|Date||October 7, 1967|
|Target||Igbo civilians of Asaba|
|Perpetrators||Nigerian 2nd Division under Murtala Mohammed
The Asaba massacres occurred in early October 1967, during the Nigerian Civil War, fought over the secession of Biafra (the former Eastern Region of Nigeria). Biafran troops invaded the Midwest Region of Nigeria, to the west of the River Niger, in early August, 1967. They spread west, taking Benin City and reaching as far as Ore, where they were pushed back by the Nigerian Second Division, under the command of Col. Murtala Muhammed.
The Federal troops gained the upper hand, and forced the Biafrans back to the Niger, where they crossed the bridge back into the Biafran city of Onitsha, which lies directly across from Asaba. The Biafrans blew up the eastern spans of the bridge, so that the Federal troops were unable to pursue them.
The Federal troops entered Asaba around October 5, and began ransacking houses and killing civilians, claiming they were Biafran sympathisers. Leaders summoned the townspeople to assemble on the morning of October 7, hoping to end the violence through a show of support for "One Nigeria." Hundreds of men, women, and children, many wearing the ceremonial akwa ocha (white) attire paraded along the main street, singing, dancing, and chanting "One Nigeria." At a junction, men and teenage boys were separated from women and young children, and gathered in an open square at Ogbe-Osawa village. Federal troops revealed machine guns, and orders were given, reportedly by Second-in-Command, Maj. Ibrahim Taiwo, to open fire. It is estimated that more than 700 men and boys were killed, some as young as 12 years old, in addition to many more killed in the preceding days.
The bodies of some victims were retrieved by family members and buried at home. But most were buried in many mass graves, without appropriate ceremony. Many extended families lost dozens of men and boys. Federal troops occupied Asaba for many months, during which time most of the town was destroyed, many women and girls were raped or forcibly "married," and large numbers of citizens fled, many not returning until the war ended in 1970.
Ibrahim B. Haruna has sometimes been named as the officer who ordered the massacre, following a report of his testimony to the Nigerian Human Rights Violations Investigations Commission, known as the Oputa Panel (Vanguard, Oct. 10, 2001). This article quoted him as claiming responsibility (as the commanding officer) and having no apology for the atrocity. However, Haruna was not present in Asaba in 1967. He replaced Murtala Muhammed as C.O. of the Second Division in spring 1968. While there are no eye-witness reports of Muhammed ordering the killings, he was the Commander in the field, and thus must bear responsibility.
For a detailed account of the massacres, see S. E. Bird and F. Ottanelli (2011), "The History and Legacy of the Asaba, Nigeria, Massacres," African Studies Review, 54 (3), 2011, pp. 1-26.
For a discussion of the impact of the massacres and occupation on the community, as well as the importance of the Asaba events in the Civil War, see: S.E. Bird and F. Ottanelli (2014), "The Asaba Massacre and the Nigerian Civil War: Reclaiming Hidden History," Journal of Genocide Research, 16:2-3, 379-399.