The Nigerian Struggle for Independence

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on The Nigerian Independence Movement.

By Prince Vincent-Anene

Colonialism as a subject of research has garnered interest on the path of academic scholars over time. In his book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” Walter Rodney noted that colonialism had only one hand and it was a one-armed bandit. It was a system which functioned well in the interests of the metropoles. Even though it brought some material benefits to European-educated intellectuals, colonialism alienated and frustrated most Nigerians who believed that it eroded traditional cultures and institutions. Colonial rule exploited Nigerian labour in a way that profited European firms far more than Nigerians themselves. It also limited Nigerians’ political participation in issues that concerned the governing of the country. These perceived shortcomings of colonial rule gave rise to Nigerian nationalism otherwise known as anti-colonial movements. Nigerians, like other colonized peoples of the world, sought for their independence. However, unlike societies like America in the American War of Independence (1775), Algeria in the Algerian War of Independence (1955), and Haiti in the Haitian Revolution (1791), Nigeria secured her independence through nonviolent movements. In this article, I will examine Nigeria’s anti-colonial movements, highlighting nonviolence as an alternative way to change political regimes.

While scholars like Frantz Fanon believe that “decolonization is always violent,” the Nigerian anti-colonial movement has proven this not to be always the case. The Nigerian anti-colonial movement is a nonviolent movement which reflects responses and resistance to British rule in Nigeria through strike actions, newspaper press and propaganda, trade unionism, boycott, and mass migration. These actions succeeded in causing a great setback to the colonial administration and forcing Britain to relinquish political authority to Nigerians on Oct 1, 1960. Essentially, the chief weapon of the anti-colonial movement in Nigeria in the twentieth century was the newspaper press. The newspapers were an efficient vehicle of public opinion and the medium of political pressure and propaganda. Those who owned and edited them were themselves actively engaged in politics and this helped considerably to increase the scope of the influence which the newspapers exerted. The pioneer newspaper press attracted a host of remarkable personalities but the most prominent of them all was John Payne Jackson of Nigeria. In politics, he was an acknowledged force, inspiring and directing movements of agitation. He was the author of most of the petitions which the people of Lagos forwarded to the local and imperial authorities during his lifetime. He made his newspaper, the Lagos Weekly Record, not only the most commercially successful among its contemporaries but also an arsenal of ideas from the masses and feared by the colonial officials who quaked before the pressure of his propaganda. Hence, the press and pressmen thus functioned both as opinion molders and nationalist leaders, mounting the podium and the soap box to popularize their viewpoints. The facility with which the press accomplished the latter role, despite the divergent goals and strategies espoused by its editor-publishers, was not lost on the colonial overlords.

Another newspaper which served as a tool in the nonviolent struggle was the West African Pilot, which was a daily newspaper, whose publication had signaled the inauguration of popular journalism in Nigeria. It was the foremost nationalist newspaper in Nigeria during the Second World War. It was founded by Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, an American-trained Nigerian leading journalist and nationalist politician of the period, who had cut his journalistic wisdom teeth in the Gold Coast as the editor of the Accra African Morning Post on November 22, 1937. The West African Pilot had consequently grown to be a fire-eating and aggressive nationalist paper of the highest order. The West African Pilot spread across Nigeria. Starting in Onitsha, the newspaper moved to Warri, Jos, Enugu and even Kano, in the North, taking a more national posture. In 1949, Obamafemi Awolowo, politician and nationalist, also started the Nigerian Tribune in Ibadan, Western Nigeria. For 20 years, ‘Zik’ and ‘Awo’, as they were affectionately known to Nigerians, blew the nationalist trumpet without provoking any significant repression from the colonial authorities who, since the late 1950s, had begun to attune themselves to the reality of African independence. This attitude can be explained by the fact that the British saw the press in Nigeria as a “stabilization factor.” Indeed, it allowed radicals to voice their impatience loudly in Lagos or Ibadan.

