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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.

Helping Asabans build memory

October 9, 2012

From Liz Bird:

Monday was our last day in Asaba before leaving for Benin City, where we will spend the night, and then on for a series of meetings in Lagos.

We hand over the small set of exhibit panels to Chief Dr. John Iloba, JP, the Olikeze of Asaba

We started the day with a formal visit to the Palace of the Asagba (traditional ruler) of Asaba, Dr. Joseph Chike Edozien. The Asagba had approved our exhibit panels in May, and had requested that we make two sets – a small one for display in his palace library, and the large one for public viewing. Both sets of panels were to be delivered to him for installation. Unfortunately, His Royal Majesty was unavoidably out of the country, so was unable to attend the Oct. 7 event, or receive us personally. However, he had left instructions with his chief of protocol and other community leaders, many of whom we have met before, and we were given a warm welcome.

After the traditional kola nut ceremony, we formally handed over the exhibits and stands, and we left with a promise to send us news when they are installed.

Our next stop was the Mungo Park House Museum. This impressive 1880s building once housed the headquarters of the Royal Niger Company, which represented British colonial rule in the territory. It carries the name of an early Scottish explorer of the Niger, although Mungo Park was never actually in Asaba. It is now the official museum of Delta State, owned by the National Commission on Museums and Monuments.

During our last visit, we had learned that staff at the museum are trying to provide training for local youth in computer skills, but they have no resources to do so effectively. With help from USF IT Director Michael Pearce and his staff, we were able to secure some older USF laptops, and were happy to donate them to help the computer program get started. The museum staff were delighted!

The structure, unfortunately, is in an alarming state of dilapidation, and the curator is struggling to get by. Resources are desperately needed not only to repair the building, but also to provide some kind of infrastructure to allow it to offer programs, create educational programming, and become the community resource the town needs. The curator told us that although important artifacts and materials are stored, there simply is no money to create exhibits. While the building itself is of great historical significance, Nigeria has not been able to make cultural heritage preservation a high priority.

The Mungo Park House

We’re convinced that a true museum of Asaba history and culture is needed, and could be an economic asset to the people. And perhaps there would be no better place to showcase Nigerian culture than a building that stands as a monument to the colonialism that worked to stifle that culture. But at this point, the prospects for the future don’t look good.

We join the staff and friends at at Mungo Park, after donating the laptops

October 7, 2012 — 45 Years After the Massacre

October 7, 2012

Asabans gather to look at the exhibit: “Most Vulnerable Nigerians: The Legacy of the Asaba Massacres.”

From Liz Bird:

The purpose of this month’s trip back to Asaba (it’s sometimes hard to believe this is our fifth visit!) was to participate in the third October 7 commemoration, which marks the worst day of killing in the 1967 massacres. This time, we were bringing the final version of the memorial exhibit, on which we’ve been working since our trip earlier this year.

Our exhibit takes the form of 11 large (79 inches x 32 inches) panels, which tell the story of the rampage that left so many dead 45 years ago. Printed on heavy duty vinyl, they were mounted on portable metal stands, which we had carried with us from Tampa. Eventually they will be displayed in a permanent site in Asaba – for this special event, we erected them at the back of a community hall, where about 200 people came in procession after a memorial service at the largest mass grave site, Ogbe-Osawa.

The events at the hall included speeches, led by our friend Chief Louis Odogwu, head of the Asaba Development Union, and the showing of a short video we compiled from our interviews and research. There were a few scares as everyone struggled with the a/v equipment, but all worked out, and after the video we were asked to say a few words about our three years of research.

As we heard the appreciative comments from so many people, we were sure the work – not to mention the struggle to carry all the panels, stands, and other materials! — had all been worthwhile.  We reconnected with many people we’d met before, and we were especially happy to see a significant number of younger people in attendance, and avidly reading the panels.  

It has been a long day, but this evening we’ll be able to relax, think about today’s commemoration, and maybe plan the next phase of our work.