The Asaba Massacre, fifty years on

Cheta Nwanze
Oct 2, 2017 · 4 min read

“As the commanding officer and leader of the troops that massacred 500 men in Asaba, I have no apology for those massacred in Asaba, Owerri and Ameke-Item. I acted as a soldier maintaining the peace and unity of Nigeria,” Maj-Gen Ibrahim Haruna, speaking at the Oputa Panel on 9 October, 2001.

Haruna’s has been, with the exception of Yakubu Gowon who apologised for the massacre, the attitude of Nigeria’s officialdom, to the massacre of hundreds of Nigerian citizens, fifty years ago on Saturday.

The very first person interviewed in this video, is Ifeanyi Uraih. He is by any measure, a successful person today. He is my mother’s brother. Fifty years ago, he faced a firing squad. He lived to tell the tale. His father, my grandfather, did not. Neither did some of his brothers. Another brother of his, my Uncle Medua, also survived. The bullets were taken out of him in 1978. I have told their story before.

There are two other stories I want to tell.

The first, was narrated to me by an elder relative, who would rather not be named. It is a short story. The second, This leans heavily on ‘Blood on the Niger’ by Emma Okocha, and ‘Sydney Asiodu’ by Dele Sobowale.

The death of the baby

“We managed to avoid being rounded up, so we survived the massacre. So we ran. A group of us, trying to make our way to Biafra. Around Onwe, I saw a Nigerian soldier, very well kitted. That was when I knew that Biafra had lost the war. He saw us, eight of us, and I was afraid. I thought we were dead.

“Instead, the man looked at us, then nodded in the direction of the river and shook his head. We look at where he had nodded, and saw some of his fellow soldiers, so we went into the bushes in the opposite direction.

“One of our company, a woman, had a baby. The baby began to cry, and one of our elders told the woman, ‘Nwa a ga laputa anyi.’ She understood the message, and crying, she smothered her baby.

“I still remember her face as she did what she did. That woman was never the same again.”

Syndey Beliosa Asiodu

On October 14, 1967, the National Radio Broadcasting Station, broke off scheduled transmission to make a special announcement. The announcement, paid for by Phillip Asiodu, a federal permanent secretary, was a tribute to one of Nigeria’s finest athletes.

“The Igbobi Horse”, 1963 Sportsman of the Year, Governor General’s Special Scholar- University of Nigeria’s relay anchor leg, Graduate of Zoology, Sports Master, Hussey College, Warri — is dead!”

Sydney Asiodu entered Igbobi College, Yaba, in 1957. Up until 1959, Sydney did not show any extraordinary ability as a sportsman. He was reasonably good in athletics, football, cricket and table tennis, representing Townsend House in all of them, but not the school.

All that changed in the middle of the first term. Following a bet with Victor Omotayo Aiyela, who was, until that time the first leg of the Igbobi College 4x400 yards relay team.

Aiyela had told SBA that he would give him a 10 yard handicap in a 100 yard dash, and still beat him. Sydney accepted the challenge on one condition, no handicap.

The rest is now history. They raced five times, Sydney won four times and the fifth was a tie.

Igbobi College had acquired a new first leg. Sydney went on to beat all the leading sprinters of that era and became the school’s 100 and 200 yards sprinter, long jumper and hurdler.

By the time he left Igbobi College in 1963, he was the Senior Prefect and the Football and Athletic Captain.

His academic and sporting prowess won him the Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe scholarship, and admission to read Zoology at the University of Nigeria.

As a university student, Sydney was in Nigeria’s contingent to the Tokyo Olympics of 1964 and the Commonwealth Games of 1966 in Jamaica.

Following the coups of 1966, and the rising tension in the country, Sydney converted his Hall’s porter’s lodge in Nsukka into a debating platform. He preached the message of one indivisible federal Nigeria. His stance cost him a lot of his popularity as many fellow Igbos, who had lost family in the 1966 pogroms, began to scorn him. The fact that he was from Asaba, just across the Niger, did not help. Many blamed Nzeogwu, who came from Sydney’s part of Igboland, for bringing down the pogroms on them.

He graduated in 1966 from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, with honours in Zoology.

After graduation, Sydney accepted the position of gamesmaster at Hussey College, Warri, and moved there. However, his family believed that he would be best served by moving out of Nigeria.

On August 9, 1967, Sydney was in Asaba, and preparing to depart Nigeria when the Biafran invasion of the Midwest cut him off.

He spent the next two months marooned in Asaba. As it became obvious from stories told by retreating Biafran troops that the invasion of the Midwest had failed, many of his kinsmen crossed the River Niger and made their way to Biafra. Sydney Asiodu, the fastest man in town chose to stay because of his belief in one Nigeria. On October 7, 1967, Sydney Asiodu was one of over 800 Asaba men and boys who were rounded up by Nigerian soldiers. A message sent by his elder brother, a cabinet minister, to Major Ibrahim Taiwo, who was second in command to Colonel Murtala Mohammed in Asaba, was not acted upon.

Despite showing the soldiers his collection of medals and prizes which had brought so much glory to Nigeria, the Igbobi Horse was shot, and his body was thrown into the River Niger.