Meanwhile, during this period, trade unions were emerging and lending their voices to the nationalist struggle. The Nigerian Union of Railway emerged as the most vibrant of all the unions. It led the struggles and bore hard repression from the state, particularly during the anti-colonial struggle (1940s-1960s) when the country was under the firm grip of colonial rule. Under the leadership of Michael Imoudu, the Nigerian Union of Railwaymen led about 3000 workers protesting against poor conditions of work in a march to colonial Government House. As a result of the intensity of the protest and the support given by the public, the colonial government was compelled to concede the demands.
Nevertheless, the most successful nonviolent struggle championed by the labour movement was the General Strike of 1945. The strike was in protest of the government’s refusal to increase wages after years of severe inflation. While the strike lasted for 44 days in Lagos, it continued for as long as 52 days in the provinces. The Labour Department’s Annual Report for 1945 reported that the total number of workers involved was about 42,951. 41,165 of this figure were public employees, who were direct participants, while the rest were employees of commercial and construction companies, who came out in sympathy.

In the same vein, during the strike, all economic activities, except for the essential services like electricity and hospitals, were paralyzed throughout the country. The strike culminated in the establishment of the Tudor Davies Commission in 1945, whose report, among others, upheld the grudges of the workers against the high cost of living, awarded an increase in the cost-of-living allowance, removed the restrictive legislation on trade union activities and made other recommendations. The strike action also compelled the colonial government to place a premium on labour matters, leading to the creation of a Department of Labour and the enactment of the Trade Disputes and Arbitration Ordinance.

Yet another movement in Nigeria’s history is the Egba Women’s Revolt, a revolt against the imposition of British colonial taxation on Egbaland. In 1916, Lord Lugard, the Governor-General of Nigeria urged the colonial office to impose direct taxation in Egbaland. Three years later, Sir Hugh Clifford imposed a tax that was justified on the basis that Nigeria was a British colony. Britain experienced food shortages in the First World War, and as a result, the Colonial Office instructed their officials in southwestern Nigeria to seize foodstuffs, impose price controls and food quotas and in response to the violent tactics of the colonial machinery, representatives of the market women associations met with and expressed their grievances to the Alake of Egbaland. However, the taxation continued for 30 more years. After several years of economic hardship, Egba women employed other resistance strategies such as strikes and protests. Egba market women challenged the new political structure and economy by engaging in a politics of resistance and refusal. By refusing to pay taxes and striking, these women’s anti-colonial struggle broadened into a larger critique of relations of power under colonialism.

In conclusion, it is evident that the withdrawal of the colonialists from governance in Nigeria and the subsequent handing over of power to Nigerians in 1960 did not come as a result of the British act of benevolence. It came as a consequence of various demonstrations of nonviolent actions, agitation, and efforts of various nationalists movements. The nonviolent struggles were deeply rooted mass strikes and protests, enormous sacrifices largely by Nigerian workers, taking cognizance of newspaper reports which played significant roles of checks and balances in the early colonial administration of Nigeria.

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 1961.

John H. Enemugwem, The Impact of the Lagos Press in Nigeria, 1861 – 1922, A Journal of Contemporary Research Vol 6 (1) 2009.

Talabi Rasheed, Ayegbusi, Nigeria Colonial Experience: Historicizing the Anticolonial Struggles of Labour Movement, Department of Political Science, School of Social Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, 2017.

Emmanuel Nwafor Mordi, In Defense of Empire: Government Press Collaboration in the British win the war efforts in Nigeria during the Second World War, Jebat: Malaysian Journal of History, Politics & Strategic Studies, Vol. 44 (1) (July 2017).

Ubaku, Kelechi Chika, Emeh, Chikezie Anyalewachi, Anyikwa, Chinenye Nkiru, Impact of Nationalist Movement on the actualization of Nigerian Independence, 1914-1960. International Journal of History and Philosophical Research Vol.2, No.1, pp54-67, March 2014.

Olusola Olasupo, Isaac Olayide Oladeji, E. O. C. Ijeoma.

Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, London, 1985.

M’baye Gueye and A. Adu Boahen, African initiatives and resistance in West Africa, 1880-1914, General History Of Africa VII, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1985