In the 1940s, the issue of workers welfare had been raised and the consciousness of Nigerians had been awoken by a series of protests, specifically the nationwide strike in 1945.
With that, the importance of trade associations in order to improve working conditions, pay etc grew. Workers knew that if they had the courage to stand up together they could bring about change.
By 1949 Enugu was already a cosmopolitan town with about 25,000 inhabitants and approximately 8,000 employed coal miners.
Enugu, the capital of the Eastern region had become the coal capital of West Africa and the mainstay of Nigeria’s production.
Of the two main mines, Iva Valley and Obwetti, Iva Valley had become the leading coal mine for the country.
The life of a miner was not an easy one, it was dangerous, depressing, working 6 days a week in the dark, with low oxygen and equally low morale.
All for little pay.
This was in contrast to the life of the clean cut, well paid Europeans who worked above ground and their only interactions were worse than that of one giving orders to a dog some may argue they treated their pet dogs with more respect!
There was growing resentment for the unfair treatment and equally unfair remuneration by Nigerian workers.
Demands were made regarding the dreadful conditions, pay and reemployment of workers unfairly sacked.
The demands were rejected.
Because the union was aware of the companies heartless methods of hiring and firing they devised a new method of protest. A Go-Slow .
The workers would technically not down tools but work very slowly affecting production. Literally, a hand full of coal was being produced daily instead of wagon loads. This was still legal, much to the annoyance of the Colliery company.
The Go – Slow received National attention.
After much negotiation, agreements were made and reneged on and between the 10th of November to the 12th, 200 more miners were sacked. The Go – slow method swiftly escalated to a stay in strike this also prevented the colliery managers from simply replacing the protesting miners this time.
It was decided that the police would be called in to remove the protesting miners and restore work with new workers.
To also support this move management had also insisted that some cases of explosives had gone missing.
On November 18th, 1949, 50 armed riot police arrived at Iva Valley led by a Senior Superintendent of Police, F.S Philips.
The miners had tied strips of red cloth to their helmets as a mark of protest and as was their custom, facing the mass of armed police they began to dance and chant to boost morale.
Philips decided that the miners looked menacing “indulging in a war dance” and started shooting.
21 miners were killed and many of them were shot in the back.
A massacre of unarmed Nigerian protesters – the everyday men that only asked for better working conditions and pay, men, who seemed replaceable by these disrespectful occupiers. This was the final straw.
This act would temporarily set aside, ethnic, regional and class divisions in Nigeria to collectively work to do away with British rule.
Meetings were held across the country to discuss the events at Iva Valley;
The Nigerian Women’s Union canvassed to boycott all foreign owned business; Riots broke out in Aba, Onitsha, Port Harcourt and Calabar;
Papers all over reported the high handedness and showed their disgust on their pages;
Ibadan Ex-Servicemen’s Association held meeting to express their dismay.
The backlash was growing .
The Governor General, John Macpherson announced that a commission of enquiry would be constituted and on the 12th December, 1949 it began.
The outcome of the Fitzgerald Commission was very clear. The time was coming for self-rule.
The committee also demanded the resignation of the Chief Commissioner for the Eastern Region and the return of every police officer involved in the killings to Nigeria for trial.
Newspaper headline of the time
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