Today we will be talking about the Asaba massacre, a genocidal act, which successive Nigerian governments have never officially acknowledged.
To start off, we need to know and understand the circumstances and background events that led to the Asaba massacre.
The town of Asaba was part of the Midwest Region of Nigeria in 1967. Asaba is a town on the West bank of the River Niger, just across the River Niger from the bustling commercial city of Onitsha. The people of Asaba are ethnically and linguistically Igbos.
On May 30th, 1967, Lieutenant Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, military governor of the then Eastern region of Nigeria, declared the Eastern region of Nigeria as the sovereign state of Biafra.
This declaration was in response to the ongoing pogroms – the mass killing of Igbos across Nigeria – and the consequent flight of people of Igbo extraction across the length and breadth of Nigeria to perceived safe havens in the Eastern region of Nigeria.
The town of Asaba was not technically part of the Republic of Biafra. Although The Midwest region to which Asaba belonged supported the “One Nigeria” ideal of the Nigerian government, number of its citizens fought on the side of Biafra, with people like Colonel Conrad Nwawo, Colonel Joe Achuzie and Major Kaduna Nzeogwu playing key roles.
The declaration by Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu was officially the beginning of the Nigerian civil war.
On August 9th, 1967, Biafran troops invaded the Midwest, crossing into Asaba, using the new bridge across the River Niger that was builtcompleted in 1966 . An eye witness account recollects that
“It was very early in the morning. We just heard rumblings, so we knew something was up in the road. So, we all came out. We saw troops and tanks, singing joyously and advancing, going towards Benin. That was all. And after they passed, we continued with school. Nothing happened.”
Biafran troops moved rapidly, over running Benin City and advancing as far West as Ore, which was about 100 miles from Lagos, the then federal capital. This shock move by the Biafrans was halted by Nigerian forces who destroyed key bridges in their path. Biafran forces occupied the Midwest region for about six weeks before Nigerian forces counter attacked.
Nigeria’s counter attack was led by the Second Infantry division, under the command of Colonel Murtala Muhammed. Nigeria’s second infantry division retook Benin and succeeded in pushing Biafran troops all the way back to Asaba.
By October 4th, 1967, Biafran troops retreated across the River Niger bridge, to Onitsha, and blew up two trunks of the bridge to prevent Nigerian troops crossing over.
In Asaba, however, the people were growing apprehensive with the approach of Nigerian troops. There were reports that mobs were killing Igbos in Benin & Sapele, actively supported by Nigerian troops. The fear was so great that they then Asagba of Asaba, Obi Umejei Onyetenu relocated to the East.
On October 4th, Nigerian troops arrived the outskirts of Asaba, and finally entered Asaba township itself by October 5th. As Nigerian troops took control of Asaba township, groups of soldiers went from house to house rounding up boys and men that were accused of being Biafran sympathizers. Some were shot on the spot or taken to the police station on Nnebisi road, the High court on Okpanam road or the riverbank, where they were summarily executed. No one knows the exact numbers that were killed in this manner.
In an attempt to bring the violence to an end, the traditional leaders in Asaba, comprising of the Asagba-in-council and the town chiefs met to discuss how to let Nigerian troops know that the people of Asaba had no hand in the Biafran incursion and that the people of Asaba welcomed the Nigerian troops. It was decided that some money would be raised and delivered to the officers on the Nigerian side. Fifty pounds was raised and four men were sent to deliver it to the Nigerian side. They never returned.
In the morning of October 6th, another batch of four men were sent to find out what happened to the first set of men. These second batch of men, did not return as well.
As a last ditch effort, the leaders of Asaba summoned all the people of the town to assemble on the next day to welcome the Nigerian troops and offer a pledge of loyalty to “One Nigeria”. The people were encouraged to wear Akwa Ocha, which is a white traditional clothing that signifies peace.
On October 7th, men, women and children assembled on Nnebisi road for the parade. Up to four thousand people gathered, with the leaders of the town in front and leading the parade.
Singing “One Nigeria”, the parade advanced past St. JosephsJoseph’s church and turned Eastwards. However, they were soon flanked by Nigerian troops who selected males at random and executed them right on the spot.
When the fearful parade got to the corner of Ogbogonogi and Ogbeje markets, the Nigerian troops separated the women and children and forced them into the maternity hospital on Nnebisi road.
The man, on were funnelled through two rows of soldiers and down the road to the square at Ogbegosowa. There was no room for escape.
Once the women were totally separated, Nigerian soldiers revealed machine guns, both free standing and mounted on trucks and the shooting began…
Nobody knows exactly how many people Nigerian soldiers killed in Asaba on the 7th of October 1967, but some estimates say between five hundred and eight hundred were killed during that singular mass shooting. Sporadic shooting went on for several hours, until it began to rain, forcing the soldiers to disperse. Suprisingly, some people survived the parade shooting, buried under piles of dead bodies. The few survivors crawled out when it was dark and the shooting had stopped.
The victims of the Asaba mass shooting were dumped in mass graves or thrown into the River Niger.
After the events of October 7, the worst of the killings stopped. However individual violence and acts of rape by Nigerian soldiers continued.
Why was Asaba targeted in this way by Nigerian troops?
Well, some say it was in retaliation for the perceived role of prominent people from Asaba and nearby towns in the January 1966 coup. For example, Major Kaduna Nzeogwu was from Okpanam, a place a few miles away from Asaba.
Another school of thought believes that the troops of the Second Infantry division, under the command of Colonel Murtala Muhammed of the Nigerian military were very poorly trained and mostly motivated by hatred. An eye witness accounts reported a Lieutenant Usman that beat a large group of men, saying that Igbos “believe in book knowledge, that they were going to destroy that book knowledge”
Other accounts say that the events of October 7th were orchestrated and that field commanders were active participants, laying the blame squarely at the feet of Col. Murtala Muhammed, who as the highest ranking officer of the Second division had with ultimate responsibility for troop behaviour.
However, it must be said that not all Nigerian troops of the Nigerian 2nd division supported or participated in the killings. One witness recounts how he was part of a group that was escorted to the High court on Okpanam road to be executed, but a Nigerian officer intervened and had them escorted back to their homes safely.
The Asaba massacre of October 1967 was a pre-cursor to the human tragedy and deaths that occurred, both on the Nigerian and Biafran, side during the 30 month Nigerian civil war
It is our hope that such a tragedy would never behall Nigeria again.