Friday 18 November 1949 is a day that the working-class and radical activists in Nigeria must never forget. The colonial government killed 21 striking workers in the Iva Valley mine. The response was spontaneous. The trade union movement, which had only recently been divided came together as a National Labour Committee.
Different factions of middle-class nationalists also seized the opportunity to ventilate anti-colonial sentiments, establishing a National Emergency Committee, which drew support from the trade unions. This backlash in Nigeria and its attendant international outcry helped to speed up the march to flag independence in the 1950s.
There are important lessons for today’s generation of working-class and youth activists to learn from this inspiring moment in our history of struggle. This article sets the context in which the coal miners learned from practice to organize and fight, traces the history of their struggles up to the period of the massacre, it then puts the massacre and its aftermath in perspective.
A background of coal, colonialists, chiefs, and workers
The context of the struggle of coal miners that was drowned in blood is one of the central roles of energy generation for the expansion of capital, to the benefit of a few. British imperialism heralded the integration of Nigeria into the global capitalist system.
They colonized Nigeria after the slave trade became more of a burden on the expansion of capital than of benefit. Their principal aims were to extract raw materials needed for production back in Britain and create a captive market for the sales of these products, to help generate profits.
They built railways for the transportation of the primary commodities extracted from the hinterlands to the docks for export. The trains needed energy to power them.
The British Imperial Institute inaugurated a series of Mineral Surveys in Southern and Northern Nigeria in 1903 and 1904 to identify the natural resources they could exploit beyond the agricultural primary products they had been exploiting up to that period. They discovered huge deposits of coal in the then Onitsha Province.
At the turn of the 20th century, coal was to capitalist development what petroleum is today. It powered manufacturing as well as maritime and rail transport. In fact, the local exploitation of coal in Britain contributed significantly to its industrial revolution.
In 1915 and 1917, the colonial government acquired land from Ngwo community chiefs in the areas within today’s Enugu state where it had identified coal deposits “without charge.” Production started immediately, with 7,000 tons in 1915. This increased to 24,000 tons in 1916 and the amount quadrupled the following year. And by 1929, annual production had reached 364,000 tons. This bounty literally fueled the construction of railways. The fueling of trains took up 60% of the output from the coal mines.
They needed workers for production. The colonialists first resorted to forced labor in the late 1910s and early 1920s. This involved the use of prisoners for manual laborers in the mines. But the bulk of forced laborers were poor peasants in the communities.
They were not ready to leave their farms for such menial jobs, especially as they did not have prior knowledge of coal mining. But they were conscripted by force. Local warrant chiefs collaborated with the colonial exploiters in this oppressive act.
These chiefs also extorted those peasants who wanted to escape conscription, money, yams, goats, and other goods as bribes. The colonial police, who protected the corrupt chiefs as part of the mechanisms for “indirect rule”, suppressed these revolts against them, just as the police protect members of the ruling class today.
As the need for production required even more hands than could be gotten through such forced methods, the colonialists sought wage workers. These included people brought from other Divisions such as Onitsha and Owerri, who at the time worked more as “pick boys” involved in the direct digging for coal. They led a strike in 1925 over cuts in their wages. Management smashed the strike and, with the aid of the police, its “ringleaders” chased into the woods.
After this, the colonial management built in “tribalism” into the recruitment and deployment of workers, as an ideological tool of social control to keep the workers politically divided. Indigenes of the communities around the colliery, as mines are also called, constituted the bulk of underground workers, while the non-indigenes were put mainly in clerical and other technical jobs on the surface, and in the mining camp.
This was to ensure that any subsequent industrial action would not affect production. By this time, more indigenes people were ready to and actively seeking opportunities to work in the mines. The aggressive growth of colonial capitalism required more working people to become wage workers. And more working people saw little option but to turn to wage employment. They needed steady incomes to purchase commodities, as well as to pay taxes forced on them by the colonial government.
The chiefs played a role at this stage of the “proletarianization” process, just as they had played their lackey roles in the period of forced labor. They were the labor contractors who “helped” to recruit workers, through their “boss boys” who were area boys loyal to them that served as foremen in the mines. Just as in the earlier period, the chiefs (through their “boss boys”) collected bribes from the peasants, but this time to get employed instead of being exempted.
