Audacity of impunity – 1967 Asaba Massacre

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THE story is told with a simplicity that tends to belie the cruelty involved. Three months into the Nigerian Civil War, Biafran troops invaded the Mid West Region, declared it the Republic of Benin. They headed as far as Ore, in Western Region, before Nigerian Army stopped their advance. They crossed to Biafra, across the River Niger.

ASABA lies on the bank of the River Niger. The river is the boundary between Asaba and Onitsha; otherwise both towns would have merged without anyone noticing. They are so close that standing on any point on the shore of the Niger on either side, one can literally shake hands across the river.

NIGERIAN soldiers arrived in Asaba in October, angry it seemed, that the Biafrans were not within their reach. They reportedly accused Asaba people of being saboteurs, of hiding Biafran soldiers, charges they denied.

IN one of the most deceptive moments in Nigerian history, notices were sent across for Asaba people to troop out to their square to welcome the Nigerian troops.

THEY trooped out in their numbers, men and women, with their children. They were attired mostly in their traditional ceremonial clothing of white. Others wore suits and ties. They were dancing. They were celebrating the liberation of Asaba, and the freedom to carry on with a more settled life, after high troop movements through their town when Ore was invaded.

PEOPLE were in a haste to get to the square. Those considered slow were left behind. The troops ensured that almost everyone was at the square by embarking on a house-to-house search to mobilise people to the Ogbe-Osowa square where a special message, they were told, awaited them.

NONE had any idea that, like the Jews massacred in Hitler’s gas chambers in Germany, 22 years earlier, they were walking to their death. The guile was comprehensive. Soldiers bantered with them, moreso with those in the crowd who, through their sojourns, had acquired learned the Hausa language.

NDI Asaba were exuberant in their chanting of, “One Nigeria, one Nigeria”, as the celebratory march to the square continued. Then words started filtering to the gathering that there could be trouble.

WHATEVER the trouble, it was not expected to be more than a reprimand for allowing Biafran troops to escape across the river or, may be a code of conduct for the populace as they live with their new guests, the soldiers, who would use Asaba as their base in prosecuting the war.

THE first orders separated the men and women. The exercise produced debate with the uncertainty about what age the soldier deemed adulthood for the boys, some of whom were as young as 12.

AT the discretion of the soldiers, youth attained adulthood and joined their fathers, uncles, and brothers. They were marked for extinction while they continued the celebrations of their belief in “One Nigeria”.

WITH a celerity that befuddles survivors to date, orders were barked and the staccato firing of guns only braked for the heap of stilled bodies to be watched. If a movement was noticed, the firing resumed. The few survivors were saved by night fall, which sent the soldiers away, and their own tenacity.

ASABA’s best men, the brilliant, the top echelon of society, fathers, sons, uncles, were killed before their wives, and younger children. The soldiers executed the duty with brimming patriotism. Their killing of unarmed civilians has been credited to some of them as bravery in their records of the Civil War. Asaba has borne its sorrows with remarkable equanimity. The widows buried their dead and raised the next generation of Asaba men, from the bloody dust of the massacre.

SNIPPETS of what happened on 7 October 1967 from an eyewitness Ify Uraih, who was 15 then. His three brothers and father were in the crowd.

“Twenty of our men were selected and lined up in front of us and told as follows, ‘Today, I be your God. Me first, God second. God give you life, me I go takem. Two minute time you go die.’ Two minutes afterwards these 20 men were shot. Another 20 were picked up and the same ritual followed.”

WHEN they considered the method time-consuming, the soldiers then readied machine guns, both mounted on trucks and freestanding, and mass shooting started. “Some people broke loose and tried to run away. My brother was holding me by the hand; he released me and pushed me further into the crowd . . . They shot my brother in the back, he fell down, and I saw blood coming out of his body. And then the rest of us … just fell down on top of each other.

And they continued shooting, and shooting, and shooting … I lost count of time, I don’t know how long it took … After some time there was silence. I stood up … my body was covered in blood, but I knew that I was safe. My father was lying not far away; his eyes were open but he was dead,” according to Uriah’s account in the book, The Asaba Massacre Trauma, Memory, and the Nigerian Civil War by S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser M. Ottanelli.

WHAT are official reactions to the Asaba Massacre? Nothing, except the oft-quoted remarks of Gen I. M Haruna, at the Nigerian Human Rights Violations Investigations Commission, HRVIC, the “Oputa Panel,” which was formed in 2000: “As the commanding officer and leader of the troops that massacred 500 men in Asaba, I have no apology . . .

I acted as a soldier maintaining the peace and unity of Nigeria.” Gen. Haruna has said the comment was twisted, but told the authors in 2016, “The so-called Asaba massacre is a figment of propaganda!”

GEN. Haruna, a lawyer, was not near Asaba at the time of the Massacre. Gen. Muritala Mohammed and Col Ibrahim Taiwo, both killed in the February 13, 1976 coup, reportedly supervised the massacre.

ASABA has elected to forgive, but the audacity of impunity as witnessed in Asaba, has over the past 50 years spawned more lawlessness.
GENOCIDES, massacres are punished not just forgiven.

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