Fisayo Ajala

The Asaba Massacre: A Living Trauma

By Fisayo

This article discusses the brother war to the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War — the 1967 Asaba massacre.


he Asaba massacre remains one of the under-told horrific events of the 1967 - 1970 Nigerian Civil War. Like other human tragedies that have occurred in Nigeria, the mass killing is clothed with repudiation. Save for the testimonies of the families of survivors and victims, the works of Emma Okocha1, Fraser Ottanelli2 and Elizabeth Bird3 and other existing literature, the Asaba massacre would have paled into historical oblivion. The closest to an acknowledgement that it has received is the Ohaneze petition to the Human Rights Violations Investigating Commission of the Justice panel in 2001.

Even at that, the report of the panel was never officially released. Five decades on, the Asaba massacre is still a living trauma and tragedy. An event that cupped an estimated 700 Nigerians in the hand of death, the carnage and destruction have defied time, season and space. As Ogubeshi Ofili Okonkwo put it, “every Asaba woman, man or child carries a memory of genocide...a communal memory of loss and anguish.”


Venom Vs. Carnage: Issue October 1967

Often termed as a brother’s war, the Asaba massacre began with the military campaign on the midwestern region on August 9, 1967. This offensive led by Colonel Victor Banjo, in a surprise move, crossed the Niger Bridge from Onitsha into Asaba, Delta State; lasting for five weeks and four days until it was halted at Ore - in present day Benin state.

Till date, the aim of this military adventure remains unclear though narrowed, speculatively, to two reasons. One: to deflect pressure and attention from the Federal forces siege on Enugu. Secondly, perhaps, to tarnish the image of the Nigerian military supremacy in order to set a negotiating table before them. Whatever the motive, these aforementioned speculations failed to materialise.

Instead, albeit temporarily, the military seizure of Benin city and the wider mid-western region by the Biafran ‘liberation army’ changed the dynamics of the civil war, on September 20, 1967. In a swift and strategic movea, the Federal forces under the Second Infantry Division recaptured Benin city; causing a retreat of the Biafran Army up until the River Niger4 in ten days.


E Kwenyego M: Surrendered Yet Slaughtered

The earlier recapturing of Benin city by the Federal forces was indeed tactical as it hastened the movement of the Federal army against the retreating Biafran army. As a cover for their retreat, the Biafran Army destroyed parts of the Niger bridge; inadvertently stopping the Federal Forces from advancing towards them. This forced a detour of the Nigerian soldiers into Asaba. On getting there, the Federal soldiers thus turned their angst on the defenseless people of Asaba.

Going by Bird and Ottaneli’s account, “the progress of Federal troops toward Asaba could be measured by the approaching sound of heavy guns and the rattling of machine-gun fire.” Within the first “twenty-four hours of “ferocious” shelling, ...Asaba suffered its first victims.” Twenty four hours of torture later turned to days, and from October 2 to 7, 1967, hundreds were slaughtered. Despite wearing akwa ocha - a white cloth that symbolises peace - and pledging allegiance to ‘One Nigeria’, the men were singled out, shot and ‘wasted.’ Women and children, raped and/or forcedb into marriage.

Agu (Umuagu) Ajaji (Umuaji) Onaje (Umuonaje) Ugbomanta Ugbomanta
Abudei Emmanuel Akwuele Cyril Alumona Ojume Anigbogu Nnando Awolor Henry Nwobi
Chako Ekenemechukwu Allanah Eugene Akazua Chacha Andrew C. Chidi Francis Nweke Biosah Eminian
Ebenuwa Francis Eloka Juwah George Echenua Chas Nwodigwe Ezeadiefe Ojei Chichi Daniel
Idigbe Michael Mordi D. N. Diabua Onwuka Gwamniru Onochie Dozie Edwin
Kebodi Clem Nduka Eze Rose Eziuno Etiaka Samuel Eloka Ijeh Ejima Konwea Okoji
Momah Chuks Nwoji Joseph Harry John Maduemezia Nwachukwu Oka Njoteah Chief Ezenba
Nwogalanya Nkadi Odiwe Silson O. Igodo Okoli Ndozi Oyana Nwabueze
Osaji Nwabueze Okafor Mma Ndah Ogom Onianwa Nkadi Sidi Hycinth
Rapu Anierobi Onyemenam Azubike Okonji Ifeanyi Uzo Mike C. Ujenna Okonji Modozia
Uzoechia Tolefe Gab Okonkwo Uwaje Sunday Ashiofu Emeka Odiatu Oge

Table: An abridged list of the Asaba massacre victims. Source: University of South Florida. Full list compiled by Sir Joe Oni Akaraiwe here.


