On the 27th of May, 1967, General Yakubu Gowon promulgated decree no. 14 which created 12 states (six in the north and six in the south) out of the former four regions of Nigeria. Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, governor of the former Eastern Region, saw the creation of states without consultation as a breech of the Aburi Accord of 1967. This immediately added salt to the political and ethnocentric wound the country had been nursing since independence as Col. Ojukwu took to the seven point resolution of the ‘Eastern Assembly and the Advising Committee of Chiefs and Elders‘ which mandated him to declare the secession of the Eastern Region. On the 30th of May, 1967, Col. Ojukwu eventually declared the existence of an independent Republic of Biafra which subsequently set the stage for a war, the Nigerian civil war!
It was during the bloody Nigerian civil war otherwise known as the Biafran war that the Asaba massacre was perpetrated. This was on October 5, 6 and 7 in the year 1967. In August, two months before the gruesome massacre that left a thousand Asaba people dead, a division of the seceded Eastern Region army (also called the ‘Liberation Army‘) led by Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Banjo occupied Benin in the Midwestern Region of Nigeria. The Liberation Army wanted to use Benin as a launching ground for the ‘invasion of Ibadan and Lagos‘, but unfortunately, the proposed invasion didn’t breath any air before it was stymied due to reasons connected to the newly promoted Lieutenant Banjo. Lieutenant Banjo “wanted to secure Benin in good hands before proceeding to Ibadan, so he was not suddenly cut off from Biafra” [Ademoyega 1981].
This gave the federal troops an opportunity to recapture Benin and drive the Biafran army out of the city, past Asaba which lies on the west bank of River Niger, and into Onitsha. After the Biafran army crossed into Onitsha, they blew up a part of the bridge to halt the chase of the federal troops. It was at this juncture that Asaba and her people met their doom. On October 5, the Nigerian second division led by Col. Muhammed Murtala turned back on Asaba and began to ransack houses, rape women and murder innocent boys and men claiming they were Biafran sympathizers.
Knowing things could go worse, on the 7th of October, two days after the federal troops arrived, the people of Asaba organized a dance to show their support for ‘One Nigeria‘. Men and women, boys and girls all danced in their Akwa Ocha (white) attire and repeatedly showed the intention of the dance. Unfortunately, the federal troops turned the dance into a bloody one by separating men from women, and mercilessly killing the former. Many sources have it that the troops led by Col. Murtala Muhammed and Col. Ibrahim Taiwo (who both ironically died on the same day in 1967) oversaw the aspect of adult male killings. Asaba stank with blood and dead bodies which were later pilled up and buried in a mass grave. None of the dead victims could be given a proper burial with necessary funeral rites. Over 1000 people lost their lives in this massacre. A source claimed that younger girls were forcibly married and the recalcitrant ones were shot dead. A video that documented the Asaba Massacre of 1967 showed one of the lucky survivors, Patience Chukwura who was then a young mother pregnant with her fourth child, as she narrated how her husband, Eddie, was killed. Her father-in-law and two brothers-in-law were also murdered in cold blood. Many citizens of Asaba fled their homes and did not return until the Nigerian civil war ended in 1970.
Below is a video documenting the Asaba massacre by S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser Ottanelli in 2013. In this video, witnesses of the Asaba massacre recounted their horrible experiences and irreplaceable losses.
* The Asaba Memorial Project at the University of South Florida [www.asabamemorial.org]
* Blood on the Niger: The First Black on Black Genocide, The Untold Story of the Asaba Massacre in the Nigerian Civil War; Emmanuel Emma Okocha
* Ademoyega, Adewale; Why We Struck: The Story of the First Nigerian Coup; Ibadan; Evans Brothers (Nig. Publishers) Ltd.; 1981; P.g. 140-150