When the genocide comes, everyone will be a casualty
By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo - published 16 November 2021
On 7 October 1967, Philip Asiodu was a Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Industries, undoubtedly one of the top civil servants in Nigeria’s government. Earlier in February, he had advised the then head of state, General Yakubu Gowon, to discard his agreement in Aburi, Ghana, with General Chukwuemeka Ojukwu, the leader of the breakaway Republic of Biafra.
As a reward for what the government considered a brilliant intervention from the Oxford-trained civil servant, Asiodu was sent to Europe to counter the diplomatic narrative of the Biafrans. The Biafrans were arguing that the Nigerian state had been systematically trying to exterminate them in pogroms that followed the 15 January 1966 military coup, and was committing war crimes in the ongoing armed conflict. “I participated in all of the important delegations to Europe, Britain, Russia, trying to counter the perception that this was a war of Muslim dervishes against Christians, and all is finished in Nigeria,” he recalled years later in an interview.
At the service of the Nigerian government, the Second Division of the Nigerian Army led by Col. Murtala Mohammed and Major Ibrahim Taiwo overran Asaba, Asiodu's hometown at the Mid-West Region's border with the breakaway Eastern Region. The soldiers went house to house killing civilians and raping women. Not done, they rounded up hundreds of males, including boys as young as 12 years old and mowed them down in full view of their families.
Among those killed was Sydney Asiodu, younger brother of Philip, and a former Nigerian athlete who represented the country at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Recalling the incident in a 2017 interview with Dr. S. Elizabeth Bird and Fraser Ottanelli of the University of South Florida, who wrote the book, The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory, and the Nigerian Civil War (Cambridge University Press), Asiodu lamented that he tried unsuccessfully to get his brother out of the war zone, the way he did with his other sibling in the Air Force.
Asiodu tried to get military authorities to find Sydney, to no avail. “I asked the general commanding the division, gave him the name of my brother and all that, thinking that he might be in hiding, they might find him," he told his interviewers. "No. It’s only a few months later, when we were able to go to Asaba, that we discovered his diary. The last entry was 6 October. So, he must have been one of those killed on 7 October.”
At the threshold of genocide
Many political observers believe that Nigeria is staring at the threshold of a major genocide. All the prerequisites are on the ground. There is a pattern of systematic attacks and killings along ethnic and religious lines without accountability. As a result, in the large pool of the deprived youths roaming around Nigeria are seasoned killers who constitute a gang of veterans, disciples of what the German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”. Hundreds of thousands of small arms are in the hands of non-state actors. And no week passes without the Nigeria Customs Service intercepting a huge cache of arms smuggled into Nigeria. Nigeria is one of the most porous countries in the world, and there is no doubt that for every container of arms intercepted, another two dozen go undetected.
To make matters worse, the current administration in Nigeria has further broken whatever remains of the fabric that once held the country together by its deliberate policy of alienation of several segments of the country and indulgence of armed Islamic and Fulani groups and others from the president’s ethnic enclave. Their systematic and well-organized forced displacement and occupation of several indigenous communities in Nigeria is mischaracterized as “clashes”. Acts of terrorism are labelled “banditry”. This deliberate obfuscation has been described by many as an official endorsement of the violence. The scene is set for a major incident to trigger a flash flood of genocide that would shock the world more than what happened in Rwanda from 7 April to 15 July 1994, during which over 800,000 people were killed.
Some believe that genocide is already ongoing in Nigeria. In 2020, the UK Inter-Parliamentary Group published its report on the carnage being wrought in Middle Belt Nigeria by Fulani militias. Aptly entitled ‘Unfolding Genocide’ it details the killings, rape, displacement of indigenous peoples in the area. A year earlier, in 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions had visited Nigeria and concluded that the country had become an ‘injustice-pressure cooker’ with ‘country-wide patterns of violence, many of which are seemingly spinning out of control'. ‘The warning signs are flashing bright red,’ she warned.
The number of people killed in Nigeria since 1999, when the current democratic dispensation started, is hard to add up. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) recently estimated that the Boko Haram insurgency that started in 2009 has killed over 350,000 Nigerians and displaced millions. When lined up, those killed in Nigeria since 1999 would go from Sokoto in the northwest to Port Harcourt in the south-south and back again to Maiduguri, in the northeast.
When the major genocide kicks off in earnest, there would not be time for the likes of Asiodu or anyone else to get brothers and sisters to a safe place. In fact, there would not be any safe place to hide. Everyone who appears different from the perpetrators will be a victim. There would be no time to tell them your brother is a top government official. There would be no time to tell them you are one of us.
On the day of genocide, everyone is a casualty. And as J.P. Clark wrote in his poem, “Casualties”, “The casualties are many, and a good number as well/Outside the scenes of ravage and wreck.”
Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo teaches Post-Colonial African History at the School of Visual Arts in New York City