Paul Osuyi, Asaba
For each name called, the bell tolled. And over 400 names of the departed were called at the cenotaph, the final resting place of the victims of mass murder of innocent indigenes of Asaba by troops of the Nigerian Army on October 7, 1967.
It was during Nigeria-Biafra Civil War. The federal troops, in their onslaught against Biafran rebels, lured the fear-stricken Asaba indigenes from hiding, and congregated them at Ogbe-Osowe where they were mowed down.
Apart from Asaba being an Igbo-speaking territory, the federal troops erroneously believed that the arrowhead of the first military coup of January 1966, Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu, was a native of the town. He was actually from the neighbouring Okpanam town.
The names of the genocide victims were engraved on the wall of the cenotaph on the occasion of the 52nd anniversary of the gruesome murder, from where they were being read by students. As they called each name and the bell tolled accordingly, it evoked anger from the mourners who adorned white attire. Some family names were repeated as much as seven times, indicating that families were extinguished by the genocide.
The Iyase (traditional Prime Minister) of Asaba, Chief Patrick Onyeobi, is a survivor of the civil war. He painted a cruel picture of the massacre, describing October 7, 1967, as the worst day in the history of Asaba:
“On that day, our people trooped out in their numbers with drums and dance groups to welcome the federal troops. Regrettably, when they were surrounded by the soldiers, the men were separated from the women and then mowed down with guns,” he said.
Onyeobi, a former Head of Service and secretary to the defunct Bendel State government, said there was hardly any Asaba family that did not lose a father, son or relation during the massacre.
The psychological trauma of the gory experience still leaves with the average Asaba indigene, and will continue to be a reference point in his life. Hence, the annual rituals of remembrance by the people led by the executives of Asaba Development Union (ADU) worldwide.
This year’s solemn ceremony was unique. For the first time, the Asagba of Asaba represented by Obi Godfrey Konwea and president-general, ADU, Prof Epiphany Azinge, laid wreath at the cenotaph. Besides, representatives of the different quarters of the town including Ugbomata, Umuonaje, Umuagu, Ezenei and Umuaji performed the Egwuata traditional dance before the traditional 21-gun salute sounded to herald the mood of the day.
Moreover, the clergymen in attendance led intercessory prayers for the repose of the souls of the departed genocide victims before a candle light procession to Oshimili Arcade where other rituals including tributes were held. Azinge said: “Asaba people will continue to mourn in perpetuity because of the mass murder of their kith and kin by the Nigerian military. No amount of compensation will stop them from honouring the departed.
“Asaba is still mourning and we will continue to mourn for a very long time. The number is enormous, about 600 and we are still updating. It is so shocking to say the least because in a family, you see about six or seven people, indeed a whole family that were massacred which means there were literally extinguished from the surface of the earth. It hurts
“Asaba will continue to mourn until there is a closure as far as this matter is concerned. And the closure we seek is the closure of a much more official apology, the closure of adequate compensation to the families of the bereaved as the case may be.
“Even if we attain that closure, we will continue in perpetuity and forever to remember our fallen heroes and heroines. All over the world, even those that died fighting for their fatherland are continuously remembered. In Nigeria, January 15 is dedicated as a Remembrance Day.
“Even those killed on September 11 in the USA are remembered. So there is nothing untoward in what we are doing, and people should not read extra meaning to it. And nobody should also imagine that we can be stopped from doing what we are doing because it is totally within our rights.”
Throughout the ceremony, Ogbogonogo, the main traditional market in Asaba, was shut to commercial activities as a sign of respect for the departed souls. Chairman of Asaba branch of the ADU, Steve Ebonka, said the closure of the market was a way of drawing the consciousness of the people and the government that Asaba took the issue of the massacre seriously.
He added that the one-minute silence at the cenotaph was expected to be observed across the global by Asaba indigenes at exactly 12 noon to further create awareness and educate the younger generation about the historical massacre:
“It is another way of saying never again for any part of this country, never again will people be congregated in one place and shut down in cold blood, massacred in cold blood. We identity with those who suffered the same fate in Odi, those who suffered the same fate in Benue State, in Zango Kataf and every other place.
“We are saying enough is enough. But here in Asaba we are more emphatic because we know where it pinches, we have suffered it and we want to say that we are not prepared to suffer it again. It is an affair that touches humanity and mankind. It means a lot. It happened about 52 years ago but the memories are still green in our minds, we are pained by it.”
A member of the Delta State House of Assembly representing Oshimili South constituency, Shedrack Ekene Rapu, said Asaba will continue to remember the fallen heroes, noting that it was the wish of everybody that such genocide will never occur in any part of the country.
In the midst of the mourning, the Asaba people are making demands of the Federal Government to placate the pains of the bereaved families of the genocide victims. While Onyeobi urged government to establish a university in the town, Azinge made a two-point demand of an official apology and adequate compensation to the families of the victims.
Onyeobi: “We the people of Asaba can never forget the massacre of October 7. We can never forget our people who were brutally massacred that day and something positive must be done so that our people will feel a bit relieved that their children did not die in vein.
“We will continue to remind Nigerians that we must learn to live together in peace or as Martin Luther King said ‘perish together as fools’. Some families never recovered from that incident because their breadwinners were murdered in cold blood.
“We believe that a Federal University should be established here in Asaba to always remind people of what happened on October 7 1967. We wish Nigeria peace and we hope that our leaders will learn from the mistakes of the past so that history does not repeat itself.”
Azinge said although General Yakubu Gowon apologised along the line, an official apology made from a remorseful and contrite heart by the government of the day would go a long way in assuaging the people:
“We demand an official apology made from a contrite heart from a nation that is remorseful. The issue of compensation or reparation is one that can help us to do so many things. We can do a much more befitting resting place for the departed ones, and the families can also be compensated.
“We have tried in many ways to engage. We do not believe that we can go to court and get an order of court before the country can do what is expected. It will rather be wise for them to do what is needful and do it timeously.
“But if that is not done, we do not want to push further but we can push further, we can go to the International Criminal Court (ICC), because criminal matters are not statute barred, and is never late. We can push the prosecutors of the international court to initiate an action of genocide and war crime against the individuals or group who perpetrated this thing against our people. We can push for that among so many other things.
“But we are only appealing that instead of allowing us to go through the rigours of court proceedings, we want government to start negotiations so that the right thing is done. More importantly, the respect we have for our people, our departed ones is more than what any money can atone for. We will not abandon the annual remembrance ritual, no, it is not going to abate.
“We will continue endlessly because something untoward really happened. We can never, for any amount of compensation, abandon the rituals.”