Asaba massacre of 1967 finds poetic expression in last dance on the Niger

DanceForty-nine years is a long time indeed, but certainly not long enough for literature, with its long memory, to lose track. While some may have forgotten and moved on, there are others who make it their business to always remember past atrocities for the stark, premeditated evil they represented and who make the rest of humanity never to forget or forgive. For the people of Asaba, capital of Delta State, Ogbueshi Emma Okocha, is one cultural historian and conflict resolution scholar who will not forget or forgive the atrocities the Second Division of the Nigerian Army inflicted on his people in October 1967 in the heat of the Nigerian Civil War.

His latest book, Last Dance on the Niger (Gomslam Books, New York; 2015), is a poetic journey back in time in the rendering of that tragic episode, and its devastating impact in the decimation of the cream of his Asaba people – the lawyers, doctors, renowned athletes, professionals and pensioners of all hues. There was no single Asaba family that was not affected in what Okocha calls the ‘first black-on-black genocide’ in his first book Blood on the Niger that painstakingly details the atrocities of the Second Division headed by then Col. Murtala Mohammed, with then Capt. Ibrahim Taiwo leading the charge. The author’s father and brother were shot dead while another of his brother was starved to death inside Biafra. And for the genocidal impact of the killings of unarmed civilians against the tenets of war as specified in the Geneva Convention, Okocha is seeking reparations for his people.

For this poet, 1967 Asaba was biblical Bethlehem where, as the poet writes, ‘A sound is heard in Ramah/Another is heard in Asaba/Rachael is crying for her children/Onishe the goddess of the Niger/Is seething in revulsion over the rape of her virgin daughters/And the massacre of her children/She refuses to be consoled/For they are dead.’

Indeed, children, men and women of all ages from virtually every family in Asaba were assembled and murdered by the rampaging Nigerian soldiers that were in pursuit of fleeing Biafran soldiers. The soldiers ravaged the innocent people of Asaba, Ogwashukwu, Igbodo, Ibusa and all the surrounding Igbo-speaking people of then Midwest State. Some of the soldiers who led the coup of 1966 were from among Midwestern Igbo with its leader, Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu, coming from Okpanam, Asaba neighbour.

Last Dance on the Niger chronicles the macabre dance of death of Asaba people on the orders of soldiers to dance to welcome them for liberating Asaba. They then opened fire and shot them dead in heir thousands. For Okocha and his kith and kin who still remember, the wound inflicted on Asaba is as deep as the River Niger on whose banks the tragic events of October 7, 1967 happened at Ogboesowe Quarter. It is the Asaba Golgotha where a monument is erected in honour of the dead.

And Okocha laments in the first poem in his collection ‘Everlasting Remembrance’ the dastardliness of the massacre after an entire community was made to dance and sing to ‘One Nigeria’ in solidarity after liberating Asaba from Biafra soldiers, ‘…Abolish from memory the October 7 desecration of her manhood/Kill the story of the decimation of our brotherhood… ‘Tell the story of the Asaba massacre/The Isheagu regicide/The Carthage of Ndi Oshimili/The Ogwashi holocaust record/The slaughter of Onuku seven/The Nwabudike fallen thirteen/The barbaric killing of the Asaba holy innocents/October 7, we pray for their restless souls and for their butchers’.

Okocha’s poetry is poignant and sublime lament. Indeed, his first book, a chronicle of the atrocities, flows into this poetic excavation of his beloved Asaba dead. In ‘Black on Black Genocide… as fathers buried their sons,’ Okocha recounts the abomination committed against a traditional African society where sons are expected to burry their fathers and never the other way round. What is worse, men are usually the undertakers, but after the soldiers’ guns had stopped their dialogue of death decimating Asaba male population, women were called upon to be undertakers; it became their grisly lot to burry their men who had been shot dead right before them to complete a circle of communal humiliation and annihilation.

‘When the vandal army struck/Mothers and sisters buried/Their sons in thousands/Mothers and sisters buried/Their fathers, uncles, brothers in thousands/As old grand fathers/Burried their sons in thousands/Teenage sons buried their fathers in thousands’.

It is total annihilation of a community. The poet names the names of those who desecrated his town. So, there was Lt. Usman otherwise called ‘White Man No Mercy’ who ‘executed without calendar/Separated no mother from father/Distinguished no senator from slave’ in his fiery, killing rampage. Then he names the arch leader of Asaba killing fields, whose name he weaves in and out with those of other mindless world’s human butchers in the poem, ‘I’m the butcher of the Niger’: ‘I am the one-man disaster…/I observe no code of conduct/Banza to United Nations Conventions…/I break backbones/Bend people to do my wishes/Outside the law, my accomplishments are in gold…/My name is General Adolf, Idi, Moritala/Mohammed…/The butcher on the Niger’. Here Col. Murtala Mohammed is the prime target as the butcher of Asaba people along with his lieutenants – Taiwo and Usman among others – the three were also cut down violently years later.

Okocha’s lamentation would tend to peak with his poem ‘The Rape of the Naked Mad’ that gives a wide-ranging account of the atrocities – the senseless killings, the raping of women and their virgin daughters with bayonets, broken bottles and nails. ‘Corpses of women raped/Corpses of women who resisted…Who refused surrender/There are lamentations on the landscape of death…/Bodies of naked women, splattered in blood/naked women sparingly covered with banana leaves/Uncovered bodies protruding wine bottles between hairy legs/Uncovered buttocks sticking out bayonets and brittle nails…’

However, away from the crimes against humanity that the Nigerian army commits against his people, Okocha Last Dance on the Niger sings about the once beautiful, colonial town of Asaba that hosted some of the first Europeans explorers and traders, the head-start in education of Asaba citizens and how that idyllic beauty has been destroyed, especially the greenery by land grabbers and developers who have turned the town into a wasteland. He also sings about Onishe, the River Niger goddess and her exploits in capitulating the Nigerian army armada in its attempt to cross the Niger across to Biafra. He incorporates other poets, too, like Dennis Osadebay, former governor of Midwest State.

The poet also writes about the beauty of African religion and how non-coercive it is as against the imported religions complete with their bloodletting.

In Last Dance on the Niger, Okocha comes across as a perceptive poet who remembers the past with telling precision after decades of intense research about what happened to his people. His poetry enables the reader gain a fresh insight into the making of Asaba from prehistoric times till now. It is indeed the journey of humanity with all the pathos it could engender.



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