Once Upon a Sad Story…

Once Upon a Sad Story…

Here is one tale of horror whose echoes will never fade. On October 7, 1967, two days after the Nigerian federal forces succeeded in forcing the separatist Biafran troops back to the side of the River Niger, they murdered several Asaba male indigenes in cold blood after they had gathered in an open square at Ogbe-Osowa village to show support for “One Nigeria.”

Five years after the Asaba community marked the 50th anniversary of the massacres with a two-day commemoration, a group exhibition in its memory opened on Sunday, November 27, at the Red Door Gallery in Victoria Island, Lagos. The exhibition, which ends on Wednesday, December 7, as the first of its kind aims at instituting a memorial park in honour of the victims. Curated by South Africa-born Otsholeng Poo and convened by the Isama Ajie of Asaba, Chief Chuck Nduka-Eze, it offers a rare insight into the tragic event through a selection of the works of over 20 leading contemporary Nigerian artists.

Titled Asaba Memorial, it is produced by A Whitespace Creative Agency and features works, which include “In Memoriam,” a monumental canvas piece with the names of some of the victims by 12-year-old Kanye Tagbo-Okeke, and “Black Peace,” a 2022 work by Victor Ehikhamenor, part of whose series was used on the cover of Elizabeth Bird’s and Fraser Ottanelli’s book titled The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory, and the Nigerian Civil War. There was also a body of work donated by Enotie Ogbebor, whose late father was a senior military officer in the Nigerian army who provided an eye-witness account of the atrocities and renowned fashion designer Ade Bakare’s Ogbueshi – a Guipure cotton lace with red paint and soil that depicts the fate of Chief Mariam Babangida’s father – Late Ogbueshi Leonard Nwanonyei Okogwu, who was to give the welcome address to the soldiers on behalf of the Asaba community on that fateful day. Among the works of the older generation of artists are a 1967 painting about the Civil War by Ben Enwonwu, titled “War Dreams” and “Ayo Players”, a Bruce Onobrakpeya’s 1972 painting. 

The rest of the exhibiting artists are Olumide Onadipe, Kelani Abass, Sadiq Ajibola Williams, Joseph Ogbeinde, Duke Asidere, Kainebi Osahenye, Rom Isichei, Stacey Ravvero, Juliet Ezenwa Maja-Pearce, Adekusibe Odunfa, Ozangeobuoma, Prince Orlu, Adiza Nzekwe, Anthony Nwalupue, Elizabeth Ekpetorson, Tiffany Annabelle-Davies, Ayoola Gbolahan, Phillip Nzekwe, Naomi Oyeniyi, Marcia Martins DaRosa and Lekan Onabanjo. 

The exhibition is a part of a series of commemorative events to help fund the creation of a permanent physical location—a top-notch nature park, monument, and artistic and cultural hub—in honour of everyone who perished or was displaced as a result of the massacre. As a tribute to all the lives lost, the Memorial Park will be built on a foundation of 1,000 trees. 

It will be a legacy project that finally pays tribute to the victims and their families, as well as a location for Asaba indigenes and all Nigerians to reflect on healing. 

Comments by stakeholders on the importance of this initiative include those of the authors of the book on the Asaba Massacre Elizabeth Bird and Fraser Ottanelli and the Head of GCF’s United Nations Independent Integrity Unit Ibrahim Pam. Bird and Ottanelli said: “This new initiative will take the memorial process to a new level, bringing visibility throughout the nation and the continent. This new visibility gives hope that Asaba will finally see an official acknowledgement of responsibility for its suffering. But above it, this spectacular memorial will honour those who died, ensuring they will not be forgotten and leading the way to a better future.” While Pam wrote in a blog post: “The Asaba Massacre Memorial Monument Project as a memorialisation initiative could then become that essential catalyst for the promotion of national reconciliation that is anchored on an honest discussion of historical grievance, that leads to acknowledgement and recompense, and promotes genuine appeasement and national unity. Therein lies the eternal value of this project.”

By dredging up unpleasant memories of these crimes, the exhibition seeks to not only prick the conscience of a Nigerian administration that seems oblivious to its heinous past but also to criticise the world community for its apathy. “As a South African who calls Nigeria home, I understand the importance of this exhibition on a very personal level,” said Poo. “I am inspired by the people of Asaba’s continued survival and resounding call for the Massacre to be given its proper place in the telling of Nigeria’s history. I’m also hopeful that as this project gains supporters from across the continent and the world, we can keep telling the story of Asaba through art and community.”

Meanwhile, there are plans to invite more artists’ contributions and keep expanding the memorial park’s collection as the exhibition travels across locations. 

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