Barely three months after the Civil War broke out in 1967, 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 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.
The federal troops entered Asaba around October 5 and began ransacking houses and killing civilians, claiming they were Biafran sympathisers. Reports suggest that several hundred may have been killed individually and in groups at various locations in the town. Leaders summoned the indigenes to assemble on the morning of October 7, hoping to end the violence through a show of support for “One Nigeria.” Hundreds of men, women, and children, many wearing the ceremonial Akwa ocha (white) attire paraded along the main street, singing, dancing, and chanting “One Nigeria.” At a junction, men and teenage boys were separated from women and young children and gathered in an open square at Ogbe-Osowa village. Federal troops revealed machine guns, and orders were given, reportedly by Second-in-Command, Maj. Ibrahim Taiwo, to open fire. It is estimated that more than 700 men and boys were killed, 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, often 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 may likely never be known.
Last October, Asaba indigenes came together to mark the 50th anniversary of the mass killings of their kinsmen and women during the Nigerian Civil War in 1967. The two-day commemoration witnessed the launch of a book, The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory and the Nigerian Civil War, which details how and why the massacre happened and the impact of the killings on the community decades after. One of the organisers of the event and an eyewitness of the massacre, Dr. Cyril Uchenna Gwam, in this interview with GODWIN UDOH, describes the incident that decimated the town over five decades ago and asks Nigeria to offer a public apology to assuage the trauma they went through.
How was Asaba town before that massacre?
Asaba was relatively a peaceful civil service town where you would see intellectuals of great repute excelling in every field of their endeavours. It was a former headquarters of the Royal Niger Company in the pre-colonial era; the indigenes were more educated and embraced white collar jobs. There were also many men and women who were retired; people like my father, L.A. Gwam, who was killed at Ogbeosowa in October 1967. He retired as a produce officer.
Then, Asaba had great politicians like Chief Dennis Osadebay, the first premier of the Midwestern Region, Nduke Eze, who was a great Zikist and later became an Awoist. We also had J.I.G Onyia, who was a Deputy President of the Senate. Asaba had one of the oldest secondary schools in Nigeria, St. Patrick’s College, where the elite from the Midwest attended.
Asaba was purely a Nigerian town; it was never a part of Biafra. However, during the civil war, Biafra conquered Asaba on their return from Benin at Orile.
But like I said earlier, when there had not yet been a country named Nigeria, Asaba was the civil headquarters of the Royal Niger Company, a British chartered company, which ruled and traded in the area. Lokoja was a town in the north of Asaba, which stood at the confluence of the River Niger. Its principal tributary, the River Benue, was the military headquarters. That was why, when the British took over the control of the territory from the Royal Niger Company on January 1, 1900, the Jus Pax flag of the Royal Niger Company was lowered and the British Union Jack hoisted in its place at both Asaba and Lokoja.
From 1886 to 1904, when the town was the provincial headquarters of the Royal Niger Company, its political and commercial importance was at the zenith. The first attempt to plant Christianity in Asaba was by the Church Missionary Society. The Niger Mission landed in Asaba in 1875 and the Anglican missionaries spread from there to the hinterland towns of Osomala and Oko, as intensified missionary operations followed in Aniocha and other Ika areas down to Ogwashi-Uku, Ubulu-Uku, Akwu-Uku, Onicha Olona, Ezi, Idumuje, and Ugboko, among others.
When did the Catholic Mission arrive?
The Catholic Mission arrived in 1884. The first Vicarage ever to be created in Western Nigeria in 1918, under Catholic Bishop Thomas Broderick, was located at Asaba. Asaba was also the headquarters of Our Lady of Apostle Convent, a large, flourishing convent with boarding facilities where girls from all parts of Southern Nigeria flooded. It was, therefore, no accident that the first West African indigenous priest was from the Asaba Division. He was Father Paul Emechete of Ezi and he was ordained by Bishop Broderick on January 6, 1920.
Strategically, Asaba stands astride the trans-African highway, which starts from Mombassa, linking the Eastern cities of Onitsha, Enugu, and Calabar, to the Western cities of Benin, Ibadan and Lagos. The Biafrans equally recognised this geopolitical significance of the town. The fall of Asaba meant a clear threat to Onitsha – the economic livewire of the young republic.
