Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Iva Valley Massacre, 66 Years After

·       Learning from a Turning Point Struggle

Memorial of the Iva Valley Massacre in Enugu, the "Coal City".

The killing of 21 striking coalminers on November 18, 1949, at the Iva Valley mines Enugu, was a turning point in the struggle against colonialism. Working-class people’s resistance spurred anti-colonial revolts, ascertaining the leading role of the working class as the strongest and most consistent social force in fighting for a better society. There are several lessons to learn from this heroic moment in the history of the working class.

The colonialists presented British imperialism as a defender of “democracy” during World War II, since it was part of the allies that routed fascism on the European continent. Workers sacrificed, increasing productivity, including in the coalmines, to support the war campaign. But after the end of the war, cost of living skyrocketed making life harder for workers and democracy was stifled with colonial dictatorship still very much in place. This sparked off the 1945 Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) General Strike.

To contain the rising anger, the colonial administration instituted some reforms meant to incorporate trade unions while encouraging workers to work harder with little added benefits. In the coalmines, as in many other places, this did not work. The miners had forged solidarity with coalminers in Britain during the war, drawing inspiration from the latter’s earlier victory. More importantly, the Colliery Workers Union (CWU), one of the two unions formed by coalminers in 1941 (the other being the Colliery Surface Improvement Union) was built with a radical spirit of rank and file activism.

When the Trade Union Ordinance was passed in 1938 making unionism legal, this was considered a “the surest way to securing industrial stability and the removal of extremist tendencies” by the colonial administrators. To secure this aim, the conservative British Trade Union Congress was co-opted, sending in industrial relations experts to help mould Nigerian unionists into moderate and “reasonable” “social partners” of the state. Such missions were not very successful. The relationship between the trade union movement and the radical wing of the nationalist movement blossomed. As in most major cities, Enugu was a hotbed of collaboration between radical trade unionists and the nationalists.

By 1943, the real wages of workers was nothing to write home about as a result of inflation. It was as high as 150% in Lagos, while in Enugu it was 75%. The CWU demanded a significant pay rise in August 1944 to offset this. They were also emboldened by the victory of the British coalminers who had won wage increases and reduction in working hours through a massive strike. Management refused to budge to the workers’ demands.

When they threatened to go on strike, management invoked the General Defence Regulation of 1942 which prohibited strikes as part of the constructed “unity” needed to win the war, instituting greater managerial control over the work processes in the mines. This was partly with the intention of weakening unionism. The unions resisted this, but management still utilised the law to ensure compulsory arbitration where it was ruled as being in order, in January 1945. The workers’ refused to be cowed by this ruling and were all summarily sacked with 1,800 new workers recruited.

Due to the skills required for work in the mines, quite a number of the “new” workers were amongst those sacked. These even included union activists, such as Okwudili Ojiyi, the CWU Chair, whom management grudgingly reemployed because of their sound expertise on the job that the bosses saw as necessary for boosting productivity at a critical point in time. However, union recognition was withdrawn.

This did not dampen the morale of the workforce. They rather became creative. They commenced a “go-slow” strike which technically speaking was not a strike and they could thus not be found culpable of violating the anti-workers’ regulations. They sustained this throughout the year. By the last quarter of 1945, output of coal which was 155,664 tons at the beginning of the year had plunged to 16,546 tons.

In January 1946, a second phase of the road leading to the 1949 final conflict unfolded. European managers, had been granted a £5 underground allowance, while the African coalminers’ longstanding demands for increment remained unheeded to. Speaking for the miners, Ojiyi pointed out that this was a case of “grim discrimination”.

He also argued that the banning of the union and sacking of workers a year earlier was also in violation of the colonial labour regulations as it had been executed with a lockout, voicing the popular position of the workers for the formal reinstatement of their union. By February, the workers, once again commenced a “go-slow” strike, describing this as going “ca ‘canny”, drawing from the narrative of coalminers in Durham, Britain, during the strike wave there, where to “go ca ’canny” meant “work to rule”.

