Emma Okocha, author of Blood on The Niger, a book that chronicles the Nigerian Civil War, especially the unprovoked attack on the people of Asaba, is not happy with the October 7, 1967 massacre of the Asaba people.
An indigene of Asaba, originally called Ahaba, Okocha was an eye witness of the three years civil war that ravaged Asaba by the angry Nigerian military troops led by late Gen. Murtala Mohammed. Okocha, through his Blood on The Niger, gave a near visual impression of the pogrom unleashed on the defenseless people of Asaba, the then quiet town with an approximately 20,000 to 30,000 people at the beginning of the civil war.
In an evening interaction in his country home, Okocha gave step by step details of the war and how late General Murtala Mohammed, the former Military Head of State, and his war commander, one Col. Ibrahim Taiwo, gave orders that almost annihilated the people of Asaba. A veteran journalist and a prolific writer, Okocha faulted the action of Murtala Mohammed, saying his orders to soldiers, especially Col.Taiwo, led to the massacre of over a thousand persons who were singing, dancing and chanting “One Nigeria” as the federal troops arrived Asaba from Lagos through Benin as the war gathered momentum.
Although he listed some good deeds of the former Head of State who was killed in the coup of February 13, 1975, he said his order leading to the mass killing of Asaba people had overshadowed all his good deeds for the Nigerian people. He explained that Murtala Mohammed was one of the finest and truest Nigerian leaders that formulated the nation’s foreign policy and worked for the unity of the country. He created states in Nigeria and achieved much as a revolutionary leader of Nigeria but was unfortunately shot dead in a coup by Col. Dimka.
However, on the other side of life, Okocha said the people of Asaba will continue to remember him as a war commander of the second Army Division who came to Asaba and had his hands stained with blood of innocent, simple and quiet people. “He was the butcher of Asaba people. He was the one central character who destroyed Asaba.He decided what happened in the Nigerian civil war. He was on the move from Lagos to Benin and was heading to Nnewi in Anambra State. He killed our children, men and women who came out to welcome him as he arrived Asaba. It was a genocide that has remained indelible in the minds of our people till date”, Okocha lamented.
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He said the genocide was extended to Isheagu in the present Aniocha South of the state. He said the seven brothers of OgwashiUku were all murdered in the presence of their mother under the watch and supervision of General Murtala Mohammed. He said after the murder of the children, one of them a graduate, their mother became mad, having lost all her living to the brutal warrior. According to him, Gen. Mohammed passed through Agbor, IsseleUku and IsseleAzagba but could not carry out his evil machination for various reasons in this communities.
But he succeeded in entering Asaba with his troops and that was the beginning of sorrow for Asaba people. Okocha whose Blood on the Niger captured the pogrom unleashed on the people of Asaba, said the people of Asaba welcomed him with a dance, singing “Only One Nigeria” but rather than see them as part of Nigerians, he separated the men and boys from the women and girls, directed them to Ogbeosowa quarters and ordered that every youth from the age of 13 and above be blown up. There and then, Okocha lost his father and brother who were blown up along with others in a most gruesome murder. He narrowly escaped through divine arrangement, hence he gathered the pieces of the war experience in the book which he named ‘Blood on the Niger’.
Murtala Mohammed and his boys
Investigations reveal that the federal troops entered Asaba around October 5, and began ransacking houses and killing civilians, claiming they were Biafran sympathizers. On one of the days, the leaders summoned the people for a rally in support of “One Nigeria” campaign, singing, dancing and parading along the main streets of the town. But unknown to them, the angry soldiers who could not pass through to the East, unleashed their anger on the people and ended generations of lives.
It was learnt that the bodies of some victims were retrieved by family members and buried in homes. But most were buried in many mass graves, without appropriate ceremony as it is common in times of war. Many extended families lost dozens of men and boys. The federal troops occupied Asaba for many months, during which time most parts of the town were destroyed, many women and girls were raped or forcibly “married,” and large numbers of citizens fled, many not returning until the war ended in 1970.
