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What happened at Asaba?

Asaba community members point out the
site of the 1967 massacre

In 1967, Nigeria was riven by a bitter civil war over the secession of the south-eastern region, re-named as Biafra, whose population was predominantly of Igbo ethnicity. The war had followed several episodes of killings of Igbo across the country, causing many Igbo to flee south to traditional homelands in the mid-west, where the Niger river formed the border with Biafra.

During the summer of 1967, Biafran troops surged through the mid-western region, passing through Asaba, and reaching as far west as Benin City. Nigerian government troops fought back, eventually pushing the Biafran forces back through the mid-west, and across the Niger River. On about October 5, federal troops entered Asaba, which lies on the Niger, connected by a bridge to the Biafran city of Onitsha.

For two days, troops terrorized Asaba civilians, killing many at random. On Saturday, October 7, hundreds of townspeople gathered, trusting that a public show of support for the Nigerian government would pacify the situation. Instead, after separating women and children from men and older boys, soldiers gathered the males in the square of Ogbeosuwah village and turned their machine guns on them. Between 500 and 700 townspeople died. With most families unable to retrieve the bodies, the dead were buried in mass graves at the site. Lists exist of many who died, but there were no individual burials (as custom requires), no death certificates were issued, and no official accounting. Very little trace of the massacre exists in either press or historical accounts. Decades later, some survivors told their stories to the 2001 Nigerian Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (HRVIC), often known as the Nigerian Truth Commission or Oputa Panel (after its chair).

Unlike Truth Commissions in South Africa and elsewhere, the Nigerian commission was not designed to attribute blame or take action. However, a landmark moment occurred when General Yakubu Gowon, the Nigerian head of state during the war, made a public apology to the people of Asaba in September, 2001. There is now a strong desire, both in Nigeria and in diaspora communities in the U.S., to reclaim the history of the Asaba tragedy and create a permanent memorial to those who died.