The “ca ‘canny” was not very successful. But the workers were not deterred. In November 1947, the workers went “ca ‘canny” for the same demands. This time around, they won and even arrears from January 1946 summing up to more than £150,000 for various categories of workers was granted. The union was reinstated and an anti-worker system of “rostering” for work, which amounted to casualization of labour was prohibited in the Collective Agreement reached.

But behind its “surrender” to unionisation, management had other plans. The lifting of the ban was to be part of a processes that was meant to split the unions (particularly CWU) into four branches with the aim of separating the most radical leaders from the mass of underground workers. To rub insult upon injury, despite a long drawn process of negotiations on the procedures for implementing the 1947 Collective Agreement, management restored “rostering”. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  

All the attempts by the union executives to make management respect the Collective Agreement’s provision against the casualization of “rostering”, were rebuffed. On November 8, “hewers” who were underground rank and file workers and most affected went on a “wild cat” go slow strike. In an attempt to smash the strike, management sacked 50 of them. This deepened the resistance. “Tub men” joined the “hewers”. The regional government situated in Enugu commenced recruitment of new workers. Remembering the lockout of 1945, the miners occupied the mines.

The colonialists were frightened. This was just a year after the radical nationalist Zikist Movement issued its Call for Revolution, through massive civil disobedience described as “positive action”. The government decided to move out explosives from the mines. 900 policemen were brought to the mines from outside Enugu to effect this. The workers were initially reluctant, believing this was the first step of the bosses towards a lockout. But eventually, they allowed this the police to move out the explosives.

It was within this context, with miners coming out in their hundreds from the underground shaft with red clothes tied to their helmets and arms as they sang solidarity songs in Igbo, that a Captain F. S. Phillips ordered the shooting, claiming that they brandished “weapons - bows, arrows, machetes, long steel bars”. It has been established beyond all reasonable doubts that this statement of his was a blatant lie. The men bore no such arms. Their arms were their conviction, unity, solidarity and labour power.

Phillips not only ordered the shooting. The first miner shot down was Sunday Anyasado with a bullet in the mouth from Phillips’ revolver. Livinus Okechukwuma followed him, also killed by Phillips. As the murderous intent of the state dawned on the striking miners they fled, but even this was not enough for the shameless killers in uniform. At least six of the twenty one miners killed were shot in the back.

The entire country exploded in response. A National Emergency Committee was constituted by trade unions and nationalist groups which mobilised resources to support the miners and their families. For many Nigerians it was a clear demonstration of the need for self-government. The colonial administration tried to quell the situation by immediately constituting a 4-person commission of inquiry led by Judge W. J. Fitzgerald. By the time the commission would be wrapping up its work, there had been a swing in the balance of forces in favour of reaction.

On February 18 1950, Chukwuwonka Ugokwu, a 20-year old blue collar worker and member of the Zikist National Vanguard, which inspired leading activists in the Iva Valley mines attempted to assassinate Sir Hugh Foot. Repression followed against the radical, working class wing of the nationalist movement. This obviously dovetailed into (the boldness of the anti-workers) recommendations of the Fitzgerald’s commission. Leaders of the workers were scapegoated for the strike, jailed and banned from the mines after their release.

There are several lessons to inspire us today from this long drawn struggle which lifted a valley to the heights of a mountain of struggle. It shows that the primary site of our struggle as workers is the workplace. A single branch can inspire the deepening of struggle across the nation. The coalminers never gave up. Standing for years on their demands, they won an agreement after 3 years, including with arrears. But we also can see that the bosses will never give up. When they have the opportunity they roll back gains of years of struggle.

This is exactly why our struggle must not be limited to the piecemeal improvements we can win and do win sometimes. We must fight to defeat the bosses, uniting our different streams of resistance into an ocean of revolution whose tidal waves can smash their system of exploitation. Only thus can we win our emancipation, as workers. This focus should run through our minds as the compass for the many battles we fight, and together, we will one day win this class war, bringing to birth a new world on the ashes of the old.