Since you said Biafra conquered Asaba, would it then mean that Asaba eventually became a part of Biafra before the Nigerian Army came?
Nigeria had four regions, namely East, West, North and the Midwestern region. After the 1966 Coup that killed (General Aguiyi) Ironsi, the first military Head of State and brought in General Yakubu Gowon, Asaba was under the fourth area commander and it was commanded by Col. Nwawo.
The Midwest Region was under the leadership of Col. David Ejoor, an Urhobo man. So Asaba was a Nigerian town.
Before the breakout of the Civil War, an agreement was reached among the ruling class that the Midwestern Region should never be a theatre of war. This could explain why the Niger Bridge border between the Midwest and the Eastern region was not guided by the Nigerian troops. So it was easy for Biafrans to walk through Asaba to Benin and Orri.
Now, to answer your question, Asaba was a Nigerian town when the Nigerian troops came in. France was a French territory before it was conquered by the Nazi of Germany even when it was recaptured by the common force of the United States of America, United Kingdom and France etc in 1943.
When the war broke out, where were you and what were you doing?
I was 11 years old then and a student of St. Patrick’s College, Asaba. I was in class one then. We woke up one morning and saw troops with Biafran emblems all around the school. I could still remember the words of my American teacher then. He said we should go about our studies peacefully.
It may interest you to know that Asaba SPC was then a Catholic school under the tutelage of American Roman Catholic brothers. So everything we did was American in nature and in character.
Was there any shooting when Biafran troops were in Asaba?
In fact, Asaba was peaceful at the time the Biafran troops were present. There was no gunshot either in school (SPC) or in Asaba town. We started hearing gunshots when the Second Division of the Nigerian Army led by Col Murtala Mohammed went on the rampage from Benin to Asaba. That was from September to October 1967.
It was so intense and deafening that I would not wish such on an enemy. Nobody should witness such killings and I hope I don’t see it again in my lifetime.
When the Biafran troops came, did Asaba in any way, show sympathy to them as against the Federal troops?
Not to my knowledge. Asaba never had sympathy for the Biafran troops; rather they welcomed the Nigerian troops with all their hearts because Asaba had been part of Nigeria all along.
The pro-Biafra and the anti-Biafra sentiments were quite strong and as tension mounted in Umuaji, the Wemembu family openly berated the Biafran troops and said, ‘Ndi Igbo, your time is up’. So Asaba was not for Biafra but some Asaba people had sympathy for their brothers from the East.
There were claims that Asaba came out to say that they were for one United Nigerian, why did the Federal troops still feel that they were rooting for Biafra?
Because they were evil! 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 Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello.
Major Nzeogwu was from Okpanam Town, which was five kilometres drive from Asaba. It would interest you to know that every Okpanam person regards himself or herself as an Asaba person. I would rather say those soldiers that came to Asaba were on a revenge mission and not after the Biafrans.
But the question everybody is asking is why would they descend on unarmed innocent civilians. The international humanitarian law condemns any act of deliberate killing of an innocent civilian, be it in time of war or peace.
It was an international calamity, a calamity against humanity of which the International Criminal Court should have passed serious sentence against Ibrahim Taiwo and his cohorts for the implacable crime.
Sometimes, when I hear people say we were in support of the Nigerian Army, I am usually surprised and astonished. For me, it would be very difficult to forgive or forget the injury inflicted on the Asaba people.
Please tell me, will you ever forget how your father was killed before you or how your mother and sister were raped even when they were shouting for help and the help did not come? Would you forget how your home was vandalised? It is very difficult to forget or forgive such a person that ordered the massacre of innocent people. And there has been this argument that one Ibraham Taiwo ordered the Asaba Massacre.
Can you describe that gathering where it was alleged that people were mowed down by the Federal troops?
Yes, from all indications, that Major Ibraham Taiwo, under the command of Col. Murtala Mohammed, ordered the soldiers to shoot over 1,000 Asaba men who came out in their best white attire, chanting ‘One Nigeria’ and waving Nigerian flags at the Ogbeosowa Square. I recall vividly that I and one of my uncles, Okonkwo, were about to join those dancing at the square. One of the soldiers heard when my uncle spoke Hausa and he asked us to return to the house. That was how we escaped the massacre.
I can tell you today, as God would have it, we are better than those that killed our fathers, uncles and brothers in cold blood for no reason.
