By Godwin Nzeakah
Exactly half a century ago during the early weeks of the Nigerian civil war, federal troops mounted a counter-offensive against Biafran troops who had surged almost unchecked through the Midwest region all the way to Ore and were looking to push on to Lagos, the federal capital. Under the command of Colonel Murtala Muhammed, the second division of the Nigerian Army successfully repelled the secessionist forces all the way back to the banks of the Niger River. The retreating Biafran troops blew up the Niger Bridge, leaving the advancing federal troops holed up in Asaba on the west bank of the river.
According to the most widely corroborated accounts, Asaba indigenes being mostly of Igbo ethnicity but nominally not part of Biafra were eager to express their support for and belief in “one Nigeria”, especially because the federal troops had embarked on indiscriminate reprisal killings of civilians in the town claiming they were Biafran sympathisers. So on the morning of Saturday October 7 1967, thousands of men, women and children clad in native white attires embarked on a march through the streets of Asaba chanting “one Nigeria” solidarity songs which they hoped would appease the federal soldiers and stem the tide of violence. Instead, the troops separated all the men and boys from the crowd and assembled them in a village square where they were then machine-gunned to death. The casualty count was estimated to be over seven hundred, including teenage boys some as young as twelve years old.
It was one of many gruesome massacres that occurred just before and during the civil war, and possibly one of the most heinous. A few people have attempted to excuse this sordid event as one of the “evils of war.” Perhaps such amoral reductionism would have made some logical sense if the Nigerian polity has remained free of such state organised massacres after the civil war ended. However, Zaki-Biam, Odi and other more recent carnage in peace time are pointers to suggest that something deeper, something beyond the helpless savagery that war provokes, is unhinged in our national psyche.
Losing a loved one is often followed by a fairly typical cascade of emotional reactions we’ve come to recognise as grief. In the immediate aftermath of a loss, people could find themselves feeling a combination of shock and disbelief. As reality of the loss begins to set in, the disbelief gives way to intense sorrow and anguish, followed by pining and yearning over the lost one. These reactions last for a duration ranging from several days to several weeks. Eventually, most people are able to reconcile themselves to the fact that the loved one is no more and then they try to move on with life.
When tragedy strikes on such large scales as the Asaba massacre, not only the family members and friends of the deceased are expected to grieve. One hallmark of civilisation is the way modern societies interpret and respond to tragedy. How shocked are we whenever we see yet another report of a tragic loss of human lives anywhere in the country? Do we experience any sorrow at all, even if just for what the survivors and bereaved must be going through at such a time? Do we allow ourselves to even imagine the feeling of anguish some of the affected people are struggling with at that very time? Or do we just skip all that and cavalierly attempt to move on almost right at the very start? While some could argue that an excess of tragedies may have numbed the Nigerian psyche to pain, yet isn’t it possible that we experience an excess of tragedies because we have allowed ourselves to become callous to the distress of our fellow compatriots?
The soul of a nation, our collective subconscious, has been traumatised repeatedly by mindless violent tragedies so much that we’ve forgotten how to grieve as a society. But grief has a purpose. It helps human beings to repair and heal, individually and collectively. Unhealed people continue to experience pain and suffering, while non-healing societies inevitably become dangerous and toxic. We have become numb to the sufferings of our fellow men so much that national tragedies are often politicised and sectionalised, reduced to petty ethno-geographical squabbles that leave us less and less human. Little wonder why it appears the Nigerian state appears not to appreciate the true worth of a human life.
All lives ought to matter, young and old, male and female, Igbo, Yoruba Hausa/Fulani or Ijaw. None matters more than the other, and nothing matters more. We must appreciate and preserve the sanctity of human life, empathise with and support those who are grieving. Coming at such a perilous time when once again the raison d’etre of our national unity is being questioned by some while many more are clamouring for a renegotiation of the terms of our association, it is imperative we learn to grieve as one people. A bombing in Borno is not simply yet another northern Islamic terrorism tragedy, and a massacre in Onitsha is not simple another Igbo-Biafran tragedy. A carnage anywhere is a national tragedy for which the culprits must be condemned by all, and the victims/survivors consoled by all as well.
As the people of Asaba commemorate their loss this October 7, the rest of the country east, west and north must stand with them on this solemn day. Most of us were not there that Saturday morning in Asaba and so could have done nothing to prevent the carnage. But if we all decide to collectively stand with the kinsmen and women of the deceased here and now, we can deepen the bonds of our brotherhood, and begin to forge that inner consciousness of oneness from which a nation’s true soul is born.
It is commonly said that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat the mistakes of history. We shouldn’t just remember, we must also strive to learn the right lessons. The 50th anniversary of the massacre provides the opportunity for us to extricate a golden lesson from that horrible October day. That no one has been held culpable till today for orchestrating the massacre is in itself another tragedy. It is a stark reflection of the shameless dilution of humanity we have chosen to tolerate and perpetuate in our polity.
Nevertheless, forgiveness on the part of the bereaved is not impossible even when the culprits go unpunished. The Asaba October 7 Memorial Group chaired by Alban Ofili-Okonkwo is a committee saddled with the responsibility of organizing this year’s commemorative activities and they have chosen “Remembrance and Forgiveness” as the theme for the 50th anniversary of that epic tragedy. By choosing to forgive without recriminations, the people of Asaba are healing themselves from the trauma of that terrible day. And in so doing, they are providing the rest of the Nigerian nation with a chance to heal our damaged (if at all existent) national psyche by pondering critically on what went wrong that day because in the words of Thomas Szasz, “the naïve forgive and forget. The stupid neither forgive nor forget. The wise never forget but forgive”.
*Nzeakah is a former editor of Sunday Punch