On the 18th of November 1949 at a British government-owned coal mine at Enugwu, Nigeria, 21 striking miners, and a bystander were shot dead. 51 miners were also injured.
The miners had been sacked following work to rule order and were fighting for back-pay owed to them for a period of casualization known as ‘rostering’, later declared illegal. They occupied the mine to prevent a repeat of the lock-out they had suffered during the 1945 general strike.
Because of fears of revolt owing to the fact that Enugwu was home to the Zikist independence movement, which included Marxists and other freedom fighters; policemen were sent to remove the mine’s explosives, accompanied by Hausa troops drafted in from the North of the country. Their language and even their uniforms were unfamiliar to the Igbo miners.
Local Igbo constables fraternised with the workers, they were sure the government would pay them what they were due; in return the miners assured them they did not want to fight. They would not obstruct the police from removing the explosives, but refused to help because it wasn’t their job. Their work demarcation imposed by the British were strict. These were hewers and tubmen.
During the World War II, Nigerian Coal had been of strategic importance to the British government and continued to be vital in the re-building of infrastructure by the post-war Labour government, who sought to maximise output to pay off its debt to the U.S.
Many of the men had served in the British armed forces, veterans of guerrilla warfare in Southeast Asia. In 1943 with inflation raging, they had been called on to make up the shortfall in the British coalfields, caused by the war. They were acutely aware they had saved Britain’s arse and been led to believe their sacrifices would create a better world, whilst their bosses were planning for a future that didn’t exist.
They used their regular income to develop their communities, establishing the self-help mechanisms once familiar to mining villages in Britain, which were the inspiration for the welfare state, with free hospitals and relief funds for injured workers and their dependants.
The Enugwu Colliers supported maternity clinics, road building, and clean water supplies. Rejecting the British government’s mass literacy programme, designed to prepare their children for a life of menial labor, they created permanent, stone-built primary, and secondary schools. These commitments were undermined by the economic uncertainty of rostering.
The aspirations of these workers collided with Labour’s reconstructive ambitions and its cold war paranoia, plus the racism of the colonial management, desperate to maintain their privileges. Labour wanted to integrate trade unions into the state, using them to contain and defuse class struggle, similar to what they had done at home.
The Colonial Office recruited hundreds of T.U.C. bureaucrats and despatched them around the empire to institute modern industrial relations practices. However, the colonial officers thwarted them. It was the thinking of the officers that African workers were unworthy of political representation.
The Igbo themselves had no use for the concept, their culture of open assemblies and mass meetings lent itself to Syndicalism; judging union leaders simply on their ability to execute the will of the workforce.
Okwudili (Isaiah) Ojiyi the Zikist General Secretary used his thorough understanding of the political context and detailed knowledge of colonial labor law to run rings around the bosses.
Knowing fully well that striking was illegal, Ojiyi imported the Durham miners’ ‘ca canny’ go-slow tactic, translated to ‘welu nwayo’ in Igbo. He spent many days in the mines teaching it.
A T.U.C. advisor named Curry tried to insert a layer of bureaucracy between Ojiyi and the rank and file by splitting the union into five occupational branches, in violation of Igbo organizational principles.
They, therefore, interpreted this as the creation of five autonomous unions, rendering the negotiating structure redundant. The hewers who began a wildcat go-slow were sacked and occupied the mine. They were followed by the tubmen.
Captain F.S. Phillip, a British policeman initiated the violence, terrified of Africans, and afraid of communist subversion, he spoke neither Igbo nor Hausa. By this time the miners were showing their solidarity by tying strips of red cloth to their helmets and clothing to show their solidarity.
To Phillip, these were paramilitary insignia. In line with their custom, the Igbo miners began to dance and chant to keep up their spirits while facing the mass of armed troops.
In a state of panic, Philip shot dead Sunday Anyasado, a young hewer who had recently married and moved to the area. He then killed a machine man, Livinus Okechukwuma. Hearing the noise, Tubman Okafor Ageni, ventured out of the mine asking “Anything wrong?” and was killed on the spot. The firing continued for several minutes, some miners were shot in the back. The dead and wounded miners were all left where they lay on the ground. Blacksmith Emmanuel Okafor told Philip: “I surrender, take me to hospital”. Philip answered: “I don’t care” and walked away.
Those eighty-seven rounds sounded the doom of the British Empire; Labour’s strategies of using intermediaries to buffer class anger, and separating industrial disputes from their political context had blown up in its face. The regional, ethnic sentiments, and even class divisions in Nigerian society were temporarily set aside and replaced by a collective momentum to do away with British rule.
“The revolutionaries and the stooges, radicals and the moderates, the bourgeoisie and the workers, sank their differences, remembered the word Nigeria and rose in revolt against evil and inhumanity.”
From that day till date, the British and the Igbo have been at loggerheads, although it did not start at the coal mines of Enugwu. Many years before that, the Igbo had on various occasions frustrated the British invasion and brutish capture of their lands.
Many accounts of history, such as the Ekumeku resistance of 30 years, the Aro-British war, the Aba women’s riot, and many more, proved to the British that the Igbo were not a people who would bow down easily to European rule.
Just like the coal mines, the British employed their usual terrorism and mass murder of indigenous African people, to get the Igbo surrender to colonial rule. But to this day, the British fear the bravery and intelligence of the Igbo man. And because they knew they could not control the Igbo, they made sure they formed an alliance with the Hausa-Fulani in the North, and this alliance has seen to the murder and massacre of over 5 million Ndi Igbo in last century.
The highlight of this hate and hunger for Igbo blood would be the Biafran war/genocide of 1967-1970, where the British sided with the Northerners and Westerners to kill over 3 million Ndi Igbo.
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