From Paul Osuyi, Asaba
The scars are still visible, and the emotional and psychological trauma have refused to go. Every October, forlorn faces and heart-rending speeches signpost the 54-year-old holocaust at a memorial anniversary.
The people of Asaba, west of the majestic Niger River and capital of present-day Delta State, still mourn. Fifty-four years ago, on October 7, there was a premeditated attempt to exterminate the male population of the town.
It was during the civil war. Elders had gathered men, women and children at the Ogbe-Osowe Square to welcome federal troops.
With majority of them dressed in white attire (a symbol of peace and purity), their allegiance to the Federal Government was not in doubt.
Still without any inclination of what was about to befall them, the natives obeyed the command by the soldiers who separated adult males and teenage boys from the women at the village square.
What followed was staccato bursts of machine gun fire. By the time the smoke cleared, many were shattered, dead.
In the preceding days, some had been slaughtered in the horrific war. Boys as young as 13 years old blossoming in innocence were ripped up in lethal agony.
Able-bodied males in the bloom of virility were abruptly dispatched to their grave. Retiring old men waiting for peaceful transition had their souls wrenched by brutal bullets during the pogrom.
As a result, every year, the people of Asaba mark this tragic experience to draw national and international attention, perhaps.
This year’s remembrance, the 54th, held at the palace of the Asagba of Asaba, Obi (Prof.) Chike Edozien, was not different.
But there is a new twist about the demand to adequately compensate for the tragic losses. The people of Asaba want Nigerians to own this tragedy rather than seeing it as that of Asaba.
This year’s memorial anniversary was also a salute to Asaba women for weathering the storm and standing firm to regenerate the town after their husbands and sons were brutally exterminated.
Obi Edozien set the tone for the event when he saluted the industry of the women after the callous murder of their breadwinners. The monarch recalled an experience with a friend who visited Asaba and admired the beautiful houses owned by women.
“The women who owned the beautiful houses inherited them from their husbands, and the husbands were the leaders in Asaba who were all killed during the massacre. That is how the women inherited the houses.
“In each house, there are rented rooms. In addition to this, they were trading to make money to earn a good living and to train the children that their dead husbands left behind.
“So, that is the story that, in the course of the war, the leaders of Asaba, who owned the houses, were massacred. But for the gallant women who worked so hard to educate the children left behind, we would have no leaders for the generation that followed.
“Today, we are here to remember those leaders who were massacred during the war, and to celebrate the gallant Asaba women for ensuring that Asaba continued to progress in the next generation, that is the purpose of our meeting here today,” he said.
Obi Edozien renewed his call on the Federal Government to establish a university in Asaba as part of measures to compensate for the mass murder, saying that the demand was modest.
He recalled that, in 1995, he spoke with former Head of State, Yakubu Gowon, during whose tenure the genocide was committed, on the need to establish the university, and he promised to support the push for it, since he was no longer in charge.
The royal father, however, lamented that nothing has been heard from the present administration, even though he had also briefed Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo about it.
“We are calling on the Federal Government to honour what the former Head of State has said. Gowon was the Head of State when this massacre took place.
“The Federal Government should build a university in Asaba. Our request is very modest in comparison to the pains of the massacre,” he said.
Chairman of the planning committee for the 54th memorial anniversary, Chief Chuck Nduka-Eze, the Isama Ajie of Asaba, lamented that, till date, there has been no proper explanation or official apology from the Federal Government for the humanitarian crime.
Nduka-Eze said the people were still mourning though privately, adding that it was time the entire country admitted the genocide.
He said: “After many years of considering this dilemma, Asaba community came to the conclusion that Nigeria has to own this massacre, Nigeria has to own this tragedy.
“It is not an Asaba tragedy, but a Nigerian tragedy. And the fact that Nigeria treats her tragedy this way is why Nigeria is the way it is today.”
He said, during the war, Asaba was the killing field for innocent civilians because the people felt there was nothing to be afraid of, having served as the first capital of Nigeria, and “this was a war intended to unite the country.”
“How much more confidence can they feel since it was a war of unity than to welcome those whose obligation it was to preserve the nation’s unity?