This Great Depression, which started in 1929, brought this first phase of a massive expansion of coal production to a grinding halt. Demand for coal fell drastically, and by 1934 production had fallen to just 120,000 tons. The colonial government cut the salaries of all miners (and all public sector workers) in 1931, making the working-class to bear the burden of this global capitalist crisis of historic proportions.
By 1930, there was only one union in Nigeria; the Nigeria Civil Service Union formed in 1912. Not less than a dozen unions emerged during the decade, as workers organized to defend their livelihoods in the face of economic hardship. As in other sectors of the economy, the coal miners became restive. Many of them could not find jobs due to decreased production. And with the 1931 wage cuts, the salaries of those who worked were inadequate.
Production rates picked up by the late 1930s, but management was not ready to allow wages to pick up. Thus, even though they had not formally formed a trade union, the workers declared a trade dispute in 1937. Their demand was for a restoration of their salaries to the pre-1931 wage cut rates. And they won.
Once again, on the heels of a strike, management moved in with a strategy of social control. But with the changed context of a working class in the ascendancy and the victory of the strike, it had to disguise this divide-and-rule strategy with the garb of consultation.
This took the form of the constitution of three so-called Workers’ Representative Councils at the end of 1937: one each for the underground, surface, and camp workers. Building on the seeds it had sown in 1925, management set up these councils, which were advisory, on an ethnic basis. But this attempt, and subsequent ones at curtailing workers’ power, would not work. The genie of struggle had come out of the bottle, and it was not going back.
Towards the bloody November of 1949
The pathway to 18 November 1949 started at the beginning of the 1940s decade, with the miners forming trade unions. And this was within a context of massive expansion and radicalization of trade unions, the working-class’ resistance to the agonizing hardships that came with the impact of World War II on the economy, and the height of anti-colonial nationalist agitation.
To isolate workers from the anti-colonial politics of nationalist agitations and limit their concerns to bread-and-butter economic matters, the colonial government passed a Trade Union Ordinance which came into effect in April 1939. This was like the federal military government’s reorganization of trade unions, supposedly along industrial lines in 1976-78, to co-opt the trade unions and undermine workers’ militancy.
In both instances, the ruling class failed. Trade unions established the first national trade union Center in November 1942 as the Federated Trade Union. A few months later, at its founding congress, it adopted the name Trades Union Congress of Nigeria (TUCN) and began publication of The Nigerian Worker, a radical working-class newspaper with socialist perspectives.
It was within this context that different sections of workers in the colliery formed their first trade unions. These were the Enugu Workers Trade Union formed by the miners working underground in 1940 and the Enugu Colliery Surface Improvement Union in 1941. In 941, they jointly brought up demands for salary increase which the workers had raised through the consultative councils in 1938, but which management had simply dismissed.
They brought up these demands again in 1943, pointing out the fact that inflation driven by the war had made nonsense of their wages. Management’s response was a lame counterproposal to convert some categories of workers, with no significant increase in wages. In April 1944, the two unions merged to form the Colliery Workers Union (CWU). And with this union, they became stronger and more confident to fight as one body. All efforts of management, open and underground, to divide the union throughout its lifetime failed.
The CWU was led by Isaiah Okwudili Ojiyi, a former schoolteacher. A lot has been said and written about this charismatic popular leader of the miners. Most of it is about his profound grasp of the labor law, which he quoted with passionate flair to the awe and anger of management. His membership in the radical Zikist National Vanguard has also been highlighted, including by pro-state authors who claim his union activities were “political”, even though he played no important role in that radical anti-colonial youth movement.
The most significant element at the heart of Ojiyi’s emergence and sterling leadership is hardly ever stressed. It is that he was a rank-and-file leader, who had worked in the different areas of work in the mine, both on the surface and underground. This is a lesson for us today. Genuine leaders of trade unions must have a holistic understanding of the labor process in their workplaces and sector. They must also emerge from and maintain ties with rank-and-file members whom they must continually report back to and whose mandate they must continue to win.
Shortly after its formation, CWU put forward the same demands for improvement in wages and working conditions. When management, once more, refused to heed these demands or even negotiate, the union declared a trade dispute which lasted till the beginning of 1945. Management’s response was to a mass sack. It then recruited over a thousand new workers to replace them, banned the CWU, and reintroduced the ethnic-based Workers’ Representative Councils.
