The Asaba Massacre:

Trauma, Memory and the Nigerian Civil War

Cambridge University Press, 2017

The book was launched at the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the massacre, in October 2017. The two day event featured a symposium, speakers, testimony, and plans for the future.  For brief comments from Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, click here.

Using witness testimonies, the book tells the story of the massacre, and its causes and consequences. Arguing that events in Asaba were much more significant to the progress of the war than was previously understood, we discuss key role of Britain in the war, the long term trauma of such atrocities, and the importance of remembering.

The book may be purchased at bookstores, from the publisher, from Amazon U.S., Amazon UK, and in Nigeria from Roving Heights Bookstore.  

In 2018, The Asaba Massacre was chosen by the Oral History Society for its annual Book Award.

 Images from 50th Anniversary Commemoration

Formal book presentation, L to R: Memorial Committee Chair Alban Ofili-Okonkwo; Wole Soyinka; Delta State Gov. Ifeanyi Okowa; Former Nigerian VIce-President Alex Ekwueme; Former Cross River State Governor Donald Duke

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Top row L to R:  With Wole Soyinka at the Palace of the Asagba; The Memorial Symposium; with Mary Uraih and Martina Osaji; Middle, L to R: with Fabian Oweazim and Ify Uraih; with Ify Uraih and Amaka Flourish Chukwurah; with Asaba ladies; 

Lower, L to R: Asaba people meet to mark the commemoration; the Asaba Mossacre Monument; Asaba ladies; Lizzie Okonji points to family members' names at the Monument.

Book Reviews
The Asaba Massacre has received several favorable reviews in academic journals. Read examples below.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 

Vol.  26, 187-239, 2020.

By Daniel Jordan Smith, Brown University

Excerpts:

 

[C] arefully crafted and well-written, The Asaba Massacre argues that not only did the slaughter have significant consequences for the progression of the larger conflict, but also that its memories are alive, fifty years later, as salient vehicles through which the survivors and their descendants interpret contemporary politics and perceive ongoing injustices in Nigeria ... 

 

Great Britain supported Nigeria, and the authors contend that the British government, interested in stability and the flow of crude oil, was complicit in enabling the massacre by turning a blind eye to evidence of Nigerian troops’ earlier human rights abuses, thereby fuelling a sense of impunity on the Nigerian side...

Characteristic of its balanced, nuanced treatment of complex issues, the book deftly examines the multi-stranded and sometimes contradictory effects of the massacre’s  consequences for women, including the traumatic and unequivocally negative legacy of wartime rape...

 

Two other interconnected features of the volume are among its most valuable contributions: a focus on memory and a candid documentation and reflexive analysis of a research process that exemplifies community partnership at its finest ... sensitive, candid, and insightful. I recommend this fine book not only to all students and scholars interested in Nigeria, but also to anyone  considering – or just curious about – a collaborative approach to community-based research.

For full review, click here

Oral History Review,

Vol. 46, 246-247, 2019

By Jeremy Rich, Marywood University

Excerpts:

The Asaba Massacre is not only a significant contribution to the scholarship on the short-lived Republic of Biafra and Nigeria, but also a well written study that lends itself to use in undergraduate and graduate courses on oral history and violence writ large..

 

S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser Ottanelli convincingly demonstrate how the massacre galvanized Biafran rebels’ intransigence. At the same time, they discuss how the Nigerian and United Kingdom’s efforts turned foreign attention to the Republic of Biafra itself rather than to the slaughter in Asaba.

Effectively drawing insights from broader work on public memory and mass violence, the authors trace how different constituencies represented and recalled the event ... The advent of social media and the Internet further widened debates and discussions about Asaba, from denouncing individual military leaders to critiquing the Biafran revolt

for setting off the war that led to so many civilian casualties...

The authors have a keen grasp of the complexities of oral historical methodology and are explicit about how they conducted their research ... [They] participated in online forums and set up a Wikipedia page to examine how the Internet provided a space to construct memories about Asaba ...

 

The Asaba Massacre is written in a refreshingly clear and well-organized way .. .It certainly merits being awarded the 2018 Oral History Association’s Book Award ... a work that resonates far beyond the confines of African history.

For full review, click here

Journal of African History

Vol. 60, 501-502

By Chima Korieh, Marquette University

Excerpts:

 

Although regarded as one of the more gruesome massacres in postcolonial Africa, this book captures for the first time this history in detail. The book constitutes an interdisciplinary account of the massacre; it also analyzes attempts by the government to suppress its memory, while further addressing ways in which its surviving victims remember the event. The strength of the book lies in its use of a range of sources and its interdisciplinary perspective: it draws together historical narratives, critical understandings of Nigerian political dynamics and their relationship to imperial Britain, and testimonials and literature that relate to trauma, memory, and memorialization.

In this book, Bird and Ottanelli offer an impressive account of the history of Asaba; they then trace the arrival of federal troops into the town, detail the massacre, and consider the immediate aftermath of the violence perpetuated on its population... The authors also address Britain’s historic connections to Nigeria as a colonizing power, the ties that continued to link the countries in the postcolonial period, and the complicity of the British government in the genocidal acts perpetuated against the Asaba people and other ethnic Igbo ... 

 

The book ... reveals the indomitable spirit of a people to survive ...  the book captures what life was like under occupation ... For those who experienced the trauma, the war has never really ended. The Asaba Massacre is an indispensable addition to the growing literature on the Nigeria-Biafra War. 

For full review, click here

American Historical Review

Vol. 124, 386-387, 2019

By Bonny Ibhawoh, McMaster University

Excerpts:

 

The Asaba massacre has long been an unspoken atrocity of the Nigerian Civil War ... government ...  Bird and Ottanelli argue that the massacre was a pivotal event that contributed to prolonging a war that claimed well over a million lives. 

Although the humanitarian crisis in Biafra gained international attention due largely to the distressing images of starving Biafran children published or broadcast by Western media, the Asaba massacre was underreported ... One explanation the authors provide is that the victorious federal government of Nigeria suppressed information about the massacre, which was not publicly acknowledged until 1999 when victims and survivors petitioned the Nigerian Truth Commission.

 

Britain, the authors argue, “played a key role in both the conduct and the narrative of the war, helping create the conditions that made Asaba possible and subsequently helping to ensure that the story was buried” (69).

 

The account here is not simply a narrative of suffering and victimhood. It is also a story of extraordinary acts of moral courage and resilience, as in the stories of Nigerian soldiers who shielded civilians from the massacre, and of women who were left to fend for extended families and rebuild communities ... An important contribution to scholarship on the Nigerian Civil War.

For full review, click here

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