By Dr Ify Uraih
My name is Ify Uraih. I was trained as a Veterinary Surgeon, but my career took a different path after I took the decision to go to business school and study Marketing. I worked for a total of twenty-one years for two Multinational companies based in Nigeria – Glaxo Smith Kline and Friesland Campina Dairy Foods. I retired as Head of Marketing from the later company in 2003 to set up a firm of Marketing Consultants.
I was born on May 13, 1952 in Kano, Northern Nigeria. My father, Robert Chukwuma Uraih left our little town Asaba, in the Mid- West, in 1929, when he was twenty, to seek a fortune in the commercial city of Kano. He became very successful in 1938 after he won a contract to make uniforms for the Nigerian contingent of the colonial army. In 1939, he got married to my mother – Veronica Nwasiwe Omoko. My mother was twenty-one. Both my parents were ardent Catholics. Between 1940 and 1960 they had ten of us – Ben, Paul, Victoria, Emma, Gabriel, Lucy, me, Victor, Tony and Robert. All of us went to primary school in Kano and in addition to our native language, Ibo, could speak Hausa (the dominant language of Northern Nigeria) fluently.
Kano was quite cosmopolitan when I was growing up. Sabon-Gari where we lived was the place were all non-indigenes i.e. other Nigerians who were not Hausas lived. So, my best friends were from different regions of Nigeria. I still remember Ladi and Tony Taiwo, Yoruba from the Western region, Ndubuisi and Chimezie Ogoke, Ibo from the East, William Orunhunwese from Benin, Mike, an urhobo and Dawa a Tiv from Jos. Because we belonged to different tribes, we communicated with each other in Hausa or pidgin English. We played all the pranks of little children and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. At a higher level, my parents had friends from all parts of Nigeria. My Dad who had become a building contractor was always in Birni, the city of Kano where the indigenes lived, fraternizing with his friends. As children we always looked forward to the id el Kabir festivities, when our house will be filled with gifts of mutton from the moslem friends of my parents. I have wonderful memories of my childhood and treasure them greatly.
In 1965, it was time for secondary school, and like my siblings before me, my father sent me to one in Benin, Mid-West Region. I believe he did not want us to loose touch with our heritage. I spent my long vacation in Kano and the Christmas and Easter vacation with my grandmother in Asaba. This was the situation until June 1966 when the civil disturbances started in the North, and my parents fled from Kano with the rest of my siblings to Asaba, just managing to escape with their lives.
We had adjusted to living away from Kano by the time the civil war started on July 6, 1967. Asaba was now the meeting point for the family. My oldest brother Ben was in a university in the UK. Paul was a land surveyor working in Warri, Victoria was at the University of Nigeria, Emma was working in a bank in Asaba, Gabriel was living in Warri with Paul and studying in a technical school. Lucy and I were in secondary school. My younger siblings were in primary schools in Asaba. The Military Governor of the Mid-West region at the time, Major General David Ejoor insisted that his territory will not be a part of the war, so Federal troops approached the East through the Nsukka axis in the North. Meanwhile, normal commercial activities continued across the river Niger between the people of the Mid-west and the East. Everybody in Asaba assumed that the war was somewhere else. Then one early morning in August 29, 1967, Biafran troops overran the whole of the Mid-West, declared it the Republic of Benin, appointed an Administrator and advanced deeply into the Western Region. The war had come to us. All schools closed down and all my family except Ben came home to Asaba.
The response of the Federal Government was swift. Troops were deployed to the Western sector and the Mid-West was attacked also by sea. The battle was bitter and one day after another an important town was captured by the Federal troops. The reaction of the natives was violent, they pounced on the Ibos of the Mid-West and massacred them. In Warri, Benin, Sapele, Ughelli, Uromi and Auchi , the story was the same. Soon, Asaba was flooded with returnees from all parts of the region telling gory tales of their escape.