It is also instructive to note that Iva Valley signalled a turning point in the anti-colonialist movement in that it distilled out the then nascent bosses-class in its full colours as seeing working class-people as mere cannon fodder in the quest of its different sections to win power from the British simply for themselves. Nnamdi Azikiwe (“the Great Zik of Africa” as he was called) actually denied the radical working class youth that organised under a banner that bore his name. He considered them as being ultra-left for their seeking much more than a formal transition from colonial-capitalist rule.

As it became ever more obvious to the middle class nationalists that the British were ready to “negotiate” its departure with them and that thus they would not need the muscle, so to speak, of a mass working class-people’s movement, they, as a whole, started to distance themselves from the more anti-colonial movement from below. This parting of ways was sealed by the Ibadan inter-parliamentary conference, months after Iva Valley. For the colonialists, it was a master stroke to hasten the process of de-radicalising the anti-colonial struggle, and the 1951 Macpherson’s constitution was its seed.

The Iva Valley massacre thus equally heralded the parting of ways between the working class-people and the bosses-class in what was the nationalist movement, showing the illusion that the quest for “progressive” or “national” bourgeoisie is. This is equally a lesson for us at this juncture where discussions on what direction the way forward regarding building a party of the labour movement should be. The emancipation of working class-people can only be won by we ourselves. There should be no illusions in bourgeois co-travellers who would be ready to ditch the working people after using its platform.

Learning from history, we must grasp the beckoning future with informed boldness, as the turning point that Iva Valley signalled inspires our footsteps. Iva Valley made a new generation of radical working class activists, as Mayirue Kolagbodi proudly declared. Lessons from Iva Valley today, 66 years after, must inspire us in the struggle for system change. A luta continua! Vitória é certa!!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

“We All Stand Before History”

“Silence would be treason”
 - Kenule Saro-Wiwa

Kenule Saro-Wiwa: October 10, 1941-November 10, 1995

The world was shocked when General Sani Abacha ordered the execution of Kenule Saro-Wiwa, Saturday Dobee, Nordu Eawo, Daniel Gbooko, Paul Levera, Felix Nuate, Baribor Bera, Barinem Kiobel and John Kpuine on November 10, 1995. 

The diminutive author and activist had been a leading voice for environmental justice and the rights of the Ogoni nationality of about 500,000 people to self-determination. 

The military regime killed his body but the message he heralded remains loud in the ears of those who despoil the earth and oppress the downtrodden, particularly of the minority nationalities in the Niger delta.

Born on October 10, 1941 to the family of an Ogoni chief Jim Wiwa in Bori, “Ken” showed an intense sense of curiosity and brilliance as a youngster. He attended the Government College Umuahia and secured a scholarship to study English at the University of Ibadan. He initially wanted to stay in the academia, taking up a job as teaching assistant at the University of Lagos after leaving UI. But this was just for a brief while.

He returned to Bonny in the Niger delta where he was made a Civilian Administrator. When the Civil War broke out, he supported the federal side because he believed that micro-minorities such as the Ogoni could face even worse marginalisation if the Biafran secession had succeeded. After the war, he was made Commissioner of Education in the newly established Rivers state. 

But by 1973 he was sacked because he insisted on the need for the Ogoni to be autonomous within the state.He then moved into private business with interests in real estate and retail trade. In the 1980s he concentrated more on his talents as an author and journalist. He also produced the very popular television comedy series Basi and Company at this time. Saro-Wiwa was convinced to return to politics in 1987 by Babangida, when the military regime commenced its transition programme.

Ken Saro-Wiwa soon fell out with Babangida and his political transition, when it dawned on him that the programme was actually meant to head to nowhere. He became a founding member of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) in 1990, devoting the last five years of his life to the struggle for environmental justice and the betterment of the lives of the Ogoni. 

