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Special Report: The Asaba Memorial Project

October 1967. In Nigeria, on the west coast of Africa, civil war raged. Ethnic and cultural differences fueled the fighting, which followed the secession of the mostly Igbo region to the east of the Niger River, an area renamed Biafra.

Nigerian government troops had arrived in Asaba, an ethnically-Igbo town on the west bank of the Niger that remained part of Nigeria. On Oct. 7, 1967, federal troops gathered up men and older boys, accusing them of Biafran sympathies. They opened fire on the terrified group, and as many as 700 people were slaughtered. The bodies were buried in several unmarked, mass graves. Little historical documentation exists about the killings and for decades it appeared the massacre would remain forgotten.

But in 2001, a few witnesses told their stories to a Nigerian Truth Commission, and the Nigerian head of state during the civil war made a public apology to the people of Asaba.

Now a movement to create a permanent memorial to those killed in the massacre is gathering interest, and several researchers at the University of South Florida are involved.

The USF team, in conjunction with supporters in Asaba and Lagos, Nigeria, and the USF Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, are spearheading an Asaba Memorial Project initiative. The goal is to break the silence, honor the dead, develop a historic record of the event and secure funding to build the permanent memorial.

Erin H. Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist in the USF Department of Anthropology, initiated the project, and first visited Nigeria in 2008. In 2009,S. Elizabeth Bird, professor of  Anthropology, and Fraser Ottanelli, professor and chair of the USF Department of History, traveled to Nigeria to initiate the historical documentation through eye-witness testimony.

Bird and Ottanelli visited Asaba again in June 2010, where more video interviews were conducted with witnesses and survivors of the 1967 shootings and meetings held with community leaders to further the discussion around building a permanent memorial and museum. They are currently writing grants to make that vision a reality.

While Bird and Ottanelli are now leading the historical reconstruction efforts, Kimmerle, along with Chuck Massucci, a Tampa police homicide detective and adjunct instructor in the anthropology department, has been focusing on a project funded by the National Institutes for Justice in which they are working with Lagos State University to provide teaching and training on forensic anthropology to medical staff in the nation largest city. A forensic examination of the Asaba graves is a future possibility. 

The group blogged during the June 2010 trip, and their observations, photos and videos are included in the blog, which can be viewed by clicking here.

An overview of the Asaba Memorial Project, can be viewed in this link. It includes historical information, interviews, resources on the project, how to help support the project and contact information.


International symposium in Tampa recounts Nigerian massacre

by Beti Gathegi

Dateline: October 22, 2009

The University of South Florida held the Asaba Memorial Project International Symposium last weekend in Tampa. In cooperation with the USF Libraries Holocaust & Genocide Studies Center, researchers in Anthropology and History, along with the people of Nigeria, are attempting to document and memorialize the mass killings that took place in the Asaba region more than 40 years ago.

Nigerians from the Diaspora traveled to Tampa to give their accounts of the killings in the spirit of acknowledgement and reconciliation.

A colorful gala also was held Saturday night hosted by the Igbo Renaissance Group and the Igbo Association, Tampa Bay Inc., in honor of those associated with the project, local members of the Nigerian community and guests.

Professor travels to Asaba

The collaboration began when Erin Kimmerle, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, went to conduct a National Institute of Justice funded project in Nigeria. Kimmerle was approached by Emmanuel Okocha, author of "Blood on the Niger’’ (TriAtlantic Books), to see if they could expand their work to the site of the reported mass killings of this rarely acknowledged tragedy.

"That issue ties into the work that I do overseas in post-conflict society," Kimmerle said, though her primary focus is on human identification and missing persons.

"The issue of memorials and witness testimony and creating documentation is something he was interested in and something I was interested in. I took a trip to Asaba to visit the gravesite and I talked to some of the survivors about what else can be done, what else might be useful in terms of documenting what happened."

Group collecting testimonies

Elizabeth Bird, one of the organizers and former Chair of Anthropology at USF, added: "What we needed was a kind of oral history, do a more cultural investigation of the issue.’’

The group has begun collecting survivors’ testimonies with a handful of emotional accounts being delivered at the symposium. "[We plan to] do more witness testimony in Nigeria when we go back in December and longer fieldwork in the spring if we find funding for it," Bird added.

