The Nairobi General Strike, 1950: From Protest to Insurgency

Government Road, Nairobi, 1950

The Nairobi General Strike [1950] was the culmination of Kenya’s post war strike wave and urban upheaval. An unprecedented upsurge occurred with the general strikes in Mombasa [1947] led by the African Workers Federation [A.W.F.] and in Nairobi by the East African Trades Union Congress [E.A.T.U.C.]. While this has been termed and treated as a city wide strike, there is enough evidence to suggest a movement that went some way beyond Nairobi. The extent of the cohesion and reciprocal impacts amongst urban and rural Africans involved in the strike were underplayed by the colonial government and the media that followed it.

Submitted by Mike Harman on January 22, 2018

‘The Nairobi General Strike [1950]: from protest to insurgency’, Dave Hyde in Andrew Burton [Editor] The Urban Experience in Eastern Africa c.1750-2000 [ISBN 1-872566-26-X] 2002; also published in Azania Volume 37 [2002], Journal of the British Institute in Eastern Africa.

The Nairobi General Strike [1950] was the culmination of Kenya’s post war strike wave and urban upheaval. An unprecedented upsurge occurred with the general strikes in Mombasa [1947] led by the African Workers Federation [A.W.F.] and in Nairobi by the East African Trades Union Congress [E.A.T.U.C.]. While this has been termed and treated as a city wide strike, there is enough evidence to suggest a movement that went some way beyond Nairobi. The extent of the cohesion and reciprocal impacts amongst urban and rural Africans involved in the strike were underplayed by the colonial government and the media that followed it. Amongst other issues, this account has attempted to address the social physiognomy and scope of this struggle, the embryonic dual power within the city, the character of the E.A.T.U.C. leadership and its relationship to the Kenya African Union [K.A.U.]. Overall, what began as an urban led struggle with organised labour at the helm was subsequently reoriented into the forests and highlands.

The context of crisis, 1939-50

The period between 1939-50 must be set against the background of a profound crisis in the colonial economy and in its relationship to the British metropole. As the Sterling Area took formal shape in 1940, Kenya’s production and trade became more tightly regulated. Its exports were subject to compulsory purchase and manufactured imports were strictly rationed. Like other colonies, Kenya’s sterling balances were held in London where they became an interest free loan to the British government, crucial to financing both its wartime debts and the costs of post war reconstruction. Kenya had also to play its part in the recovery of the British economy by supplying essential raw materials and by earning much needed-dollars to reduce Britain’s deficit with the U.S. Meanwhile, the colonial government was limited in its capacity to raise the level of expenditure in its own territory and restricted in its imports from dollar areas.

To meet these demands and to preserve fiscal base of colonial state, the colonial government was forced to promote the African peasant producer in order to finance its bureaucracy and to ensure the survival of the settler farming community through subsidies until international commodity prices rose in the late forties. African farmers were urged to maximise the production of food and other commodities to meet wartime needs regardless of the long term consequences on soil fertility. As well as accelerating the physical deterioration of the reserves, this policy also encouraged individualism and social differentiation. There were crop failures and near famine conditions in some areas.

Nairobi’s population more than doubled to at least 100,000 during 1939-50, mostly attributable to wartime migration into the city. This was fueled by serious problems of landlessness in the Kikuyu reserves which were pushing out increasing numbers of ahoi. The land litigation cases that followed, especially in Kiambu, saw the losers becoming either workers in their former lands, now owned by the growing elite of commercial farmers, or simply leaving for Nairobi. The ranks of those who were city bound were later swelled by dispossessed squatters who were expelled from the White Highlands following the production drive by settler farmers in response to the increased demand for agricultural products during the war. Landless migrants flocked into an urban environment of declining living standards, unemployment, low wages and a massive housing crisis. As a result growing numbers of unemployed and vagrants became dependent on crime and the informal sector to eke out a meagre subsistence. The government and the municipality were overwhelmed by the rising tide of rootless migrants who sought refuge in the slums of Pumwani and the mushrooming shanty areas which had sprung up beyond the municipal boundaries. Unable to control Nairobi’s African locations, the Municipality resorted to curfews and influx controls. The government tightened legislation against the movement of Africans falling outside the sphere of formal employment who were criminalised as ‘spivs’ and ‘drones’. However, with reserves situated fairly close to the city, large numbers were able to evade these pass laws.

The Spectre of Dual power

Between 1947 and 1950 the presence of the administration and the police was ‘extremely weak’ in the African locations, ‘which were abandoned to the control of political militants and their allies among the Kikuyu dominated street gangs...’ These armed groups were virtually untouchable, functioning in a protected space which Atieno Odhiambo has called an ‘ungovernable republic’. It was here that, according to Throup, ‘the Nairobi poor created their own alternative society in clandestine opposition to the forces of law and order and to the colonial state’. As a result the government was ‘reduced to impotence...’.This embryonic sovereignty was at its firmest in Nairobi’s ‘faubourgs’ of Shauri Moyo and Pumwani, the areas which gave the strongest support to the strike and where most of the running battles between the police, the army and the strikers occurred. These were effectively no-go areas where the collapse of state authority ‘had reached such a critical state that only large bodies of police, operating in military fashion, could be successful against such formidable opponents...’. The colonial state was minimalist and still far from reaching into the workplace and living space of the African population. This enabled a variant of dual power to emerge in Nairobi, though one as yet in its early stages, which threw the colonial government out of its equilibrium.

