Emmanuel Okocha’s book ‘Blood on the Niger: The First Black-On-Black Genocide’ was already out for about eleven years before I read it for the first time in January 2013. It was befitting I encountered the book in its revised and updated edition in Asaba, the capital of Delta state, where my Lolo and I had attended my brother’s wedding. The book focuses on the massacres carried out in Asaba and other Igbo-speaking communities in the former Mid-Western region and state, now split into Delta and Edo states, by the Nigerian military during the Nigerian civil war.
The more I read, the more my soul burned. The more I read, the more I wept. The more I read, the more I failed to wrap my head around the depth of evil that dwells in the human heart. But I also kept wondering the manner of courage Okocha had to painstakingly research and write this amazingly balanced history which must have dredged up nightmares for him because it was his awful reality, not just a documented account for the likes of me. Emmanuel Okocha’s family was slaughtered during the Asaba massacres and he was rescued by Irish nuns who took him to a Catholic orphanage.
Anyone who has not read ‘Blood on the Niger’, no matter his stand on the Nigerian civil war, should please keep quiet on the painful subject of the conflict that tore Nigeria apart from 1966 to 1970, and still determines the country till today. The harrowing massacres in Asaba and other Igbo-speaking areas of the old Mid-West following the failed Biafran invasion of the Mid-West is the sore spot of our existence as a people. Before Rwanda, there was an Asaba. What makes it so pathetic is that these unarmed people came out to express support for the Nigerian army and celebrate One Nigeria. Till today, like the author, I ask: why did they die? Because of their cultural affinity with the Igbo of Biafra?
Because Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, prominent leader of the January 15 1966 coup in which Northern leaders were assassinated, was from Okpanam, on the outskirts of Asaba? But so far as the evidence shows, Nzeogwu did not get his kinsmen’s approval or even seek their opinion before he and his co-plotters struck.
The Nigerian Establishment can go on acting as if Asaba is a mere mirage. This is not surprising because a number of the military officers connected to the killings held or are still connected to influential positions in our Establishment. Late General Murtala Muhammed, Nigeria’s third military ruler, commanded the Second Division of the Nigerian army that carried out the massacres. Late Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, ex-Kwara state governor, was the Division’s Brigade Commander. Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s current president was Murtala’s Brigade Major during the Second Division’s repeated and bloody efforts to capture Onitsha after the Biafran forces retreated from the Mid-West. But I have not read of his involvement in the Asaba massacres. Then there is General Ibrahim Haruna, an ex-Commissioner under Gowon and a leading Northern Nigerian political heavyweight. Even in a democratic dispensation the Establishment has muzzled efforts to discuss about the Asaba massacres. In October 2017, Cheta Nwanze, a social commentator and researcher, was sent off air for bringing up the subject on Nigerian Info F.M.
Unfortunately, matters like the Asaba massacres are not taught in Nigerian schools. I am thinking of how to present it in understandable terms to younger ones, but then, History is a bastard in the Nigerian educational system. Okocha did us a great service by putting the story on a global canvas.
Though I never met him my heart shook when I learnt of his death on 29 November 2020. The Asagha (monarch) of Asaba, Professor Edozien, honoured him with the title Ikemba of Asaba. Just like Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the Biafran head of state and Ikemba of Nnewi, Okocha was the true strength of his people. He chronicled their triumphs and grief and pointed out the road to their redemption. An erudite journalist with degrees from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and the University of Lagos, Okocha was the publisher of the Washington D.C magazine ‘USA Africa.’ His other books include ‘Angola: The Landing of the Cubans,’ and ‘Chad: The Coercive Outcome.’ Sadly, his definitive book about Major Nzeogwu was not published before his death.
While General Yakubu Gowon, the Nigerian leader during the war, apologized to the people of Asaba more than thirty years after the killings, General Ibrahim Haruna took another position. Following the 1999 Justice Oputa-led Human Rights Violations Investigation Panel’s sittings on gory issues in Nigeria’s evolution since 1960, the General publicly declared: ‘as the commanding officer and leader of the troops that massacred 500 men in Asaba, I have no apologies for those massacred in Asaba, Owerri and Ameke-Item. I acted as a soldier maintaining the peace and unity of Nigeria. If General Gowon apologizes, he did it in his own capacity. As for me I have no apology.’ Any wonder the war lasted so long as the Biafran propaganda machinery was fed with the genocidal intents of their enemies.
Goodnight, great chronicler of the history that will always haunt Nigeria till we make reparation to those innocents. Murtala Muhammed and Ibrahim Taiwo will now know better wherever they are. If only God and Lucifer can set up a meeting between them and Emmanuel Okocha with all the dead casualties of the massacres watching.
Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema is a Lagos-based author, historian and teacher. His first novel is ‘In Love and In War.’ Email: email@example.com