Villains Wear Capes, Too

The surprise advance and invasion of the midwest by the Biafran ‘liberation army’ necessitated the hasty formation of the 2nd Division of the Nigerian Army. This 2nd Division would be responsible for the successful retake of Benin city from the Biafran army. At the time, the 2nd Division was commanded by Murtala Mohammed — thus the general assumption that Mohammed, ordered the killings. Though many ascribe it the assumption to his belligerent and recalcitrant posture and role as the most senior Commander of the Division, there remains insufficient and non-subjective evidence to conclude so.

As alleged by an officer who served under Murtala, Lieutenant Ishola Williams, ‘‘Murtala ordered the summary execution of Biafran prisoners of war.” The killings, Max Silloun states, were carried out as punishment to Igbo civilians in the Mid-Western region “for their sympathy for the Biafrans.” If likewise swearing by Silloun’s account that Murtala Mohammed, “buoyed by his Mid-West success, had his sight on the strategically important Biafran city of Onitsha”, it might be reasonable to assign the responsibility and conduct of his troops to him.

Corroborating this further, the late Chinua Achebe, in There Was A Country, equally revealed that Murtala Mohammed advance quickly, following the “abomination in Asaba” to cross the Niger River Bridge to Onitsha. This - he failed on three occasions - before he took another detour to Onitsha. The testimony of Major General Ibrahim Haruna at the Oputa Panel in 1999 claiming to have ordered the killings, however, provides a counter argument as to who called the shots, and erased men, generations and communities.

Be that as it may, Murtala Mohammed’s involvement in the Asaba massacre remains an eternal blot on his evergreen memory. While he may have ruled with an iron fist, had his names embalmed permanently in symbols of our national life; participated and benefitted from the art of coup-plotting (as the times dictated), his involvement in the killings at Asaba severely betrayed his imperfection and lowered his cult-like status by many degrees.


50 Years On: Still Suppressing Voices, Sidestepping Justice

If for anything, the killings in Asabac suffered from a deliberate persecution of information and free press. News reports either contained half-truths or hearsay accounts. There were no official records nor 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.

On the flip side, Major General Ibrahim Haruna at the Oputa Panel in 1999 offered no remorse. 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-Item. 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.’’ This was akin to pouring sand on shallow graves or rubbing salt on an open wound.

50 years on, the Asaba massacre is still treated as a no-go area, and tagged “too controversial.” In October 2017, Cheta Nwanze, social commentator and Researcher, was sent off air in for discussing the massacre on Nigeria Info FM. This shows the extent to which the Nigerian authorities are repulsed by the events that demand transitional and restorative justice, and need to be constantly talked about, so that children unborn may learn; so it may not repeat itself. If Nigeria and the people of Biafra must heal, a commemoration of its historyd must be the balm.


1 Okocha E., (2006), Blood on the Niger: The First Black On Black Genocide. New York: TriAtlantic Books.

2 Bird E. S. and Ottanelli F., (2011), The History and Legacy of the Asaba, Nigeria Massacres. African Studies Review, Volume 54 (3), pp1-26.

3 Okocha E., (2006).

4 Bird E. S. and Ottanelli F., (2011).

5 Okocha E., (2006).

6 Bird E. S. and Ottanelli F., (2014), The Asaba Massacre And The Nigerian Civil War: Reclaiming Hidden History. Journal Of Genocide Research (Special Double Issue: The Nigeria-Biafra war, 1967–1970: Postcolonial Conflict And The Question Of Genocide), Vol. 16(2-3), pp. 379-399.

7 Silloun M., (2009), Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976). New York: Algora Publishing.


a Benin city was a link to the Western Region, and it was on the Federal side. The Biafran Army, on the other hand, had begun an early offensive into Ore, in present day Benin city. The recapture was thus strategic.

b A recommended reading on the atrocities committed during the genocide — Postcolonial Conflict And The Question Of Genocide: The Nigeria-Biafra War, edited by Dirk Moses and Lasse Heerten.

c A video documentary on the Asaba Massacre.

d A memorial website by the University of South Florida dedicated to Asaba massacre victims and survivors. This platform documents the happenings of the Biafra War in relation to the Asaba Massacre; it provides resources, pictures and research material on the subject area.


Bakassi: The Disputed Territory


This article looks at the historical territorial dispute of Bakassi between Nigeria and Cameroon, and briefly examines the effect on its doubly Internally Displaced People.

Paul Biya (Cameroon), Kofi Annan (UN) and Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria).  Image:  Presidency of The Republic of Cameroon .

Paul Biya (Cameroon), Kofi Annan (UN) and Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria).

Image: Presidency of The Republic of Cameroon.

The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.