The Nairobi Municipal Tenants Association, in its claims for welfare rights, was one expression of this foetal sovereignty. The organisation was established to campaign against high rents, the dilapidated state of accommodation, the chronic shortage of latrines, standpipes and the absence of storm drainage for which it demanded ‘immediate improvements’. Until the emergence of the E.A.T.U.C., the most important organisation in the locations was Anaka a forti, which apparently saw itself as a political vanguard. According to one of its leaders interviewed by Furedi ‘...we felt that the K.A.U. was going too slow and that the only way to change things was through violence. This is why we started armed robberies. Most of the Africans in Nairobi were behind us and they would not inform the police of our activities’. Anaka a forti seems to have had deep roots amongst the youth, ex-soldiers, petty traders, prostitutes, and the criminalised generally. This gave it the protection it required against the ‘mopping up’ operations organised by plain clothes police against ‘spivs’ and ‘drones’. Few of the group’s leaders were ever arrested. According to Maina Macharia the group was very influential in Pumwani, Kariokor and Kaloleni. He recalls ‘secret meetings’ without licenses during the daytime and that ‘houses in Pumwani were venues’. It gathered resources for its political activities from protection rackets, armed robberies, illegal trading in alcohol and prostitution. Not a small amount of this money was used to finance the K.A.U. and the A.W.F.

Anaka a forti was able to build up a formidable organisation which extended into all parts of Central Province and into some areas of the Rift Valley. Its cadres were sent out into the reserves to establish branches. This organisational drive was particularly successful in Nyeri and Fort Hall districts. The group consolidated its links with the reserves by setting up a series of district committees in Nairobi. Group members from Nyeri, Fort Hall, Kiambu, the Rift Valley, Embu, Meru and Machakos who lived in Nairobi worked under the direction of their district committees in the urban area. According to Furedi, this was the basis of ‘the system of informal government’ which the group created in the African locations. The organisation’s extensive networks were probably pivotal to the spread of the general strike beyond Nairobi.

The proliferation of a gang culture, political groups, trade unions and the emergence of a city wide African tenants association on the ‘complex social field of the city’ were all aspects of an emerging singular, though contradictory phenomenon. All shared interchangeable memberships. Nairobi’s urban cauldron facilitated a density of social connections rooted in the working class, petty traders, amongst the unemployed and rootless migrants. Whilst the restiveness of these layers was fuelled by rural discontent, this was given shape by the political ferment in Nairobi. This gives us some insight into the mass involvement in the Nairobi General Strike with its prodigious support amongst the outcast poor that extended far beyond the trade union movement.

East African Trade Union Congress: social physiognomy and the continuities of leadership

The arousal of the organised working class in Kenya occurred during the twenties as trade unionism emerged amongst Asian artisans on the railways and in the printing trade, though it was not until the post-war strike wave [1947-50] that it became a force to be reckoned with. It quickly made the leap from craft based forms of consciousness to embrace general unionism when the Labour Trade Union of East Africa [L.T.U.E.A.] was founded by Makhan Singh in 1935 who organised a turn towards African workers in an attempt to overcome racial divisions. Here workers showed signs of moving beyond sectional bargaining over the wage contract towards confronting the employers as a whole.

The tradition of general unionism persisted and was unbroken by government attempts to mould ‘industrial’ unions through the Trades Unions and Trades Disputes Ordinance [1943]. This tradition was combined with a nationalist inspired syndicalism within the African Workers Federation [A.W.F.] which led the Mombasa General Strike of 1947. Maina Macharia relates that it “was workers who formed the federation. It was formed within the strike. It had not the idea of affiliation. I don’t now whether they had a constitution”. Apparently, the A.W.F. believed it should be ‘the leading party and be superior to the K.A.U.’, a position that became a point of ambivalence in the E.A.T.U.C. Bill Freund has interpreted the emergence of the federation as ‘herald[ing] the birth of class based politics’. The agitation of the A.W.F. which blended purely trade union demands with the call for an end to colonial rule had a radicalising effect on Nairobi’s African locations. Maina tells us that in early 1947 crowds of up to 5,000 were turning out in Nairobi to hear its leader Chege Kibachia. A groundswell was provoked following Kibachia’s arrest on July 22nd, 1947 immediately after a ceremony to name a spot under a tree in Nairobi “Offisi ya Maskini,” the Office of the Poor, ‘bringing the symbolism of the Mombasa strike to Kenya’s capital’. Following Eliud Mathu’s intervention to urge workers to call off the January strike, Kenyatta, then K.A.U. president, called a mass meeting to condemn ‘illegal strikes’ and to dissociate his organisation from the intended stoppage to press for Kibachia’s release. By this time the A.W.F. was already fading, as fast as it had spontaneously arisen, though its tradition was carried over.

The career of Mwangi Macharia reveals much of the many-sidedness of the movement that led to the Nairobi General Strike and problems which fuelled it involving his part in the labour movement in Mombasa and Nairobi, the activities of Anaka a forti and peasant revolt in Murang’a. Mwangi was at the forefront of all these struggles and, as Maina remembers, “was a man without fear and with principles”. Mwangi’s role as the A.W.F.’s secretary seems to have been pivotal to the continuity of leadership and experience between the A.W.F. and the E.A.T.U.C. Prior to becoming involved in Mombasa, he was secretary of the plumbers union whose members worked for Nairobi Municipal Council, the Public Works Department [P.W.D.] and for the many contractors in the city. According to Maina, Mwangi had also been “one of the leaders” of the Forty Group in Fort Hall and that he “had gone to Mombasa to assist Chege Kibachia in the Mombasa strike”.

Maina relates that, during the Mombasa strike Mwangi was “sent up to Nairobi to form a branch of the African federation”. This was the first step in a drive to build a colony-wide union as branches were subsequently established in Nanyuki, Nakuru, Gilgil and Naivasha. Maina tells that there were also plans to build branches in Kisumu and Kakamega “and the rest”. This campaign coincided with widespread strike actions “in various places” in the Rift Valley. At the end of the strike Mwangi was dismissed from his job on the railways and escorted by the police to Murang’a “so that he could not cause the problem in Nairobi”. According to Maina, whilst in Murang’a, Mwangi founded and led the Kikuyu Murang’a African Union which was “backed by the Forty Group”. Maina explains that it was not a trade union but a general welfare organisation. This movement organised and played a leading role in the mitaro war against the Agricultural Department’s attempt to inflict forced labour on women to dig trenches and bench terraces as part of its ‘betterment’ campaign. This was implemented in face of a serious crisis of soil depletion which was brought on as a result of overcropping in response to the government’s productionist offensive.

