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Asaba: Memories of war

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“The stupid neither forgive nor forget.  The naïve forgive and forget.  The wise never forget but forgive.” —Thomas Szasz

As the Asaba community both at home and in the Diaspora, prepare for this year’s memorial ceremonies in honour of the victims of the October 7, 1967 massacre in the town, it is perhaps an opportunity for a sober reflection on the unfortunate civil war, focusing particularly on Biafra’s controversial thrust into Midwestern Nigeria on that August 9, 1967 – a thrust which saw Asaba, Benin and a host of other towns fall in quick succession, but eventually tragically got lost due to a strange quirk of fate.

In retrospect, one cannot but agree with Gen. Alexander Madiebo that “despite the unfortunate development in the course of the campaign, Biafra did the best thing at the time to have undertaken the campaign”.  Rationalizing the operation, Madiebo explained among other things that “we did it not to conquer Nigeria but to force her to bring the war to an end and start negotiations.  It also relieved pressure on our own troops in the northern sectors of the war, particularly Nsukka from where the enemy withdrew the bulk of the troops with which they initially fought back.”

What many people did not know at the time is that it was the then Israeli Ambassador to Nigeria, according to Ojukwu, that sold the idea of the operation to him, having noticed a chink in the federal armour on the western flank of the River Niger.  In fact, six years later in 1973, Israel achieved a decisive victory in her fourth war with Egypt, adopting the same strategy.  Recall that in the Yom Kippur war, which the Arabs surprisingly launched against the Jewish state on October 6, 1973 while the latter was relaxing and celebrating the Holiest Day in the Jewish calendar, Egypt and Syria launched an elaborate attack featuring 5,000 armoured tanks on the Egyptian side and about half as many on the Syrian side.  Within three days of fighting Israel’s first line of defence had crumbled.  Besides the stunning collapse of her Bar-Lev-line in the Sinai Desert reputed to be the strongest fortress in the world, a sizeable percentage of her legendary air force had also been destroyed by Soviet-made ground-air missiles, while the enemy continued to blaze away in high morale.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Mrs. Golda Meir, a woman known rather to be a stoic, wept openly seeing the heaviest casualty figures ever in Israeli history.  But the war suddenly took a dramatic twist as from October 9, when the Israelis took over the initiative and launched a counter –offensive, after noticing a chink in the Egyptian armour across the western bank of the Suez Canal.  Crossing the canal under cover of night using Pontoons, an Israeli general fresh from retirement deftly ferried troops and heavy armour across the water, established a bridgehead and swiftly advanced towards a nearby expressway to Cairo, the Egyptian capital, thus cutting off a huge chunk of the Egyptian army in the forward lines.

Simultaneously, the same scenario was being replicated on the Syrian sector, where a column of Israeli troops was advancing along Damascus highway.  By the time the Israelis got to a shelling range of both cities, sensing clear disaster, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt called Moscow which reached out to Washington, and Henry Kissinger, America’s secretary of State, collaborating with the UN, effected a ceasefire on October 24, leading to the ultimate Camp David Peace Treaty signed by Israel and Egypt in March, 1979.

Similarly, in the Nigeria scenario, in 1967, if the tempo and progress of Biafra’s robust trans-Niger campaign had not been compromised and stalled and Lagos and Ibadan were captured or seriously threatened, Gowon possibly would have had no choice but reach out to Ojukwu for a ceasefire. In the inevitable negotiations, the enforcement of the Aburi Accord being Ojukwu’s sole agenda obviously would have had a smooth ride and nobody would have faced all this restructuring wahala today, because as Ojukwu had to explain later in BECAUSE I AM INVOLVED, “the concept, Biafra, was a deliberate line drawn for a persecuted people to have a beacon of hope, a line drawn so that a fleeing people can hope that at least once they reach there they would have love and succour…  The philosophy was that of self-defence… an attempt to found an alternative base to continue the combat against neocolonialism.”

Looking back now, what surprises some of us now in our 70s is not so much the bungling of the noble trans-Niger operation as the discriminatory attitude of the federal troops towards the Midwestern communities.  Apart from the gruesome decapitation of Col. Henry Igboba, whom they reportedly found in the Benin prison, no other atrocity was committed in the Edo area, unlike in Ika Ibo area, especially at Asaba where hundreds of able-bodied unarmed men were lined up and shot dead.

Did Asaba deserve this savagery considering its contributions towards the evolution and development of Nigeria?  Asaba is the hometown of frontline nationalist Dennis Osadebay, the first premier of Midwestern State and a former opposition leader in the Western House of Assembly.  Osadebay once acted as Nigeria’s Governor-General.  Asaba is the birth place of Chief S. I. O. Odogwu, the renowned industrialist and large-scale employer of labour.  The historic Asaba Institute as far back as 1895 had raised people like Obed Azikiwe, the father of Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe who was among the architects of our independence.  At a point in our history, Asaba was the hub of Nigeria’s telecommunication system.  Had the inimitable economic instincts of Sir George Goldie prevailed, given its unique location, Asaba would have been the capital of the country.  And today, besides the generation of Odogwu et al, Asaba has produced a host of young entrepreneurs who believing that “economics drives politics” have developed venture capitalist conglomerates with tentacles in vast areas: engineering, finance, oil services, mining, healthcare etc.

A good example is Alban Ofili-Okonkwo, a former governorship candidate and an advocate of robust private sector in Nigeria.  Incidentally, Ofili-Okonkwo is the arrowhead of this year’s remembrance ceremonies in Asaba, with the theme “Remembrance and Forgiveness”, and featuring a colloquium with a profound theme: In Pursuit of Rebirth – all geared towards Asaba’s resurgence.  The highlight of the event will be the presentation of the latest book on the Civil War.  Entitled “The Asaba Massacre – Trauma, Memories and the Nigerian Civil War,” the book was written by two distinguished scholars, Professor S. Elizabeth Bird (Anthropologist) and Professor Fraser M. Ottanelli (Historian) both of the University of South Florida.

Let me conclude this piece with a parody of a Balewa/Johnson/Moynbee exhortation: “War avenges the dead on the living; the vanquished on the victors. The nemesis of war is intrinsic. Nigeria is large enough to accommodate us all, in spite of our differences. Let us therefore strive to achieve a federation in which the people  of the north and south work together for the common good; a country in which sectional groups do not confront each other in bitter hostility, but provide a framework in which North and south can act together to assure the security of all. The glory of war is moonshine”.

  • Nzeakah is a former newspaper editor.
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Author: Africa Telescope

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