“So, when they were coming down, Ndi Asaba felt, ‘Well we are not fighting anybody, we don’t want any disunity anyway, so the soldiers would be happy with us.’
“With that confidence, they remained in Asaba in their large numbers. A few were a little suspicious and, out of caution, decided to go across the Niger but the majority remained here because of that confidence that they found here.
“And in an act of treachery, in an act of infamy for which Nigeria will always regret, whether she accepts it or not, Nigerian troops rounded up Nigerians and assassinated them in cold blood.
“When things go wrong in Nigeria, yes, government should do this and that, but how about you, the citizen? What is your responsibility? What are your obligations when things go wrong? Do you not have a duty and to be counted?
“It is against this background that I am inviting Nigerians, not just our people, to come to Asaba and commemorate an appropriate cenotaph, a monument that speaks to the tragedy of Nigeria, and that reminds us all that actions have consequences.
“This matter would not go away until it is properly addressed, and addressing it properly means everybody will understand what it means to behave in that disgraceful manner.
“We are today symbolically commemorating a cenotaph, a monument at Ogbe-Osowe, where so many of our people fell. It has be designed, and we wanted a national effort, not just Asaba effort, because this is a Nigerian issue.
“So, the architect who designed this monument is a Yoruba woman, Mrs. Mosu Ogubanjo, an accomplished architect. And she did it for free. That is her own contribution as a Nigerian. The monument will be built by everyone,” he said.
Paying glowing tributes to the Asaba woman, he said the town did not fall because of the strong will demonstrated by women after the holocaust.
In a keynote address, former Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations, Prof. Joy Ogwu, re-echoed the pressure from the international community on the Federal Government to admit the 1967 genocide and crime against the people of Asaba and humanity in general.
Prof. Ogwu, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, posited that it was a dangerous trend for the root causes of the atrocity to be swept under the carpet and not properly addressed.
“In our times, the nature of conflicts have shifted from interstate to intrastate without clear rules of engagement. Under these conditions, massacre and indescribable atrocities take place in theaters of conflict.
“Oftentimes, the root causes are never addressed, instead, they remain hidden sources of future conflicts. Whatever the strategic considerations for that operation, the Asaba Massacre must not constitute for us a relic of history.
“It must become living legend shaped by the people of Asaba and those who share their values of humanity, civility and responsibility,” she said.
Represented by Dr. Ndidi Nwaneri, Ogwu emphasized the concept of remembrance as essential to survival, just as she saluted the Asaba woman for being resilient and courageous to birth a new generation after the massacre that attempted to obliterate the community.
Former Commissioner for Information in Delta State, Ogbueshi Chike Ogeah, said, until proper explanation was offered, it remained suspicious why the massacre occurred in the first place.
Ogeah maintained that although Asaba people were in the process of healing, “the truth is that no other town, not even in Biafraland, which was the subject of the pogrom, suffered that kind of horrific killing.
“Even in Nsukka, Enugu, Orlu, Uga, Owerri the hot bed of the war (people) were never killed in the manner the people of Asaba, especially young people, were massacred,” Ogeah said.
Omu of Asaba, Ada Biose, regretted that most spinsters could not find husbands because of the mass murder of Asaba sons by federal troops.
She said every household in Asaba had victims in the massacre, urging the women to forgive but to resolve never to allow such tragedy again.
“We are talking about men killed, how about the women left behind? Spinsters who were ready for marriage could not find grown up men. That was why people like Babangida, Ali and other foreigners came and married our daughters,” she said.
A Lagos-based cleric and televangelist, Itua Ighodalo, in a goodwill message, prayed that God would give Nigeria comfort as a result of the painful tragedy, adding that this would be one of the healing stones of the nation.
Ighodalo insisted that the foundation of Nigeria was questionable, noting that the colonial masters designed the country to fail.
“They designed us not to have peace but if we have good leadership, we would not be falling for the scripts of the colonial masters.
“Asaba should have the goodness of heart to forgive the entire Nigeria. Asaba will lead the basket of unity first in the South-South because of the intelligence and exposure that Asaba are known for,” he said.