War and conflict have remained man’s unending afflictions, with devastating consequences, some of which remain painfully permanent. Conflict has been generally accepted as an inevitable concomitant of human interaction. What has not been generally accepted is that conflict does not have to be violent. This is because conflict can be prevented, managed and resolved, if the right attitude and milieu exist; because, once it becomes violent, it spells war, and war has the ugly potential of bringing out the beast in human beings. This is why our ancestors warned that, since war is not a decoratable event, it must be avoided by all means possible.
Nigerian politicians, in their political gladiation of the 1964 federal elections and 1965 Western Region elections, forgot the national interest and went selfish and narrow. Thus, the Western regional elections, which were rigged beyond recognition against the Chief Obafemi Awolowo-led Action Group by the combined might of the opposition Nigeria National Democratic Party and ruling Northern Peoples’ Congress, generated mass revolt, labelled “Operation Wetie.” This brought the wrong label of “wild wild west” to the region, whereas the correct label should be “wise wise west.”
The electoral violence, combining with other factors, led to the first military coup in Nigeria on January 15, 1966, during which some politicians and military officers were killed. The absence of killings in the Eastern Region made the coup look like an Igbo coup, especially as it was led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, a Deltan Igbo.
The counter-coup of July 29, 1966, the killing of thousands of innocent Igbo people in the North, and the failure of the Aburi Accord cascaded the country into a civil war, from July 6, 1967, to January 15, 1970.
The Asaba genocide, which is the issue of present focus, occurred within this period, on October 7, 1967, to be precise, when hundreds of innocent people were pretentiously called out and shot dead. The essence of this piece is not to rake up old wounds. It is, first, in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Asaba who, on October 7, 2020, will be marking the 53rd anniversary of the massacre of their innocent sons and daughters, many of whom were the cream of their society, by Federal soldiers. Second, that sad event, though it occurred in 1967, informs our today and tomorrow. It spells the need for early dialogue when critical issues and situations arise that have the potential to threaten national peace and security.
Today, Nigerians are more divided even worse than the civil war period; and people of intellectual substance are calling for dialogue, restructuring, sovereign national conference and referendum to stop the country from drifting into historical oblivion. But what we hear from our national leaders is that Nigeria’s unity is not negotiable. When we ask who negotiated the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Yugoslavia, they provide no answer.
The Asaba genocide was buried in the belly of history until Prof. Emma Okocha’s Blood On the Niger hit the streets. The root of the Asaba massacre was not the civil war. The genocide only occurred during the civil war. The root was the failure of dialogue. It is in the non-dialogue character of the Nigerian state, which lacks the culture of dialogue. Even when it pretends to dialogue, it does not respect the outcome (agreement) because, often, it does not do its homework well before such agreements and it always hopes to use military force: check up with the Aburi Agreement, check up with the Academic Staff Union of Universities, Nigerian Medical Association, etcetera. Check up with the Boko Haram insurgency, the IPOB (Indigenous People of Biafra) militancy, El-Zakzaky movement, and Niger Delta militancy. There would have been no IPOB to proscribe and wrongly label a terrorist organisation, if the Federal Government had dialogued with the South East that had been screaming ‘Marginalisation’ since 1970.
The root of Asaba also stretches to lack of respect for law. The convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 and came into force on January 12, 1951. There was also the standing Rules of Engagement (ROE), which the then General Yakubu Gowon government spoke extensively about in the face of the Biafran Propaganda on genocide against the Federal Government. So, what happened? Why did the massacre occur?
Third, there is need to investigate and punish officers who deviated arrogantly, or with hatred or impunity, from the established ROE. I keep asking myself, why did Asaba happen? Was it because the people were Igbo-speaking? Was it a hate crime? Was it a product of misjudgment of the people’s mood or position vis-à-vis the war as was witnessed in the North East counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency operation at the beginning? Probably because nobody was investigated and punished for Asaba, that’s why more massacres occurred in recent times in Odi, Bakalori, Umuechem, Gbaramatu, Zaki-Biam, Ogoni, Afara-Ukwu and others.
Fourth, there is need for the world to speak out when man’s inhumanity to man and gross injustices occur. The church and Americans kept quiet when Africans were being enslaved by Europeans and Arabs. That slave trade is the root of the race riots and “Black Lives Matter” movements ravaging America and the world today. These are serious lessons.
I am fully aware that General Gowon, during his visit to Asaba some years ago, tendered belated Federal Military Government apologies to Asaba people to forgive the massacre, which he called “an accident of war” and “not out of malice.” I hope the good people of Asaba accepted the apologies.
I also thank and appreciate them for their long endurance and patience and not pressing for the heads of the perpetrators at the International Criminal Court, since 1967. But I feel that mere apologies are not enough in the face of the socio-economic hardships and deprivations the victims’ families have suffered, which verbal apologies alone cannot handle.
There is need for socio-economic “apologies” to follow and back up the verbal apologies at two levels. The first level is the individual family level. The Federal Government should identify the affected families, meet with them, and pay them compensation.
The second level is community. Government needs to consult with the Asaba people and establish physical structure-memorials to “appease” the spirits of the dead, and cool the anger of the living. These will go a long way in quickening and solidifying the forgiving and forgetting spirit on earth, in the spirit world, and in heaven, over what His Majesty, Prof. Chike Edozien, the highly revered Asagba of Asaba, referred to as “the horrendous massacre that took out in a day the best of the Asaba generation of that era.” May the Lord heal our land.
•Prof. Nwolise just retired from the University of Ibadan; +234(0)8037013069, [email protected]