A November To Remember – The Story of the Martyred Miners of Enugu
“…the labour of our heroes past, shall never be in vain…”
His name was Sunday Anyasado. It is not a name taught in History classes. It is not a household name. If it appears in books of History, it is usually as a footnote. Even Google is uncharacteristically silent about him. He was not alone. They were 21 in number. They and others are the unsung heroes of Nigerian independence.
Today, we are going with Onigegewura to Iva Valley to pay tributes to the memory of Sunday Anyasado and other fallen heroes, the martyred miners of Enugu who paid the supreme price for their fatherland. After all, as Papa Chidiebere, our neighbour in Aba Alaro used to say: si kele onye nti chiri; enu anughi, ala anu. [Salute the deaf; if the heavens don't hear, the earth will hear.]
It was once upon a Friday afternoon in the month of November. It was a November to remember.
In the Nigeria of 1940s, coal was the leading mineral. It was the crude oil. It was the engine that drove the colonial government. Enugu was the coal capital not only of Nigeria, but of the entire West Africa. Enugu coal fed West Africa and still met Nigeria’s needs. During the World Wars I and II, Enugu coal powered the railways of the British Empire.
After the Wars, Enugu coal provided the resources to run the Nigerian Railways and the Electricity Undertaking. It was the fuel that ran the tin mining companies of northern Nigeria as well as the steamships that plied the West African coasts.
Sunday Anyasado was one of the young men who came to Enugu in search of employment. He came from Obazu Mbieri Owerri. He was recently married. Enugu was the city of dreams. It was the place to find work. Young men trooped into the city from far and near. They came from the North. They came from the West. They came from the South. They came into Enugu, the city of coal.
Anyasado and his compatriots were shocked at what they found in Enugu. He was employed as a hewer. His job was to cut the coal and put it in the tub which the tubmen pushed. Others were engaged as timbermen, they set timber. It was a dangerous job. Their job was to remove the timber that had been used to support the roof of the shaft to prevent it from collapse, after the coal had been removed. Others laid the rail track for the tub-wagons to run on. They were the railmen.
Anyasado soon discovered that a miner’s working life was not a bed of roses. Above the ground, the Europeans were smartly dressed. They wore clean-cut shirts with a pen tucked in the breast pocket. They were the bosses. They dictated instructions to the Nigerian miners.
Under the ground, the miners who were Nigerians worked in close confinement. They huddled together in the dark. The environment was low on oxygen and low on morale. As if that was not enough, the workers were not provided with quality working tools. Boots were especially a rare commodity. It was to be provided to only workers who were favoured by the European bosses.
The bosses also introduced the practice of ‘rostering’. This was done by hiring more men than were needed. The game plan was to ensure that the surplus would be used to ‘fill in the gap’ caused by regular workers who might be absent. You can therefore imagine the fate of a casual worker when no one was absent from work.
The workers realized that they needed to come together if they were going to protect their collective interests. They formed a union. It was called Colliery Workers Union.
The Secretary General of the CWU was Okwuidiliyi Ojiyi. He was a former teacher. Ojiyi was a Comrade with a difference. According to Brown, “unlike many other African staff who saw their posts as opportunities for personal advancement, Ojiyi used his training in Nigerian labor law to develop demands that fully exploited the legal parameters set forth by the state.” No wonder, the British colliery officials labeled him “a scheming rogue.”
Though he was not trained as a lawyer, Ojiyi knew more labour law than an average lawyer. When the manager tried to fire him for his labour activities, he shocked the British manager by quoting the new employment regulation to the effect that three months notice was required. The manager was stunned. Years before, a Briton, T. Yates, had slapped him. Ojiyi took him to court. The court found Yates guilty and he was fined. That was Ojiyi for you, the Gani Fawehinmi of 1940s.
Under Ojiyi’s leadership, the workers’ union began to assert themselves. Ojiyi submitted a memorandum where he demanded increased pay for the workers. He also demanded new boots for the workers. To underscore the seriousness of his demand, he threatened that if his demands were not meant, the workers would go on strike.
Now, under the Defence Regulations at the time, strike was a violation of the law. Onigegewura has told you that Ojiyi was an expert in labour law. Do you know what he did to circumvent the law? Of course you know that nwaanyi muta ite ofe mmiri mmiri, di ya amuta ipi utara aka were suru ofe. [If a woman decides to make the soup watery, the husband will learn to dent the garri before dipping it into the soup].
In other to avoid being charged with organizing an illegal strike, Ojiyi and the workers came up with the idea of ‘Go-Slow’. This is what is commonly referred to as ‘work to rule’. Using ‘coded’ Igbo language, Ojiyi instructed the miners about welu nwayo. The workers understood. They began to work so slowly to the extent that the production was grossly affected.
