Asaba, in her day before the massacre was a quiet town of about 10,000 people, was a mile across the River Niger from the bustling and much larger market town of Onitsha. Ferryboats were used to travel between the two towns and a lot of commerce existed between both good communication and market transaction until the building of the bridge which was completed in 1965. Asaba is made up of five distinct quarters namely Umuezei, Ugbomanta, Umuagu, Umuaji and Umuonaje, these quarters are originally the descendant of Nnebuisi, the legendary founder of Asaba of whom all indigenes of Asaba claim direct decent from.
Asaba with her rich culture and tradition made distinctive history from her other communities because of her strategic location overlooking the Niger made her an important river port and has been chosen during the colonial expansion to be the administrative headquarters of the Royal Niger Company. Asaba has the missionaries settling early in her and thereby embracing the western-style education which produced educated middle class indigenes which spread widely from her to her environs. Pro Biafra, Asaba had one Government School, One Catholic School, One convent, two C.M.S. schools, one Salvation Army school and a Catholic Seminary, Asaba was indeed described as the cradle of Nigerian education which for many years was the only source for local supply where suitable men could be counted upon for high secretariat posts in Government and Commerce.
Asaba had so much well respected schools with thriving local and missionary teacher with support of foreign volunteers from organizations like the US Peace Corps and the UK Voluntary Services Overseas. The prestigious St. Patrick’s College, a Catholic-mission run boys’ high school whose graduates go on to top Nigerian Universities and universities abroad and the Anglican Girls Grammar School, an all girls’ run by the long established Church Missionary Society and many more. Life in Asaba before the Biafran war was a normal quiet life. Everyone lived as in communal environment know each other, go to any house, eat together, children gather together at night around parents for moonlight stories and moonlight plays, the moon brightens the darkness at night and market square is packed with youngsters to play and interact before retiring to their various homes.
Asaba is very distinctive in combining her cultural and tradition lifestyle to mend with her western education. she is able to adopt the British style curriculum in the schools and imbed with her culture and also become an educational hub in adopting diversity of ethnicities in the schools creating tribal mixture of students by taking in pupils outside Asaba as boarders into her schools and all students all live together gaining trust and respect for each other. Only federal schools have the capacity for this in her days. Asaba pride herself in producing professionals, doctors, lawyers, teachers and many high ranking member in the Civil Service, it is also noted that Asaba community has produced more university professors than any comparable town in her day having this common knowledge that the first premier of the Midwest Region, Sir. Dennis Osadebe was an Asaba indigene and a much esteemed leader. Also before the Biafran War, you find middle class Asaba indigenes working and serving all over the country, in regional government offices, professionals and entrepreneurs all over the country in the West and the North but however far afield they go.
Asaba indigenes will always keep a home in Asaba where they expect to live after retiring, Asaba indigenes will die and be buried in Asaba even those born elsewhere like myself will retain deep roots in their ancestral home just as I am doing today remembering this historic happening. The Biafran war loomed and forged, Asaba people begin to find themselves in a very increasingly difficult and complicated situation, being a small part of the multi-ethnic Midwest region location wise even though not wanting to be part of the Ojukwu’s Biafra as leaders of the region officially favored the government’s ideal of “One Nigeria” Asaba indigene at the same time are linguistically and culturally Igbo and is recognized as their cousins with the eastern region. They are related and share a lot of affinity though known by the colonial administrators as western Igbo, they shared a lot more in common than they do with the Midwest regions. Some Asaba indigene did not trust the government due to the atrocities already condoned by them in the North while some remain and regarded Ojukwu as a traitor. You have some who firmly support the Biafran cause so you have the indigenes taking prominent roles in both side of the conflict, there is the Joseph Achuzia who became one of the most well-known commander of the Biafran Army. Part of Asaba indigene were in support with him while there is Philip Asiodu who was deeply committed to the principle of one Nigeria, he later rose to become a permanent secretary in the Gowon’s war cabinet, some indigenes were also in support of him. But majority of the Asaba people wanted to avoid trouble from either side, they said “we are not politicians neither are we soldier, we just want to mind our own business and live our lives” so they stayed neutral.
Asaba, because of her complicated nature identity and not being core Igbos and being called to come from the Midwest were not fully trusted by the Igbos, some were sent packing from Enugu, the capital of Biafra, Asaba indigenes found themselves in a dilemma, they seem not to belong anywhere. Nigerians thought they are Igbos while they are considered not to be core Igbos by the Igbos; they are very neutral like bat that is neither mammals nor birds, no sympathies for both. So the war was already having its effect on the indigene of Asaba even before the arrival of the troops from either side. The population of Asaba has largely increased by those indigenes who came back to seek refuge from the North and the West as well as some that came back from the East so almost all of Asaba people came back from all over the country. Children that came back with their parent had nothing doing than play all day.
