What Happened at Asaba?
The war began in July, 1967, with Federal troops moving into Biafra from the north. In August, Biafran troops counter-attacked, surging through the Midwest, after crossing the recently-built Niger bridge. They passed through Asaba, and pushed westwards through Benin City, almost within striking distance of Lagos.
Asaba, on the west bank of the river across from the important Biafran market town of Onitsha, was ethnically and linguistically Igbo, but not part of Biafra. A quiet town, it was known for high levels of education and professional achievement.
Nigerian Federal troops, under the command of Col. Murtala Muhammed, fought back, eventually pushing the Biafran forces back through the Midwest, through Asaba, and across the Niger. To stop the Federal advance across the river, the Biafrans blew up the Onitsha end of the bridge.
Map showing the Biafran advance across the Niger and through the Midwest.
Map of Asaba in 1967, showing the five quarters and some key sites of the killings.
On about Oct. 5, Federal troops entered Asaba, where for two days they terrorized civilians, rounding up groups of men and boys, accusing them of being Biafran soldiers or sympathizers, and shooting them. Groups of people were killed at the police station and a football field. On Saturday, October 7, many hundreds of townspeople gathered, trusting that a public show of support for the Nigerian government would calm the situation. People came out from the five quarters of Asaba, wearing ceremonial akwa-ocha (white) attire. They paraded down Nnebisi Road, singing, dancing, and chanting "One Nigeria."
Where the road turned into Ogbe-Osawa village, troops separated women and young children and took them to the nearby Maternity Hospital. Soldiers gathered men and older boys in an open square at Ogbe-Osawa, and turned machine guns on them. Approximately 700 people died. With most families unable to retrieve the bodies, the dead were buried in mass graves at the site. Lists exist of many who died, but many more were never recorded. There were no individual burials (as custom requires), no death certificates were issued, and there was no official accounting. In addition to those killed at Ogbe-Osawa, hundreds died at other locations, bringing the death toll to well over 1,000.
For decades, there was little trace of the massacres in either press or historical accounts. Two weeks after the massacres, Bill Norris, a Times (London) journalist, had passed through the Cable Point area of Asaba, reporting with the Federal troops. Interviewed in 2011, he said he was unaware that a systematic mass killing had happened, but witnessed devastation caused by federal bombardment, burning and looting, and assumed many civilians had died. In an Oct. 19 story, he wrote of the "pitiful debris of abandoned bicycles and personal belongings along the road to the bridge," as citizens fled the town," and took the photo below of "a rubbish dump of looted goods where women search apathetically for their lost goods." (Times, Oct. 19, 1967, p. 7).
Two images from reporter Bill Norris, October 1967, Cable Point, Asaba
After the Ogbe-Osawa massacre, Asaba lived under military occupation. Muhammed repeatedly sent his men across the river in boats, attempting to take Onitsha, losing large numbers of troops to Biafran bombardment. The stalemate was broken when his troops crossed the Niger further north, finally capturing Onitsha in December 1967. Thousands of troops remained in Asaba, and people continued to suffer killing, looting, and rape, with movement severely limited. Some families lost multiple men, leaving women to fend for their families, while many men who had survived the killings had fled into surrounding areas, or across the river to Biafra.
In April 1968, after a Biafran incursion, troops again rounded up civilians in what became known as the Second Operation, in which many more died or were forced into refugee camps after their homes were looted and burned, sometimes for the second time. St. Patrick's College, an elite boys secondary school in Asaba, run by missionaries, became a camp, with many of its buildings ending up as ruins.
While there are many harrowing stories of brutality by out-of-control troops, we also heard about soldiers and officers who refused to take part in the violence, protecting civilians and keeping them from harm.
Life under Occupation
Families queue for food outside Catholic Mission, Asaba, 1968.
Refugee camp at St. Patrick's College, Asaba. Relief agencies provided minimal shelter and rations.
Asaba, almost deserted under occupation, showing St. Joseph's Catholic Church on Nnebisi Road, and Niger river visible in the background.
Photos courtesy of American Friends Service Committee Archives.