The management of the coal company was shocked at the way the ‘natives’ had outsmarted them. The workers were technically not on strike. The police could not be called and the workers could not be sacked. The white managers knew that they had been beaten at the game. A truce was called.
The workers had won!
It was agreed that ‘rostering’ would no longer be practiced. The management also agreed to stop racial discrimination in wages. The most important part of the agreement was its wage award which granted over £150,000 in back wages to most categories of workers with effect from 1946. The workers were happy! They had discovered a new weapon! Their unity was their strength.
There was however a problem. It was about the award given to the workers in the sum of £150,000. Some of the workers raised complaints about the calculations of their wages. The extent of arrears was also another point the union and the board could not agree on. It appeared that another welu nwayo was on the horizon.
It was in the midst of this fresh agitation that the company, in violation of the earlier agreement, announced that it would resume ‘rostering’. Rostering what??? The workers screamed in unison. As if that was not enough, the management introduced a sort of ‘divide and rule’ tactic. Seniority pay was granted to all workers but the hewers were exempted. I hope you have not forgotten that Anyasado was a hewer. He was personally affected by this disparity in wages. He was newly married. He needed the money to take care of his new family.
How could the blade that was used to successfully shave the head of the vulture become blunt when it was the turn of the hawk? What offence have we committed? The hewers wondered. Anyasado and his co-hewers asked the Union to intervene on their behalf. By November, it was clear to all that the management was not going to change its mind. The hewers’ executive decided to stage another ‘go-slow’.
The hewers knew that the management would blink first. Using the techniques they had earlier mastered, they began to go very slowly. It was a very slow movement. It was so intense that only one tub of coal was filled in a day. The company management was alarmed. Not again! Instead of calling the workers for a talk, the manager issued them with a warning notice. He told them that if they refused to stop the go-slow they were breaking their contract.
The workers refused to back off. The management refused to blink. It was a stalemate. Though the manager was a Briton, he must have overheard from Papa Chidiebere that agwo emeghi nke o jiri buru agwo, umuaka achiri ya hie nku. [If a snake fails to show its venom, little kids will use it in tying firewood]. The manager decided to show his venom.
He stormed back to his office and began to dismiss the miners. On November 10, he issued fifty letters of dismissal. The miners thought it was a joke. When they woke up on November 11, the manager had sacked 100 of their colleagues. And he was not about to stop. On November 12, he issued another 50 letters to the miners. He didn��t stop there. He began to recruit new workers to replace the sacked miners.
November 12 was a Saturday. The entire city of Enugu felt something was about to happen. What it was, nobody knew. The air over the city was clouded, not with smoke from the mines but from a sense of foreboding. It was rumoured that the workers would change from just go-slow to a sit-in strike. In other words, the workers would occupy the mines and prevent new recruits from entering the mine.
This was confirmed on November 14, when the miners, fearing that they would be replaced with new workers, began a sit-in. They were supported by their wives who came to the mines to demonstrate against the management. The visibly angry women destroyed equipment and smashed windows of the offices. The company had to ask the police to disperse the women. In the process, some of the women were injured.
The gathering cloud became heavier and darker.
The miners were fighting to save their jobs. The company was determined to assert its powers. The women were determined to support their husbands. The colonial government did not see the strike as just a labour issue. The workers’ action was seen as “an attempt to use armed resistance to undermine the government, believing that the strike was a ‘terrorist plan’ to create havoc.”
What had started as a labour dispute had quickly escalated to become a national issue and a political matter. The Government’s position was that a sit-in strike constituted a threat to national safety because the workers had access to explosives.
The events of Friday, November 18, 1949 which started a dramatic chain of events affecting the whole of Nigeria actually started a day before when the colonial government sent 900 policemen to Enugu. They were all armed. All of them had rifles and side arms.
By 11am on November 18, the armed policemen arrived at Iva Valley. They were clad in protective gear and wore newly acquired metal helmets. They were led by a Briton, F. S. Phillips who was dishing out the orders: ‘Left! Right! Left! Right!
The armed policemen marched briskly to the mines. Their mission was to take control of the explosives. Many of the miners were seeing the black uniform of the policemen brought from outside Enugu for the first time. They all gathered around to witness what was going to happen.
“Are they going to kill us?” One of them asked.
A policeman apparently overheard the question. He was a Nigerian like the miners. He walked up to the man who asked the question and told him: “We do not come here to shoot you people. You are demanding your rights from the Government. The Government will pay you this money.”
The miners became relieved. One of them responded: “We are glad you people know this, but you people should know we be brothers.”
The police officer nodded and walked back to join his colleagues. With the assurance of brotherhood, the miners broke out in hymns and solidarity songs.
