Category Archives: Nigeria

1967: The Asaba Massacre

The Asaba Massacre during Nigeria’s Biafran War culminated on this date in 1967 with a horrific mass execution.

Nigeria had attained independence in 1960 but still carried the legacy of its many decades under British control. Notably, the borders bequeathed to Nigeria amalgamate a coastal, Christian population in the south to an inland, Muslim population in the north — a fissure that continues to shape Nigeria down to the present day.

The ethnicity of interest for this post is the Igbo, one of those southern and Christian populations, and also a people who had been ethnically cleansed from the north in 1966 after an exchange of Christian and Mulim coups brought Nigeria to the brink of disintegration. Their homeland in southeast Nigeria — historically known as Igboland, and called Eastern Region within Nigeria — would become from May 30, 1967 the breakaway state of Biafra.

Biafra’s bid for independence triggered a devastating war with the Nigerian federal government. By the time that it ended in early 1970, perhaps as many as two million Biafrans were dead from mass starvation.

Asaba, where our massacre takes place, is a predominantly Igbo city on the western (non-Biafran) shore of the Niger River, opposite the Biafran eastern shore city Onitsha.

In the war’s opening weeks, Biafran forces actually struck out from their homeland and into Nigeria proper, crossing the Niger River. They would re-cross it in the opposite direction days before this massacre, taking bridges from Asaba to Onitsha and then cutting those bridges to frustrate the federal troops pursuing them.

Federal soldiers reaching Asaba in the first days of October took out that frustration on the city’s Igbo population, whom they robbed and abused as rebel sympathizers. Murders/summary executions for several days together comprise the Asaba Massacre of Massacres … but the single most emblematic and traumatic event took place on Saturday the 7th.

On October 4-6, soldiers occupied the town, and some began killing boys and men, accusing them of being Biafran sympathizers. On October 7, Asaba leaders met, and then summoned everyone to gather, dancing and singing to welcome the troops, and offering a pledge to One Nigeria. People were encouraged to wear akwa ocha, the ceremonial white, embroidered clothing that signifies peace, hoping that this strategy would end the violence. Although there was much trepidation, and some refused to participate, hundreds of men, women, and children assembled for the march, walking to the village square of Ogbeosewa, one of the five quarters of Asaba. Ify Uraih, then 13 years old, describes what happened when he joined the parade with his father and three older brothers, Paul, Emmanuel (Emma), and Gabriel:

There, they separated the men from the women … I looked around and saw machine-guns being mounted all around us … Some people broke loose and tried to run away. My brother was holding me by the hand; he released me and pushed me further into the crowd … They shot my brother in the back, he fell down, and I saw blood coming out of his body. And then the rest of us … just fell down on top of each other. And they continued shooting, and shooting, and shooting … I lost count of time, I don’t know how long it took … After some time there was silence. I stood up … my body was covered in blood, but I knew that I was safe. My father was lying not far away; his eyes were open but he was dead.

Exactly how many died is not clear; between 500 and 800 seems likely, in addition to many who died in the previous days. Most victims were buried in several mass graves, without observing requisite ceremonial practices. Along with his father, Uraih lost Emma and Paul; Gabriel was shot repeatedly, but recovered. The long-term impacts were profound; many extended families lost multiple breadwinners, and the town’s leadership was decimated. ()Source)

1971: Ishola Oyenusi, smiling to his death

On this date in 1971, the Nigerian robber Ishola Oyenusi — “smil[ing] to his death,” in the words of the next day’s paper — was publicly shot with his gang at Lagos Bar Beach.

Dubbed “the most dangerous criminal of this decade” even though the Seventies were barely underway, “Doctor” Oyenusi — as he liked to style himself — sprang out of the wreckage of the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War, a charismatic, cocksure gangster whose lordly disdain for the law cast the terrifying portent of social breakdown.

Beyond Oyenusi loomed a systematic collapse of order that long outlived him. In years to come, other celebrity crime lords would follow; eventually, armed robbery proliferated into a frightfully ubiquitous feature of life in Lagos. Maybe the Doctor smiled at the stake because he foresaw his legacy.

Disturbingly unable to combat the plague systematically, authorities would resort to occasional high-profile executions instead, provided, of course, that the culprit’s misappropriations were of the retail street-crime variety, rather than the fruits of wholesale corruption.

Oyenusi was never in the same universe with such exalted impunity as enjoyed by the masters of the state. He got into the robbery business back in 1959, boosting a car (and murdering its owner into the bargain) to make it rain for his broke girlfriend. While he eventually expanded his operations into a brutal syndicate, he was still just a hoodlum; the infamy that packed the Bar Beach with 30,000 fellow humans who booed and jeered Oyenusi to the stake was merely enough to make him worth the quashing. (He was condemned to death specifically for a raid on the WAHUM factory in March 1971 that also claimed the life of a police constable.)

Six members of Oyenusi’s crime ring went with him to the stake on the same occasion. An eighth man was also shot in the batch for an unrelated armed carjacking.

There is a 1977 film by Nigerian director Eddie Ugbomah based on this flamboyant gangster’s life, The Rise and Fall of Dr. Oyenusi.