This is the eighth edition of the serial on OWEI LAKEMFA’s latest work: “One hundred years of trade unionism in Nigeria”. The seventh part was published yesterday.
WORKERS’ Power: The 1964 Uprising
1964 was a momentous year for the Labour Movement; it was the year multiple general strikes were held. Labour leaders openly called for the overthrow of the Tafawa-Balewa government, with some trade unionists actually planning a coup d’etat.
Within two years of Nigeria’s 1960 political independence the country was on the boil. The Federal Government which had not been a disinterested party in the crisis that engulfed the Western Region in 1962 imposed an administrator, Moses Adekoyejo Majekodunmi, on the region.
Majekodunmi, an obstetrician and gynaecologist was a senator and Minister of State for Army, and later Health before his appointment. He brought no solution to the crisis which was further exacerbated by the trial and conviction for treason of the Action Group leaders led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Chief Awolowo’s conviction came on September 11, 1963. The Federal Government which had demonstrated incompetence by its handling of the controversial 1963 census showed where its sympathy laid when it helped to enthrone Awolowo’s rival and chief antagonist, Chief Samuel Ladoke Akintola, as Premier of the troubled region.
Akintola was Federal Minister of Labour between 1952 and 1953: Workers complained about growing graft in the country and conversely, their deteriorating working and living conditions. Uzodinma Nwala, a lecturer at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, wrote on this: “There was a fierce competition to amass wealth by the ruling class. Most of them played a comprador role to foreign capital. Foreign trade missions, financed by the state and undertaken on behalf of the country, were often occasions for contracting private business relationships. Enviable government agencies were created to provide jobs for political allies and clients. While these developments were going on, the lot of the working class deteriorated owing to inflation, unemployment and break down in morale. This was compounded by an austerity programme by the government in which workers were called upon to make sacrifices.”
The workers response to these was to demand justice, recognition of human right, a rescue of the economy and wage increases in line with the cost of living. The United Labour Congress, ULC, at its May 1963 Annual Convention mandated the executive to press for a general upward review of salaries. In July 1963, the ULC wrote all political party leaders and legislators protesting the introduction of the Preventive Detention Act, and attempts to form a so called “National Government” where opposition will be absent, and the low wages paid workers.
The letter signed by Lawrence Borha its general secretary warned that ignoring the workers plea for a living wage was an “…unnecessary provocation and an unenlightened invitation to industrial strife and discord of a magnitude that could portray the body of the nation’s economic growth disastrously.” While ULC was engaged in these protests and getting its members prepared for a possible industrial action, the leaders of the Nigeria Trade Union Congress, NTUC, had come to the conclusion that a general strike was inevitable if workers were to win any concession on the issues at stake.
On August 19, 1963, the ULC and the NTUC formed a joint wages committee. When the Nigeria Workers Council (NWC) the Nigeria Union of Railway men, Federated and other smaller unions joined the ULC and NTUC in September 1963 on the wage issue, a new body, the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of all trade unions was born. The JAC which had Haroon Popoola Adebola the ULC president as chairman also had the NTUC General Secretary Samuel Udoh Bassey as scribe. Other main leaders of the JAC were Michael Imoudu and Wahab Goodluck.
The JAC gave a general strike notice. The government did not as much as take a side glance of the JAC; to it, JAC was a phanton that existed in workers imagination. The JAC called a lighting strike on September 27, 1963. “The stoppage was complete and brought all economic activities to a stand-still. This brought it instant government recognition.
Labour Minister, Joseph Modupe Johnson, JMJ, and the Labour Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, M. A. Tokunboh who was the founding General Secretary of the country’s first labour centre, the 1943 Trade Unions Congress of Nigeria, TUCN, met the JAC leaders to agree on ways of solving the crisis. Both sides agreed that a high-powered commission be set up with the following terms of reference.
1. to investigate the existing wage structure, remuneration and conditions of service in the wage earning employment in the country and to make recommendations concerning a suitable new structure, as well as adequate machinery for a wage review on a continuing basis.
2. to examine the need for (a) a general upward revision of salaries and wages of junior employees in both government and private establishments. (b) the abolition of daily wage system (c) the introduction of a national minimum wage. The culture of setting up wage commissions was inherited from the British colonialists. The Labour Ministry according to its former official, Michael Abiodun, complained that “ A major characteristic of these quasi-legislative bodies is that they have not generally been established willingly by government; for the most part, such bodies have been forced on the government through workers agitation, quite often backed by the threat of, or actual work stoppages. Also, while these commissions are often confined to specific or broad industrial relations issues, many of them have had all embracing tasks.”
