By Francis Igata
ENUGU—In 1909, coal was discovered in Enugu State, Nigeria. The Ogbete drift mine opened six years later.
The Ogbete mine’s operations and others in the country were merged into a new corporation in 1950.The Nigerian Coal Corporation. The NCC was tasked with exploiting coal resources and held a monopoly on coal and coke mining, production, and sales until 1999.
The name Enugu is synonymous with coal. This is due to the existence of large quantities of coal that drove the engine of the nation’s economy before the civil war.
The acronym ‘coal city,’ for which Enugu State is presently known reflects the abundance of the mineral resources in the area. Experts have put Enugu’s coal at two billion tons, or more. It was said to have been discovered by the British explorers then in charge of administration of the country and who did not waiver in exploring coal.
South-East Voice findings showed that mining of coal in Enugu started in 1916 at the Ogbete mine; other mines like the Ribadu, Onyeama and Okpara were subsequently opened.
During the civil war, coal mine was established at Odagbor, later known as Okaba coal, which became the Nigeria Coal Corporation, while the one in Enugu was known as the Biafra Coal Corporation. But, at the end of the war, the two were merged.
Nigeria’s coal industry suffered a blow in the 1950s when oil was discovered. Up until this point, the Nigerian Railway Corporation was the largest consumer of coal in the country. However, after the discovery of oil, the Railway Corporation began to replace its coal burning trains with diesel-powered engines.
An additional negative impact came when the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria began converting its power generation equipment from coal to diesel and gas as it was further gathered that greater attention was paid to it at a time because of its many uses in powering heavy engines, provision of electricity among others, leading to employment creation. It was also in higher demand then, among many countries.
The Nigerian Civil War also negatively impacted coal production; many mines were abandoned during the war. Following the war, production never completely recovered and coal production levels were erratic. Attempts at mechanizing production ended badly, as both the implementation and maintenance of imported mining equipment proved troublesome, and hurt production. After the civil war, the Nigerian coal industry has not been able to return to its peak production of the 1950s.
Nigeria still holds large coal reserves, estimated to be at least 2 billion metric tons. The discovery of bituminous coal suitable for use in coke production for the iron and steel industries opens up potential new domestic markets. With the loss of its largest domestic consumers, the NCC began exporting coal to Italy and the United Kingdom, as its low sulfur content is desirable.
In 1999, the NCC lost its monopoly over the Nigerian coal industry as the Obasanjo government allowed private companies to begin operating coal fields in joint ventures with the NCC, with an eventual goal of completely selling off the NCC’s assets to private investors. The Nigerian government planned to sell 40% to private investors and 20% to the Nigerian public, while retaining 40%.
In 2002, work stopped at NCC-operated mines. In 2003, the Nigerian government announced plans to create a technical advisory committee that would be tasked with reviving Nigeria’s coal industry.
By 2004, the technical committee had still not issued their report, and the NCC found itself almost bankrupt. To raise funds, it began to sell off some of its assets in an attempt to pay off its mounting debt, including salary that was owed to its employees. Additionally, the Enugu State Government protested the planned NCC privatization and demanded the ability to consult with the Federal Government on any planned sale.
An ex-worker of the coal Corporation, Enugu, Pius Ezugwu, told South East Voice that: “What appeared to have gone wrong in the coal industry was not in isolation; that good old days referred to was when coal actually was the main primary source of energy. The advent of oil and gas affected coal in no small measure and, too, the Nigeria Coal Corporation was the main supplier for some industries.
“For instance, the Nkalagu Cement Company was fully operational and her services ran fully on coal; the railways were running on locomotive, Oji-River was running on coal. So, all of these establishments that were running on coal then, depended on the Nigerian Coal Corporation.
“So, you could understand that whatever affected any of these three will certainly affect Nigeria Coal Corporation, that’s what happened”.
He stated that the situation was compounded by what he described as “total lack of attention” on coal by succeeding governments in the country, stressing that no effort was spared at getting alternatives to petrol and gas.