As the great Niger River courses through West Africa, Asaba (Ahaba to the locals) lies on one of its last bends before that final stretch toward the delta.
While the people generally trace their origins to the Ezechima clan of the western Igbo, local legend has it that Asaba, specifically, was founded in precolonial times by an offspring of an Igala prince and an Igbo woman from Nteje in present-day Anambra state.
The Nteje woman lived in the court of Ezeanyanwu, a royal from the line of Ezechima who reigned on that western bank of the river, where she met Onojobo, the visiting Igala prince and trader who gave her a son. She later returned to Nteje with the child named, Nnebisi (mother is the foundation), who as a grown-up went to seek his origins and exclaimed “Ahabam!” (I’ve found it), a cry of release, on getting there, and thereby the name, Ahaba.
With its strategic location on the Niger, Asaba became part of the commerce on the great river, with Nupe and Igala traders who sold mostly slaves as European demand intensified from the 17th century, frequently coming by.
When the British moved into the hinterland by the 19th century, the depth of water around Asaba provided convenient anchor points for their vessels. Unsurprisingly, it became the first capital of Britain’s Southern Protectorate in 1884.
The Royal Niger Company, the trading company that moved in tandem with British colonial exploits in Nigeria, set up a base in Asaba in 1886 from which it moved imports and exports upstream and downstream.
A Modern City Emerges
One of the first things the British did on settling down at Asaba was to set up the Cable Point, from which telegraph cables were laid to the Atlantic coast, to facilitate communications with vessels plying the Niger and adjoining rivers.
The place remains one of the landmarks of Asaba till date, and in some ways marked its March toward becoming the modern city it is today. In addition to its strategic location on the Niger River, it became an important stop on the road highway linking eastern Nigeria to the west and parts of the north.
Asaba is the western bridgehead on the famous Niger Bridge linking Onitsha, the famous trading city, at the other end and the rest of southeastern Nigeria. Both cities share similarities in customs and dialect as well as claim to a common Ezechima ancestry. Both cities also saw a lot military action during the 1967-1970 Civil War, with Asaba the location of one of that war’s worst massacres.
For long Asaba appeared content to play second fiddle to its more famed neighbour. In recent years it’s been pulling its own weight and has grown rapidly.
This growth has been driven primarily by its change of status, having become the capital of Delta state in 1991, courtesy of the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida, whose wife Miriam, was an Asaba native.
With its changed status as a capital city, Asaba has benefitted from an overflow of investments from the commercial and industrial centre across the river. As Onitsha over the years evolved into a sprawling, chaotic market city, many of its affluent fled across the Niger to the relative serenity and order that was emerging in Asaba. Today people commute daily from Asaba, in Delta state, to places as far as Nnewi in Anambra state.
To serve this new economy, Delta state built an airport with daily flights to Lagos and Abuja, while a wide range of hotels have emerged to service the large number of visitors and business people that pass through the city daily. In the city centre there’s a large mall featuring iconic names recognizable across Africa such as the Shoprite Supermarket, Domino’s Pizza and Chinese restaurants.
Weather and Topography
Like all of southern Nigeria, Asaba is in the tropics and reflects the key characteristics of generous sunshine, rainfall and humidity. Average monthly temperature ranges from a low of 25 degrees celsius at the peak of the rains to about 30 degrees in March.
The city is built on an elevated area that overlooks the southward flow of the Niger and the city of Onitsha on the eastern bank.
The primary economy of the people consists of fishing, agriculture and trading. There’s a thriving bureaucratic and business community as well in the city since it became a state capital.
Places of interest:
Asaba has greatly benefitted from its proximity from Onitsha by attracting a lot of investments in its property market from businessmen fleeing the chaos that has come to characterize that commercial center, for the relative serenity and order of Asaba.
Asaba has a number of cultural or historical points of interest for visitors and tourists.
The Asaba Mall
It would seem a trip to Asaba nowadays would be incomplete without a trip to the Asaba Mall on Okpanam Road. Opened in December 2016, it has the Shoprite Supermarket, and dozens of shops and restaurants.
The Mungo Park House
Named after the Scottish traveler who died in the 19th century while travelling on the Niger River, it was built in 1886 by the Lander Brothers (John and Richard), who had completed the voyage Park had intended to make, which was to follow the river to where it emptied in the Atlantic Ocean.
This was the first official headquarters of the Royal Niger Company. It has been designated a museum by the authorities and contains various articles and relics related to Nigeria’s colonial history.
The Landers’ Anchor Point
Equally of historical significance if the place where the Lander brothers placed their anchor upon arrival in Asaba. A museum has been established at the location and contains a model of the vessel on which they traveled and documents recording their trip and meetings with the locals.
The British Cemetery
Due to their high mortality in tropical West Africa, a burial place was kind of inevitable wherever the Europeans set up abode in the region. There are 17 graves at the British cemetery in Asaba, the resting place of colonial officers and Christian missionaries that came with them.
The Otuogu Beach
This is an extensive sand bank on the Niger that attracts lots of fun seekers during the drier months from November to March.
St Joseph’s Catholic Church
Asaba was a key launchpad for Catholic missionaries who had followed the colonists up the river. From there they spread into the interior of the Igbo country to evangelize. Therefore, Asaba hosts one of the oldest churches in Nigeria, the St. Joseph’s, which is more than a century old now.
Asaba can be reached by road from Benin City from the west, and from the east, across the Niger Bridge from Onitsha. From the south there’s a road that connects the city to Warri, while a northern route links the highway to Auchi toward central and northern Nigeria. The city is also accessible through its famous waterway from either north or south. The Asaba Airport, which opened in 2012, provides a vital link to the Nigerian capital, Abuja and commercial capital, Lagos.