"We are looking to see what patterns emerge, where everybody agrees and see if people agree, [we plan to follow up with] archival research, documentary research, official records, [and hopefully] some of the soldiers’ interviews put together a picture of the collective memory of the event."

Link to the article

Vanguard: How Mid-Western Ibos suffered during civil war

From the Florida symposium on Asaba:

Letter from Washington Oct 20, 2009

How Mid-Western Ibos suffered during civil war

By By Phillip Asiodu
The Asaba Massacre of 7th October, 1967 and other incidents of killings of civilians in Asaba Division

Mr. Emma Okocha in his book “Blood On The Niger” has with great skill and painstaking research told the story in some detail of the terrible and horrendous pre-meditated massacre of hundreds of able-bodied male citizens of Asaba on 7th October, 1967.

That was the climax. Earlier on the 5th and 6th following the conquest of Asaba by the Federal Army from the rebel or Biafran forces after the last stand by the latter around. St. Patrick’s College area, dozens of civilians were apprehended and shot.

The chilling truth is that despite those earlier killings, true to their hospitable traditions, their belief in Federal Nigeria, their long history of sending out generations of civil servants and teachers to serve all over Nigeria during decades of British Colonial Administration, the participation of their grandfathers and fathers in the nationalist struggle for Independence and their commitment to the maintenance of one Federal Nigeria where equal rights are guaranteed, they trooped out in hundreds.

They had been urged by their leaders to join in a mass civic welcome for the victorious Federal troops and re-affirmation of loyalty to the Federal Government. They obeyed and assembled at the square only to be mowed down by machine guns already in place and camouflaged with greenery.

When the massacre started, other people were flushed out from their homes and marched to the killing fields to be slaughtered. Equally gruesome and abhorrent was the gunning down in their homes of Federal and Regional Government pensioners in their eighties and seventies, who had served Nigeria well in their long working lives and had come to associate the Nigerian Army with the virtues of discipline and orderly behaviour and so did not imagine at all that they stood in any danger from the conquering Federal troops.

The horrors were unprecedented and unbelievable.

These terrible things happened. The state of communications was very bad. Very scanty information was received at first in Lagos at the Supreme Headquarters of the Federal Military Government or in the newspaper houses even remotely indicating the extent of the massacre. Within a week, some terrible stories were reaching Lagos.

There was however no official account or confirmation. It will be months later from eye-witness accounts when it was possible to gain access to a few of the men who escaped and the children and women before whose eyes the horrors were enacted that the truth will be known.

This is perhaps, why there is not much detailed description of those terrible events in the histories of the Civil War published by people on both sides of the divide. Mr. Okocha’s important book came out in 1994 – 27 years after the tragedy.

There must of course, have been some deliberate suppression of reports by the perpetrators of the crime because such acts were completely contrary to the instructions and briefings issued by the Federal Government and the Supreme Headquarters to Army officers even before the first shots were fired in the Civil War.

A code-of-conduct in the form of a small slim booklet was issued to the troops. It contained the essential provisions of the Geneva Convention as regards the treatment of civilians and prisoners-of-war.

The war aim of the Federal Government was to preserve Nigeria as one entity and to ensure proper reconciliation and rehabilitation to enable Nigeria to resume rapid economic growth and development.

The Federal Government commenced the war in July 1967 as Police action. It was after the Biafran incursion into the Mid-West that the Federal Government proclaimed all out war.

On the other hand, the original reason given by the Biafran leaders for secession was the lack of safety and security for Ibos and other Easterners outside the Eastern Region. Biafran propaganda kept recalling the mass killings of Ibos and some other Southerners in May and September 1966 in the North and the forced evacuation of Ibos and some Easterners to the Eastern Region.

It continuously evoked the spectre of genocide and annihilation of the Ibos should the Federal Government of Nigeria conquer Biafra.

Therefore, nothing could be more damaging to the goals and objectives of the Federal Government than the massacre at Asaba and the mass killings in other nearby towns, particularly Ogwashi-Uku, Isheagu, and Ibusa.