The CWU leadership did not allow the ban to stop them from operating underground. They continued to conscientize workers on the need for struggle. This is also an important lesson: unions’ legitimacy is not based on the rulers’ laws. Combined as workers, “in our hands is placed a power…greater than the might of armies magnified a thousandfold.”
Meanwhile, workers’ anger was seething across the country. Living was becoming hell on earth during the war, and they demanded an upward review of the Cost-of-Living Allowance (COLA). But this was not forthcoming. The colonial government instituted the Nigeria General Defense Regulations (NGDR), 1941, which made strikes illegal. But workers defied this and went on the COLA General Strike, which was the first ever General Strike in the country’s history from June to August 1945.
Workers set up COLA committees to coordinate the strike in several cities and towns, including Enugu. The CWU was still underground when the strike started. But activities at the mines ground to a standstill because the railway workers were fully involved in the strike and the railway was the principal source of demand for coal.
CWU activists thus had time on their hands and were at the heart of the Enugu COLA Committee. This further boosted the miners’ confidence. Rank-and-file miners thus had the boldness to declare that they would no longer recognize the ethnically based Workers’ Representative Councils within the first few weeks of the General Strike. But management still refused to recognize CWU.
This was partly due to the tacit position taken by the colonial authorities to stifle the growth of workers’ power as much as they could after the success of the General Strike. But it could not use only the stick, nationwide. It also applied the carrot of salaries increase in 1946/7, based on the COLA demands.
When management did not increase the mine workers’ wages, the CWU took up their cause, even though it remained unrecognized. Management claimed that it was harmonizing the wages for the new salary structure. But the union was not having any of such delay tactics.
Rather, it raised further demands such as improved working conditions (including the provision of boots), ending casualization (through a system of “rostering” where workers rotated when they could get to work and thus earn wages), and for African workers to benefit from mine-specific allowances such as the underground allowance which British engineers working with them enjoyed.
To press home the workers’ demands, CWU mobilized them for “welu nwayo” (“go-slow”) industrial action, which started on 4 November 1947. The workers did not down their tools and, thus, were technically not on strike. The NGDR provisions could not apply to them. But by reducing coal output to a mere trickle, they held the management by the neck.
The CWU leadership argued in a press statement that it immediately issued, that the workers were hungry because of their unpaid wages and that this was why they were working at such a slow pace. Management had no answer to this argument. It recognized the union with no further delay and invited its leadership to negotiate on 18 November 1947.
By December 1947, they reached a Collective Agreement which amounted to a victory for the workers. They won a significant upward review of their basic wages and old allowances and also new allowances which they had demanded. These increments were with effect from January 1946. By March 1948, management had paid the workers for the two years arrears.
The arrears of some workers were not fully paid, by the workers’ calculation. The union protested and demanded proper harmonization to enable their full payment. After several months of management’s refusal to heed this demand, the union once again organized a go-slow strike on 8 November 1948 and won.
The workers’ class consciousness and confidence soared. Management took steps to curtail this “dangerous” development. They saddled one Robert Curry, an advisor of the British Trades Union Congress who had supposedly been a “conciliator” in the aftermath of the 1947 strike, with restructuring the union in ways that would distance its central leadership from rank-and-file membership.
What the management failed to realize was the rank-and-file rootedness of the union spirit at Iva Valley. Leadership is very important and strategic for taking working people’s struggles forward to triumphant ends. But the ultimate source of workers’ power is the rank-and-file worker. The driving force behind the go-slow strike that culminated in the massacre was the rank-and-file.
The massacre and its aftermath
The CWU leadership wrote to management on 24 October 1949 to point out, once again, that arrears because some categories of workers were yet to be fully paid. This was because the rostering process had led to miscalculations of their daily wage rates. The union wanted to negotiate, but management felt it was time to call the union’s bluff.
The affected rank-and-file workers stormed the personnel manager’s office on 6 November to demand their entitlements. The manager’s response was to get them dispersed by the police. They raised their grievance with the Labour Officer the following day. He also rebuffed them.
In a spontaneous manner, the rank-and-file workers immediately held a mass meeting. There and then, they resolved to begin a go-slow strike the following day. Two days into the strike the two Nigerian businessmen appealed to the workers to call off the strike.