On Monday, October 2, 1967, we heard the distant sound of gun fire and heavy artillery. A lot of people left town and fled across the Niger bridge to Biafra. My father was a serious advocate for “One Nigeria” probably because of years of living in the North. He had not supported secession for one day. He believed that Federal troops would come in and liberate us and life would continue. So he assured my mother that all was safe and that in a few days, the war would pass Asaba and move across to Onitsha. How wrong he was.
On Wednesday, October 4, the troops overran Asaba. My family house is located along the major highway leading to Ibusa. We were trapped inside and outside the troops were firing at the house. We kept on shouting “One Nigeria” until the firing stopped and we were asked to come out. The commander of the troops took us and several other families to a school on the outskirts of Asaba. In our company were two Catholic priests. He explained to us that we would be kept there until he was sure that the Biafran soldiers had been routed out.
On Friday morning, we were all asked to go home that the worst was over. The troops escorted us back into town. My mother decided that we should go and stay in her mother’s house since it was inside the village and she thought it was safer. Everything was quiet. We still heard the sound of distant gun fire, but we slept well that night.
Saturday, October 7, began like any other day since the troops captured Asaba. We had just finished having breakfast when the shooting started again. At about 9.00am, we heard shouting outside, and people asking everybody to go and join the parade. My family, including my grandmother joined the other families outside. It was a site to behold. Many people had wrapped around them our native “akwa ocha”. This signified peace. It was a huge crowd and we were singing “One Nigeria” all the way – Men, women, boys, girls, little children, the old and infirm. We were marched from Ogbeke, what used to be the town square to an open ground opposite the Asaba high court and the present day Grand Hotel. The soldier who addressed us introduced himself as Major Ibrahim Taiwo. He spoke to us very harshly and accused us of hiding Biafran soldiers in our houses. He threatened, he abused and vowed that he would level Asaba if we do not ask those Biafran soldiers to come out and surrender themselves. One of our elders – Chief Okwudarue responded on our behalf. He told Major Taiwo that the people before him were very responsible people and had only one wish – for the country to remain one. He reminded him that it was the war that brought everybody home. Before the war he said, everybody there were living in different parts of Nigeria and had homes there and our greatest wish was to return to our homes and our jobs and businesses. Major Taiwo reached a compromise with Chief Okwudarue and agreed that his soldiers will take us round the town singing “One Nigeria” and asking our brethren to come out from hiding and join. He promised that once we had done that, he would evacuate all of us to a camp in Issele-Uku about 25km away. Chief Okwudarue explained this to us, everybody was elated and the singing and dancing continued. We moved from the high court down Nnebisi road towards Ogbeogonogo (the main market). Other people were coming out from hiding in their numbers and joining us.
The first sign that all was not well was immediately after the market when fresh troops joined the ones guarding us. They started abusing us calling us Biafran soldiers and beating us with horse whips. At the junction of Ogbeosowa and Nnebisi road, they suddenly forced us to make a detour. In an open space the troops halted the march and began to separate the women and children from the men and boys. Twice I was put with the women and twice, one of the soldiers sent me back to be with the men. When this was finished, they marched the women and children back to the main road and force the rest of us to move further away from the road. As this was going on, some of us were conversing with them in their various tongues – Hausa, Yoruba, Urhobo, Bini. Even though they were honest and told us we were going to be massacred, we still did not believe. When we got sufficiently inside, more soldiers arrived and mounted machines guns.
Then their leader addressed us in pidgin English. He was a second lieutenant. He said to us, “Me, I come from Chad, but dem born me for Adamawa, I hate all Ibos. You be Ibo therefore you must die.” It was surreal. I heard the sergeant who had been the most vicious of the guards say in Hausa to his colleagues – “ Kwu diba su gwoma gwoma, ku je chikin chan de chan, kwu yi aiki de su” – when translated literally, it means – “ Take them in tens into different corners and work on them”. These are words that will live with me for the rest of my life. It was then it dawned on the group of men and boys gathered that afternoon of October 7, 1967, in Ogbeosowa – about two thousand strong – surrounded by a detachment of the Nigerian army carrying sub-machine guns, that by that pronouncement, we had all been condemned to death. Even then we were too stunned to believe. How could this be true? How could Federal troops whom we had supported all the way suddenly turn their guns on us?
