Magazine article New African

Dawn of Nationalism: Peter Ezeh Is Wowed by Obi Ekwenchi's Rendition, in Concrete, of a Massacre 50 Years Ago of 18 Coal Miners in Enugu by the British Colonial Police. (Art and Culture)

Magazine article New African

Dawn of Nationalism: Peter Ezeh Is Wowed by Obi Ekwenchi's Rendition, in Concrete, of a Massacre 50 Years Ago of 18 Coal Miners in Enugu by the British Colonial Police. (Art and Culture)

Article excerpt

Usually when people narrate history, they do so orally or write. Now, Obi Ekwenchi, a Nigerian sculptor, has made a speciality of using hammer and chisel to achieve the same aim. His spectacular accomplishment in this genre has been what he called the Dawn of Nationalism, a piece he executed to commemorate the massacre in Enugu 50 years ago of 18 Nigerian coal miners by the British colonial police.

The story of this tragedy occurred in the forenoon of 18 November 1949 in what is now the capital of Enugu State, one of the 36 states in the current Nigerian Federation.

Writers on the agitation that finally earned Nigeria its independence from Britain 11 years later (in 1960), always include the Enugu event as a major catalyst. (Note the name that Ekwenchi gave his sculptural depiction of it).

What is by all standards unique is Ekwenchi's strategy. Although it is in the challenging medium of the three dimensional art, nevertheless a good textbook illustration of the story may not fare better in terms of details and represenrativeness.

To appreciate the piece, a bit of the background story is necessary. The Nigerian miners in the Britishran coal industry had called the strike to demand an increase in wages. Rather than negotiate with the workers, the foreign managers opted for coercion of the extreme type.

As Mbazulike Amechi, a labour leader who helped mobilise support for the beleaguered miners, recalls in a recent book: "It was decided that going to [the] negotiation table with the workers would amount to capitulation and that the only course of action open to the imperial administration was to use force to suppress what was then described as political agitation."

A 100-strong detachment of police armed to the teeth were detailed to deal with the workers who had nothing but their implements. By the time the firing was over, 18 of the poor workers lay dead and more than 100 others were wounded.

Expression of revulsion over the senseless aggression was worldwide. A commission of inquiry headed by a Briton even blamed the police for, to quote it, an "error of judgement". The Soviet Union announced scholarships for children of the slain and wounded workers. At home, the fear of a possible grimmer future impelled the nationalists to intensify their agitation for independence.

Those who already know the story will require no assistance in interpreting the multi-figure sculpture that stands very nearly life-size at the first roundabout as one enters the city of Enugu from its southern side, some metres away from the macabre historic event.

The drama is vivid. Only the nationalists have but one figure symbolising them. …

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