Here we must recall also that the un-resisted conquest of the Mid-West by Biafran forces on 29th August, 1967 had led to harassment of Mid-Western Ibos in Lagos and the arrest and detention of many innocent persons who had been denounced to the Army or Police by their non-Ibo co-tenants or neighbours. I still have in my records a long list of such hapless individuals.

Immediate Federal Government Action

The information reaching us in Lagos may have been incomplete but it was alarming enough for me to address a memorandum to the highest level of Federal Authority on 30th October, 1967 from which I quote the following excerpt: “Three weeks after the total liberation of the Mid-West, the situation in the Ibo-speaking areas of the state remains alarming.

Many able-bodied men in the Ibo-speaking areas are still in hiding. Women and children are being cared for by priests or the Federal troops. In Asaba town, extensive damage was done to life and property with inevitable traumatic effect. It is still not safe for Ibo-speaking people to travel between Agbor and Benin.

In Benin itself, violence is still rife. Ibo-speaking civil servants of the state most of whom have through fear and other reasons failed to return to Benin have been dismissed with effect from October 6. Services have to be maintained in Benin and to this end, people are being drafted, some from the Federal Service.

It is believed that certain directives specifically exclude the further recruitment of Ibo-speaking elements of the Mid-West for this purpose.”

Nigeria today — Which way forward?

The Political Situation

Nigeria has since 1999 been governed under an elected Civilian Regime. Elections to national state and local government Executives and Parliaments were held under civilians in 2003, and 2007. These elections were far from acceptable as true democratic expressions of the will of the people. There are many parties. There is free expression and no crude repression.

The Judiciary is fairly independent and still commands the respect of the people. The quality of governance, as regards responsiveness to the needs of the people, efficiency and effectiveness, transparency and the absence of corruption is still very poor.

We have the framework of democracy but the politicians are yet to embrace the democratic spirit and usages. Most of them see politics as a commercial investment to be rewarded immediately with lucrative patronage and huge profits. There is also no internal democracy in the competing political parties.

However, there is still hope for reform before it is too late. There are many organizations of civil society demanding behavioural change and constitutional reform. The pressure for change is increasing and the present situation is unsustainable.

There is also the demand for the creation of more states including an Anioma State hived off from the present Delta State. Some Anioma people believe that this will bring them salvation and free them from the present situation in which they consider that they are not given adequate participation and an equitable share of state resources notwithstanding the fact that the Delta State capital is Asaba.

However, one cannot see that the solution of Nigeria’s governance problems lies in the further proliferation of states. States since 1975 have largely been demanded by would-be state leaders as a way of accessing more of the national revenues, oil revenue, not as the basis for more diversified and rapid development for the benefit of the masses.

•Being excerpt of speech delivered by Chief Philip C Asiodu, CON, Izoma of Asaba, at the University of Southern Florida Asaba Memorial Project Symposium

Link to the article on Vanguard

Vanguard: Revisiting the Asaba massacres

Revisiting the Asaba massacres

The Orbit Oct 18, 2009

By Obi Nwakanma
MY attempt this week is to bring some attention to the subject of the Asaba massacres, one of the haunting ghosts of Nigeria’s last civil war. I pay particular tribute to Emma Okocha – Onye Amuma Cable – author of Blood on the Niger, the chilling account of the Asaba massacres of October 7, 1967.

More than any other individual, Okocha has pursued the Asaba story with the temerity of a survivor, and the hardnosed instincts of a well-trained journalist. He has brought attention to the great evil that Nigerians love to forget: the attempt at selective annihilation of a people through acts of terrible war crimes.

Asaba has become Okocha’s life work; an obsession. He says it is to bring closure, and give final rest to those who perished that day in Asaba. But I suspect something much deeper and personal. Of course it is up close and personal for Emma Okocha. He is from Asaba; he survived the massacres; but his entire family perished.

The Igbo name their children, “Echezona/Echezola”- never forget, and “Odoemene/Ozoemena”- May this never happen again. These are names in recoil from harsh memory.

These I think are the profound sentiments that propel Okocha’s pursuit to reopen the case of the Asaba mass killings, compel the official acknowledgement of war crimes by the Nigerian government, and force a visible war memorial in honour of the dead of October 1967 – the “Asaba Memorial.”

