Centenary of Trade Unionism in Nigeria

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Hundred years ago, on 19 August 1912 to be precise, the first trade union organization was born in Nigeria. Though, it was initially called Southern Civil Service Union, it had about 500 memberships, which spread from South to North. It was later renamed Nigerian Civil Service Union after the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern protectorates. It was organized and headed by Henry Liebert who was a Sierra Leonean immigrant living then in Nigeria.

Worthy of note here is that this came about two years before Nigeria nation-state was formed in 1914. The union already had its branches in Kaduna and Port-Harcourt as early as 1913 even before amalgamation was pronounced, after-all, colonial exploitation was biting painfully hard not only in the southern protectorate, but also more terribly in the Northern protectorate. Nigerian working class started out with hands of solidarity and comradely interactions nation-wide, without any ethnic and religious bigotry, even before the nation was born.

A lot of battles were waged and won by this union against the colonial masters and this further encouraged more workers to enroll and by 1931 another two major unions were formed: Nigerian Union of Teachers and Nigeria Railway Workers Union. Colonial economy was mainly geared towards making Nigeria supplier of raw materials for imperialist economy. This made railway transportation the main pivot upon which the whole colonial economy was resting. The railway workers were carrying the burden of the colonial economy and felt that their interest might not be properly protected under the Civil Service Union where they were before 1931. Expectedly, Nigerian Railway Workers Union started out as a very militant labour union and was lucky to have a fearless and honest leadership headed by Pa Michael Imoudu.

The revolutionary wave, that that was ravaging the world after the Second World War did not spare Nigeria. The first major confrontation between the Colonial master and the Nigerian working class broke out in June 1945, under the leadership of Michael Imoudu. This general strike lasted for 40 days and all the workers demands completely won. The 1945 general strike marked a significant turning point in the history of trade unionism in Nigeria; it was not for joke that Michael Imoudu eventually became the all-time Nigerian Labour leader number 1. This strike passed an unforgettable message to the colonial masters that Nigerian workers had finally arrived and were equally capable of revolutionary acts like their counterpart the world over. If the Nigerian workers had carried out this magnificent struggle under an independent working class party, the question of workers power might have been concretely posed, but it all ended up as ordinary economic struggle. The colonial masters did not leave this matter for chance; if Nigerian working class of 1945 was that powerful, what would become of it in 1950s and above?

The immediate response of the colonial masters was Richardson constitution of 1946 and its further consolidation with 1952 Macpherson constitution. The main objective was to commence a process of gradually ceding political administration to a more reliable and obviously submissive section of Nigerians. To hand-over political power to those who can reliably protect the interest of the colonial masters, after they must have inevitably left. Unfortunately, for the colonial masters, Nigeria of 1940s lacked a real bourgeois class that could immediately assume the mantle of leadership, after all, what is the essence of capitalist class without productive capital?

The only main native political platform existing as at 1944 was NCNC, which was mainly a political movement of the middle class and educated elites, in alliance with organized trade unions. While creating a political space for native populace to play in, colonial masters accelerated the process of creating a suitable political class, and immediately embarked on destruction of existing radical political platform on ground.

Hundreds of elites were sent abroad for special education in administration and act of governance. Ahmadu Bello was sent to England within this period and was encouraged to setup a tribal political party in 1949, to break the Northern elements from radical national political platform. This was immediately followed by the transformation of another tribal grouping “Egbe Omo Odudua” to a political party – Action Group in 1950. This period marked the beginning of ethnic poisoning of collective consciousness and absolute breakdown of national solidarity.

Contrary to how bourgeois historian will want us to believe; the real heroes of Nigerian independence remain the Nigerian working class that waged over three decades battling against colonialism and imperialist exploitation even before bourgeois political class came to existence.

It is obviously untrue that it was by mere raising of hand in the parliament by young Enahoro that Nigeria eventually got her political independence. It was in the best interest of the nascent political class and their colonial masters to falsify the history of our independence, so as to wrongfully assign the credit where it did not belong and thereby preserving the status-quo.

Unfortunately, after 100 years of its existence, the major obstacle to full realization and emancipation of Nigerian working class remains un-surmounted. The obstacle, preventing it from transiting from being a class in itself to a class for itself, that is, the absence of an independent working class party, party based on working class ideology of socialism.

It has always been a case of Nigerian working class lining itself behind one local bourgeois or the other, the task of building its own independent party remains unresolved. The farthest working class has gone in this is the present Labour Party, but unfortunately, the leadership of working class formed this party and turned its back, thereby surrendering the party to the most incapable and useless section of the ruling elites. One hundred years later, the task remains the building of independent party of the working class.