The department’s large scale intervention in African social and economic life through a variety of ‘development’ programmes, particularly in Central Province, politicised African struggles and focused them squarely on the state. Fresh from this experience Mwangi came to Nairobi in 1949 where he was to play a principal role in the E.A.T.U.C. and in the General Strike.

The E.A.T.U.C. was founded on May Day 1949 by five registered unions at a rally attended by ‘thousands’of Indian and African workers where it advanced a programme of minimum trade union demands and made a call for national independence ‘at an early date’. Significantly, it restrained its political commitment to critical support for the constitutional reformism of the K.A.U. Whereas the L.T.U.E.A. and the A.W.F. had been general unions for all workers, the E.A.T.U.C. was Kenya’s first trade union confederation and, in Maina’s words, “the centre”. The E.A.T.U.C. was embedded in a wide and complex movement of many facets and faces that was mostly below the vision and beyond the reach of the authorities. Here, former squatters, petty traders, the unemployed, industry and service workers, mbaris, gangs, political groups, trade unions and an under class of thieves, prostitutes and beersellers were intimately bound to each other. Oathing amongst these layers served to cement these ties. Crucially, the E.A.T.U.C. represented the most advanced consciousness of this movement. Whilst its members and supporters brought all manner of baggage with them, as a labour movement it aspired to be above craft, racial and tribal divisions. The E.A.T.U.C. was a pole of attraction bringing together workers ostensibly riddled with differences, though those of Kikuyu origin were undoubtedly predominant.

The congress immediately threw its weight behind Nairobi’s taxi drivers in their struggle against punitive municipal by-laws. These gave the council powers to refuse licences to drivers if they could not read and write in English, or had a criminal record. The T.A.W.U., the drivers union, called out 2,000 of its members in early October 1949 for a month long strike in support of its demand that the laws be repealed or amended. It is important to note that the taxi drivers were pivotal to the communications networks and ties with the Kikuyu reserves established by political groups and gangs operating in the locations. The government was almost certainly using the by-laws as a pretext to smash these up.

By the end of the decade mass unemployment, rampant inflation and the housing question had more or less united the poor behind the E.A.T.U.C. This support swelled as it went down the road of political confrontation with the state since, as Throup acknowledges, it ‘seemed to be the only organisation capable of standing up to the colonial state and protecting the interests of the African masses’. So that when Kubai and Singh were arrested, the deep roots and wide networks of the labour movement on the housing estates, peri-urban settlements, in the workplace, amongst the youth and the ‘criminal’ gangs, as well as informal traders and the unemployed were activated in an exceptional confrontation that was the culmination of the stresses and struggles of forties Nairobi. It was this propensity to mobilise in defence of the E.A.T.U.C. that gave a class identity to this variegated movement.

The Nairobi General Strike

Disturbed by the shock waves from Mombasa, the government had established an emergency committee to make preparations for an anticipated colony-wide strike. Apparently, the administration became very preoccupied with its loosened grip on Nairobi. Throughout September and October 1947, the anti-terracing agitation was at its height and threatened to erupt into violent confrontation in the capital. Plans were laid to move police, troops and replacement labour from other parts of the colony to Nairobi and to stockpile emergency supplies of food, fuel and essential materials. Preparations for emergency rationing and distribution in the city were carefully made though considerable storage problems loomed in the event of a prolonged strike going beyond several days. Increased expenditure on the police force and a programme of intensive anti-riot training began in earnest. Armoured vehicles and police wireless cars were also prepared, and recruitment to the Kenya Police Reserve was stepped up. Caught unawares at the coast, the state’s strategy was endowed with premeditation.

The government proceeded to equip itself with draconian powers to consolidate its preparations. In particular, the Essential Services [Arbitration] Ordinance extended the government’s schedule of essential services in which the right to strike was prohibited. It was widely suspected that recently tightened influx controls would be extended to the detention and repatriation of political ‘undesirables’ and union militants. By May 1950, the government had a formidable array of legal powers and seemed ready to contest a general strike on its own terms. It had only to choose its ground to put its civil war contingencies to the test. These laws provoked widespread anger and were condemned at mass meetings held by the E.A.T.U.C. and the L.T.U.E.A. in January from which petitions were dispatched to the Colonial Office and the U.N. to vent indignation at these repressive strictures. Apparently these meetings also attracted many informal traders who feared that they would be cleared out of the city as ‘spivs and drones’. Overall though, while the state made itself ready, the E.A.T.U.C. fell out of step with the imminent confrontation.

There were signs that the E.A.T.U.C. was becoming more alert to the situation when it organised a boycott of civic celebrations for Nairobi’s Charter Day on March 30th 1950, which was to officially promote the municipality to a fully fledged city. According to Spencer the E.A.T.U.C. led boycott was ‘the largest post-war public demonstration against the Government’. The action was repudiated by K.A.U. leaders Mathu and Mbotela, and occasioned the first major public split between the militants and moderates in the organisation. The question of land loomed large in the background fuelling fears of assumed plans to expand Nairobi on the basis of land expropriations from the Kikuyu reserves to accompany its elevation to city status. It was rumored that 32 square miles of Kiambu were to be added to Nairobi and that all African residing in this area were to be moved out to make way for another 12,000 European settlers. The increasing number of land disputes in local courts confirmed these suspicions. Hence we can begin to understand how the land issue gave a major impetus to the strike which followed and ensured widespread support for it around Nairobi’s hinterland.