Ojiyi was ready to, at least, urge the workers to suspend the strike. But management was keen on teaching the workers a lesson. It sacked 200 of the workers while the indigenous capitalists were trying to cajole the union.
On 12 November, chiefs of the Ngwo community where the mines were sited (some of whom had been labor brokers, by the way) tried to mediate between both parties after this mass sack. But management made it clear that it would have absolutely nothing to do with the union.
It was clear to the workers and their union that the only way forward if they were to be victorious again, was to deepen the nature of their industrial action. They converted the go-slow strike to a sit-in strike. They occupied the mines for days and totally shut down production.
This turn of event alarmed the management. The colonial government as a whole was equally alarmed, not the least because it was scared that the striking miners could turn the explosives in the mines over to nationalist militants. On 18 November, it drafted 900 policemen to Enugu. More than 100 of these marched on the mines with directives for the removal of the explosives.
The 1,500 miners at Iva Valley were suspicious of the intent behind moving the explosives. And they tried to stop this curious evacuation. The workers were unarmed. They were merely singing solidarity songs. ASP Phillips, who led the murderous expedition, gave the order to “fire!” Thus were 21 workers in the prime of their lives mowed down. At least 50 others were also wounded.
News of the massacre spread across the country with anger. The nationalist movement was at a lull at the time. The two leading nationalist parties, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) and the Nigerian Youths Movement (NYM) seized the moment to revitalize themselves.
They demanded self-government. Liberal and radical nationalists also united to form the National Emergency Council (NEC) as a united front for collective response. Dr Akinola Maja of the NYM and Mazi Mbonu Ojike of the ZNV were Chair and Secretary, respectively.
The Trade Union Congress had split in December 1948 over affiliation to the NCNC and the Nigerian National Federation of Labour had been formed in 1949. But in response to the massacre, they came together as the National Labour Committee (NLC).
Under the pressures of widespread indignation that these coalitions represented and channeled, the colonial government had no choice but to constitute a 4-person Commission of Enquiry to investigate the despicable development. The Commission sat between 12 December and 5 January 1950. Its report was not released until June. But it was a moment of the working people’s anti-colonial and economic struggle.
Mr F.S. Phillip, the police officer who gave the order to fire, was indicted. It is a shame that seven decades later and sixty years after independence, those who led the Lekki Tollgate massacre such as General John Enenche (retd.) still walk as free men.
Not surprising though, the report also indicted both the management and the CWU leaders, with particular attention on Comrade Ojiyi, for supposedly being too radical! However, the Commission upturned some of the more overt shows of racism in the mines, such as job designations. For example, the term “boss-boys” was scrapped for foremen. “Pick-boys” and “tub-boys” were also scrapped for hewers and tub-men, respectively.
Despite the indictment of the CWU working-class consciousness remained high in the mines, and the workers formed a new union; the Nigerian Coal Miners Union (NCMU). It was recognized by management in April 1951. As with the CWU, management did all it could to split its ranks. And likewise, it repeatedly failed.
Meanwhile, the national situation was changing in a contradictory way. The NEC alliance of NYM and ZNV collapsed within months. On 18 February 1950, a young Zikist and worker at the Post and Telegraph department named Heelas Chukwuma Ugokwe attempted to kill Hugh Foot, chief secretary of colonial government. Heelas was jailed and in April, the ZNV was banned. Its members were thereafter hounded.
The Nigeria Labour Council on its part laid the basis for the formation of the first Nigeria Labour Congress on 26 May 1950. But it was short-lived. It withered away after a strike organized by UNAMAG, the union led by Nduka Eze who a moving spirit behind the Labour Congress also collapsed, shortly after the formation of that first NLC.
The growing local capitalist class which had sought alliances with the working class in the mid-1940s to build nationalist power, and which had fed on the national angst against colonial rule after the Iva Valley massacre realized it no longer needed the working class.
It was clear that the colonialists were ready to hand over power to them. And they concentrated their attention on that. We have seen the result; continued capitalist exploitation daily, and a series of massacres of poor working-class people and youth at Odi, Zaki Ibiam and more recently Lekki Tollgate, to mention but a few in the 21st century alone.
For us as revolutionary and radical activists, we will always be inspired by the fighting spirit of the Iva Valley coal miners, and we will always remember those killed. Keep their spirit in your hearts, and keep their names in your minds:
by Baba AYE