November 18th, 1949 will forever remain a dark day in history for the people of Enugu. A day when 21 coal miners were killed and 51 injured by the police under the brutish British colonial masters. What was their crime? They had dared protest against the colonial authorities. This was wrongly interpreted as a political strike to force them to quit Nigeria and allow them to join other independent nations of the free world.
It has been nearly 70 years but the people of Enugu have not forgotten those who sacrificed their lives for the sake of better treatment in the face of cruelty. Their sacrifice would be one of many that paved the way for a nationalist or ‘Zikist’ (named after Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe) movement towards an independent Nigeria.
Since our Independence, the government has failed to mark this day, not even with a word of appreciation for the struggles of many ordinary men who gave up their lives to give Nigerians a chance at independence. It is important for every Nigerian youth to know and appreciate that contrary to popular myth, Nigeria did not get her independence on a platter of gold. It cost a lot of blood and tears.
Richard L Sklar, a political scientist, wrote on the significance of their sacrifice, “Historians may conclude that the slaying of the coal miners by police at Enugu first proved the subjective reality of a Nigerian nation. No previous event ever evoked a manifestation of national consciousness comparable to the indignation generated by this tragedy.”
The Iva valley coal mine, which took its name from the Iva valley in which it is stationed, is situated near Enugu metropolis of Enugu state, South-Eastern Nigeria, which was opened in 1917 to replace the Udi coal mine which had been shut down. Created at the height of industrialization in eastern Nigeria, the demand for coal was high due to the Nigerian railway corporation being the highest consumer of coal in the country at that time.
There were cases of racism and physical abuse meted out to Nigerians by the British managers. An example of such was when Mister T. Yates, a British national on September 2, 1945 assaulted a worker, Mr Okwudili Ojiyi. The victim took courage and brought up an assault case and Mr T. Yates was prosecuted and penalized.
Everything boiled over when on November 1st, 1949, the management rejected the demands for the payment of rostering, the upgrading of the mine hewers to artisans and the payment of housing and travelling allowances. Having no other alternative, the workers began their strike.
For every action there is an equal reaction. The reaction of the British managers was to sack the coal miners, over fifty of them. They feared that the strike was part of the ever growing agitation for independence, so on November 18th 1949, they decided to remove the explosives that were within the mines.
The explosives of the sister mine Obwetti were easily removed but those of Iva valley were not because the workers refused to assist the management to do so.
The Fitzgerald Commission, a directive that the colonialists were forced to set up to investigate the massacre, found that the motive behind why the miners objected to the removal of the explosives was because they were afraid that once the explosives were removed, nothing stood in the way of the management closing the mine and putting them out of much needed work.
The senior superintendent of police at that time, Mr F.S Philip came to the mine, together with two other officers and seventy-five armed policemen to remove the explosives, but a struggle ensued between three of the policemen and the workers. At this point Philip, without second thoughts and hesitation, ordered his men to open fire on the defenceless coal miners.
This tragedy sparked a butterfly effect in places like Onitsha, Aba, and Port Harcourt resulting in mass protests and eighteen prominent Nigerians created the national emergency committee (NEC) to coordinate a national response to this atrocity against humankind. It was presided over by Dr Akinola Maja with Mbonu Ojike as the secretary.
The colonial government of course lied that the coal miners had been armed, had tried to disarm and also attempted to seize the explosives for themselves. The commission of course saw through this falsehood. The Commission partly blamed the union and said that Superintendent F.S Philip committed a grave error of judgement, stated that;
“Not one policeman was injured, not one missile was thrown at them (and that) if the crowd was bent on using force against the police nothing could have saved these policemen from grave injury, whereas in fact they were not injured at all”
Such was the colonial masters’ bloody legacy and the people’s struggle for freedom.
Today at New Market round-about, an everlasting monument can still be seen, as a mark of respect for the brave men who were brave enough to stand against British tyranny and to show that their spirits live on in the hearts of all of us.
We will never forget.