Maina tells us that Singh “told workers to remain at their houses, not to go the city where the celebration was and not to eat meat, or to drink beer or smoke cigarettes. Makhan Singh also told people that there would be two Nairobi’s, one for the poor and one for the rich. The Kiambu people were aware that this would mean taking more land from Kiambu. Workers were aware that they would not be getting higher wages when the charter would be introduced and the cost of living would be higher and it was. Nairobi would have not more better houses for them, there would not be enough water for them and therefore there was no need for celebration”. This movement attracted widespread support from those engaged in the informal economy, especially at the Burma market which established itself after the Second World War, partly through the remittances of returning soldiers who were refused business licences by the government. Maina relates that “it was named after the war of Burma”. He also recalled the interdependence of these informal traders and Nairobi’s workforce:

A lot of the soldiers became traders in second hand clothes in the Burma market. Many people wore army clothing, shirts, people in the informal economy, the unemployed. Many of the market’s traders lived in Shauri Moyo and Majengo. Now because of the strike they have to close their stalls, now joined the forces of the strikers. They were also supporting the workers because they knew when the city becomes a charter then the rate for the stalls would be higher, so they also were in fear. If workers had higher wages they would have more trade.

Drawing on the lessons it had learned from dealing with the A.W.F., the government moved to behead the incipient movement of its leadership. When the E.A.T.U.C. was off guard, the state went after it and, according to Maina, “they provoked the strike”. The expectant confrontation flared with the arrests of Fred Kubai and Makhan Singh in the early hours of Monday, May 15th. They were charged under sections 8 and 10 of the Trades Unions and Trades Disputes Ordinance [1943] with being officers of an unregistered trade union whose registration had been rejected by the Registrar and had refused to dissolve within the three month notification period. Later that morning members of the E.A.T.U.C.’s central council led by Chege Kiburu and Mwangi Macharia were barred by the police from entering its premises in the Hayat building. They then made their way to Kiburi House where they declared a general strike to begin from 2.00 p.m. the following day, but by evening a general strike was already in effect all over Nairobi. Alongside the release of Kubai and Singh, various demands were advanced including a minimum wage of 100/-, regular annual increments, free accommodation or housing allowances, sick leave, 14 days holiday a year, a workers’ provident fund and the abolition of municipal by-laws relating to the work of taxi drivers. These were followed by an impassioned plea that ‘we do not want workers arrested in their homes at night’. Finally, the E.A.T.U.C. called for ‘freedom for all workers and all the East African territories’.This was the articulated programme of what became a semi-uprising throughout the city. Apparently, even those perplexed by the strike call ‘seized’ on the demand for a 100/- minimum wage ‘as an excuse’ to become involved. Maina tell us that most urgent and immediate issue “was better houses, water, sanitary...”, which were posing perilous health problems for the city’s African population.

The government immediately declared the strike illegal under the Essential Services [Arbitration] Ordinance. An extended schedule of industries and services within which strikes were banned was published in the official gazette on May 16th. Whilst the original schedule encompassed water, electricity, health, hospital and sanitary services, this now included the supply and distribution of food, petrol, oil, power and light, the production and distribution of milk, telecommunications, posts and telegraphs, road and rail transport services, ports and dock facilities. While loudspeaker vans toured the African locations broadcasting this information, the strike quickly became “a 100%” effective in these areas.

In Pumwani and Shauri Moyo the basic ingredients of planning and coordination quickly emerged as the strikers organised themselves ‘in daily mass meetings’. A ‘holiday atmosphere’ became quickly pervasive. A fire was lit in the Kaloleni Valley, an area between Shauri Moyo and Pumwani and close to Nairobi’s industrial area and railway station, which according to Maina, “was a sign of unity. It was telling the people that the strike was going to go on. It was a large bonfire that could be seen throughout the location and fueled by engine oil from Nairobi’s railway workshops”. Almost from the start flying pickets patrolled the locations bringing people out on strike, dealing with the recalcitrant and consolidating the authority of the strike committee generally. A large part in organising these groups seems to have been played by youth and the unemployed who were drawn towards the E.A.T.U.C. by its stand against the state. During the course of the strike many demonstrations were concentrated in Kaloleni Valley where large crowds of the unemployed swelled the strikers ranks. Every day, ‘between 4,000 and 5,000 was at the waste ground’ which became the strike’s principal theatre. According to Maina, there were speakers “encouraging people to continue with the strike, the release of Chege Kibachia, better houses and water”. Scabs, including “drivers, domestic workers and some clerks”, had their heads publicly shaved and were “instructed to be cleaners of the toilets. The toilets in Majengo had never been cleaner as they were during that time”.

Drawing on the lessons of Mombasa, the police were intent on breaking up the organisation and discipline of the daily mass meetings in Kaloleni’s ‘Happy Valley’. The ‘Emergency Company’ deployed its bren-gun carriers, turret armoured cars and trucks, making regular patrols to disperse the crowds with tear gas. Apparently, ‘tear smoke parties’ were able to operate from their bren carriers with ‘almost complete immunity’. These units were speedy and could operate ‘off road’. However, Maina tells us that the strikers then regrouped. “When the tear gas was thrown they could then get hold of you. The only defence was a wet handkerchief. When the police came we had to disperse into various houses. Then afterwards we would come back”. The invisibility of agitators was a recurrent police concern. The signals wing of the Kenya Police Reserve operated its wireless cars to co-ordinate the surveillance of crowd movements around the locations whilst directing snatch squads to pick out ringleaders. Whilst a movement involving such large numbers made this task difficult, Maina relates that the “C.I.D., Special Branch were among us, that’s why they could monitor so easily”.

As to the sustenance of the strikers, with hardly any funds, the success of the strike depended on the food supplies that poured in from Nairobi’s hinterland. These donations continued ‘on a very large scale throughout the strike’.Apparently, ‘the role of women in organising food distribution and helping in the general co-ordination was critical’. Concerning the spread of the strike Maina believes that the strike committee “sent their agents” to other towns and that of

Those who had heard the radio and read the newspapers - they were now able to support the strike. People from Fort Hall donated sugar cane, beans, maize. Women in Shauri Moyo and Majengo were assigned to cook for the strikers. People were directed where to go and feed themselves and then come back. Supporters who were not employed had the chance also to go and eat and drink. We did not have a strike fund. Very little dues were collected. Donations of food allowed people to continue with the Strike.

