The Asaba massacre occurred in October 1967, just a few months into the Nigerian civil war, otherwise known as the Biafran war(1967-1970).
Biafran troops were said to have invaded the Midwest Region, to the west of the River Niger. They spread west, taking Benin and reaching as far as Ore where they were pushed back by the Nigerian Second Division army under the command of Col. Murtala Muhammed.
The Federal troops gained the upper hand and forced the Biafrans back to the Niger, where they crossed the bridge back into the Biafran city of Onitsha, which lies directly across from Asaba. The Biafrans blew up the eastern spans of the bridge so that the federal troops were unable to pursue them.
On the 5th of October, the federal troops went on a rampage, ransacking and vandalizing homes, killing every man sighted, and destroying homes and properties. This act was allegedly reported to have been carried out in order to teach the Midwestern region a lesson, tagged them as “Biafran Sympathizers”.
In an attempt to bring peace, the town leaders summoned the indigenes to assemble on the 7th of October hoping to end the violence through a show of support for “One Nigeria”. Hundreds of men, women, and children gathered wearing the ceremonial “Akwa Ocha” (white) attire dancing and chanting “One Nigeria” no weapons, no form of violence, just patriotic citizens peacefully demonstrating in an attempt to bring back sanity to their community. At a junction, the men and the teenage boys were separated from women, and young children gathered in an open square at Ogbe-Osowa village. Unknowing to them, the Nigerian military had other plans and on that day, the Nigerian troops opened fire after reportedly receiving orders from the second in command Major Ibrahim Taiwo(who was later beheaded in a coup in 1976) It is estimated that the Nigerian troops killed about 700 men and boys, some as young as 12 years old, in addition to many more killed in the preceding days.
The bodies of some victims were retrieved by family members and buried at home. But most were buried in mass graves, without appropriate ceremony. Many extended families lost dozens of men and boys. Federal troops occupied Asaba for many months, during which time most of the town was destroyed, many women and girls were raped or forcibly “married,” and large numbers of citizens fled, not returning until the war ended in 1970. The total death toll during early October was in excess of 1,000, although the exact numbers will be forever buried in the sand of history.
A witness of the mass murder, Dr. Cyril Uchenna Gwam, said: “The Nigerian troops that came into Asaba came with the aim of eliminating every Asaba man as they thought they were fathers, brothers, and uncles of Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, the leader of the first Nigerian coup in 1966 that killed Sarduana of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello. Another account also stated that the soldiers had a list of people they wanted to eliminate; they randomly picked any man and asked if he knows any of the names on the list and if they say they don’t, they shoot them afterward.
Gwam, who saw death with his eyes but escaped by the whiskers, said that one of his uncles, Okonkwo, and himself were about to join those dancing at the square when his uncle spoke Hausa and one of the soldiers, who heard him, asked them to return to the house.
He further said that when the federal troops opened fire on the defenseless residents, Ibrahim Taiwo was excitedly shouting: “Kill them all! They are all unbelievers.”
If for anything, the killings in Asaba suffered from deliberate persecution of information and free press. News reports either contained half-truths or hearsay accounts. There were no official records or any acknowledgment of the killings. Certainly, Gowon’s ‘no victor, no vanquished’ post-war statement inadvertently sealed up atrocities committed by either of the sides. While Gowon’s apology to the people of Asaba in 1999 may have helped to lift the veil, it did not lessen the burden of the weak and heavy laden.
I.B.M. Haruna has sometimes been named as the officer who ordered the massacre, following a report of his testimony to the Nigerian Human Rights Violations Investigations Commission, known as the Oputa Panel He declared: “as the commanding officer and leader of the troops that massacred 500 men in Asaba, I have no apology for those massacred in Asaba, Owerri and Ameke. I acted as a soldier maintaining the peace and unity of Nigeria. If General Yakubu Gowon apologised, he did it in his own capacity. As for me, I have no apology.’