From Liz Bird:
From the beginning, a key dimension of our research has been maintaining an active relationship with the community of Asaba, and this visit was no exception. While we have certainly spent a lot of time collecting information and interviewing, we have also been able to spend time talking informally and exploring Asaba a little.
We took our first ride in an Asaba keke: the small, three-wheeled cabs powered by motor cycle engines that are everywhere. They have mostly replaced the motor cyles (okada) that used to pick up passengers and crowd the roads – they were banned not so long ago. Although dodging the kekes can still be a little hair-raising, the streets are definitely safer now.
Our visit coincided with the Ineh Festival, the tradition end of the agricultural year – more on that later. For a few days it has been good to have chance to walk around, recognizing familiar faces, and always being greeting with smiles, waves, and calls of “you are welcome.”
For instance, during one of our strolls, we happened to go past the home of Mr. Patrick Okonkwo, who we interviewed about his experiences early in our research. He lost many family members in the massacre, and clips from his interview are included in the video we made (see: https://vimeo.com/71894404)
We have seen Patrick several times since, and this time he invited to sit down, meet neighbors, and have cold drink with him. It’s clear that our work is valued by many here, which adds a particularly rewarding dimension to the whole project.
From Fraser Ottanelli:
Asaba-born Joseph Achuzia is probably one of the best known, if often controversial, field commanders of the Biafran army during the Nigerian Civil War. Several successes against the larger and better armed Federal army earned him the nickname of “Hannibal,” a moniker he still carries today. While much has been written about Achuzia’s overall exploits, our interview was designed specifically to find out more about the military engagements he was involved in following the retreat of the Biafrans back to Asaba and across the Niger bridge. The Asaba massacre followed that retreat, when the Federal soldiers found that the Biafrans had blown up the bridge behind them. We met with him for almost two hours at his house, during which time he shared his perspective on that period of the war, adding an interesting dimension to the research for our book.
From Liz Bird:
October 7, as the date of the single largest killing of Asaba civilians in 1967, is commemorated each year with prayers, singing, and speeches. This year’s event took place at the site of the new monument at Ogbe-Osawa, on which were recently inscribed the names of hundreds who died there. Many other names are yet to be added, but there is space.
As guests, we were given ceremonial clothing, which is worn for special occasions. For me, this was a close-fitting top over a long, richly patterned and fringed white skirt, while for Fraser it was a long white shirt over a loose-fitting, skirt-like garment. Both of us wore akwa ocha (embroidered white cloth) shawls, his worn around the shoulders, and mine around the waist, in accordance with local gender customs. The people of Asaba wore similar garments when they gathered 48 years ago to formally express support for a united Nigeria, before the troops opened fire and killed so many.
The event featured an energetic sermon by Father Patrick Isichei, who lost many family members in the massacre. He preached on the need to remember, but also to forgive, saying that those who hold vengeance in their hearts are no better than the soldiers who killed their brothers and fathers.
A choir from a local Anglican church sang hymns, some of which had the people dancing and clapping. Individuals rose to speak and sing, emphasizing that those who died must not be forgotten. Many spoke of the need to plan for a major event in 2017, the 50th anniversary – we certainly hope to be there, ideally with our finished book in hand!
From Liz Bird:
Before heading back to Asaba for the first time in a year, we spent a few days in Lagos, connecting with some of our Nigerian friends and making other connections that we hope will build future initiatives.
We also found time for a little exploring, realizing once again what a vibrant, fascinating, and infuriating city Lagos is for visitors. There are striking contrasts – luxurious new buildings sprouting everywhere, coupled with sights of desperate poverty. Near the comfortable guest house where we have stayed several times, there’s a street pitted with flooded potholes that remain unrepaired year after year – right in the middle of ambitious new construction projects.
And in the space of a day we were reminded about the contrasts in the nation’s nurturing of culture and history. On the one hand, there is the sadly neglected National Museum. It houses some breath-taking artifacts – exquisite bronzes from Benin, intricate carvings, and beautiful textiles, beadwork, and ceremonial objects, representing many of the hundreds of unique cultures that came together as Nigeria. And yet the displays are tired and old – labels askew or fallen off altogether, inadequate lighting, and damaging humidity levels. Staff seem bored and uninterested, appearing to care more about ensuring visitors don’t take pictures than about the heritage with which they’re entrusted. Historical photo displays are so faded they are almost indecipherable. A staff member referred us to a special gallery on 20th century political history, reached from the outside. It was padlocked shut when we arrived.
