The government doesn't want you to learn about murder

Cheta Nwanze was discussing a sensitive subject on national radio when the boss was asked to kill the show.

In August 1967, three months into the Nigeria civil war, Biafran troops invaded the Midwest region and seized Benin City before marching further afield into Ore; with the Southwest in their sights and Lagos in the horizon.

It was a dare-devil move that jolted the Nigerian side of the war.

Federal troops came pouring forth in the opposite direction to stop the advance of the Biafran soldiers.

Nigerian soldiers gained the upper hand, gave chase and sent the Biafran troops scampering back into the Niger and dispersing into Onitsha.

Burning bridges

To gain some mileage on the Nigerian soldiers, the Biafrans blew up the eastern section of the Niger bridge. That action stopped the Nigerian troops dead in their tracks and ended the pursuit.

On October 5, still mad about the entire incident, Nigerian soldiers returned to the scene of the pursuit and raided Asaba; which lies across from Onitsha on the other side of the River Niger.

What followed became known as the Asaba massacre.

The Nigerian troops ransacked homes in Asaba and opened fire on residents of the town, for fun. The people of Asaba were accused of supporting Biafra and aiding the cause of the 'enemy'.

To stop the irate soldiers from going on with the killings, leaders and traditional rulers galvanized the people to hit the streets with chants of ‘One Nigeria’ on their lips.

'One Nigeria'

Hundreds of men, women, teenagers and children, emptied into the streets adorned in traditional white (akwa ocha) attire. They sang, danced and screamed “One Nigeria” into the charged atmosphere.

It was akin to waving the white flag of peace.

But the federal troops were not pacified.

At the Ogbe-Osowa village square, men and teenage boys were separated from women, girls and children by soldiers baying for blood.

The commander in charge of the Nigerian troops, Ibrahim B Haruna, thereafter ordered his men to open fire on the men and teenage boys of Asaba who had been gathered in the center of the street.

In unison, machine guns and rifles cackled and popped. As the dust settled on Ogbe-Osowa square, more than 700 young men and adults had been killed. Among the dead were boys as young as 12 years of age.

Asaba lost its men, extended family members and friends in one fell swoop. Those who could retrieve corpses of loved ones from the 'slaughter slab', did so. Most of the corpses ended up being buried in mass graves.

50 years later

It was the horrific events of 1967 that Nwanze was preparing to rehash when the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) literally took the mic off him.

“I was on air discussing the Asaba massacre and a call came from the NBC—‘Shut the show down’. I have been kicked off the air”, Nwanze tweeted moments after he was asked to exit the Nigeria Info FM studio, with Nelly as host of the ‘Midday Dialogue’.

What exactly did Nwanze say to merit his unceremonious exit from the studio of one of Nigeria’s most followed radio stations?

“I said nothing that should have triggered us from being shut down. They just said we were using the word ‘massacre’ on air. That was what they told her boss”, Nwanze told Pulse during an exclusive chat.

How exactly were they told to kill the show?

“While we were talking, her boss came in and wrote a note that she should turn off the show. So after that, he said they had called from NBC in Port Harcourt, Lagos and Abuja and that they were uncomfortable with the fact that we were talking about the Asaba massacre.

“I have discussed massacres on air before. I have discussed Zaki Biam, I have discussed Odi, I have discussed Buni Yadi, I have discussed the Shiites and nothing happened”.

Nwanze also lamented that killing the show had wider implications for free speech and press freedom in Nigeria.

“This is an attempt to stifle free speech not just infringe on press freedom. Press freedom is a subset of free speech”, he said.

Healing the country

Nwanze has been criticized by a section of his social media followers for daring to bring up the massacre at a time when hate speech is being frowned at by the present democratic set-up in Nigeria; following skirmishes and flare-up of ethnic tensions across the country.

He considers his critics totally wrong, however.

“If we ever want to truly heal as a country, we need to be able to discuss painful incidents in our history. The Asaba massacre was 50 years ago on Saturday. The people of Asaba are doing a commemoration of the event. People like and are coming.

“You have a situation where my Uncle who faced the firing squad on that day and who lost his father and some of his brothers on the day is almost 70 now.