No sooner had the leadership of the E.A.T.U.C. passed to John Mungai, Mwangi Macharia and Chege Kiburu than the latter was arrested on Tuesday morning for organising a strike in essential services. Nonetheless, according to Singh’s account, by Wednesday the movement ‘was in full force’ with workers, youth and others joining the strike in Nakuru, Mombasa,Thika, Nyeri and Nanyuki. During the afternoon, many Africans were arrested in Shauri Moyo and Pumwani after police attacked demonstrators in a series of baton charges. The Observer correspondent Patrick O’Donovan ventured into Pumwani ‘where more than 50,000 live in a vile one storey shanty slum, there are thousands who wheel and flee like little birds at the smallest police gesture, and yet gather again and again to listen to some individual cry for immediate self government, or cheaper maize or higher wages’. During the course of the day ‘a number of bakeries, several hotels in the centre of the city and petrol stations’ also followed the action. Nairobi City Council workers from the abattoir, roads and sewers, water, conservation and cleansing departments became prominent in strengthening and spreading the strike during the day. They were joined by workers from East African Power and Lighting. By this time more 2,000 municipal workers were officially estimated to be involved in the action. One of the strike’s most significant features was the almost solid response from the Public Works Department, municipal and civil service employees, amongst them Nairobi’s most privileged workers, who had no trade unions and joined the action when their right to strike was prescribed illegal. Whilst they were slightly elevated and separated from the rest they nonetheless retained their sinews with the ‘dangerous classes’ in the locations.

By Thursday May 18th, 75% of the P.W.D. workforce were out, many of whom were of Kamba origin. This was an important development revealing the trans-tribal dimension to the conflict and an indicator of how far it was from being a ‘Kikuyu strike’. Maize and production control staff also came out and in the cleansing department only 44 out of the 700 strong workforce reported for duty despite the offer of double pay for those who dared to show up. By the end of the day African staff at all of the oil companies, the European boys schools and civilian employees of the Army Ordinance Depot had all become embroiled in the strike. Various bakeries including Whitehouse and Torrs, Elliots and Unga Ltd., and ‘most hotels’ were brought to a standstill. Once again, skilled workers and those essential to the functioning of the state advanced to the forefront of the strike indicating that the government’s stabilisation policies and its attempts to incorporate the ‘aristocracy of labour’ were in ruins. In Shauri Moyo the confrontation intensified as the police again organised repeated baton charges on large, increasingly insurgent, crowds and tear gas was used in a pitched battle between police and demonstrators who were reported to be in a ‘provocative and obstreperous mood’. As the conflict escalated and spiraled out of control, ‘considerable police reinforcements were rushed to the area’ in what escalated into ‘a large scale melee. Messages from wireless cars flooded into the control room at the Central Police Station and from here all available men were dispositioned in accordance with the swift changes in the situation’. A police Auster aircraft was ‘almost constantly over the scene’ and an R.A.F. plane flew ‘very low’ over the crowds.

The crisis of leadership tainting the strike came sharply to the surface on Thursday evening at the strike meeting held at Kaloleni Social Hall attended by Mathu and other K.A.U. leaders. Mathu told the assembled that the strike was illegal because there had been no consultation between employers and ‘employees’. He was then accused of being a traitor and taking bribes from Europeans.There were also ‘rowdy allegations’ that ‘the Africans had been sold’. This catalysed such ‘uproar and commotion’ within the hall that ‘further attempts to conduct an orderly meeting were abortive’. An attempt by Mathu and his supporters to address a further meeting elsewhere was prevented by pickets who ‘refused them entry’. Mathu’s success in Mombasa three years earlier in persuading the strikers to give up their struggle was not to be repeated in Nairobi. A further dimension to this crisis emerged within the strike committee itself which reduced its wage demand to 60/- at a time when mood of the strikers seemed to be hardening. In an attempt to limit the action the committee issued a statement in which it condemned ‘goondaism’ and ‘acts of physical violence’, not of the police but of the strikers themselves. The organisation instructed ‘all its members, followers and supporters to maintain public peace and order. You should follow the principles of non-violence and non-cooperation. This is the key to our success... We shall struggle for the achievement of our due rights by all legitimate methods’. The strike leadership was in retreat before the scale and implications of what had emerged, and attempted to tighten its rein on a struggle that was becoming uncontrollable.

The cases of Maina Kabiru and Daudi Hamisi give some insight into the mood and temper of the strikers which by the end of the first week showed strong signs of bypassing this caution and restraint. Kabiru was the first arrested striker to appear in court. Giving evidence against him, the Assistant Superintendent of Police I.S.M. Henderson alleged that on Friday morning, May 19th, he was attending a crowd of ‘about’ 5,000 at Shauri Moyo. Observing the crowd through a pair of field glasses, ‘I picked out the accused, who was speaking through a megaphone. I heard him say: “We will not be treated like children. We will strike for a year if necessary”. Tremendous applause greeted the remark which was made in Swahili’. Kabiru was later snatched by the police from the crowd. Hamisi was similarly apprehended. He was alleged ‘to have danced three times round a fire, generally attracting attention to himself’ and apparently, the ‘accused’s actions were continuously applauded by the crowd..’. Giving evidence, Henderson ‘believed the significance of the fire was that it should be kept burning as long as the strike continued’.

The strike continued to spread. According to Singh, by Friday the strike had extended to Kisumu, Kakomega, Kisii and other towns in Nyanza. We should not discount the role of railwaymen in helping to spread the movement so quickly. According to Maina even though “the drivers didn’t strike, they had accepted to do so”. Nonetheless, on Saturday morning 750 craftsmen and labourers from Nairobi’s rail yards, maintenance workshops and engineering depot downed tools. Apparently a 20 year old Indian agitator, Jarnial Singh Liddar, had gone to the rail yard and addressed ‘a few hundred Africans during the lunch hour’. He told them to return at 4.00 p.m. when ‘about 1,000 Africans had gathered to listen to him but he was arrested’. The men went on strike the following day. This was received with immense alarm by the government since the strike was now beginning to paralyse its apparatus and it went to great lengths to downplay the action.

