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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

Our newest article on Asaba

September 9, 2014

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: We invite you to read the article, and we welcome your comments.

Our new video on Asaba Massacres

August 7, 2013

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, and clicking on the announcement on the top page. Comments welcome!

Maintaining tradition in Benin City

October 11, 2012

From Fraser Ottanelli:


Seventy miles west of Asaba, on the road to Lagos, lies Benin City. It is a bustling city of over one million, the capital of Edo State. Unfortunately, in the midst of chaotic trafic and sprawling urbanization, very little remains of what once was, along with Timbuktu, one of the great West African kingdoms.

The origins of the city date back at least to the 11th century, the thriving city-state had expanded into an empire within four centuries. Benin City flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries, built on a slave trade and the sale of tropical products to the Portuguese and the Dutch. European travelers described it as a well-planned city with magnificent buildings and an outer permiter and internal quarters delineated by massive wall structures. Estimates place the total length of the wall to over 3,000 miles (longer than the Great Wall of China.) In addition to its impressive constructions,  Benin was also known for its “bronzes.” These statues portrayed animals (such as leopards and crocodiles), human heads, especially those of the Oba (king) and his family, and smaller statues of his entourage. Initially made of carved ivory and iron, following  contact with Portuguese merchants local craftsmen shifted to alloys of brass and other metals.

In early 1897 a large British expeditionary force forcibly occupied and then razed Benin City to the ground. The Oba was forcibly exiled, and almost all the “Benin Bronzes” were taken by colonial authorities and  shipped out of the country; most are on display in museums  in Britain and elsewhere. The tragic consequence of this action is that only a handful of these beautiful artifacts are preserved in Benin.

Craftsmen in Benin demontrate the traditional method of firing bronzes, using home-made bellows.

In spite of these events, the skills required for casting were never lost, but were passed on from generation to generation. Today a vibrant community of craftsmen, using traditional techniques, continues to produce marvelous objects which stand as testimony to this ancient culture. And the Oba has returned to power, and still exerts considerable influence on regional affairs.

Our hosts in Benin City, Dr. Louis Odogwu and his Italian-born wife Marcella, took us on a tour of of one of the old workshops. There we were shown the elaborate process through which this old art is kept alive.

Religious imagery in everyday life

October 10, 2012

From Liz Bird:

One of the most visible aspects of Nigeria is the pervasiveness of religious imagery throughout every facet of life. Churches, whether massive evangelical structures or tiny, decrepit store fronts, are everywhere, and every event includes prayers and invocations to Jesus. Walls are plastered with poster invitations to revival events and prayer meetings. But perhaps even more striking is the appeal to God or Jesus in the most mundane, everyday aspects of life. Business names reflect this: “the most blessed laundry,” “God’s own car repair,” or ”Bless the Lord barbing.”

Some of the most colorful representations are found on vehicles, especially the cargo trucks (or “lorries,” using British parlance) whose owners paint biblical scenes and slogans on the rear of the vehicles. As we’ve driven back and forth to Benin, we have enjoyed spotting and photographing these expressions of everyday faith. These collages reflect some examples we managed to capture.