Remember what God said in the Bible, ‘That those that kill by the gun will surely die by it.’ Today, some of those devilish men were killed by their colleagues, like Taiwo that was beheaded in 1976.
Today, we now understand that the soldiers that came were not interested in any reception or any form of welcome.
At the Ogbe-eke market square, men were separated from their wives and children. While the men came out to dance, they were executed at the spot and buried in a mass grave.
At Ogbeosowa, it was a horrible and tragic death for my uncles who were butchered.
My grandfathers and uncles were among those massacred under the command of Major Ibraham Taiwo. Check the list of those murdered in cold blood and you would see four ‘Gwam’, seven ‘Isichei’ and three ‘Okonkwo’.
When the Nigerian troops came into Asaba, the indigenes came out to welcome them with open hearts. But they plunged into mayhem and unspeakable atrocities. The Nigerian troop separated men from women and opened fire and mowed them down in the presence of that Ibrahim Taiwo, who was laughing and saying, ‘Kill them all! They are all unbelievers!’
Over 1,000 indigenes were mowed down at Ogbeosowa and it was like that in four places throughout the town. Indeed, the whole town was devastated! Many people were buried in mass graves at Ogbeosowa, John Holt at the Riverside, Umujia and Saint Patrick’s College. It is a fact that these beasts raised mayhem on Asaba people in different places and at different times. At Ogbeosowa, the mayhem was on October 8; at John Holt, it was October 9, 1967; at SPC Asaba, it was in 1968 and at Umujia, it was also in 1968.
The intention was to get rid of the whole Asaba race. I never wish to remember that experience in my lifetime again. My grandmother, with her bare hands, buried her husband, brothers and in-laws. With that shock, she did not live long to enjoy the fruits of her grandchildren.
In fact, a lot of atrocities were committed against Asaba people, I don’t really know which experience to relate to you because the experiences we had were just innumerable. Asaba indigenes were killed, properties were burnt or taken away by the devilish Nigerian soldiers.
In our presence, they lined up about 10 people who they shot to tell us of what was going to be our fate in the next few minutes.
How did you survive?
I escaped with my uncle to the East a day after the massacre with the help of some of the soldiers. The Nigeria troops burnt down houses and people were executed and buried. Some were burnt inside the houses they set ablaze. I can tell you the soldiers did not have any milk of human kindness.
How did the people feel about General Gowon’s apology?
You can see we are forgiving. The majority of Asaba people have forgiven, but they have not forgotten. Remember, if you do not forgive, you cannot move forward. It is at this point that we as a people put together the 50th anniversary in order to perform the last burial of our late fathers, uncles and brothers who were massacred 50 years ago.
Today, our families are doing better than the families of the people who killed and murdered us. One of the sons of the soldier that sent my father to his early grave is a drunk on the streets of London today.
People eventually got back to their homestead after, how was it like?
Asaba was a ghost town immediately after the killings; Asaba became a town of just women and no men. But as God would have it, we came back to rule. Asaba men can stand shoulder high with any Nigerian anywhere in the world. I am happy to state that our children are even better than the children of those who wanted to wipe us from the face of this earth.
Were all the Nigerian troops bad?
There were some good soldiers that rescued some Asaba indigenes to safe areas in Illa, Ogwashi-uku, Agbor and Ibusa. One major Paul Ogbedor from Benin, who graduated from SPC Asaba in 1969, was among those that saved three of my uncles, Justice JD Gwam, Larry Gwam and Nicholas Gwam.
One of them was his classmate at SPC; he flew them from Asaba to Illah.
Major Paul Ogbedor was among those honoured by Asaba during the 50th anniversary of Asaba Massacre. Others honoured were Prof. Wole Soyinka, for being the first person to document Asaba Pogrom in his first book, “Man Die”, published in 1971. We also honoured Prof. Ottanelli and a female Professor, Prof. Elizabeth Brad from the University of Florida. She published a book after ten years of research and titled it ‘Trauma Memory.’
It will interest you to know that some other people that saved Asaba indigenes were Ibrahim Babangida and one Major Omor Sanda (who was later called General Ike Nwachukwu). They were among the soldiers who rescued Asaba people to a safe haven in Illa.
What do you think Asaba people want from Nigeria for this massacre?
Simply put, we want unreserved apology and repentance. We want a public apology from the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed forces.
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