Operations at Eastleigh airport were also immobilised by the absence of 60 African ancillary workers. As more workers in military establishments joined the strike they were dictated a stern warning by the East African Command H.Q. which accused them of pleading ‘intimidation as their excuse’ and threatened that if they did not ‘appear for duty by tomorrow’ they would ‘be struck off the books’ and ‘forfeit all rights and privileges’. Meanwhile at Kenya Bus Service, thirty drivers and conductors from its seventy strong staff were officially out on strike. By this stage the strike was decidedly political as the Essential Services [Arbitration] Ordinance and the government’s schedule of essential services lay shattered in pieces. At this juncture the government decided it was too dangerous to keep Singh in Nairobi and at 4.30 a.m. on Sunday morning he was moved to Nyeri.

By the end of the first week of the strike ‘more than’ 300 arrests had officially been made. Most of these seemed to have taken place while the police were baton charging and breaking up meetings. Far from intimidating the strikers these arrests seem to have incensed the movement still further. As a thousand workers came out at the Bata Shoe factory in Limuru on May 22nd, the management responded with their ‘immediate dismissal’. By Wednesday May 24th, the ninth day of the strike, it seems that it was firmly underway in Mombasa, Kisumu, Kakamega, Kisii, Nakuru, Thika, Nyeri and Nanyuki. By this time, on Singh’s estimates, over 100,000 people were involved. With the strikers communities brought into the equation the real figure may have been substantially higher.

In Nairobi, with 6,000 workers officially on strike, the state machine seemed almost paralysed, public services entirely dislocated and business at a standstill. It was at this point, when the strike was at its most all embracing, that ‘the strike committee decided that as sufficient protest and demonstration had taken place it was now time to call off the strike..’. A return to work instruction was issued for Thursday morning, though many of those workers who obeyed the call ‘found their jobs filled by others’. Apparently, 2,000 Kikuyu workers were dismissed after the strike was called off. Maina affirms the climate of victimisation, that the hardened position of many employers was that “they were not going to employ anyone who had been on strike”.

How is this turnaround to be explained? The strike leadership were wrapped up in the politics of protest at a time when the movement beneath them was quickly ripening into a colony wide political confrontation with the state machine. The impotence of the strike leadership could not have been more starkly revealed, since it could not see, or did not want to see, the political implications of the general strike thus transforming the upsurge into a knife without a blade. Hence, while the administration itself was quick to recognise that the strike movement was ‘essentially political in origin and intent, with claims for higher wages being tacked on as an afterthought’, the strike leadership promoted the latter as primary with political demands merely lending themselves to the struggle for higher wages. Indeed, the cue for the strike committee’s capitulation was the announcement by the Central Minimum Wage Advisory Board recommending a 6/- increase in the minimum wage in selected townships - a long way from the strike’s demand for 100/-. More serious was the leadership’s abdication of the E.A.T.U.C. itself, since it was left banned and unregistered.

Trade unionism and bourgeois nationalism

What previous accounts have overlooked is an examination of the shortcomings of the strike’s leadership which seemed to shut the door on the problems it was called upon to resolve. This reveals that the strike was pushed back as a result of an unresolved crisis of leadership within the strike committee itself revolving around how far the strike should be allowed to go and at what point it should be called off. By the end of the first week it was in headlong retreat before the nature, scale and tempo of the movement beneath it. Ultimately, the leadership was unable to orientate itself to, or face the implications of, a struggle that had moved rapidly beyond the boundaries of protest. What is clear from Singh’s account is that the decision to back down was taken at a crucial moment when the movement had already ripened into a much broader political confrontation with the state.

This trajectory was given voice by Wairegi Korunja, a worker at Kenya High School, who was charged with ‘inciting other Africans to leave their employment’. He told the Nairobi Resident Magistrate that he considered it “a good thing” to strike and declared that though he was unaware of how much higher pay he was striking for, “If the others strike I must strike also”. Arguably, this reflected a consciousness to do what was necessary as opposed to what appeared to be possible. In short, attempts to limit the confrontation were being inadvertently questioned by those of its participants who had little inclination to allow themselves to be unduly intimidated by the state’s show of force. There seems little reason to suppose that this mood was not widespread given the generalised disrespect for the purveyors of caution. Nonetheless, for E.A.T.U.C. leaders, the minimum programme of what seemed attainable given the continued sway of the colonial state predominated. No bridges were built between the strike’s immediate demands and the maximum programme of national independence, as their essential unity was discounted.

Union leaders seemed to recoil at the implications of this link and the two problems were kept decidedly detached throughout the strike, though the connections between them became more bounded in the consciousness of the strikers themselves. E.A.T.U.C. leaders viewed independence as an eventual solution with no compelling connection with the demands of the strike. In the meantime cumulative piecemeal reform was viewed as the proper, legal means of hastening this final outcome which remained for time being confined to the realms of propaganda. Furthermore, by down playing nationalist demands, the strike committee were attempting to reduce the appeal and mobilising impact of the strike. Whilst the labour question and the national question were rhetorically coupled within in the E.A.T.U.C.’s programme, their relationship was dysfunctional and far from comfortable. However, the correlation between these two issues developed within an entirely different frame amongst the strikers themselves who pressed up against the limitations imposed upon the strike by its leadership. Hence dual power represented a glimpse of popular sovereignty dominated by Nairobi’s workers and the outcast poor, who were on the brink of enforcing a variant of nationalism where their own interests were to the fore. The strikers raised and prioritised the question of nationhood independently of E.A.T.U.C. leaders.