Happily, Emma Okocha’s work is drawing attention to one of modern Africa’s darkest war crimes. Last week, the University of Southern Florida, Tampa, convened the Asaba Memorial symposium to reopen the issue, and unveil “the long-buried tragedy” led by the anthropologists Elizabeth Bird and Erin Kimmerle and Fraser Ottanelli, chairman of the department of history, in collaboration with the USF Libraries Holocaust and Genocide Studies Centre.

They have also recruited a Tampa Police homicide detective Charles Massucci to gather documents, record oral histories and to examine mass graves and recover evidence of the Asaba genocide.

Let me briefly place the Asaba tragedy in context for those who may either have forgotten, or who may not know about it, especially many contemporary Nigerians who may have been born after the war, and who ought to know the many evils that haunt Nigeria.

In May 1967, Eastern Nigeria declared secession from the old federation of Nigeria and declared itself the republic of Biafra. Eastern Nigerian secession naturally culminated in the Nigerian political crisis leading to the January 15, 1966 coup led by Emma Ifeajuna that overthrew the government of the first republic, and the July 29, 1966, led by Murtala Muhammed, and directed by Yakubu Gowon who subsequently took over as military head of state.

The July coup spiraled into the selective annihilation of all Igbo military officers and snowballed into a pogrom of the Igbo.

The Aburi agreements reached to stem the slide collapsed, and the Gowon administration in Lagos peremptorily dissolved the regions and created the twelve states on May 27, 1967, thus subverting as the government in the East saw it, the fundamental authority and rights of the regional governments, and complicating the East’s capacity to offer security to its people who had fled to it.

Odumegwu-Ojukwu, military governor of the Eastern region, on advise from the Eastern Nigerian Consultative Assembly declared secession, and announced the independent republic of Biafra three days later, on May 30, 1967.

The stage was set for an epic conflict. The government in Lagos declared war and attacked Biafra on July 6, fighting from Ogoja and Nsukka. By September, the Biafran capital was threatened.

That September, however, Biafra launched its own attack, a diversionary and tactical move through the Midwest; brilliant in conception, but poor in execution.

Brigadier Victor Banjo, leading the “Liberation Army” from Onitsha, made a lightning move into Benin City and was close to taking Lagos and Ibadan, in what then seemed a cake walk, when he suddenly lost the will to fight.

Old Biafra intelligence sources hint that Banjo had been told in unmistakable terms, in his meeting with the deputy British high commissioner in Benin, that the Brits might be forced to provide logistical support to Gowon from the sea, and attack Lagos with its special forces already nearby, off the coasts.

The prospects of the Brits bombing Lagos and turning “Yorubaland” into a bloody battle field forced Banjo to stymie the Liberation Army in Benin City, and order a hasty withdrawal. It also allowed the federal troops led by Murtala Muhammed to reorganize and retake the Midwest. Asaba was doomed from that moment.

The massacre of Igbo civilians began from Benin City with the arrival of the federal forces. Folks in Benin went house by house identifying and killing their Igbo neighbours. Murtala’s Army already war drunk thus arrived Asaba with bloodlust.

The account of what happened in Asaba is well documented in Emma Okocha’s Blood on the Niger. It is also the subject of my poem, The Horsemen, an elegy to that era.

But to put it quite simply, the troops under Murtala Muhammed and the late Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, both of whom also ironically met death on the same day in 1976, supervised the killing of the adult males of Asaba.

They had ordered them to dance at the town square, separated the men from the women, and killed them.

Ironically, one of those killed was Sydney Asiodu, a potential Olympic medalist and undergraduate of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. His brother, Philip Asiodu was then a super permanent secretary in Gowon’s administration in Lagos.

Even then, Asaba was only one of the places where the Nigerian military committed war crimes of such horrendous magnitude during that war, and have sought to cover it up and even erase them.

Many of those who have strutted about as Nigeria’s military heroes indeed ought to be brought to account for their war crimes.

It is the legacy of impunity that continues to haunt Nigeria, and continues to breed the kind of viciousness that would lead to the mindless destruction of people be it at Umuechem, Odi or Gboko because no one yet has been brought to account for such horrendous acts.