He tirelessly campaigned on the platform of the Ogoni Bill of Rights internationally. And within Nigeria MOSOP joined the then ongoing coalescing of “mass democratic organisations” into the Campaign for Democracy united front, and Saro-Wiwa was elected into the CD leadership at its founding Convention in November 1991.

The rising tide of MOSOP’s influence within Ogoni land and far beyond became very worrisome for the military government. In 1992, it detained Ken for several months. But this did not douse the fires blazing against transnational oil corporations (particularly Shell) and the state. On December 3, MOSOP demanded compensation for the despoliation of Ogoni land and the payment of back royalties from Shell, NNPC and Chevron, failing which the movement committed itself to driving them off Ogoni land within 30days. 

31 days later, on January 4, 1993 300,000 Ogoni people marched under the banner of MOSOP to protest against Shell’s continued rape of the environment and exploitation of the people. This was more than half of the entire Ogoni population and the largest mass action ever taken against an oil company anywhere in the world. Haven been organised as the International Year of Indigenous Peoples was unfolding, it received global acclaim. Rattled, the state militarily occupied Ogoni land.

It was not only the Nigerian state that was flustered by this rising. Leaked minutes of a top management meeting of Shell at its Central Offices in early February showed the corporation had decided to ensure that the “movements of key players” within MOSOP like Saro-Wiwa were to be closely monitored. Shell fully supported the occupation force in Ogoni land with “field allowances” for the soldiers and provision of money for arms and ammunition.

Repression became the order of the day. Ken was detained several times in the course of that year. But despite this, Ogoni land was the only place where CD’s campaign for the boycott of the June 12 election was successfully enforced. Ken was again detained, this time for one month (his third detention that year). With the resistance being waged within Nigeria, MOSOP and Saro-Wiwa as its main spokesperson’s profile rose globally, and he was elected Vice-Chair of the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organisation General Assembly.

The macabre drama leading to the “judicial murder” of the Ogoni 9 started on May 21, 199. Soldiers had taken over the Ogoni community of Gokana very early in the morning, and Saro-Wiwa was barred from entering the town. Before the end of the day, four conservative chiefs who stood for a more conciliatory strategy with the state had been killed. 

The military government insisted that their murderers were Ogoni youths incited by Ken Saro-Wiwa, despite being far away from the scene. Several observers looking more closely at the context of the events of that fateful day conclude that it was a lethal set-up with the blood-soaked aim of finding a reason to charge Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots with homicide.

The MOSOP leaders arrested in the wake of those murders were detained for a year before charges were levelled against them, in a tribunal headed by Justice Auta. The trial was so clearly a travesty while it lasted that defence lawyers, including Gani Fawehinmi withdrew from the case, declaring the process as being designed to ensure the defendants face the hangman’s noose. 

Quite a number of the defendants brought up by the prosecution were later to confess that they were bribed with money and promises of jobs with Shell. Despite the obvious charade that the trial was, the Ogoni 9 were declared guilty as charged and sentenced to death. Ten days after the draconian sentence was passed, in spite of worldwide condemnation of it and with twenty more days left before the appeal against it would expire, the nine martyrs were hanged in prison.

But, even in death, Ken Saro-Wiwa and his compatriots mocked the mediocre men behind the hangman. As the Global Day of Remembrance of Martyrs of Environmental Justice, November 10 is now emblazoned worldwide within the repertoire of resistance to the status quo. 

20 years after, not learning from history, the Nigerian state impounded the “Saro-Wiwa bus”, a symbolic work of art that had been designed to mark the 10th year anniversary of the hangings, in London, at the ports. Social Action, a civic organisation with roots in the Niger delta had requested for the memorabilia to use during the 20th anniversary commemoration of that dark day.

Retired Colonel Hammed Ali, the Comptroller-General of Customs who ordered this action represented the army on the Justice Auta tribunal 20 years ago. Today once again, he stands on the wrong side of history, nailing the coffin of his eternal condemnation where the diminutive Ken Saro-Wiwa lives on, in the struggle of the poor Ogoni people and all oppressed peoples fighting to change the world.