By Azuka Onwuka
It is not a good sight watching an adult fight tears. Even though the event happened 50 years ago, it was hard for Dr Ify Uraih to recount without being weighed down by emotions.
Like he testified in 2001 at the Nigerian Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (popularly known as Oputa Panel), which was commissioned by President Olusegun Obasanjo and charged to consider the history of human rights abuses from 1966 to May 1999, Uraih, over the weekend at the palace of the Asagba of Asaba, recounted how he and his father and two brothers faced a hail of bullets on October 7, 1967 at the Ogbe-Osowa Square in Asaba, where they had gathered to welcome the federal troops during the Nigerian Civil War. He was lucky to escape but his father and brothers were not lucky.
The casualties were not soldiers or combatants. They were not caught by friendly fire or accidental discharge. They were gathered together and gunned down in what remains one of the most callous incidents of the Nigerian Civil War.
When the Nigerian troops pushed out the Biafran troops from the Midwestern Region during the war, the Biafran troops retreated across the River Niger and broke the Niger Bridge. The Second Division of the Nigerian Army, led by Lt. Col. Murtala Mohammed, entered Asaba on October 4, 1967. Between October 4 and 6, there were reports that the Nigerian soldiers killed men and boys of Asaba, on the allegation that they were sympathetic to the Biafrans or collaborated with the Biafran soldiers. In a bid to stop these killings, the elders of Asaba decided to embark on a parade through Asaba streets on October 7, which would culminate at the Ogbe-Osowa Square, to pledge their support for “One Nigeria.” The towncrier went round the community to inform the people, to come out dressed in their traditional white attire called akwa ocha for the ceremony.
On the fateful day, the people trooped out, dressed in their traditional white Asaba attire, chanting “One Nigeria,” waving the Nigerian flag and pledging their loyalty to Nigeria. At the town square, they were addressed by Major Ibrahim Taiwo, who tongue-lashed them and accused the people of Asaba of hiding Biafran soldiers and sympathising with the Biafran soldiers. He threatened to kill all of them. Soldiers mounted machine guns and automatic rifles around the square facing them. It looked like a joke to many of those gathered there.
Some Asaba men, including the father of Mrs Maryam Babangida, former First Lady, Mr Nwanonye Okogwu, spoke on behalf of the Asaba people, telling the soldiers that they were civilians who were not taking part in the war. The Asaba people requested that the civilian population be allowed to leave town, so that the soldiers could take care of those they were after.
The Nigerian soldiers asked that the crowd march around the town to ask all those who were inside to come out, so that anybody not at the square would be taken as a dissident. The men and boys were separated from the women. The men and boys were marched out. A few metres away, those who had returned from the North and therefore understood Hausa heard a soldier tell other soldiers to take them in little groups of 10 for elimination. Dr Uraih recalled that his elder brother resisted joining the first group of 10 people. He was shot in the back and killed. Some people wanted to flee but were gunned down. And so the guns began to boom as the men and boys were mowed down. Those who were mortally injured raised their hands and asked to be killed. They were obliged with bouts of gunfire.
Long after the shooting stopped and the soldiers left, leaving death and blood behind, the few lucky survivors and the injured dragged themselves out of the place of death. Uraih, who was about 15 years old then, survived but his father Mr Robert Uraih, and his two brothers, Emma and Paul, lay dead. The next day, he came back with a wheelbarrow to take away the bodies of his father and brothers for burial to avoid having them buried in mass graves or eaten by scavengers.
It is estimated that after the three-day killing of civilians in Asaba by the soldiers, over a thousand fell victim. Asaba was left with widows and orphans. Almost every family lost a son or father. The only male survivors were those who had earlier fled Asaba before the arrival of the Nigerian troops or those who were too old or sick to come out to the square.
The strangest part of this massacre was that it was unprovoked and done in cold blood and in deceit. The victims had no inkling that such a fate awaited them. Who could imagine that people dressed in white, chanting their allegiance to One Nigeria would be gunned down by the same soldiers they were pledging allegiance to?
For decades, Asaba has lived with this horrific and traumatic experience in silence. Their story was swallowed by the events of the Nigerian Civil War, especially the starving children of Biafra. Most Nigerians have never heard of the fate that befell Asaba people on October 7, 1967. Ironically, those who led this massacre rose to become national heroes, with monuments named after them and beautiful tales told about them.
The Asaba people have decided to commemorate the 50th anniversary of this ugly incident in a way that will galvanise them towards rebirth and healing. Accordingly, the Asaba October 7 Memorial Group, led by Mr. Alban Ofili-Okonkwo, plans a four-day anniversary that will start on October 4 and end on October 8, with its theme as “Remembrance and Forgiveness”. The high points being the October 7 colloquium featuring Nobel laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, and Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah as keynote speakers as well as the presentation of a book on the carnage entitled, The Asaba Massacre – Trauma, Memories, and the Nigerian Civil War, authored by renowned anthropologist, Prof. S. Elizabeth Bird and co-authored by historian, Prof. Fraser M. Ottanelli, both of the University of South Florida.
Ofili-Okonkwo emphasises that in the spirit of forgiveness and rebirth, a maternity and school of midwifery would be established at the spot where the people were massacred and it will be named The Place of My Birth Hospital. The hospital will serve everybody from all walks of life and from all parts of the nation and the world. This hospital will save life and bring forth life in a place where life was snuffed out.
The group believes that with the sensitisation and citizen engagement programmes, healing and closure would be achieved to signal the collective resolve of Asaba indigenes to leave behind the memories of their tragic past and walk resolutely into a more promising future.
Even though Asaba people have decided to forgive and move on, Nigeria has not been able to find a solution to its lack of respect for human lives. Because it has never taken any decisive step to punish those, especially government agents, who waste human lives, the impunity to kill at will has continued over the decades in different parts of the country, whether in Odi or Zaki-Biam. This lack of punishment for cold-blooded murder of civilians has emboldened more government agents to kill more civilians.
That those who murdered defenceless civilians in Asaba have never been reprimanded in life or in death, neither has Nigerian government acknowledged that its troops massacred its citizens without provocation is a dent on Nigeria’s image. It is never late to do a good thing.