Only West African neighbour Burkina Faso has seen more successful overthrows of government than Nigeria, the world’s biggest Black-populated nation and the continent’s largest economy.
Nigeria has witnessed seven coup d’états since the country gained independence from British colonizers in 1960. The country’s infamous military leader, Sani Abacha, holds the unenviable world record of having played a part in at least six of these overthrows. Abacha himself was in power between 1993 and 1998.
But of the violent threats to Nigeria’s national stability and progress, none has come close to the three-year Nigerian Civil War that began in 1967. The people of the predominantly-Igbo Eastern Region of the country decided to secede from the republic citing discrimination and alienation in the national affairs of the young country.
Led by the Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the people of Biafra declared their home territory independent of the rest of Nigeria in May of 1967. An area that spread some 29,848 square miles, Biafra in the mid-1960s was a land promising what Nigeria would come to be known for – oil. But black liquid gold aside, the infant country struggled to find the balance in the sensitive issues of ethnicity in a republic.
The west of Nigeria is largely Yorubaland. To the north are the Hausa tribes and to the east are the Igbo. What happened prior to the declaration of secession is better understood in the context of the horrors of nation-building vis-à-vis ethnic identitarianism. The Igbo of Biafra believed that General Yakubu Gowon, the Hausa military head of state, was no friend to the Igbo.
The tale of the war itself is known history for many across the world. However, certain incidents that happened, such as what has been called the ‘Asaba Dance of Death’ are relatively overlooked in the greater scheme of things.
On October 5, at the onset of the belligerence between secessionists and unionists, federal soldiers raided homes in Asaba, a town in Biafra, supposedly to combat the enemy. It helps to know that although a great majority of Biafrans could rightly be called secessionists, not all Biafrans were secessionists. Nigerian literary laureate Wole Soyinka in 2019 did speak to the idea that the people of Asaba, who were somewhat culturally-Igbo, were not necessarily secessionists.
The motion of the Nigerian civil war could be phrased as “One Nigeria or not”. When federal troops stormed Asaba, they were expected to separate One Nigeria supporters from others. Opinion and traditional leaders of the town wanted to send a clear message that they were for One Nigeria. On October 7, amid fanfare, Asaba residents took to a procession to make this known to the soldiers and the federal government.
But the soldiers would not have it, in the streets, they separated men and boys from the women. According to many historical accounts, the soldiers shot to death more than 800 men and boys while they danced in the streets. The One Nigeria campaign launched by the people of Asaba ended with blood in the streets. The bodies were interred in mass graves.
For the following few months, federal soldiers continued to occupy the town. They were accused of rape, murder, and pillage. Some locals had to flee the town for their safety. Others went missing and their whereabouts are unknown to date.
In subsequent years, Nigeria struggled to construct the full story of what happened at the Dance of Death. Accounts were difficult to reconcile and certain members of the military rank were shielded by politics. For instance, Major Ibrahim Taiwo who was the second-highest-ranking soldier among the troops that invaded the town would go on to have a long history of public service because there was very little willingness to convict the allegation that he ordered the shots in the streets.
In these times, those who look back ask if the Dance of Death was not merely an anti-Igbo massacre? After all, even some soldiers recollect that the people’s parade had been a One Nigeria procession, and One Nigeria supporters were for that matter, not the enemies.