The Asaba memorial will be an important first step towards full disclosure and possible restitution.

USF: Shedding Light on Asaba Nightmare - TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 12, 2009) logo

Shedding Light on Asaba Nightmare
Monday, October 12, 2009 - News

TAMPA, Fla. (Oct 12, 2009) They were unprepared for the flood of emotions that engulfed them when survivors of the 1967 massacre in Asaba, Nigeria, solemnly stood at the podium and told their stories.

Without tissues on hand, tears streamed down the faces of the men, soaking the collars of both Western suitcoats and traditional Nigerian bubas.

For some in the audience, this was the first chance in 42 years to learn the fate of their loved ones.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve been told the story of what happened, and my own father was killed in that war,” said Michael Nwanze, a political science professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “I buried my father but I was never able to mourn him because I didn’t know the truth.”

The survivors of the Oct. 7, 1967, massacre in Asaba, Nigeria, had been waiting more than four decades to shed light on the nightmare that haunts them still and to tally and honor the dead – estimated by some accounts to be from 500 to 2,000 men and boys. The massacre occurred during Nigeria’s bitter civil war, and those targeted were of Igbo ethnicity.

Helping the Nigerian people piece together the puzzle of the long-buried tragedy is anthropology professor Elizabeth Bird, assistant anthropology professor Erin Kimmerle and Fraser Ottanelli, chairman of the department of history, who are working with the USF Libraries Holocaust & Genocide Studies Center and a Tampa Police Homicide Det. Charles Massucci.

The researchers are gathering documents, recording oral histories and this spring will travel to Nigeria to examine mass graves in the hopes of creating a memorial to the decades-old slayings.

The Oct. 9-10 Asaba Memorial Project symposium at USF kicked off the effort that included launching the Asaba Memorial Project website. The site will serve as an international record of the massacre, including archive images, oral histories, official records, newspaper articles and other materials the USF team gathers.

It will be no small task. Memories of the massacre are hazy and details conflict. Nevertheless, Ottanelli said it’s the oral histories - the voices of the people - that will make the events of Asaba come alive.

“It humanizes what we’ve been reading,” he said. “It takes an event so far away and puts a human face to it. The testimony is very powerful. We’re honored and humbled by this awesome responsibility.”

For the survivors, a public acknowledgement of the deaths and a permanent memorial to their lost loved ones will bring a measure of justice that has been elusive for more than four decades.

“We can forgive but we should never, ever forget,” said Chinelo Egwuatu, 53, a 15-year Tampa resident who survived the Biafra-Nigerian civil war and post-war famine, although two of her siblings perished. “This is a good thing USF is doing. There is no way you can bring the people back, but you can at least acknowledge that it happened.”

Up until now, little has been recorded about the Asaba massacre. Details were hidden from the international press. Nigerian government officials refused to comment publicly. And an international observer team was accused of conducting a hasty, haphazard investigation in which it concluded no genocide had occurred.

This left survivors, particularly eyewitnesses to the event, with no sense of closure.

Asaba, a key Nigerian town populated by civilian government employees, doctors, lawyers, engineers, athletes and scholars of the influential Igbo ethnic community, was loyal to the Nigerian federal government. Nevertheless, the town was targeted by a faction of that same military government for annihilation.

No one is sure who gave the orders or why. Nor is anyone certain how many lives were lost when soldiers opened fire on the men and boys in town.

For Egwuatu, the war is embodied in the face of a little boy who was once her playmate. She was only 11-years-old in 1967 and, although she wasn’t a witness to the Asaba massacre, she remembers seeing body parts strewn on the village streets. She also recalls coming across the body of her friend.

“I’ll never forget the look in his eyes,” she said, rifling through her handbag for something to staunch the flow of tears. She pulled out a Little Caesars pizza napkin and dabbed her face.

“It was terrible. This was barbaric. You never expected human beings to behave like that. It was evil.”

“Evil” also is the word Ifeanyi Uraih used to describe what he witnessed that day.

He was living in Asaba with his parents and nine siblings when the federal troops came to town.

