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Ahmed Aminu Yusuf
THE 1945 GENERAL STRIKE AND THE STRUGGLE FOR NIGERIA
The 1945 General Strike, the first of its kind in Nigeria, was the first Pan – Nigerian, nation-wide, anti-colonial struggle against British domination that was initiated, organized, and executed by workers, strongly supported and greatly sustained by market women, widely publicized by the nationalist politicians, and internationalized by Africans in the Atlantics. It broadened the struggle for Nigeria’s independence from a mere Lagos (capital city) affair to a national affair, radicalized it from merely newspaper affair to workplace and street matter, and transformed it from elitist business to a popular - ordinary peoples’ – business. The 1945 General Strike was indeed a “dramatic opening,” a “tremendous event,” a “watershed,” a “landmark” and an “outlet for the steam” of workers’ activism and militancy. It equally compelled the British colonial forces “to live up to some of its war-era developmentist rhetoric”. It was, indeed, the struggle that initiated the struggle for Nigeria by Nigerians.
James Coleman, Gabriel Olusanya, Wogu Ananaba, Robin Cohen, Baba Oluwide, Ehiedu Iweriebor, and Lisa Lindsay attributed the causes of the strike to economic issues, in particular the refusal of the colonial government to increase wages and the cost of living allowances (COLA). Cohen, for instance, opines that without the “political ineptness of the colonial government, it is possible that the strike would have been averted. Certainly the refusal to raise wages and increase the COLA increased support for the strike and the strength of purpose of the strikers.” Souter was categorical that the cause of the strike was “economic, not political.”
The economic factor was, without doubt, an important cause of the 1945 General Strike. The demands put forward by the strikers were mainly economic. The major issues used by the trade union leaders and activists, to mobilize workers were economic ones, i.e., increase in wages and COLA. The reasons given by the colonial authorities for rejecting the demands of the workers and their unions were also economic. In addition, the colonial government also argued it lacked money to pay for these improvements while stressing “the strategic importance of Empire goods as a reason for holding down wage demands.”
Secondly, although virtually all the studies raised the question of racial discrimination as an issue in 1945 General Strike, the issue has been seen and interpreted from a merely economic perspective, i.e., the award of discriminatory wages and allowances. Similarly, while all the studies brought out the role of The West African Pilot and The Daily Comet in supporting the workers, the ACSTWU, and the 1945 General Strike, their roles were again restricted to economic issues – increases in wages and COLA.
Thirdly, Ananaba and Cohen blamed the then Governor-General, Richards for causing the strike by not approving the demands of the workers, or even reaching a sort of compromise with the unions. Ananaba puts his point thus:
If Sir Bernard was the shrewd diplomat, having a temperament and disposition that earned respect and admiration, his successor was precisely the opposite. Sir Arthur seemed to look upon every desire for improvement or reform with a jaundiced eye as unnecessary political agitation, which must be crushed at all costs. This weakness soon became an obsession, and was largely responsible for the strained relationship between him and leading political figures in the country throughout his tenure of office.
Fifth, alongside blaming the cause of the General Strike on Sir Richards is the attribution of the success of the strike to Michael Imoudu. Thus Cohen opines that the
government also committed a grave political miscalculation, perhaps because of the inexperience of the Acting Governor, Whitely. Hoping to remove the sting from the workers’ demands, he ordered Imoudu be released. Instead Imoudu returned to Lagos to be feted by the Lagos crowds and in no time play a leading role in the strike.
Ananaba was more categorical in attributing the success of the strike to Imoudu: “There is little doubt that but for Imoudu’s activities there might have been no General Strike on June 22. It might still have taken place but not on that day.”
Combining Vladimir Lenin’s theory of imperialism, Frantz Fanon’s theory of the colonial order, and Peter P. Ekeh theory of the African state, I will argue that the 1945 General Strike was a visible manifestation of the deepening crisis of colonialism in Nigeria, and imperialism in general, specifically British imperialism. Accordingly, that a scientific analysis of the 1945 General Strike must address and connect the crisis of colonialism in Nigeria with the crisis that preceded and accompanied imperialism in the Second World War. In this respect, therefore, I will argue that while the worsening of the living and working conditions of the workers and the vast majority of Nigerians played a crucial role in causing the 1945 General Strike, racial, political, cultural, and social factors played an equally extremely significant role in causing and, even, sustaining the strike. Specifically, I will argue that a crucial factor in causing and sustaining the strike was the belief on the parts of the workers and other working people:
(i) that it is essential and necessary to change the intolerable conditions of live for the better;
(ii) that these intolerable conditions are not natural and immutable, but are human –made and changeable; and
(iii) that the change can be effected only through their physical capacity to source it.
Of great significance in generating this belief are:
(i) the general problems which confronted the vast majority of the colonized people.
(ii) the influences of Nigerian nationalist politicians within and outside Nigeria.
(iii) the impact of Pan-Africanism led by Africans in the Americas, and the popular protests within Africa, the Caribbean Islands, and the national liberation movement in India, amongst others.
(iv) the decline of Britain as world power and emergence of, first, Germany as a world imperialist power, and second - after the War - the United States of America as a major imperialist power.
(v) the influences of socialist and communist movements all over the world, especially in the Soviet Union;
(vi) and the support of the democratic and civil society groups in the West, especially in the United States of America, Canada, and Britain.
My proposed paper is a historiographical assessment of the 1945 General Strike. My paper will specifically analyze the causes and consequences of the 1945 General Strike; examine the organization and execution of the strike; discuss the reactions of the colonial state and the colonized people to the strike, highlight the geographical or nation - wide spread of the strike, and show the significance of the strike to the independence struggle and nation-building. A study of this nature is important because, while the livings close he eyes of the dead, so too do the dead open the eyes of the living. It is hoped that the study will shed light on the contributions of working people to the long and protracted struggle for change, development and democracy in Nigeria.