The Asaba Massacre and Murtala Mohammed’s contested Legacy

A Gallant Man

The man’s face is serious, with an upturn of the head that communicates that his bearing and his intentions are noble, and he is worthy of the honours he holds and which are signified by the medals on his chest. The man is Murtala Rufai Ramat Muhammed, Nigeria’s 4th Head of State, and reputedly one of the best leaders Nigeria has ever had. His face graces the country’s 20 Naira note; its international airport in Lagos bears his name. As a leader of the country, his reputation and legacy are thought to be unassailable, but that, it seems, is not the full story; because bound up in the stories of Muhammed’s gallantry, his probity and ambitious sense of destiny is also the dark legacy of what he did or didn’t do, during one of the darkest periods of Nigeria’s history, as the Biafra-Nigerian civil (July 1967 – January 1970) came to its horrific close. For much of the civil war, Muhammed was the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Nigerian Army’s 2nd Division, and was the commanding officer during the fateful episode now known as the Asaba Massacre. Now the capital of Nigeria’s Delta State, Asaba is a city on a hill; once the capital of Southern Nigeria, back when the British ruled the roost. Today, it is a bustling commercial city with a population of 500, 000, who are a mix of the nation’s various ethnicities, including the indigenous igbos, and their neighbours. But during the civil war, which raged from 1967-70, it was the stage for a massacre in which over 700 of the city’s people were killed, mostly, or all, men and boys.

The Massacre

In a newly released book. “The Asaba Massacre”, Professors Elizabeth Bird and Frank Ortanelli write about the events that led to the massacre in Octoer 1967, three months from the beginning of the civil. In article published in Nigeria’s Vanguard Newspaper they detail the advance of the Biafran Army towards Lagos, Nigeria’s capital at the time, and the counter attack by federal troops; in a bid to slow their progress, Biafran troops blew up the bridge connecting Onitsha and Asaba. Ultimately federal troops under Murtala Muahmmed and Col Ibrahim Taiwo entered Asaba on the 4th October, and according to eyewitness men and boys suspected of collaboration were killed by troops. In a situation of escalating violence against the community, the town’s leaders called for the townspeople to gather in a dance of peace for federal troops on the 7th October. The crowd was dressed in white, Akwa Ocha, a symbol of peace, but there was to be no peace that day. According to several eyewitnesses, men and boys were separated from the crowd and killed by federal soldiers under the command of Murtala Mohammed. For popular historian, Cheta Nwanze, there’s no doubt about where culpability lies for the terrible events of that October day, as he wrote in an article for YNaijaThe massacre at Asaba on October 7, 1967 was carried out by troops under his command, and despite the fact that he was not present during the actual shooting; no one was disciplined for those actions. A few weeks later, troops under his command also committed another atrocity, this time in Onitsha.”

No Reckoning

In the decades since the end of the Nigeria-Biafran war, the survivors of the Asaba Massacre have begun a process of remembering that has produced hours of documented evidence of what happened in that week. In 2001, Nigeria’s Head of State and Military leader at the time of the war, Yakubu Gowon apologised for the massacre. It was a reckoning with history that will not be possible for Murtala Muhammed who subsequently became Nigeria’s president. He was gunned down in 1976 ten years after the civil war in a failed military coup. 

Dele Meiji

Dele Meiji is a writer.