“And people tell me bullshit such as ‘this is not the right time to talk about it’. When is the right time? For 50 years, Nigeria has tried to pretend that this event did not happen. For crying out loud, it did happen!

“One of the ironies of the whole thing is that, there are Nigerians who’ll go to …to the genocide memorial in Kigali and will say ‘ehhh…these people know how to remember their dead and all that. And then when we who were victims try to bring these things up, they say ‘it’s too delicate, don’t talk about it. You are trying to incite’.

Killing your own

Nwanze also told Pulse that the real tragedy of the Asaba massacre has to be that Nigeria murdered its own.

“The real tragedy of the Asaba massacre is this: the Asaba people were not in Biafra. Asaba was not a part of Biafra. If Biafra had successfully seceded, Asaba would have been today the equivalent of You understand? It would have still been in Nigeria.

“So, the Nigerian army massacred entire generations of its own citizens. We are not even talking about whether they were an enemy here. They were not. They were citizens of Nigeria. So, Nigeria massacred them simply because of their ethnicity. Now that’s a problem.

“We need to be able to talk about these things so that it won’t happen again.

“In the …I mean, I watched it. My Uncle was one of those who went to make a presentation about the Asaba massacre at the Oputa panel and IB Haruna (the commanding officer in 1967) said: “If I were to do it all over again, I will do it”. That’s a painful lack of remorse. And that’s what we are talking about”.

Holes in different area codes

Pulse did try to reach out to the NBC, but officials of the broadcast regulatory body, weren’t immediately available for comments. E-mails sent and phone calls made, hadn’t been replied before this story was published.

However, an employee of the NBC who craved anonymity for this story, said Nwanze may have violated the NBC code.

Moments later, this anonymous employee sent us a few portions of the relevant sections of the NBC code which he said the radio program may have contravened.

They read as follows:

5.6.1 Stations shall promote dialogue and ventilation on contentious issues, giving every view a fair hearing, to resolve them before they lead to crisis.

5.6.2 Sensationalism shall be prohibited in conveying content related to conflict, disputes and, or, controversial.

5.6.3 News or commentary on conflicts shall contribute to, and emphasizes, peaceful initiatives.

5.6.4 During crisis, presentation of morbid or graphic details of fatalities, injuries or exaggerated census of casualties are prohibited, so as to avoid panic, escalation or reprisals.

5.6.5 Stations shall not broadcast divisive rhetoric that threaten the indivisibility and indissolubility of Nigeria as a sovereign state.

5.4.2 The live coverage of public events, especially of demonstrations and disturbances, shall be fair and balanced and just enough for the enlightenment of the citizenry. It shall not sensationalise or glamourise the event or exploit broadcasting’s unique advantages to the detriment of national interest and security.

A few paragraphs off the NBC code intro, states that;

In other words, the cardinal responsibility of broadcasting to inform, educate and entertain, shall not be at the expense of national interest, unity and cohesion of Nigeria’s diverse social, cultural, economic, political and religious configuration.

No broadcast shall encourage, or incite to crime, lead to disorder, be offensive to public feeling, contain an offensive reference to any person, alive or dead, or generally be disrespectful to human dignity.

Roll call

On Air Personality (OAP), Nelly Kalu, who was host of the show on Nigeria Info FM, declined requests for a comment or two for this story.

Cheta Nwanze may not have been the only one who got kicked out of a studio in recent times.

Twitter user, @Ajebopoet said it also happened to him. “This also happened in my show. I came to the studio one morning only to be told that my show will not hold, and there's a meeting later.

“At the meeting, the manager told us that some government officials came looking for us and told him to tell us to stop doing political poems. They said that we talk about the government too much, and if we don’t stop, they'll shut down the station. That's the type of democracy we have".

A presenter of ‘Business Morning’ on ChannelsTV,Boason Omofaye, was famously yanked off the air, twice in the last couple of years, midway into a critic of government's performance. In his place, a Christian program abruptly announced itself to viewers.

“You folks should have learnt from me. LMAO”, Omofaye tweeted at Nwanze.

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