I was standing with my elder brother Emma at the edge of the crowd. He was holding my hand. I had always been Emma’s little brother, shared his bed with him every night until he died. Even onto death, he felt his duty was to protect me. Emma was the first to be dragged by the soldiers. He let go my hand and pushed me further into the crowd. I saw Emma struggling with one of the soldiers and another one shot him from behind at point blank range. Emma fell to the ground with blood gushing out from his back like from a pool. And his shattered vertebrae exposed in the afternoon gloom, the first victim of the massacre that followed.
All hell was let loose. A good number of the men and boys fled into the surrounding bushes, many of them were cut down as they fled. The rest of us fell to the ground in utter hopelessness. I lost count of time. The soldiers turned their guns on those of us lying on the ground and the staccato bursts of bullets continued into the late evening. To this day, I live with the smell of the blood of my brethren that died that day, with the cries of those of them who had lost hope and stood up and begged the soldiers to end it all. Maybe they were the ones who saved the lives of those of us who survived the slaughter, because as they begged to be killed and the soldiers obliged them they disrupted the flow of the massacre as the killers now concentrated on them.
Finally, the bullets stopped. The heavens opened up and a light shower came forth. Even the heavens wept for the victims of that holocaust. I thought everybody was dead. But suddenly, I heard voices – the cries of the injured struggling to live, the regrets of some who had their limbs battered and needed help. One of them a Mr. Tolefe when he discovered I was still alive, begged me to use a knife which he had to amputate his shattered hand. I did not have the courage to do so. I learnt he later bled to death. It seemed I was the only one who came out unscathed. Lying close by me was a cousin of mine, Peter Ojogwu, who a bullet had glazed his head and his thigh and the middle finger of his right hand was shattered, but he was alive, and lives to this day. My father was lying not too far away. I did not know where the bullet hit him, his eyes were open as if he was staring at me his favorite son, but he was dead.
I couldn’t get up and escape into the bush as soon as we knew the soldiers had gone because there was no way I could go without my cousin who was injured. So we waited until it was dark and I helped him along and we found our way to my grandmother’s house where we met my sisters and my little brothers.
The next morning, my mother came looking for us. We were five of us – my father, my brothers; Paul, Emma, Gabriel and I – who had been taken by the soldiers to the killing field. She found only me. Quickly she arranged for my sisters, my little brothers and I to escape with other people to Achalla, a few kilometers from Asaba. Latter she went to look for the bodies of my father and brothers. She found only my father and Emma. She put them in a wheel barrow and went to bury them. The body of Paul was never found. He was only twenty-five. Paul was a very strong young man and for several years, my mother lived with the illusion that he must have escaped somehow and found his way to Biafra. But we had to accept years later that somewhere in Asaba, like several others, lays the body of Paul in an unmarked grave. We found Gabriel in Achalla. He was shot in the waist, but somehow, the bullet missed his spinal cord. He had eight bullets in him. The last of them was extracted at the National Orthopedic hospital Igbobi, Lagos in 1978.
I have told this story at several fora. I cannot tell it without tears in my eyes. But I have no bitterness in my heart. I cry each time because I can never understand why humans will sudden turn on each other and slaughter themselves without reason. How is it possible that soldiers who are trained to be disciplined will turn their guns on defend less civilians lying prostrate on the ground and kill them without mercy? If only they knew the collateral damage they did to the families of those they slaughtered and to Nigeria. My cousin Dr. Eugene Akwule was a first class doctor, trained at the University of Glasgow. He was the Chief Medical Officer at the Asaba General hospital; he was killed along with his father and one of his younger brothers who was a class mate of mine. His mother never recovered from the shock of his death. It went into her head and she called every man Eugene until she passed away. Obi and Amechi Nwanukwu aged 16 and 15 years were the only children of their parents. They were students of King’s College, Lagos. They came home on holiday and were trapped in Asaba. Their father survived the massacre, but they both were killed. Both parents became recluses. Many of my mates and seniors lost their fathers, but unlike some of us, they never recovered and had to drop out of school. Those of them who are alive today are living in Asaba and else where managing to make a living conscious of the fact that their lives might have been better if what happened did not happen.