A seven man Commission was put together on this occasion, it was headed by Justice Adeyinka Morgan, the Chief Justice of the troubled Western Region. The other members of the Morgan Commission were Abdu Gusau, C. O. Nwokedi, O. I. A. Akinkugbe, T. E. Salubi and T. M. Yesufu, a political economist who within a year of his call to service was made professor of applied economics at the University of Lagos. Mr. S. O. Sodipo was appointed the Commission’s Secretary. The Morgan Commission sat for seven months from October 14, 1963.
By the time it ended its sit
tings in April 1964, it had received memoranda from 258 persons and organisations and took oral evidence from fifty five individuals. The commission had public sittings in Lagos, Enugu, Kaduna and Ibadan. It then submitted its Report.
The Bloody Battle On Carter Bridge: After the Morgan Wage Commission had finished its work, workers were visibly expectant. Following perceived delays in releasing the Morgan Report, JAC on May 25, 1964 issued a general strike threat unless the Report was published. Two days later, the Report surfaced but not the White Paper. Three days of discussions and speculations followed this. On May 30, 1964 the JAC called a mass rally for Surulere, a new low cost housing area of Lagos.
The meeting resolved to go on a general strike action if by June 1, 1964 the government had not given a favourable response to the Morgan Commission Report. To further show their displeasure, the mass rally decided that workers should stage a demonstration from the Surulere venue to the Herbert Macaulay, Yaba, Lagos headquarters of the ULC whose president Haroon Adebola was also the JAC chairman.
The workers were enthusiastic and what followed was a mass demonstration with workers heading for Herbert Macaulay. The march, despite the ban on public meetings, went off peacefully. Adebola who was at the head of the marchers was satisfied; the workers wanted a strong, militant leadership and he had given them that. But he did not contend with the man called Michael Imoudu, the ‘Number One’ Labour leader.
Adebola had thought that with the successful mass rally and the subsequent militant demonstration, workers would disperse to plan and prepare for the general strike planned to hold forty-eight hours later. But Imoudu had other plans. He argued that although the demonstration had been successful and the ban on public processions defied, it would be more effective were workers to march on the seat of government on the Lagos Island. He said if the official leaders of JAC were developing cold feet, he was ready to lead workers in the march.
Back in 1945, the official leaders of the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria, TUCN, had decided to postpone a general strike for cost of living allowance by two weeks. Imoudu had argued against the postponement. In his charismatic manner, he persuaded the workers and took over the leadership of that strike.
The TUCN leaders led by T. A. Bankole had to throw in the towel and the strike went on. That was in 1945. Adebola who knew this story too well was not willing to allow history repeat itself. By the time Imoudu, clad in a traditional war dress started his popular sing song in faulty Yoruba “T a lo ni ile yi?” (Who owns this land?) and the workers were responding “Awa lo nile yi” (We own this land) Adebola knew Imoudu had carried the day. This sing song was initially used in colonial times against the British, now Imoudu was using it in post independence Nigeria which was suggestive of his thinking that the country was still being run by the British but through their lackeys.
Rather than allow Imoudu hijack the rally and the impending strike, Adebola announced that he would lead the workers in the protest march against the seat of government. Wahab Goodluck, one of the JAC leaders who emerged as a folk hero following this 1964 uprising narrated what happened next: “A two-kilometre long march of workers began with six people abreast. They were marching to parliament buildings at Race Course (now Tafawa Balewa Square).
Armed riot policemen
At the Iddo end of the Carter bridge (which linked the Lagos Mainland and Island) were amassed armed riot policemen and army auxiliaries. Information soon spread that H. P. Adebola who was at the head of the march was having second thoughts about the entire affair.
Workers broke ranks and rushed to tell him either to lead or they would be nasty to him. At the other end (of the bridge) were massed anti-riot policemen in full force. Soon, the fully equipped and armed policemen rushed and met the marchers half way on the narrow bridge.
They tear-gassed the marchers, baton charged, kicked and punched. The police-government reaction was so brutal that many labour leaders were injured and hospitalised. Haroon Adebola reluctant leader of that march had his head battered and arm fractured by the police. Rumours spread that he had died in that attack, until he was found in a hospital. Those who were not injured did not get off lightly.