Precisely August 9, the Biafran troops crossed the Niger Bridge at Asaba. This was sudden and fairly uneventful, though the calmness of the early morning was shattered by the rumbling of the trucks and tanks and was briefly excited by the long column of troops in various vehicles, some were hanging on the trucks wearing bedroom slippers singing and joyously advancing through to Benin City and normal live continued thereafter nothing happened. Not long probably after four day into a week, the voice of Murtala Mohammed was heard on radio announcing the recapture of Benin City, that the Biafrans has lost its occupation of the Midwest at Ore and are returning back while the federal troop are retaking the lost territories. The announcement having mentioned Asaba leaves a puzzle in the indigene’s mind, sending shivers of fear and panic. Many indigenes left heading across the Niger not knowing where exactly to go. This will be published in a latter publication of people who died in vain.
The Biafrans retreat in disarray fleeing through the outskirts of Asaba across the Niger Bridge. Fear was at its utmost in Asaba now as the federal troops approaching with sounds of heavy guns and rattling of machine gun fire. Violence has come to Asaba an innocent victim of the federal troop, a published eyewitness account described 24 hours of ferocious shelling during which Asaba suffered her first casualties when his mother whom he left to go get his wife and children was killed when the shells hit their family house. Accounts of two elderly pensioners were also killed by the federal troop during exchange gun shot with the Biafran soldiers. As the Biafran soldiers flee through Asaba towards the bridge, the federal troops are shelling right across Asaba after the Biafrans trying to kill them. Biafran soldiers discarded their uniform as they ran and were able to make it across the bridge, Col. Joseph Achuzia, an Asaba indigene led the Biafran troops across and placed explosives at the Onitsha end of the bridge waiting to blow the bridge should the Nigeria soldiers advance crossing the bridge. The commander-in-chief, General Yakubu Gowon had instructed Col. Murtala Muhammed and Col. Ike Sanda Nwachuwu not to attempt under any circumstance crossing the bridge. Account told of how Col. Muhammed, being in a hurry to get the Biafran soldiers made some incantations believing in his army Imam named Major Ndayawo who told him that omens were in his favour.
Furthermore he was also convinced that Biafran soldier did not have enough explosives to blow up the bridge, he argued with his officers and led a group of his soldiers onto the bridge in a show of bravery and almost immediately the Biafran soldiers blew up the bridge. There was a flash across the horizon and with a bang, the whole bridge shook, several spans were destroyed, the bridge came down, the bridge was gone making it impossible for the federal troops to cross over, the bridge became impassable more federal troops entered Asaba during the day, the streets were empty, all household quiet, only sounds of heavy traffic noise was heard along the road, federal troops were heard speaking in Hausa and Yoruba languages, they wore helmets, were walking stealthily as if hiding and aiming at a target. This further frightened the indigenes, they stayed calm and became friendly towards the federal troop, they brought food stuffs, yam, oil, goat and almost all that they have, they sang and danced welcoming the troops as is their traditions but it wasn’t clear or certain what the federal troops had in mind.
They knew the natives were not Biafran soldiers but that they are not able to catch and kill all Biafran soldier angered and got them agitated so they were not of the same mind, signs of violence begin to erupt from them, some federal troops protected the indigenes but most did not want to. Some group of soldiers begin to go from house to house looting, demanding money, they rounded up boys and men accusing them of being Biafran soldiers or their sympathizers, if they sight boot in a house or see signs that one has worn boots, they call you a Biafran soldier, the federal troops were killing both old and young, male and female, if they get to a house and see none of the signs they expect, knowing full well that there is nothing Biafran about such house, they burnt down such houses, there was so much looting, killing and violence that people couldn’t work out what to do, when walking on the street, soldiers stop and gather people and if inside their houses they are still harassed, killed, looted and their property burnt.
Young men were heard shouting, I’m not Biafran, I’m not a soldier, and they were all the same still shot dead and sometimes run their bodies over with their Lorries. These got so much into the people that the elders together with the Asagba, (the king) decided to meet and discuss ways to convince the federal troop that the Asaba indigene are not Biafran soldiers, they levied themselves, each quarter in Asaba raise a levy of fifty pounds while the Omu, the most important women leader is to present the traditional akwa ocha, a woven cloth to the commander, an individual officer was given a fifty pound to pay for his drink, he apologized immediately for stray bullets killing the native and advised that the commander be visited. Men were dispatched to deliver their contributions but they did not return, another batch was also dispatched to find out what happened to the first men, they also vanished.
In desperate bid and attempt to end these violence and killings, all community leaders and the people of Asaba wore their ceremonial white traditional attire, signifying peace, took to the street pledging to “one Nigeria”, one Nigeria was written in chalk outside most homes, traditional dance processions, the type done for special important events and festivals was performed by the entire town. Certain individuals and families that fled into the bush for safety came out to participate, a letter welcoming the federal troop had been typed, and the occupying troops have wanted this entertaining performance, though it seems painful for the indigenes to perform as many killings had taken away their joy, it is seen as a last sacrifice to make to end all form of violence. Some families and individuals were too grieved and sad to participate but the troop dragged such out of their homes and ordered them to participate, some were coerced into participating, federal troops checking all house and families participated in this entertaining parade, drove people out of their houses to the street, ordering and they have no choice than to obey so many women especially, gathered for the forced dance as they had just witness a man shot dead because he refused to join in the dance parade.
