In 1949 it was far from clear as to whether or when Great Britain would grant independence to Nigeria. Nonetheless 45 year old Nnamdi Azikiwe had already emerged as one of the leaders in the Nigerian independence campaign. He and other Nigerian nationalists took that campaign to the heart of the capital of the British Empire, Trafalgar Square in London. On December 4, 1949 he delivered a call for independence before a political rally sponsored by the West African Students Union of Great Britain and Ireland to protest the shooting of 21 striking Nigerian coal miners in Enugu by colonial police on November 18, 1949. Azikiwe’s remarks appear below.
In the United Kingdom, there were formal ‘debates’ in the House of Commons about the shootings. What interested some of the Members of Parliament was the effect of the disturbances on the shipment of groundnuts to Britain. Some Africans lobbied them, not realizing that the debate on this subject had closed fifteen minutes before the lobby. In the House of Lords, dyed-in- the-wool imperialists took the opportunity of advertising that they were not politically dead but were passing through a stage of suspended animation so far as colonial affairs arc concerned. They gave the impression of being less interested in the killing of mere natives than in the audacity of the United Nations in meddling with what they termed the domestic affairs of Great Britain. Said Lord Listowel, who hitherto had been regarded by some misguided Africans as a friend of the ‘colonials’ when he was a Labour backbencher back in the days of Churchill: ‘We have sole responsibility for formulating the policy pursued in these territories and for choosing the right method of putting our policy into effect. We cannot allow any outside authority to usurp a function which we regard as essential to sound and progressive administration. It is our duty, in judging policy, to consider first the welfare of the indigenous inhabitants and to reject the counsel of the United Nations Assembly when in our opinion it conflicts with their interest. . . . Indeed it would be a dereliction of our duty to the peoples of the Colonies if we were to offer to share our present responsibility with the representatives of other countries. Our reasons for not wishing to throw the colonies into the arena of debate at Lake Success are that criticism there is often warped by anti-British or anti-Colonial prejudice and too infrequently directed to serving the genuine interests of colonial peoples.’
The reaction from abroad has been very enlightening. Two hundred thousand workers in Eastern Germany protested against the shooting. Three million Czech trade unionists registered protests against this evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. The National Union of Furnishing Trade Operators demanded the resignation of those responsible for the shooting. British Guiana workers were prevented from holding a rally to register their protest. A delegate from Poland at Friday’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly at Flushing Meadow, demonstrated that the statement of Lord Listowel was far-fetched and that it was necessary that the ‘colonial idol’ should be destroyed in view of the ‘awakening of dependent peoples’ and the ‘bloody disturbances in Nigeria.’
It is a tragedy that a country which produced Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce is now telling the world that it is not prepared to be accountable to a world organization for its colonial administration, because in the words of its delegate at the United Nations it would mean ‘to put back the hands of the clock by committing colonial peoples to policies in the formulation of which they have no say and which the United Kingdom regards as misguided.’ Since when, may I ask, has the British Government consulted us or respected our opinion in the formulation of colonial policy? What a brazen piece of smug hypocrisy! If it were left to the average Nigerian, we would rather have the United Nations exercising trusteeship over us if Britain thinks that shooting down our workers in cold blood is the correct way of exercising a protectorate over our people.
The people of Nigeria cannot continue to accept as their destiny the denial of human rights. We, too, have a right to live, to enjoy freedom, and to pursue happiness like other human beings. Let us reinforce our rank and file in the fight for freedom, no longer suffering in silence and whining like a helpless dog, but striking back with all the force at our command when we are struck, preferring to suffer the consequences of pressing forward our claim to a legacy of freedom, than to surrender our heritage to despoilers and usurpers. Be of good cheer, my compatriots. The struggle for African freedom may be long and gloomy, but behind the cloud of suffering and disappointment loom the rays of hope and success on the distant horizon. So long as we are undaunted and are determined to be a free people, the fire of freedom shall not be extinguished from our hearths, we shall march forward towards our national emancipation. So long as we refuse to believe that we are doomed to be the serfs and peons of others, our continent shall be redeemed, and we shall have a new life and enjoy it abundantly.
We have friends in unexpected places: genuine and sincere friends. Freedom is within our grasp. Shall we let it slip away? Shall we relapse into the dungeon of fear and the servitude of hesitation? Let us no longer quake or doubt about our capacity to enter into our rightful heritage. Why not deal one blow in a gamble for national liberty? Let there be no mistake about our future. We are determined to discard the yoke of oppression. We shall be free. History is on our side. In this hour of national peril, Nigeria expects every patriot to stand firm in the cause of justice and righteousness. God knows we hate none but we love our country. Long live Nigeria and the Cameroons.