turned to widows. They would not leave Asaba thereby preventing the remaining town people from burying their dead.
It is estimated that 800 to 1000 people were killed by the then Nigerian second division criminally led by the man whose face is on Nigeria’s twenty naira note Murtala Muhammad and Ibrahim Taiwo.
It is important to note that no form of restitution has been offered by the Nigerian state to ndi Asaba. They have rather gone ahead to immortalized the chief perpetrator of the Asaba massacre,Murtala Muhammad by naming the busiest international airport in the country after him. Ndi Asaba and all men of goodwill are on daily basis reminded of this massacre by the twenty naira note and the Murtala Muhammad international airport. The closest the Nigerian government has come to addressing the Asaba massacre was in the setting up of the Oputa panel. This panel only served to add salt to injury as Major General Ibrahim Haruna, the Commanding officer of the killer soldiers in his belligerency and arrogance declared:
“As the commanding officer and leader of the troops that massacred 500 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 General Yakubu Gowon apologized, he did it in his own capacity. As for me I have no apology.”
May the souls of everyone who lost their lives in that unfortunate ‘uncivil’ war rest in peace.
For the victims of the Asaba massacre we say ‘Never again”.