The parade now in full gear as almost every family in Asaba participating, advancing towards the main town Centre along the popular Nnebuisi Road, chanting One Nigeria with hands up, with Nigerian soldiers surrounding and guiding them, the people hoped that these gestures of goodwill will appease the troops but alas their hopes were dashed, not knowing that federal soldiers surrounding them is not for guiding but to prevent them from fleeing as soldiers begin to randomly select and shot men in full view of participants, many were shot dead. This was happening near my village at a square in Ogbe-osowe in Ugbomanta quarters when the troops started separating women and little children while the men and young boys from age 10/12 above were being led between rows of soldiers down the road, federal troops moved men and boys to open area, sat them down, whipping them, took them out 10 by 10 and fired shots at them, this practice went on for a while and when they got tired, they readied their machine guns, mounted their trucks and standing began to mass shoot as people broke loose and began to run, the soldiers shut at everyone they can. There were bodies everywhere, thousands were killed, blood gushing out of people like fountain of water. What a gorysome sight on 7th October, 1967 in Asaba was a day of darkness, deep mourning, height of betrayal that killed the heart and lives of those that survived the massacre, imagine having put their trust and believe that going out en mass with drums, songs of peace and pledging to the Nigeria nation as one indivisible entity and dancing to welcome the troop instead the troops mowed them down with machine guns at the Ogbe-osowe square. a day that both my paternal grandparents and their children cried and were in deep sorrow.
My grandmother’s, Christopher and Glory Mordi, the Okwuobi’s and Ngozi Okobi, and my grandfather’s uncle, the father of my aunt, Mrs. T. Morwa, Pa. Onyenokolisake Ashiofu and his nephew, Emeka Ashiofu, grandfather’s cousins, Enyi and Paul Okolotu were amongst the thousands that were killed. My grandmother (Blessed Memory) always tell the story of running with others toward the bush for safety with her first son’s daughter strapped to her back, when this child was hit with a bullet on her left hand, she almost let the child off her back to continue her way to safety but she thanked God all the time that she didn’t, she is ever grateful seeing this child grown into a successful beautiful woman, she said this prolonged her years than she expected. My grandfather (Blessed Memory), my uncle and their siblings had stayed behind in the West where they lived and worked, my grandfather did said that if he had flee to Asaba like some indigenes did, he wouldn’t have survived the massacre. My maternal grandmother in Awo Idenmili of Orlu district in eastern region now Imo state lost 3 sons to the federal troops, my mother always remembers her younger brothers, those are the uncles I never saw or knew, it was accounted that my maternal grandfather’s compound as a traditional herbalist and an “ozo”, a titled chief/elder was turned to a graveyard because many who fled to him for safety were killed, they survived because their “god” kept them.
I have my direct share of the massacre and this sad, senseless and merciless event remains a landmark in the history of my people, the Asaba people. Therefore the month of October every year, a day is set apart when all Asaba indigenes, family, friends and well-wishers come together to pay their respects in remembrance of those massacred, and reflect on the tragedy that occurred on the 7th day of October, 1967. We, Asaba indigenes think a lot of them, they were ordinary people, loving and peaceful, unarmed men and women, children and babies having to go through these ordeals of the Nigerian soldiers, hearing the accounts and stories of living survivals cannot but awake a zeal to always condemn and diminish the believe in one Nigeria, this history are not taught in schools, our children would not have known this occurrence if parents don’t tell them, just as I was told the story by my grandmother who survived the massacre. Asaba has risen up above this ill treatment and have grown and matured by building up the town with modern architectural structures, living normal live as if nothing happened and artifact were indeed erected in memory of those massacred which is being reviewed and renovated when needed to. In order to preserve and keep these stories alive in our hearts, Asaba indigenes all over the world, both home and abroad, meet yearly every October. In the United Kingdom, Asaba indigenes have been gathering to meet together for the past 6 years. On 14th October, 2017, the Asaba community in the UK commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Asaba massacre, this gatherings is the Asaba Memorial Day. We are now living this era to continue to add value to our homeland by remembering and teaching our young generations, regroup and equip ourselves with the knowledge of need for some internal adjustment that ensures justice to all of us.
We are still being marginalized, no compensation or justice has been done, we as a people are trying and striving to make life comfortable for ourselves, we will also progress in our reaction by improving the quality of live provided to our homeland and her indigenes when we, although seem to have forgiven Nigeria but we can never forget, generations after us will live with these historic memories.
Chibuike John Nebeokike
For: Radio Biafra Media