The Nairobi General Strike [1950]: from protest to insurgency’

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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.
The Nairobi General Strike [1950]: From Protest to Insurgency

David Hyde

University of East London1

The Nairobi General Strike [1950] was the culmination of Kenya’s post war strike wave2 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.3 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. 4

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.5 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...’6 These armed groups were virtually untouchable, functioning in a protected space which Atieno Odhiambo has called an ‘ungovernable republic’.7 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...’.8This 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...’.9 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’.10 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’.11 Anaka a forti seems to have had deep roots amongst the youth, ex-soldiers, petty traders, prostitutes, and the criminalised generally.12 This gave it the protection it required against the ‘mopping up’ operations organised by plain clothes police against ‘spivs’ and ‘drones’.13 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’.14 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.15 and the A.W.F.

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