Igbo names and spellings for various settlements
Abakaliki is Abankaleke; Afikpo is Ehugbo; Awgu is Ogu; Awka is Oka; Bonny is Ubani; Enugu is Enugwu; Ibusa is Igbuzö; Igrita is Igwuruta; Oguta is Ugwuta; Onitsha is Onicha; Owerri is Owere; Oyigbo is Obigbo... any more will be added.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Iva Valley Massacre, 1949

Image: French post stamp of the coal mines at Enugu. c. 1960s.

On 18 November, 1949, 21 miners were shot to death in the Iva Valley coal mine during protests over the dismissal of demands made by colliery workers. The mines in Enugu, opened in 1914 in Ngwo, an Agbaja village group, were the only coal sources in the west African region and were exploited by the British colonial regime to fuel the railways of West Africa. The 1949 protests were set within a history of similar protests preceded by workers actions against mistreatment by warrant chiefs (in the form of “boss boys”) introduced by the British and for the increase of wages. As war loomed in 1930s Europe, since Enugu mines were an important source of coal, these workers actions eventually led to the Colonial Office establishing a minimum wage for workers and creating the posts of Labour Master, in charge of organisation, and a Staff Welfare Officer who managed and settled disputes. The 1940s was a time in which Britain was particularly dependent on its colonies during World War II, consequently Empire took stringent measures to suppress strikes and protests; Britain introduced trade unions to quell worker uprisings while severely hampering their autonomy, including persecuting its leaders. In 1941, the Nigerian Defence Regulations banned strikes in industries that were broadly described as “essential services”. The Colliery Surface Improvement Union (CSIU) and the underground Colliery Worker’s Union (CWU) were founded by the “boss boys”, clerks and Igbo-English interpreters who were the main individuals involved in the struggle for representation and management in the colliery’s.

By 1945, Enugu coal was the main energy source in West Africa. Things took a turn in 1944 when Okwudili Isaiah Ojiyi, a “foreign” management trainee and former school teacher who was neither from the local Agbaja nor Nkanu groups, campaigned for better working conditions for miners in the valley as the General Secretary of the CWU; his memorandum included demands for a seven-hour working day and workmen’s compensation and underground allowance, his demands reflected on the industrial health standards in the national labour codes. The rejection of these demands by the mine's manager, the Welsh engineer Roy Bracegirdle, moved the colliery into a state of conflict, later involving trade disputes.

Image: Workers at Ekulu coal mine in 1959, near Enugu, Nigeria. Eliot Elisofon. Smithsonian.

In the backdrop of this conflict was the rise of nationalism and the decolonisation movement which the incumbent British Labour Party, in charge of reconstructing a war-ravaged Britain, tried to shield trade unions from through state repression and aggression. By 1945, the colliery’s output had dropped from 151,000 tons to 16,500 tons when workers rejected a new pay system that would have workers paid in groups. Continuing his petitioning, Ojiyi as union leader and the worker's demands were recognised by the Harragin Commission in April 1946, and the Miller Commission in 1947, commissions deliberating on the condition of workers, with the Miller Award, a wage increase, being granted. This award, however, and the wage increases were ignored by the colliery manager leading to the CWU beginning a “go slow”, an industrial action Ojiyi followed and took to the nationalist press. The Chief Commissioner intervened and back wages were awarded. The British trade unionist, Robert Curry, reorganised the CWU by decentralising it in order to isolate Ojiyi. Ojiyi’s relationship with the managerial sector had caused his credibility to be questioned by the colliery workers. New demands were made by Ojiyi which helped to restore his credibility. In June, 1949, with a confrontational edge, a “go slow” was instated.

On 14 November, a sit-in was staged by the colliery hewers over concerns that they were being replaced. The government aggressively sent Northern Nigerian police to the mines on 16 November to remove mine explosives after the decision that the miner's access to the explosives constituted a threat. A mediation attempt failed. On 18 November, in vague, incomplete reports, mostly held unpublished by the Colonial Office till date, an incident escalated and ended up with an order by the Assistant Police Superintendent, F. S. Philips for the police to fire at protesters ending up with 21 workers dead and 51 wounded. The nationalist sentiments throughout the country, and especially in the east were solidified by the killings; riots through the 18th and 26th broke out all over the country with people of all walks of life involved. On 12 December, amidst a “state of emergency”, a commission was appointed and hearings with two British and two African judges were convened, despite police intimidation and the collapse of the CWU, the “go slow” was continued. The commission’s report held Ojiyi personally responsible for the crisis, Ojiyi was consistently attacked by union dissidents who favoured control under chiefs and who were represented by their lawyer, Charles Onyeama, the son of the warrant chief Onyeama of Eke a former slave trader who grew rich by recruiting his people, usually exploitatively, for the colliery’s and for his palm oil trading. Bracegirdle was criticised for “serious errors of judgement” and the government was criticised for taking an industrial action for war. The killings came to be known as the Iva Valley Shootings or the Iva Valley Massacre and gave rise to "Zikisim”, an anti-colonial movement spearheaded by Nnamdi Azikiwe against British imperialism and colonisation.

[Written and summarised after Carolyn Brown (1988) and Augustus Elendu Eronini (1976).]

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