Survivor accounts and reports by relief agencies show that Asaba remained in dire straits until the war ended, most inhabitants having fled or subsisting in refugee camps. Soldiers assaulted and abducted women and girls with impunity. The destruction was so complete that Asaba disappeared from the official roll of Nigerian towns in 1969. Although the federal authorities worked hard to suppress the news, people fleeing Asaba spread the word, and the killings of large numbers of people of Igbo ethnicity.
Research has shown that the killings in Asaba were unprovoked, and stemmed directly from a chain of events that started before the war, continuing through the Biafran offensive across the Niger, which stirred up rumbling ethnic hatred that had previously resulted in violence toward the Igbos.
In a research conducted by Elizabeth Bird and Fraser Otanelli, both Professors of Anthropology and History in Florida State University, United States of America, the duo gave vivid and lurid details of the killings, pillaging and rapes by federal troops on the Asaba people.
It was gathered that the inability of the federal troops to enter the Eastern states following the partial destruction of the Niger Bridge added to the frustration of the soldiers, a development which fueled their assault on the Asaba people. The people of Asaba became the victims of the troops’ anger, with hundreds dying at their hands. Before the war, Asaba was a quiet town known mostly for high levels of education with many residents being retirees from the federal agencies.
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After 7 October, the worst killing stopped, although federal soldiers remained barracked in Asaba for many months, and acts of violence continued unabated. By the second week of October many civilians had found refuge in nearby bush or small towns in the area; others with family elsewhere had fled to Lagos or crossed the Niger into Biafra, not to return until the war ended in 1970. The once thriving town was largely deserted, with most houses burned and everything of value stolen. The extent of the destruction is indicated by Asaba’s removal in 1969 from the government’s official list of Nigerian towns.
Following the unprovoked mass killing of Asaba people, Okocha said Asaba will hold Murtala Mohammed always as the butcher of Asaba people. Consequently, he said the federal government must pay for the war crimes against the people. “We are going to make sure that the federal government pays, especially now that the federal government is paying the Tiv victim of military brutality, Odi has been paid but still asking for more. Asaba that was destroyed need be paid. Many professors have done studies and came out to show that bullets came from everywhere and leveled Asaba. Federal government must pay us war indemnity”, Okocha insisted.
He further added “We will never forget. We’ve erected war memorial at Ogbeosowa quarters. We are very happy that recent civilian governments have not challenged us that we are mourning our dead. But as far as we are concerned, whether Gen. Murtala Mohammed is dead or alive, we are going to prosecute him, Nigeria must pay war indemnity to Asaba people. They have paid others, they must pay us. Odi’s casualties were mostly fishermen, but Asaba had the best pensioners group in West Africa, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and others that were massacred for no just cause”.
Ogbeosowe Mass ground where the people were massacred
Although Gen.Yakubu Gowon, the Supreme Commander of the Nigerian Army came to Asaba and apologized to Asaba people, Okocha reasoned that the laws against genocide do not allow for forgiveness and forgetting. “It’s not like ordinary killing. Genocide is a deliberate planning of a group to eliminate a group. The number of killings to make it genocide has to be massive. If you allow the perpetrators to go free, there is no guarantee that it won’t happen again”, Okocha explained.
He said youths and men were massacred by an army that should have been protective of the people. Hence, crimes against humanity like genocide are unpardonable. He added “genocide laws do not allow the perpetrator to go free, whether dead or alive, the perpetrators must be prosecuted, we have enough evidence. Different panels have looked into our case and found out that we have a case against the Nigeria government”.
Okocha said Asaba should be given the same consideration as the Tiv, the Ogoni people and others. He insisted that the killings in these places were not genocide, they were killings that could be caused by anything but they were compensated by the federal government. He said beside financial compensation or whatever, there should be an apology from the National Assembly to the Asaba people. This, he said, would assuage the people of Asaba while they continue remembering their loved ones who lost their lives.