— Jeremiah 31.29 (The Bible, ESV)

This was the statement adapted by a traditional ruler of the Bakassi community during the handover ceremony of the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon on August 14, 2008. As the Nigerian flag was lowered and the handover rites were performed, Michael Aondoakaa solemnly noted the importance of the symbolic yet painful exercise of handing over of Bakassi to Cameroon. This day, subject to an International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling in 2002, marked the formal ceding of Nigeria’s claim on the long-disputed territory of Bakassi peninsula.

Though it gained an increased awareness in early 2000s, the territorial dispute over Bakassi between Nigeria and Cameroon dates back to 1913, and is rooted in the colonial acquisition of people and territories in 19th Century Africa. In fact, it can be traced to Europe’s scramble for Africa, and the ‘voluntary’ treaty of protection signed between the Obong of Calabar and the British in 1884, prior to the amalgamation of ‘Nigeria’ and creation of artificial boundaries.

Though France gained territorial control over most of West Africa (except Britain’s Nigeria and Ghana) during the Berlin Conference in November 1884, Germany formed a protectorate in Douala. An Agadir Crisis in 1911 however saw a part-transfer of territorial power over Cameroon from France to Germany. On the other hand, Old Calabar and Bakassi were considered in territorial possession of Britain. Due to its proximity to Cameroon and for economic interests, Bakassi was faced by an encroachment by Germany, which led to a series of further disputes.


Borders, Boundaries And Bakassi

[F]rom the centre of the navigable channel on the line joining Bakassi Point and King Point, the boundary shall follow the centre of the navigable channel of Akpa Yafe River as far as the 3-mile limit of territorial jurisdiction…
Source:  World Courts .

Source: World Courts.


Should the lower course of the Akwa Yafe so change its mouth as to transfer it to the Rio del Rey, it is agreed that the Area now known as the Bakassi Peninsula shall remain German territory.

Bakassi, in the absence of resistance from Kings and Chiefs of Old Calabar and the Nigerian government, was ceded to Germany. Germany’s loss in World War I, however, saw its territories split between Britain and France; placing Bakassi under a British mandate but not actually merged with Nigeria. Southern Cameroon remained an annex of Britain’s Nigeria, and was later included in the formation of National Council of Nigeria and Cameroon (NCNC) by Nnamdi Azikiwe and Herbert Macaulay, which became National Council of Nigerian Citizens after a 1961 Referendum in postcolonial Nigeria.

The ambiguity in the Anglo-German Agreement in 1913, however, paved way for a prolonged three-phased dispute: the creation of the 1975 Maroua Declaration of maritime boundaries between Nigeria’s then-Head of State, Yakubu Gowon, and President Ahamadou Ahidjo of Cameroon; military skirmishes following General Murtala Mohammed’s rejection of the 1913 treaty, including the Nigerian army’s incursion at the mouth of the River Akwayafé in 1993. 

Perhaps for the fear of losing the entire Bakassi peninsula to Nigeria as a result of Nigeria’s military might, Cameroon took the boundary dispute to the ICJ in 1994, filing for the determination of the sovereignty of the entire boundary. In deciding on the case, the ICJ largely, to much critique, relied on the 1913 Anglo-German Agreement, and the 1975 Maroua Declaration in affirming Cameroon’s sovereignty over Bakassi in its historic 2002 ruling; putting an end to over of a century of land rights wars.


Stateless Citizens, Missing State

Considering the historical and ancestral ties the indigenous inhabitants of the Bakassi have to the territory, Nigeria’s claim to the Bakassi peninsula can thus be seen as valid. This assertion, in essence, forms the basis for the rejection of the ICJ’s judgement by several eminent scholars and jurists. Beside a potential stream of revenue from Oil and Gas forgone, the infamous 2002 ruling has since had a significant impact on Nigeria and its now-displaced inhabitants of the Bakassi peninsula.

Contrary to the 2006 Greentree Agreement signed by Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Paul Biya of Nigeria and Cameroon, respectively, the Bakassi people remain at a brink of statelessness. In the case of the 60 percent of the Bakassi inhabitants that chose to remain in Nigeria as opposed to Cameroon, they have faced forced migration to several parts of Cross River state including Ikang and Akpabuyo. Given that the inhabitants were largely fishermen settlers, they have also experienced a loss in livelihoods. The people have been neglected by the Nigerian government, and deprived of their rights to be vote, and to be voted for.

Some of the 40 percent that remained in Cameroon have likewise experienced despair and, in breach of Article 3 of the Green Tree Agreement, have been subjected to cultural change, migrations, and harassments by Cameroonian security forces - most recent being in July 2017. The Bakassi people continue to be stuck in a maze built by declining political will, and doubly displaced. There is therefore a need for the recognition of the inhabitants’ right to life and shelter, among other social and economic rights; lest humanitarian and security crises loom in this South-South region of Nigeria. 