These tendencies reveal the contradictions of African nationalism in relation to the forces summoned by the strike. For, even though the deferent reformism of the K.A.U. became widely exposed, both Kubai and Singh regarded the E.A.T.U.C., according to Clayton and Savage, ‘as a ginger group to prod the K.A.U. into more dynamic political action’. In Singh’s schema the E.A.T.U.C. and its plebeian following were to be cast in an auxiliary role for what was to be a primarily bourgeois democratic transformation. Nonetheless, Kaggia suggests that the E.A.T.U.C.’s support for the K.A.U. was not unconditional. ‘We had little respect for the K.A.U. which we regarded as the instrument for the government through Mathu. In our meetings we attacked Mathu and Mbotela. This made the K.A.U. turn against the trade unions and it lost the little support it had’. At a meeting in opposition to the settlers ‘Kenya Plan’ organised jointly by the K.A.U. and the East African Indian Congress at Kaloleni Hall on April 24th 1950, there were signs that union leaders were taking a principled stand on the ‘national question’, in opposition to the K.A.U., by elevating it above partial gain. Singh and Kubai moved a successful addendum to the main resolution which stated that ‘the real solution of the problem is not this or that small reform, but the complete independence and sovereignty of the East African territories and the establishment in all these territories of democratic government elected by the people and responsible to the people of these territories only, and that the solution should be implemented at an early date’. However, this priority was shortlived as the ‘national question’ was subsequently relegated to a supporting role for the strike’s minimum demands.

The arrests of Kubai and Singh did not significantly impact upon the political choices made by those union leaders that replaced them. The detachment of trade union demands from the question of national independence characterised the E.A.T.U.C.’s handling of the strike throughout. Given this outlook, the general strike was treated as a wages struggle, which could then only reconstitute previous relationships on new terms. The E.A.T.U.C. leadership attempted to deal with the mass movement beneath it by turning the real relationship between workplace struggles and national liberation on its head. This led them to direct the arousal of class political awareness, which infused the developing national consciousness amongst workers, into a partial struggle for wages. This had a profound impact on the outcome of the strike which led the strike committee into surrendering the initiative back to the government when it was on the verge of losing it.

The E.A.T.U.C. tail-ended a K.A.U. which was intent on reforming the colonial state whose foundations it considered unshakeable. When these underpinnings showed serious signs of fissure, and after the K.A.U.’s already frail support amongst ‘Outcast Nairobi’ had dwindled to nothing, the E.A.T.U.C. was unable to make the turn required. It is significant that trade union leaders did not take the advantage at this juncture to raise demands for a labour party. Instead they worked to rejuvenate the K.A.U., conspicuous by its refusal to support the strike, by redirecting flagging support back to the organisation at a time when it was the focus of widespread scepticism. Even when Eliud Mathu was decisively rejected at the mass strike meeting at Kaloleni Hall, the veil was never lifted for further exposure. Whilst proclaiming nationalist goals, Kubai and Kaggia subsequently attempted to pursue the K.A.U.’s policies more determinedly by asserting control of it themselves, though always taking care to leave Kenyatta at the helm. Unwilling to make a political break, or advance an alternative, they promoted the recovery of the K.A.U. at a time when its fortunes were at their lowest ebb. They were radical nationalists, prepared to chance the limited mobilisation of the masses to achieve reformist goals in contrast to the moderates who were opposed to such risks. Overall, union leaders declined independent working class politics and volunteered themselves as the left wing of bourgeois nationalism. In this way, despite their differences, the militants converged ideologically with the moderates. There was a high price to be paid for such an orientation, for within three years most militant union leaders had been incarcerated.

Aftermath and appraisal

For a few days during mid to late May 1950, established authority reeled before the suddenness of an unprecedented spontaneous upsurge. In that febrile moment the general strike rolled increasingly towards a mass political confrontation with the state. By the end of the month however, the rebellion seemed all but extinguished. Previous analysts have been impressed by the durability of the state machine. While John Lonsdale has argued that ‘the state’s ability to crush and divide worker action’ was ‘plain for all to see through the clouds of tear gas’, we should take care not overestimate its display. This was a state machine cloaked in the shadows of its former strength, since its repressive strategies flowered at that moment when it was at its weakest and most threatened. It now seems that the arrests of Kubai and Singh were calculated to provoke a small scale civil war and to seize the opportunity of applying measures of terror to enable the state to regain its authority before an unmanageable conflict had chance to unfold. This was a gamble that almost backfired as, after only one week, the strike seemed to be spiralling out of control and spreading along the railway network to all of Kenya’s main towns.

According to the Police Department the strike ‘placed considerable strain’ on its forces and ‘severely tested the reliability and steadiness of the rank and file’. Nonetheless, strike committee’s attempts to limit the struggle gave crucial advantage to the state which was able to recover from a dire position of weakness and actually empower itself. The Police Department later acknowledged that during the strike ‘a great deal of steam was let off’ and that, although this ‘caused great dislocation of the normal working’ of its ranks, it ‘provided valuable training and experience from which the Force profited’. With the Mombasa General Strike behind it, the government seemed less concerned by the accentuated disorder that accompanied the Nairobi strike than, as Cooper has said of Mombasa, ‘by the fact that its order emerged outside of established institutions’. On this score, the Police Department lamented the Nairobi strikers lack of ‘proper organisation’, characterised by the ‘placing in positions of leadership persons of the lowest order and of no sense of responsibility whose criminal qualities only had brought them into prominence’. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Mombasa strike, the port manager testified to the Thacker Tribunal that he ‘thought that the entire city during the strike acquired “a very alien look about it. We had a ‘New Government’, we had ‘People’s Courts’, and we had all the town burglars acting as policeman and calling themselves police askaris” ’.Nonetheless, we should be alert to the difference within the identity between these two extraordinary confrontations. Whereas the A.W.F. and the location of authority at the Kiwanja cha Maskini spontaneously emerged out of the strike, in Nairobi the semblance of this alternative order was already present and advancing well before the strike occurred. In Nairobi, while the strike was on the brink of paralysing the state apparatus, its organisation was still far from assuming the functions of state itself. Overall, the role of the media, in playing its assigned role of government apologist, was to erase all semblance of the emergence of dual power and to portray both strikes as being orchestrated by a fanatical minority.