Ogbeosowa was not the only place the killings happened. In different parts of the town soldiers assembled young men and shot them During our march, we passed by a group of young men in a long line surrounded by soldiers in front of the primary school before the main market. One of them was Nicholas Azeh, whom I grew up with in Kano but later went to secondary school in Ibadan western Nigeria. Another was Chuks Efedua. At the time, I had no idea what they were doing there. When I saw Nicholas in the bush some weeks later, he told me. The soldiers had taken them from their homes. They lined them up in the football field of that primary school. They got a spade, and one by one, they asked the boys to dig their own grave. When the task was completed, the digger was asked to jump in and was shot. The next digger would cover up the grave of the first one and then dig his and the process continued. Shortly before it came to his turn, a Yoruba soldier who was his father’s houseboy before the war recognized him and saved him. Chuks’ escape was more miraculous. He was the last on the line. Apparently one of the soldiers having a feeling of guilt suddenly slapped him, grabbed him by his hand led him around a corner away from the others and advised him to disappear into the bush. Today Nicholas Azeh is a Pentecostal pastor and lives in Asaba. Chuks is a trader and lives in Sokoto, North-West Nigeria.
Not so lucky were the tens of young men who were led to the bank of the glorious River Niger and shot. Some were asked to jump in and shot at, others were simply shot from behind and pushed into the river to be buried in their watery grave. Despite this, there were stories of miraculous escapes. Oseloka Putaife, a hulking six footer, dived into the river and swam all the way to Onitsha where he joined the Biafran army. No body knows how many of our young men were killed that way, what was sure was that on that day the River Niger flowed with the blood of our brethren.
There are some other survivors of the Asaba massacre who could not come here to tell their stories. The main reason is that they cannot afford the cost. One of them is 61 years old Christopher Mkpayah. His life took a different turn when his father was killed in Ogbeosowa. He dropped out of school because his family could not afford the cost any more. I represent all those people because I am luckier than them.
Several books have been written about the Nigerian civil war by the major actors, but none of them made mention of what happened in Asaba. It seemed that there was a deliberate attempt to bury that event, until Emma Okocha published his “Blood on the Niger” and pushed for the inclusion of the Asaba massacre in the Oputa panel investigation which was set up by the President Obasanjo’s administration in 2000. The Oputa panel was fashioned after the South African Truth Commission, the main objective being to get people to talk openly about the various human right violations against them with the hope that in the end both the victims and the perpetrators will reconcile themselves to the truth, and punishment meted out if deemed appropriate. I gave evidence which was widely publicized at the Oputa panel seating in Enugu in April 2001. Like so many panels before and after it, the Oputa report has not been made public. In South Africa and Rwanda, the people talked about what happened in their countries openly, reconciled themselves and moved on. My biggest fear is the type of massacre that happened in Asaba will happen again and again.
I had a chance meeting with General Yakubu Gowon in London in September last year, both of us met in the reception room of one of the doctors at BUPA in Kings Cross. I had just completed my medical examination and he was waiting to start his. We talked about what happened in Asaba. He told me sincerely that it has always been one of his regrets. That the deed was perpetuated by the troops of who he called “one of his rebel commanders” – General Murtala Mohammed who later toppled Gowon and became Nigeria’s Head of State. I have been in touch with General Gowon since then, and have advised him to write a book to give his own account of what happened during the civil war so that posterity will not judge him harshly.
I thank my brother Hon. Emma Okocha for devoting his life to this project. I am also extremely grateful to the USF Research team for taking on the Asaba Memorial project. I am confident that now that this story has been brought to the world stage, the souls of our departed brethren who lost their lives in the gloomy afternoon of October 7, 1967 will finally rest in Peace.
Dr. Ify Uraih MCIM, fnimn
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