“They ordered everyone to come out to the town square. (Col. Ibrahim) Taiwo said it was time to dance around town and join our brethren, and he warned that everyone should come along,” he recalled.

The people did as they were told, thinking they were being invited to a victory party. They didn’t realize it was a ruse to coax all the men out of hiding. Suddenly, the celebratory atmosphere evaporated. Taiwo’s troops began separating the men from the women.

“They were honest with us,” said Uraih. “They told us they were going to kill us. They took us to the mounted machine guns. Then it dawned on us that it was true.”

Uraih estimates that 2,000 men stood in the killing field that day.

“I was standing with my older brother at the edge of the crowd. He was holding my hand. He had always taken care of me. We shared the same bed. He was the first to be dragged away by the soldiers. He let go of my hand and pushed me into the crowd. He was shot in the back. I could see the blood gushing from his back. He was the first victim of the massacre. Then all hell let loose.”

Uraih survived because he was buffered by bodies that were shot and fell on top of him.

“I lost count of time,” he said. “To this day, I live with the smell of the blood of my brethren that night. Even the heavens wept for the victims of this holocaust. Finally the bullets stopped.

Decades later, Uraih was in the reception room of a doctor’s office in London when Gen. Yakubu Gowon, head of the Nigerian military government at the time of the massacre, happened to walk in for an appointment.

“We talked and he said he sincerely regretted what occurred that day, that it was one of his greatest regrets,” said Uraih, adding that he believed Gowon. “I cannot tell this story without tears in my eyes, but I have no bitterness in my heart.”

Chief Philip Asiodu, who hailed from Asaba and was a member of Gowon’s cabinet at the time of the genocide, said he too has no room for bitterness despite the fact that his brother, Sydney Asiodu, a promising Olympic hurdler, long jumper and runner, was a victim of the massacre.

Asiodu, who later became chief economic adviser to the Nigerian president and minister for petroleum, said Asaba should have been the last village targeted by federal troops because it was populated by current and former Igbo civil servants loyal to the federal government.

It’s been reported that Taiwo had a master list containing the names of prominent citizens and civil servants targeted for death. Some believe that Gen. Murtala Mohammed, commander of the Second Division of the federal troops and Taiwo’s superior, wanted to rid himself of opposition so he could launch a coup. Mohammed later toppled Gowon to become head of state.

Like fellow Nigerians assembled at USF for the symposium, Asiodu said he’s supporting the Asaba Memorial Project because he believes the people need to know what happened.

“Once we do, I still have faith we can change the ethics of our current government and become the vanguard for African progress,” he said.

The truth may be a long time coming, however. Like those killed in the Asaba genocide, documents have long been buried or unavailable. “There will always be debate,” said Elizabeth Bird, USF professor of anthropology. “The official records are woefully inadequate.”

Bird pointed to the importance of the book Blood on the Niger as the first publication that drew attention to the massacre. Its author, Emma Okocha, himself a survivor, was crucial to the project – initially contacting Kimmerle, and bringing together the network of scholars, activists, and community members who attended the symposium.

Last year, Kimmerle and a research team traveled to Lagos, Nigeria where they investigated methods for human identification in collaboration with John Obafunwa, provost of the College of Medicine at Lagos State University. Kimmerle has done human rights work throughout the Balkans, Peru and Nigeria and her research team is working on new methods of identification, research for investigations of “cold cases” and forensic science education.

Kimmerle and her team also traveled to Asaba to meet with community leaders and began interviewing witnesses to the massacre. The work will involve more fieldwork over the next few years and is part of an effort to develop new methods and technologies to solve cold cases both in the United States and abroad. The project is supported financially by the National Institute of Justice.

The USF team hopes to launch the third phase of the project this spring when they travel to Asaba to begin the excavation and collect further information.

Once the project is completed, the people of Asaba can consider what type of memorial they would like to erect “so our children and our children’s children never forget what happened and so it will never happen again,” said Nwanze. “I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure this program succeeds. If you don’t honor the dead, what becomes of the path of the living?”

Story by D’Ann Lawrence White

A journalist for more than 25 years, White is a freelance writer reporting on behalf of USF.