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The Asaba Memorial 50th Anniversary

October 11, 2017

From: Liz Bird

Reading 2

Book reading , with Ed Keazor (left)

Oct. 7, 2017, marked the 50th anniversary of the Asaba Massacre, and the people of Asaba came out in force to commemorate this dark chapter in Nigerian history. We were honored to be part of it.

Our latest journey to Nigeria started in Lagos, with a book reading at Quintessence, a wonderful bookstore and art gallery in Ikoyi. Historian and writer Ed Keazor arranged the event, and he was a terrific MC and interlocutor. I had got to know Ed through social media, and was delighted to finally meet him in person. It was a lively evening – we read from the book, and then fielded questions from Ed and around 30 people who attended.


Welcome from Asaba ladies

From there, we went to Asaba, where several days of commemoration were underway. First there was a gathering of people from all five quarters of Asaba, who met to dance and offer traditional burial rites. I was pleased to see so many familiar faces, and to receive welcomes and greetings from old friends like Renny Nwosa, Richie Omo, and Martina Osaji.

Group with Soyinka

At the Palace with Wole Soyinka; the Iyase of Asaba (to Soyinka’s right), and Alban Ofili-Okonkwo, Chair of the Memorial Organizing Committee (to my right).


The next day we made a courtesy visit to the Palace of the Asagba of Asaba, where we were thrilled to meet the great Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, who had come to participate in the weekend’s events. He keynoted the Memorial Colloquium on Friday afternoon, where Fraser and I also spoke.



The next afternoon (Oct. 7) was highlighted by more brief remarks from Soyinka, who reminded us that “there is no statute of limitation on memory.”  The Governor of Delta state, and many more dignitaries spoke on the importance of recognition and acknowledgment of the wrong done to Asaba.

Book presentation2

Book Presentation: Wole Soyinka; Gov.  Ifeanyi Okowa (Delta State); Former Nigerian Vice-President Alex Ekwueme; Former Gov. of Cross River State

We were asked to say a few words about our book, and this was followed by the official presentation of the book to the Asaba community – a great honor! That evening, we thought about the journey we’d been on for more than eight years – we couldn’t remember how often we’ve been to Nigeria, but agreed it must be close to 10 times. It has been quite an adventure, and one we couldn’t have done without the friendship and support of so many people. We’re hoping this trip won’t be our last!

Book Presentation in London, Oct. 12

September 28, 2017

soasFor anyone in the London area, we will be giving a talk and presenting our new book, “The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory and the Nigerian Civil War,” on Thurs., Oct. 12, at 7 p.m. at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. We will have copies of the book available at a significant discount. For information about the event, please see:


Book Reading/Presentation in Lagos: Please Join Us!

September 23, 2017

To anyone in Lagos: We wanted to let you know that we will be doing a book reading and presentation of our book, The Asaba Massacre: Trauma Memory and Nigerian Civil War, on Oct. 4 at Quintessence6 p.m.. Location: Quintessence Bookstore and Gallery, Plot 13, Block 44 Parkview Estate, off Geerard Road, Ikoyi, Lagos.

We will be in conversation with historian Ed Keazor, take questions from the audience and sign copies of the book, which shall be available for sale (at a discounted rate) at the event. Looking forward to seeing everyone!

Upcoming Asaba Memorial Events

September 12, 2017

We are looking forward to returning to Asaba to participate in events commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the massacres. These events are still coming together, but some details are available, such as in this article just published in the Nigerian Guardian:

Asaba indigenes plan 50-year civil war memorial

By Editor   |   11 September 2017   |   4:04 am

The people of Asaba and environs have concluded plans to celebrate a major event in the history of the town, and Nigeria which occurred 50 years ago. They are organized under the Asaba October 7 Memorial Group.

