By Owei Lakemfa
IT is exactly 60 years today November 18, 2009 when armed British colonial policemen opened fire on defenceless coal miners in the Iva Valley mine in Enugu. In those moments of collective colonial insanity, the colonialists within minutes murdered 21 Nigerian workers and injured 51.
The workers crime was that they dared to go on a strike which the colonial authorities interpreted as a political strike designed to pressurise them to quite the country and let Nigeria join other nations free from colonial misrule and exploitation.
Although theÂ Yarâ€™Adua government, like successive ones since independenceÂ will not mark this day, even with one word of appreciation for the struggles of many ordinary people who gave us independence, it is necessary that the Nigerian youth know that contrary to popular myth, our country did not attain independence on a platter of gold. Like other countries under colonial rule, our forebears fought for independence with many losing their livelihood, liberty and lives.
It is true that many of the official â€œnationalistsâ€ wore long traditional clothes about, making ineffectual speeches in parliament and attending constitutional conferences in LondonÂ where they had the privilege of taking tea with the colonial masters, but the true nationalists were the patriots who looked the colonialists in the face and demanded freedom. They are heroes like Bello Ijumu,Â Aminu Kano, Mokwugo Okoye, Nduka Eze, Anthony EnahoroÂ and Micheal Imoudu who put their lives on the line for freedom.
They are people like Osita Agwuna who on October 27, 1948 on behalf of the organised youths madeÂ public, â€A Call For Revolutionâ€ to cast off colonial rule, and Raji Abdallah who when charged with treasonable felony in 1948, told the court â€œI hate the crown of Britain with all my heart because to me and my countrymen, it is a symbol of oppression, a symbol of persecution, and in short, a material manifestation of iniquityâ€.
No exploiter concedes power by persuasion or repenting of his sins; pressure and power must be applied because as Franz Fanon explained, colonialism is a one-armed bandit. The coal miners who fell that day in Iva Valley had watered the tree of liberty with their blood.
Labour leader and nationalist, Nduka EzeÂ said of the chain reactionÂ of this massacre: â€œThe radicals and the moderates, the revolutionaries and the stooges, the bourgeoisie and the workers, sank their differences, remembered the word-â€˜Nigeriaâ€™ and rose in revolt against evil and inhumanityâ€.
The political scientist, Richard L Sklar wrote on the significance of their sacrifice : â€œ 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 tragedyâ€.
The coal mine managers were British racists who had a sense of superiority over Nigerians. There were cases of physical abuse. In one case, a Briton T. Yates on September 2, 1945 slapped a worker, Okwudili OjiyiÂ who had the courage to bring up an assault case andÂ Mr Yates was prosecuted and fined.
On November 1, 1949 matters between the workers and management reached a head when the latter rejected demands for the payment of rostering, the upgrading of the mine hewers to artisans and the payment ofÂ housing and travelling allowances. The workers then began a â€œgo slowâ€ strike.
The managementâ€™s reaction was to sack over 50 of them. Fearing that the strike was part of the growing nationalist agitations for self- rule, the management also decided to move outÂ explosives from the mines on November 18, 1949.
Those of the Obwetti mines were easily removed, but that of Iva Valley was not because the workers refused to assist the management to do so.
The Fitzgerald Commission which the colonialists were forced to set up to investigate the massacre, found that â€œthe reason why the miners objected to the removal of the explosives was because they feared that once the explosives were removed, nothing stood in the way of the management closing the mine and thus effecting a lock â€“ outâ€.
Senior Superintendent of Police, F.S.Philip came to the mine to assist in the removal. He had two other officers and75 armed policemen. At a point there was a struggle between three of the policemen and the workers, and Philip withoutÂ any hesitation ordered his men to shoot.
There were mass protests in places like Port Harcourt, Aba and Onitsha and 18 prominent Nigerians set up the National Emergency Committee (NEC) to coordinate a national response to this crime against humanity. It was chaired by Dr Akinola Maja with Mbonu Ojike as secretary.
The colonial government issued a statement that the workers were armed, had tried to disarm the policemen and had attempted to seize the explosives. The Commission found all these to be lies. The Commission which partly blamed the union and said Superintendent Philip committed an error of judgement, found that: â€œ 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 are the bloody legacy of British colonial rule and repression and the peoples struggle for emancipation.
Today, on this 60th commemoration, may the courage, patriotism and selflessness of the martyred Iva Valley miners and those of the true nationalists continue to inspire us in these neo-colonial times.