The 1967 Asaba Massacre: As Many as 1,000 Innocent Non-combatant Igbo Males Were Killed in Asaba in October 1967 by Invading Nigerian Troops

Stanley Okafor, then a university student, described how troops summoned him and several relatives: “we got to the police station and there was a huge crowd. And then they would come around and they would say do you know Mr. X, Mr. B, and do you know his house? They had names they wanted to kill. And once in a while, they’d pick someone from the crowd, go to the back and you hear gunshots. And the crowd would wail.” Patience Chukwura, a young mother expecting her fourth child, saw her husband Eddie gunned down near the police station along with his brother, Christian. “That made me hysterical.”

I held onto the soldier and said, “Why did you kill my husband?” The man hit me on the chest with the butt of the gun and said, ‘woman, if you’re not careful, you’ll get killed as well.’ We feared they were going to wipe out everybody in Asaba, especially male children. Troops invaded homes, demanding money, executing men and boys, and abducting women, often before setting the houses ablaze. The streets were littered with corpses. Patrick Okonkwo recalled that his compound was crowded with extended family members when soldiers entered and shot his two brothers, a cousin, and two other relatives. His father buried them in shallow graves in the compound. On October 7, in hopes of avoiding more violence, Asaba leaders summoned everyone to gather to show support to the troops by making a pledge to “One Nigeria”.

Hundreds of men, women, and children assembled, dancing and singing. According to survivors, as the parade reached a major junction, troops removed women and young children and directed men and boys into an open area. As the crowd began to realize what might be happening, panic grew, as Peter Okonjo explained: “Women who came with their sons were removing their skirts and blouses to disguise them. And I looked at the whole place, there is nowhere to escape.” Ify Uraih was 13 years old and had joined the parade with his brothers and father. He described how the officer-in-charge, identified by several witnesses as Ibrahim Taiwo, gave the order to open fire, and the massacre began: “Some people broke loose and tried to run away. They shot my brother in the back. The rest of us just fell on top of each other.

Asaba outside Biafra

Asaba is a sister town of the Biafran river town of Onitsha which hosted the largest open market in West Africa before Nigeria’s Civil War. Asaba is a bonafide Igbo town even though it is outside the civil-war Biafran territory.

And they continued shooting, and shooting, and shooting. I don’t know how long it took; after some time, there was silence.” Hundreds died; survivors report climbing from among heaps of bodies when the soldiers finally left hours later. Ify Uriah survived, but his father, Robert, and brothers Emma and Paul were dead. His brother Medua was shot multiple times but survived. Between 500 and 800 were murdered, in addition to many from previous days, and many people fled the town. Although there is no firm death count, our research suggests that more than 1,000 died at the hands of the troops during October. Most were buried in mass graves, without observing requisite practices, and the town was destroyed, with most of the houses looted and burned. The long-term impacts of these tragic events were profound; many extended families lost multiple breadwinners, and the town’s leadership was decimated. Survivor accounts and reports by relief agencies show that Asaba remained in dire straits until the war’s end, most inhabitants having fled or subsisting in refugee camps.

Soldiers assaulted and abducted women and girls with impunity. The destruction was so complete that Asaba disappeared from the official roll of Nigerian towns in 1969. The atrocities at Asaba remained virtually absent from the published record and have remained mainly unacknowledged. A primary reason was lack of media coverage at the time. Of course, Biafra became world-famous, but its international public narrative developed after the retreat of the Biafrans across the Niger, after which the federal government imposed a blockade, effectively starving the East into submission and searing the images of emaciated children into the international community’s memory of that war. This contrasts with the lack of attention in 1967 when the Midwest people suffered most. The Federal government suppressed accounts of military action against civilians in the Midwest, and the international media were carefully managed. The 1967 massacres received almost no press coverage at the time. In later historical accounts, the Asaba events, if mentioned at all, are usually dismissed as aberrant or unproven. In 2001, some Asaba survivors testified to the Nigerian Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission (HRVIC or Oputa Panel) commissioned by President Olusegun Obasanjo and charged to consider the history of human rights abuses from 1966 to May 1999 of which civil-war events were part.

Asaba massacres shall endure

Total ruination was wrought on Asaba town when the invading Nigerian troops rounded up and massacred hundreds of male residents of the town even though they were non-combatants.

The Asaba accounts were included in the Ohanaeze Petition presented by Barrister Chuck Nduka-Eze and drawing on earlier research by Emma Okocha as well as testimonies recorded in 1969. The HRVIC’s report was never officially released, although it is now available on the internet. Obasanjo declined to offer formal apologies although, in a landmark moment, Gowon publicly apologized to the people of Asaba in 2002 opening the door to further efforts at truth and reconciliation. After the Oputa Panel, Asaba leaders formed a committee to develop a memorial process, seeking an academic partnership to study the history of the event objectively. We responded and with the support of our university’s Holocaust and Genocide Studies Center, have been researching the events of 1967 and beyond.

Our work is based on an array of sources, including archival collections on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as videotaped interviews with almost 80 people. Most are direct witnesses and survivors, while others testified about the long-term impacts on Asaba. They were interviewed in several locations – Asaba, Lagos, Ibadan, Benin City, and the United States and their stories produce a compelling, detailed, and consistent account of the atrocities that befell their town. Our research has produced several interrelated conclusions. First, it shows that the killings in Asaba were unprovoked, and stemmed directly from a chain of events that started before the war, continuing through the Biafran offensive across the Niger which stirred up simmering ethnic hatred that had previously resulted in violence toward the Igbo people.