To what extent was this a countrywide upheaval as opposed to a struggle confined to Nairobi and its environs? Singh’s account indicates a movement that touched all of the main towns. His caution regarding the ‘the press and media’ who ‘never mentioned these strikes’ beyond the capital and that ‘they always said it was a Nairobi strike’, should be treated much more seriously than it has been. The real point here is that the government was concerned to maintain the appearances of strength in order to intimidate its opponents at a time when its power was rapidly diminishing in inverse ratio to the growing confidence of the strike movement. Previous acceptance of heavily censored administration and newspaper reports at face value should lead us to focus source reliability. Otherwise, the strike’s impact would be reduced to what the censor decided it was.

This post-war militant phase where the trade unions were at the forefront of resistance to the colonial government was brought to a definitive close by the Emergency when the government made further violent attempts to regain control of the city. The labour movement was decimated by Operations ‘Jock Scott’ and ‘Anvil’ as thousands of members were arrested and detained, while others disappeared altogether. The realignment within the leadership that followed evidenced a shift from the militants who represented the upward sweep of the post war strike wave towards the moderates led by Tom Mboya, who reflected its downturn. In an attempt to survive a fierce repression the unions regrouped within the Kenya Federation of Registered Trades Unions which worked closely with, and became dependent upon, the Labour Department. It sought to limit the movement to everyday concerns and emphasised defence rather than defiance.

While previous accounts have represented the strike as a failure it nonetheless marked a qualitative step forward for Kenya’s labour movement. In this context, Lonsdale’s scepticism regarding African organization, that ‘Despite the angry talk, the A.W.F. had done nothing...’ and that Anaka a forti may not have been a group at all, seems to be unfounded. If the E.A.T.U.C., as Lonsdale tells us, was ‘hampered’ by ‘suspicion’ between African and Asian workers and ‘mustered little organization and less income during the course of its one year of existence’, it came to command a mass loyalty that went far beyond the labour movement itself. His assertion that ‘Industrial action had palpably failed’ by 1951 seems to miss the point that it was the attempt to impose the limitations of an ‘industrial’ dispute on a general strike movement that led the strike committee into calling it off. Lonsdale appears to rationalise this decision on the grounds that ‘Townsmen were split’ and that ‘Skilled workers had been bought off with industrial unions’. In fact it was predominantly non-unionised skilled workers who came to the forefront during the strike. In any case, the Labour Department did not recommence its encouragement of industrial unions until 1955. Shaken by the impact of the strike, the government initially attempted, through the Regulation of Wages and Conditions of Employment Ordinance [1951], to marginalise trade unions by encouraging the proliferation of employer controlled staff associations and works councils. Under the protective canopy of the Emergency, the government eventually regained enough confidence to promote the industrial trade unions and separatist bargaining machinery sought by international firms then seeking to establish themselves in Kenya.

While Lonsdale asserts that general unionism was ‘smashed’ in Nairobi, organised labour was far from atomised as a result of strike’s demise. Although the trade unions had to subsequently contend with a harsh repression, they were neither entirely broken up, nor formally illegalised, and only partially incorporated. In fact most of the E.A.T.U.C.’s affiliates survived the Emergency. The labour movement experienced a steady recovery from 1955, marked by the Mombasa dock strike, which reached new heights during the course of 1959 when six new unions were registered bringing the total to 25 with an official membership of nearly 40,000. This qualitative reawakening was especially marked by the inter-territorial East African Railway Strike which began in the closing months of 1959 and continued intermittently until the summer of the following year. This had an immense impact, far surpassing all previous levels of militancy, and triggered an avalanche of strikes throughout the plantation economy. Like Nairobi’s taxi drivers, Kenya’s railwaymen were workers in movement who could disseminate news, catalyse articulated grievance and conduct resistance along their routes.

The danger of a rural movement converging with strikes in industry was ever present after the Emergency was lifted in January 1960. Whilst the ‘Nairobi General Strike’ seems to have touched the rural areas, this coalescence was all too brief. A decade later such a combined movement underwent multiple eruptions. By this time, wide layers of rural Africans had been proletarianised and organised into plantation and farm unions representing workers in coffee, tea, sisal, sugar and general agriculture. In June 1962, the colony wide general strike that the government had feared and anticipated erupted to the surface to seriously imperil preparations for ‘independence’. This embraced plantation and agricultural workers, railwaymen, industrial workers, teachers, local government and civil servants. The element of spontaneity in this and other strike waves during this period was characterised by an anger and immediacy that by and large refused conciliation. The inability of the E.A.T.U.C. leadership to address the political limitations of bourgeois nationalism contributed in no small way to the corporatist evolution of its successor, the Kenya Federation of Labour, which worked to arrest this movement and to bind the trade unions into the state apparatus.

The Nairobi General Strike began as an urban phenomenon, fuelled by the problems and contradictions of rural Kenya. The strike exposed the weaknesses of state control over the city. Imposing civic particularism and fragmentation on the African population in their workplaces and locations presupposed the colonial state’s unconditional political authority over the city. This enabled the city’s African population, to take full advantage of these fault lines and weld their heterogeneity together. The various layers of ‘Outcast Nairobi’ were able to reconfigure and forge new ties at this conjuncture. The government attempted to break up this embryonic sovereignty in a premeditated showdown. Whilst the state was subsequently able to assert its power over the city during the course of the Emergency, its legitimacy was never fully recovered.

‘The Nairobi General Strike [1950]: from protest to insurgency’ in Andrew Burton [Editor] The Urban Experience in Eastern Africa c.1750-2000 [ISBN 1-872566-26-X] 2002; also published in Azania Volume 37 [2002], Journal of the British Institute in Eastern Africa.