Yet by contrast, another gallery in the museum is currently hosting an exhibition of new work by Rom Isichei, an innovative artist who has made a name for himself across the country. We admired his multi-media collages, blending traditional techniques with the use of found objects like plastic spoons, tin cans, and other recyclables. His work addresses the impact of technology like cell phones on family and community life, and offers commentary on the tyranny of fashion and image. Isichei, who happens to hail from Asaba, is just one of many artists who have created an international boom in Nigerian art, producing some of the most exciting work in the world.
We learned a little more about that with a visit to Nike Gallery, the largest gallery in West Africa, which houses more than 7,000 pieces, from traditional crafts to contemporary canvases and collages. It’s run by artist Nike Davies-Okundaye, known widely for her work with Nigerian traditional textiles, which she learned from her great-grandmother. Adire is an indigo dyed cloth, traditionally produced by Yoruba women; Nike is noted for her contemporary revival and reinterpretation of a once fading art. Today, she not only exhibits and speaks about her work around the world, but also trains disadvantaged women in creative arts as a way to lift them from poverty. She has been honored by the Italian government for her work with Nigerian sex workers in Italy, and when we met her, she was about to begin a program with widows and young women in Lagos.
She was an inspiration, and by a nice twist of fate, it turned out that she had visited USF in 2007 as a guest artist – she welcomed us like old friends, and reminisced about some of our mutual USF acquaintances. A memorable day!
From Fraser Ottanelli:
We are finally back in Nigeria, for the first time since spring 2014. At that time, we did a series of focus groups with young women and men to record their opinions on the long-term economic, social and cultural impact of the Asaba massacre on those born after the end of the Civil War – work that adds a valuable new perspective to the ongoing project.
Since our research relies so heavily on community collaboration and the continued accumulation of testimonies, we had made plans to come back a year ago, in early October 2014. However, the outbreak of the Ebola virus epidemic that spread through West Africa forced us to reconsider. The countries most affected were Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone; even though Nigeria suffered a relatively small outbreak, the country’s medical authorities dealt with it aggressively and efficiently so that by the end of 2014, the World Health Organization declared the country Ebola-free. By then, unfortunately, we had already canceled our trip back to Asaba.
Instead, we made two research trips to archives in the UK. During the first, in early October 2014, we attended a commemoration of the massacre organized by the Asaba community in the UK, and then began to mine the rich collection of sources on the Nigerian Civil War at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. During the second, this year, we spent a few more days at Bodleian before moving to the holdings of the African collection at the School for African and Oriental Studies in London as well as British records at the National Archives in Kew. All the UK archives expanded our understanding of the significance of the Asaba massacre in the broader context of the Civil War. Notably, recently declassified records from the Harold Wilson government helped us better understand not only the complex relationship between British authorities and the Nigerian Federal government but also how the former contributed in shaping the conduct of military operations during the conflict.
Now we are back in the field. Bolstered by fresh new knowledge along with major funding from the American Council of Learned Societies and a book contract from Cambridge University Press, we are ready to fill some gaps in the research, and move our book project ahead.
We are pleased to announce the publication of our latest article on the Asaba Massacre. This new piece is part of a special issue of the Journal of Genocide Research, devoted to the Nigerian Civil War, and is one of 12 excellent articles discussing different aspects of the War. Ours focuses especially on the short and long-term impacts of the war on Asaba, as well as the pivotal role of the massacres in the subsequent progress of the War. It builds on our interviews and archival work in relief agencies records.
The article has been uploaded to our website: http://www.asabamemorial.org. We invite you to read the article, and we welcome your comments.
We are pleased to announce that we have just posted a short (21 minute) video about the Asaba Massacres, which we created from our interviews with survivors and witnesses, also using available historic photos and documents. It can be viewed by visiting the project website, www.asabamemorial.org. and clicking on the announcement on the top page. Comments welcome!