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The Asaba genocide: Consequences and lessons

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War and conflict have remained man’s unending affliction 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; and because once it becomes violent, it spells war and war has the ugly potentials 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.

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Nigerian politicians in their political gladiation of 1964 Federal elections and 1965 Western Regional 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 northern master-minded counter-coup of July 29, 1966, the mass killing of thousands of innocent Igbo people in the North, and the failure of Aburi Accord cascaded the country into a civil war from July 6, 1967 to January 15, 1970.

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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 marketing 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 occurred in 1967, informs our today and tomorrow. It spells the need for early dialogue when critical issues and situations arise that have the potentials 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 are hearing 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 is not the civil war.

The genocide only occurred during the civil war. The root is 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 etc. Check up with the Boko Haram insurgency, the IPOB militancy, Al-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 have 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.

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There was also the standing Rules of Engagement (ROE) which the then General 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 Rule of Engagement. I keep asking myself, why did Asaba happen? Was it because the people are Igbo speaking? Was it a hate crime? Was it 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 at 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 Malter” movements ravaging America and the world today. These are serious lessons. I am fully aware that General Yakubu Gowon during his visit to Asaba some years ago tendered a belated Federal Military Government’s 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. The 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.

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