“We are all one!” They sang lustfully.
At the sight of the singing miners, the Briton who led the police team, F. S. Phillips became alarmed.
According to him, he only heard: “a tremendous howling and screeching noise going on” to which several men danced in a “dangerous” way. He felt the hymns being sung were tribal war songs. He decided that the miners were getting excited, and were becoming “more and more menacing” indulging in what he called a war dance.
Phillip turned to the Assistant Superintendent of Police who was standing next to him, F. S. Ormiston and said, “I will have to fire!” No one gave a contrary opinion.
Then he gave the order: “Fire!”
Sunday Anyasado was oblivious of the lurking danger. He was dancing happily. He was one of the miners who came out of the mines to see the policemen wearing black. He joined his colleagues chanting and singing in front of the crowd facing the troops and their commanding officer.
After giving the order to shoot, Phillip himself aimed his revolver at a dancer immediately in front of him who, according to him, was “jumping up and down and his eyes were popping out of his head – like a lot of the others.” He pulled the trigger.
Within seconds, he had shot Anyasado in the mouth, killing the young man who had come to Enugu to look for money to feed his new family. Phillip was not done. He turned his revolver to Livinus Okechukwuma, a machine man from Ohi Owerri. He shot him at a pointblank range. Okechukwuma died immediately.
Okafor Ageni was a tubman from Umuabi Udi. He was inside the mines when he heard the shots. He came out to find out what was happening. He was killed on the spot. All these while, the singing men did not realize that they were being shot at. They just realized that some of their colleagues were collapsing with blood gushing out of their bodies. They surged forward to find out what was happening.
Phillips saw the men moving towards the troop like waves of Atlantic. He gave fresh orders to the troop to shoot at the men. His men obeyed! Unarmed and defenceless, the hapless miners of Enugu realized what was happening a second too late. They were being killed! This was a one sided war! The songs stopped suddenly. The hymns died abruptly. The miners turned and fled.
Phillips did not stop. The volley kept coming out. Many of the fleeing miners were shot in the back. Phillips continued shooting. It was clear that he had lost his wits. R. A. Brown, an Assistant Superintendent of Police, shouted the order to stop shooting. He started going along the line of fire to deflect the rifles of the shooting policemen into the air.
The miners fled in all directions. The living jumped over the bodies of their fallen comrades to escape. Some ran back into the mines. Others found refuge in a nearby stream. The wounded were praying for the police not to shoot them again.
Their task completed, the troops marched back to Enugu, leaving the dead, the dying and the wounded.
After what seemed like an eternity, the miners who were lucky to escape started coming out from where they were hiding in ones and twos. They began to count the bodies of their colleagues. Carolyn Brown put the number of the dead at 22. Toyin Falola put the number at 21 and the wounded at 50. Olasupo Shasore put the number at 21 and listed their names as:
The news of the killings sent a shock wave across the country. Nigerians became united in grief and anger. Their brothers had been killed in cold blood. It was a massacre, an attack on defenceless workers. Nigerians rose up as one. Nationalists discarded their differences. They formed the National Emergency Committee.
From Enugu to Lagos, Nigerians were speaking with one voice to condemn the shootings. From Aba to Port Harcourt, ordinary citizens took to the street to protest the brutality. The souls of the martyred miners refused to rest in peace. Their shed blood continued to water seeds of revolution from Kano to Ibadan. The government had not seen anything like that before. The police and the army were put on alert.
All over the country, the song was the same: “Freedom or death! Independence now! No more white man’s rule!” Britons were being attacked openly and shops owned by expatriates were being looted. From their graves, the miners’ hands began to shake the colonial empire. The days of the colonial government were numbered.
The government was forced to set up a Commission of Enquiry to examine the direct and remote causes of the Enugu shootings. The Commission was made up of two British and two African judges. The Britons were: Sir William Fitzgerald and RW Williams. The Africans were Justice Samuel Quarshie-Idun and Justice Adegboyega Ademola.
The Fitzgerald commission sat between December 1949 and January 1950. The Commission, in its report, criticized the government for its slow pace of decolonization and went further to condemn the government’s trade union policy. It blamed the government for confusing a purely industrial dispute with a political confrontation. The Commission advised the government to grant the Nigerian people the right to govern themselves.
The Commission concluded that: “Tragic as the events at Enugu were, there is a lesson to be learnt which if learnt…will not leave that tragedy as a mere waste of life or bitter memory.”
Onigegewura hopes that the next time you sing the National Anthem and you come to “…the labour of our heroes past…” you will remember Sunday Anyasado and the other martyrs of Iva Valley. They are Nigerian Heroes.
May their labours not be in vain! May their sacrifice never be a mere waste of life!
I thank you very warmly for your time.