Mind The Gap: Education In The Colonial North

Image: Fox Photos via Getty Images

Image: Fox Photos via Getty Images

At a Memorandum of Understanding between the northern governor’s forum and Fundancion Profuturo, the Governor of Borno state, Kashim Shettima revealed the irony of educational imbalance between Northern and Southern Nigeria. He disclosed that the North has a total of 41, 913 public primary schools, while the ‘South’ - made up of Eastern, Southern and Western Nigeria - has a total of 19, 978 public primary schools. He equally added that the North-East, alone, has a shocking 19,436 public primary schools.

What these statistics show, as Shettima noted, is that the problem with education in Northern Nigeria is not the lack of schools, but the absence of functional schools. Educational imbalance, in this light, is clear, but more cogent is the fact that the educational deprivation in Northern Nigeria has a much longer trajectory; one that has persisted for years, and stifled development in the North.

This deprivation is also known to have created and sustained a class system. It is, arguably, partly responsible for the negative dominant narratives and myriad crises that characterise Northern parts of the country. This, of course, is not to say that the Southern Nigeria has not had its own share of crises - it has. The difference between both regions can however be attributed to the lack of access to- and stunted growth of quality education in the region.


Keep The Culture, We’ll Take The Rest

In past times, many have tried, albeit unfailingly, to put an answer to the why stark margins exist in educational attainment. Despite differing suggestions, an argument commonly found at the hem of discussions is the dynamics of the region’s colonial past. That is, its British educational policy during the colonial period - one borne of a relationship of convenience between Northern traditional leaders and colonial masters; a convivial relationship chiefly responsible for the much vaunted success of indirect rule in the region.

This relationship of convenience, as Andrew Walker explains in Eat the Heart of the Infidel, was one where the British were being mindful of overly uprooting cultural practices, and equally making efforts at ‘‘dispelling the ignorance of the ruling class’’ through education, in order to create future administrators for the colony. The traditional rulers on the other hand, rejected the spread of schools so as to preserve their culture, and guard against Christian proselytisation.

In his bid to assuage these fears, Lugard - the then Governor of Nigeria - promised to keep the missionaries and their schools out of the North. This was, however, undertaken by Lugard as more of a political strategy to secure the loyalty of the Emirs, for the success of the British system of indirect rule. For the most part, the aim of colonial education in Northern Nigeria was to cater to the needs of the sons of Chiefs and Emirs.


From Exclusion To Haram

According to Tukur, colonial education in Northern Nigeria was aimed at “imparting some literacy to the aristocratic class, to the exclusion of the commoner classes.” By the 1930s, colonial education in Northern Nigeria had thus sufficiently created a class of future administrators for its model future ‘Nigeria’. The social and economic differences between the Western educated elites and the traditionally educated indigenes unwittingly sowed the seeds of animosity and resentment in this period, that would later bear fruits of biased attitudes towards education in Northern Nigeria.

This disparity and marginalisation, combined with the conflict between Western and Islamic education, can be said to have created an avenue for the emergence and evolution of Boko Haram in the North-East. Roughly translated to mean “Western education is unbelief’’, or forbidden, Boko Haram’s insurgency, in this light, was initially an outright rejection of education. It was built on an existing historical narrative of inequality and victimhood.

The group’s opposition to Western education fuelled their attacks on (non-Islamic) schools, students and teachers. The most damning of which have been the  infamous kidnap of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno in April 2014, and massacre of 59 schoolboys in February 2014 in Gujba, Yobe. These attacks have had a devastating impact on education, with more than 910 schools destroyed and at least 1,5000 schools forced to close between 2009 and 2015.


The Lost Generation

From deliberately targeting and killing teachers, school administrators, and education officials in late 2013, Boko Haram’s rejection of education has posed threats, intimidation and harassment to several communities. As of January 2015, the terrorist group had burnt 254 schools had been burned, and partially destroyed 276 institutions in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe states. By October 2015, over 600 teachers had been killed in the Boko Haram conflict in Northern Nigeria.

In Borno state, alone, a total of 5,335 classrooms and other school buildings had been destroyed in across all levels of institutions. By early 2016, an estimated 952,029 school-age children and 19,000  teachers were reported to have  fled the area of violence, since 2009. The attacks have not only further widened the educational gap between the North and the South and clawed back gains that required decades of campaigns and enlightenment to achieve, but has also, deprived an “entire generation of children in northeast Nigeria of their education” as Mausi Segun states.

In a situation where about 14 million children of school age are now currently out of school in the Northern region, coupled with low enrolment rates and non-functionality of schools in a restive region, the race to reverse and rewrite colonial, postcolonial and contemporary narratives about the unsuitability or rejection of education by cultural supremacists or counter-elites cannot start at a better time. The importance of employing effective targeted measures to reverse these lost decades of educational deprivation and underdevelopment cannot be overstated.

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