Can Nigeria repeat the 1945 general strike?
What started out as a labour kerfuffle by railway employees in June 1945, eventually spread to other unions in the civil service, then private sector workers decided to support their public sector counterparts. It was Nigeria’s first general strike, and involved 17 labour unions and up to 200,000 workers. It lasted 45 days, and caused a total shutdown of the economy. This strike, and not the politicians, was the most devastating blow against colonialism in the country.
When World War II ended, inflation increased, but workers’ wages remained the same. The colonial government had agreed to review wages at the end of the war because of skyrocketing prices. Between 1941 and 1945, the cost of living rose over 50%, a fact acknowledged by the government who increased allowances given to Europeans. This brought in the racial angle.
On March 22, 1945 the Joint Executive of Government Technical Workers sent a letter to the colonial regime demanding a new minimum wage of two shillings, sixpence, and a 50 percent increase in the Cost of Living Allowance. The colonial government replied on May 2, and while it agreed that inflation was on the rise, it argued that “Unless the public is willing to do without, or reduce the consumption of commodities which are scarce, or to substitute other commodities for them, instead of taking the least line of resistance and buying in the black market, no benefit will result from increasing cost of living allowance.”
A workers’ meeting called to respond deplored “the callous attitude of Government to the sufferings of the masses of African Workers”, and gave a one month ultimatum emphasising that “not later than Thursday, June 21, 1945, the workers of Nigeria shall proceed to seek their own remedy with due regard to law and order on the one hand and starvation on the other” unless their demands are met. The resolution was signed by J.A. Ojo and Osmond Osadebo of the Civil Service Union; C.O. Odugbesan and A. Oshosanwo of the Union of Railwaymen; and A. J. Marinho and S. O. Ogunyemi of the Committee of Africans Holding Superior Appointments.
On June 11 the government sent a letter restating its old position, but offering an increase of three pence on COLA for workers in Lagos and 20 percent for workers in the provinces. This offer was rejected. Prior to sending the letter, on June 2, the colonial government set free Michael Imoudu, of the Railway Workers Union. They hoped to divert attention with Imoudu’s release, but it backfired as labour historian, Wogu Ananaba noted, “There is little doubt that but for Imoudu’s activities there might have been no General Strike on June 22.”
On June 14, the African LOCO Drivers Union placed their management on strike notice with effect from midnight, June 21. The Railway workers followed with their own notice. On June 16, a meeting reiterated the strike ultimatum while leaving a window open for possible negotiations. There were no further negotiations.
The general strike started on June 22, 1945.
While many nationalists led by Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Madam Adunni Oluwole and Obafemi Awolowo supported the strike, some, particularly members of the Nigeria Youth Movement tried to sabotage it. The Daily Service, the NYM’s newspaper not only tried to rubbish the strike but unprofessionally omitted any mention of lmoudu’s role in the strike.
During the strike, T.A. Bankole, the president of the All Nigeria Trade Union Congress, was temporarily deposed for listening to the Acting Governor and trying to call off the strike. He was replaced with Imoudu.
Historian, Mokwugo Okoye wrote: “After two weeks of the strike, a committee of gentlemen comprising Dr. Akinola Maja, Dr. K. A. Abayomi, S. L. Akintola and other leaders of the NYM were hired by the government to cajole the strikers back to work; but the men would not budge an inch without definite guarantees which of course the quixotic emissaries could not give, if they ever thought of the matter before hand. Troop movements were frequent and every artifice was tried by the government to break the workers morale, but these failed.”
The strike was successful as most of the workers’ demand for an increase in cost of living allowance were met in 1946 and backdated to 1945. In bringing together different trade unions and striking for ten weeks, the workers generated worldwide sympathy. The strike proved that if Nigerians organised well enough and cohesively, they could pose a threat to the status quo.
Seventy-three years have passed since the General Strike of 1945, and sadly, the headlines are pretty much the same. Wages are stagnant, and the cost of living for the average Nigerian has skyrocketed over the last five years or so. Promises have been made by the government and promises have been broken. The tactics that the government will use in the event of a strike will be the same. Some labour leaders will be reached out to a la T.A Bankole, and nebulous groups will be employed to tarnish the image of the strikers, a la the NYM. Those have not changed.
What has changed is the faith of Nigerians in the integrity of the majority of their labour leaders. We no longer have men in the mould of Ojo, Osadebo, Odugbesan, and Imoudu. The current crop of labour leaders have proven time and again that they are in it for self, not for the greater good.
Also, as was shown in the Occupy Nigeria protests six years ago, and many protests ever since, poverty has been effectively weaponised in Nigeria. The Nigerian simply no longer has the stamina to stay out of work for ten weeks. In the ensuing chaos, we have turned on each other.
Ultimately, something will give. But do not expect it to be as a result of a united action by Nigeria’s workers.