BLOOD MONEY VII: The Asaba massacre

Last month, YNaija.com launched its Monthly Citizenship Dispatches, which explores in detail, the lives and realities of Nigerian citizens across the country.

This month, the dispatches come from the Niger Delta, where our reporters have spent weeks digging deep into a part of the country oft reported about and sadly still mis-understood.

These are the stories we will share with you daily over the next two weeks – for the voices, the issues, the realities that fellow citizens living in the Delta have dealt with, and continue to deal with every day.

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It was premeditated.

On October 7, 1967, one of the highest-profile massacres in a string of genocides to have been committed in Nigeria, happened.

A couple of weeks before – on 27th September 1967 –  Dr. Albert Okonkwo, governor of the MidWest Republic addressed civil servants in Asaba, the capital telling them that he would close the Niger Bridge if the federal troops got as far as Agbor, only a few kilometres away.

The civil servants knew what was coming. A week earlier, there had been a mass-scale murder of Igbos in nearby Benin City and the coming death was inevitable.

In the early days of October, retreating Biafran and Midwest soldiers were filing through the city while the elders were considering sending a delegation to the Nigerians to surrender and beg for the lives of everyone to be spared. In the meantime, non-Igbos were being sheltered at St. Patrick’s College, Asaba.

In the meantime, the Biafrans employed all manner of delay tactics on the Onitsha side of the bridge. They put poisoned beer by the roadside, burnt down the Onitsha market when some Nigerian soldiers entered and even deployed nude female members of the Biafran Organization of Freedom Fighters (BOFF) to seduce their obviously sex-starved counterparts.

Asaba was conquered on 5th October by troops personally led by Murtala Muhammed and a dozen accounts point to the fact that there were many unregistered deaths that day and the next – of men, women and children. According to one such version, youths were ordered to dig a grave, stand it and watch each other get shot.

The grand finale was 7th October, a day now known as the Asaba Massacre. Acting under instructions from Murtala Muhammed and Ibrahim Taiwo, the federal troops rounded up the remaining citizens of the town and marched them to the town square at Ogbe-Osowa, ordering them to sing ‘One Nigeria’ and dance on the way. There, the men and young boys were separated from the women and young children. The weapon of choice? Machine guns. A few of them managed to flee in the bushes while a small number were saved by the fallen bodies of their comrades piling on them.

No one is certain what the number of casualties were; 300 or 500 or 800 or even more. A quote in the French newspaper Le Monde circa 1967, attributes an emotional quote to Monsignor Rochcau, one of the two papal delegates representing Pope Paul VI in Nigeria at the time. He said: “Between Benin and Asaba only widows and orphans remain, Federal troops having for unknown reasons massacred all the men.”

Till date, there has been no official apology or commemoration from the Federal Government or the Nigerian Army except for one from Yakubu Gowon, head of state during the civil war.

And this quote from Col. Benjamin Adekunle, ‘Black Scorpion’ in an interview with The Economist circa 1968 might offer insight about the apologies that never came and might never come.

“We shoot at everything; even at things that don’t move”, he told the British magazine.

It was premeditated. The massacre was premeditated.

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