According to the group’s chairman, Mr Alban Ofili-Okonkwo in a statement, October 2017 “marks the 50th anniversary of the killings of unarmed and defenceless indigenes in Asaba, one of the ugliest episodes of the Nigerian civil war, which attracted international condemnation of the Nigerian authorities. The victims were Nigerian citizens who had trooped out to welcome Nigerian soldiers that had reclaimed the vital town of Asaba in Midwestern Nigeria from Biafran troops in October 1967.”

Ofili-Okonkwo added that the programme would span four days with the theme “Remembrance & Forgiveness,” adding that all the activities designed to commemorate this year’s landmark anniversary would revolve around the theme. He stated that the group will embark on sensitisation and citizen engagement programmes in order to achieve healing and closure which will “signal the collective resolve of Asaba indigenes to leave behind the memories of their tragic past and walk resolutely into a more promising future.

Commemorative activities begin October 5 with a one-minute silence for the Asaba martyrs at noon, followed by a media briefing, canon shots heralding traditional burial rites for the dead (known in Asaba culture as egwu ota). Also planned are service of songs and candle light procession to Ogbeosawa grave site for tributes to the dead, interdenominational service, exhibition of artefacts, documentary and presentation of awards to honourees.

A major highlight of the anniversary, he further disclosed, would be the presentation of a book on the carnage entitled “The Asaba Massacre — Trauma, Memories, and the Nigerian Civil War” authored by renowned Anthropologist Prof. S. Elizabeth Bird and co-authored by distinguished historian Prof. Fraser M. Ottanelli both of the University of South Florida.

The book presentation will, however, be preceded by a colloquium on the Asaba Massacre, with the theme: “In Pursuit of Rebirth”. Eminent scholars, statesmen, renowned industrialists and other distinguished citizens of the world are expected to attend the activities marking this year’s anniversary.

The activities will be rounded off on Sunday, October 8 with thanksgiving service in churches all over the world.

Asaba Massacre Book Available, with 20% discount

August 21, 2017

The Asaba Massacre_FlyerFrom Liz Bird:

I’m pleased to let everyone know that our book is now available for sale. And the publisher is offering a 20% discount for ordering online directly from Cambridge University Press, making the paperback $23.99 or £18.39. A pdf of the flyer may be downloaded here:The Asaba Massacre_Flyer

The book may also be ordered from Amazon, but the discount is not applied for that. We welcome comments and if anyone would like to post a review at Amazon, that would be welcome too!

Upcoming book on Asaba Massacre

July 1, 2017

From Liz Bird:

Asaba Massacre book coverAlthough we have not been very active on our blog for a while, that doesn’t mean we haven’t been working! In fact, we’re excited to announce that our book is about to be published. The book, The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory, and the Nigerian Civil War, will be published by Cambridge University Press on Aug. 31, 2017, just a few weeks before the 50th anniversary of the massacre at Oge-Osowa, Asaba.

We’ll be providing more information about events surrounding the anniversary. Meanwhile, the book is available for pre-order at C.U.P’s website, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble online.



Renewing our Ties with Asaba

October 10, 2015

From Liz Bird:

A typical Asaba street

A typical Asaba street

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.

Keke cabs

Keke cabs

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.”

Patrick Okonkwo (between Fraser and Liz) offers hospitality at his home

Patrick Okonkwo (between Fraser and Liz) offers hospitality at his home

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:

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.

Asaba Memorial Day 2015

October 8, 2015

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 fraser2liz asabaclothing, 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.

monumentA 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!


kola nut

Preparing for the kola nut ceremony

Lagos: A City of Contrasts

October 6, 2015
new construction

New construction is everywhere throughout Lagos, including this project in Lekki

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.

Fraser has no luck getting into the museum history gallery

Fraser has no luck getting into the museum history gallery

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.

Rom isichei 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.

Nike and Liz Bird

Nike and Liz Bird

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!

We Return to Nigeria

October 6, 2015

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.

An ingenious art form - a typical Nigerian bus made from scrap metal, on display in a Lagos gallery

An ingenious art form – a typical Nigerian bus made from scrap metal, on display in a Lagos gallery