Friday, May 28, 2021 12:04 am
By Chris Anyokwu
Lately Asaba has dominated public discourse both in traditional media outlets such as the radio, television and print as well as on the seething cauldron known as social media. Prior to last week or thereabouts many people would flunk an oral interview, should the location of Asaba be the question. But not anymore. I presume everybody now knows Asaba or its location. Such is the fate of both humans and conurbations who/which might be hitherto unknown to the world prior to a catalytic or triggering event, good or ill, that would pole-vault them to either instant popularity or notoriety. Who, for instance, knew the sleepy bucolic town of Fiditi, a village tucked away in relative obscurity, until a certain Christopher Okigbo “discovered” it?
But just in case you don’t know who Christopher Okigbo is/was, a quick-fire introit would suffice under the circumstances. Christopher Okigbo is/was an Igbo-born Nigerian poet who wrote the immortal and unbeatable poetry volume entitled Labyrinths. A contemporary of Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo and Chinua Achebe, Okigbo had had a stint as a secondary school teacher in the early 60s at Fiditi. Having risen to global prominence on account of his promise as a burgeoning poet, everywhere Okigbo went benefited from his stardom, Fiditi especially. I wouldn’t be surprised if his statue is standing on a plinth at Fiditi Grammar School. And, I also hope Fiditi is a tourist attraction owing to Okigbo’s stint there. And why not? Don’t we have the bust of Mongo Park around the Oxbow lake in the River Niger, near Jebba on the road to Bida in Niger State? Anyway, it was there the last time I checked. Keeping memorabilia is not one of our strong points as a people.
Pray, what’s on the menu today? Yes, Asaba! A modest, sprawling town by the Niger, a town close to Onitsha, only separated from Onitsha by the River Niger but interlinked with Onitsha by the famous Niger Bridge. As you approach the beautiful town of Asaba from the Benin City end of the metropolis, particularly at night, you would be overawed and riveted by the sheer magnificence, the tropical sensuousness of the postcard-like charm of Asaba. You are immediately seduced by its quasi-Mediterranean ambiance, what with the increasing spread of high-end architectural masterpieces, picturesque landmarks as well as the numerous side-streets and by-roads connecting to the main artery that leads you to the iconic Niger Bridge. To be sure, Asaba in recent memory has been transformed from a dull, somnolent widow of a township to a coruscating jewel of a growing megalopolis, thanks to its changed status as the Capital of the Big Heart, Delta State, Nigeria’s cornucopia. A predominantly Igbo, or, if you prefer, Anioma town, Asaba is a success story in terms of its ethnic ecumenism and socio-cultural interfusion. It is, without doubt, home to multiple ethnicities and nationalities as a result of both its location and status as a state capital. A civil-servant haven, Asaba teems with both Northerners and Southerners who all try to pursue their various trades and businesses in peace.
Little wonder, then, that state governors from Southern Nigeria decided to have the historic parley in Asaba, recently. Members of the commentariat in the Nigerian media have written tomes about/on that path-breaking meeting by the Southern Governors Forum (SGF). Many of the columnists and public analysts have brilliantly dissected the Communiqué of the meeting. We all know that the State Governors decided to, inter alia, ban open grazing of cattle in the entirety of Southern Nigeria; demand that the Federal Government restructure the country; institute true federalism; address the highly contentious issue of nepotism and crude clannishness regarding appointments to top government jobs; build more ports and tackle the monster called insecurity.
Unsurprisingly, some prominent Northerners have carpeted the Governor for their audacity of hope (to quote President Barack Obama), for daring to dream of breaking age-old manacles and confronting the elephant in the room. In fact, commentators claim that the SGF meeting of May 11, 2021 is now referred to as The Asaba Accord. Although Asaba has always existed like Fiditi has; its people going about their business. Indeed, although Asaba remains the Capital of Delta State, thus attracting fame and fortune to itself. But there’s no questioning the fact that The Asaba Accord is the singular most important event in recent memory that has thrust the town onto global reckoning.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, a bit of backgrounding is in order. Etymologically, Asaba is reputed to have derived from the Bini word: aisabaa/we cannot. Once upon a kingdom, the paramount ruler of the Bini, the Oba, ruled and reigned over large swathes of territories stretching from the Igbo country through the Anioma and Ika regions to Benin City and all the way to Benin Republic and its environs. Even the whole of the Urhobo/Isoko/Ndokwa/Itsekiri provinces fell under the Oba’s suzerainty. Such were the exertions of being an emperor that the Oba had to travel the length and breadth of his omnidirectional kingdom in his campaign of imperialist and irredentist expansionism. One fateful day, when the Oba and his troops got to the River Niger, the liquid god was in spate, thus making passage practically impossible. Thus, faced with this natural impediment, the nonplussed king cried out: Aisabaa (“We cannot cross the River”). That’s how the town of Asaba got its name. Well, a caveat again: do not take this tale too seriously because oral history like myths is careless about details, sometimes flying in the face of scientific fact. Asaba, like most Nigerian towns and cities, since its founding had gone about its business, providing shelter to all and sundry until they struck! Yes, you guessed it: the infamous and ignoble Nigeria-Biafra Civil War of 1967 – 70.
I am not going to say much on this except to counsel you, if you so desire, to check out On YouTube some stories about the fate of Asaba during the war. What is, however, in the public domain is that Nigerian soldiers in the late 1960s had invaded and stormed the town of Asaba with genocide on their mind. High on God-knows-what, the soldiers had opened fire on the unarmed, defenceless men and boys of Asaba, murdering them in cold blood. Asaba womenfolk had looked on, stunned beyond speech as their husbands, uncles, sons, fathers and brothers and cousins were slaughtered mindlessly with firearms bought with their own money as tax-payers. That fateful dark day, Nigerians killed fellow Nigerians for the fun of it. Afterall, all’s fair in war and in love.
Go to Asaba, you will see the monuments engraved with the names of the slain indigenes of Asaba. Those monuments are an eternal testament to the apotheosis of impunity, the glorification of injustice. Has the blood of the innocent dead been spilt in vain? Are the voices of the dead not crying from their graves: “Justice! Justice!”? Can the law of Sowing and Reaping ever be contravened? Will chickens not always come home to roost, sooner or later? Can anyone stop the Hand of Time? The present is the undying past re-enacted in many guises and the present is comeuppance for the crimes of history. Time might blunt the edge of guilt; retributive and/or reparative justice may linger in the anteroom of realpolitik but the mill of justice grinds on, inexorably. Look more closely, listen harder, you would hear the stomp of ants ferrying the carcass of unconscionable power to the necropolis. Man proposes, but God disposes. It is the law. Asaba, past and present, soldiers on, regardless.
As the Nigeria skies continue to be overcast second by second with dark and dreary clouds; as political gladiators ready themselves for Destination 2023, marrying and giving in political marriage, the people of Asaba (as well as the rest) wait with bated breath for the cosmic denouement. What will it be in the end – a divorce or a wedding anniversary? Time will tell.
Chris Anyokwu, PhD.
Associate Professor of English
University of Lagos.