UNCONDITIONAL NO TO DEREGULATION AND PRIVATISATION OF THE OIL SECTOR
LABOUR MUST SAY:
UNCONDITIONAL NO TO DEREGULATION AND PRIVATISATION OF THE OIL SECTOR
For clearly over two decades now a combination of international capitalist forces (particularly oil corporations and cartels) and their Nigerian pro-imperialist, capitalist backers have been waging a protracted, and sometimes ferocious war, with the labour movement in order to put oil, the mainstay of the Nigeria’s economy, under total control of profit merchants in the name of deregulation and privatization. Despite the all too often incoherence and timidity of most labour leaders, the mass of the working people â€“ those who suffer the brutal effect of every neo-liberal, anti-poor economic policy – had, through numerous mass action including strikes and public demonstrations, prevented total success for the capitalist ruling class in this regard.
Now the ongoing global capitalist economic crisis has merely presented imperialism and the local ruling class a perfect excuse to implement its age-long “profit first” agenda in the oil sector. Between last July (when a barrel of oil was selling at $147) and now, Nigeria has suffered about 73% decline in its income generation as a result of the international capitalist crisis. Thus, Yar’Adua’s capitalist government is pretending that this ferocious attack on the interest of the working masses is borne out of the desire to reposition the economy against the ravages of the global economic crisis. In reality, it is a policy and strategy of making the ordinary masses that did not significantly benefit from the past capitalist boom now bear the brunt of its bust! For years the government had to use some of its oil revenues to finance the importation of refined fuel, something made necessary by the ruling class’s utter failure to ensure that the country’s oil refineries functioned. Now, faced with declining oil revenues, the ruling class want to cut as much government expenditure as possible so they can continue to loot, hence the removal of the so-called oil “subsidy”. This is the import of the announcement made by government on February 26, 2009 to implement “full deregulation” of the “downstream sector” as well as “privatization” of the nation’s refineries.
Government spokespersons have sought to justify this pro-capitalist measure on the basis that government subsidy and hikes in petroleum prices have only benefited fraudulent government officials. They have equally argued that deregulating the oil sector and privatisation of the oil refineries will create a situation where ordinary users of energy would not have to subsidise fraud and inefficiency, and at the same time ensuring that fuel products are constantly made available to consumers at fair and affordable prices.
Amongst those unfortunately lending credence to this false and simplistic bourgeois phantasmagoria is Adams Oshiomhole, immediate past president of the NLC and current governor of Edo State, who in fact is a member of the deregulation steering committee, appointed by Yar’ Adua and chaired by Bauchi State Governor Yuguda. Arguing from the correct premise that importation of fuel products, as well as huge amounts being paid as demurrage on landed vessels, unnecessarily add to the costs which the consumers have to pay for fuel, Oshiomhole ignorantly, and or wrongfully, therefore called for deregulation and privatization of the oil sector. Hear him: “Demurrage is a problem and the country spends so much to import petrol. The refineries should be privatized. They should be sold off. I don’t care who buys them and how much they pay. Even if it is one naira, let it be sold. The issue is that products must be available” (This Day, February 11, 2009).
Socialists and working class elements must not for a second accept these false arguments. In the not too distant past, capitalist spokespersons used to justify incessant hike of fuel prices on the excuse of meeting the real cost of these products. On the other hand, labour and the mass of the working people had always insisted that government claims of subsidies were false. Now propelled by the satanic desire to totally hand over the oil sector to profit merchants in the name of deregulation, the government has now come round to indirectly admit labour’s position in this regard by stating that its so-called subsidies of prices had only been going to the pockets of oil racketeers and profiteers within and outside government. But like true anti-poor, capitalist politicians, this belated truth has merely turned out as an excuse to foist on the working people the mother of all social economic robbery, a.k.a deregulation and privatization. Instead of taking firm and concrete measures against all those who looted public money in the name of non-existing subsidy, as well as those who collected tens of millions of dollars to repair the nation’s refineries without actually doing so, the government has now come up with the disingenuous solution to sell the entire oil sector to these same looters and their capitalist collaborators in the name of privatization and deregulation.
There has been an avalanche of verbal and intellectual opposition by the trade union leaders against government decisions in this regard. In fact, the national executives of the PENGASSAN and NUPENG, the two main industrial unions in the oil sector have jointly issued a 21-day ultimatum starting from March 3 asking for the withdrawal of these anti-poor policies. On its part, for the first time against this regime, the Nigeria Labour Congress has summoned an emergency meeting of its NEC for March 11, to further deliberate on labour’s response and actions against these hated policies.
On a positive note, the various statements credited to top labour leaders across the industrial and organizational divide have shown a good understanding of the fact that the latest deregulation and privatisation policies are not just individual policies but rather policies that underpin the entire socio-economic strategy of the ruling government. Unfortunately however, while the labour leaders had been quite vociferous and emphatic over their rejection of the “full deregulation” and privatization of the refineries, they have, at the same time, revealed a lack of a convincing and practicable alternative to the obviously anti-poor policy of deregulation and privatization. This is a thread that runs through all the statements and pronouncement of key labour leaders over this admittedly a Tsunami-like attack on the working masses and the economy.
While commenting on government latest policy of full deregulation and privatization of the oil sector, Abdulwahed Omar, the NLC President, had among other things, made the following statement as reported in the March 2 edition of Daily Independent: “The economic meltdown has now shown that the economy and its regulation cannot be left to the whims and caprices of free market forces and that government does have a strong and leading role to play not only in the regulation of business and the economy but that it must also be a key player in the ownership and management of business and non-business institutions for the regulatory role to make impact. We maintain our long held position that privatisation has adverse effects for employment, prices and public welfare and that there should be no privatization of the strategic economic social sector and public monuments. But in a situation where privatization is inevitable, the process must be transparent, participatory and accountable with emphasis on the need to protect jobs and benefit of Nigerian workers in the affected enterprises. It is in this light that we kindly request Mr. President to revisit the entire privatization programme with a view to instilling sanity and transparency in the process”.
His counterpart in the Trade Union Congress, Peter Esele, at the same occasion where Umar made the above quoted statement, had among other things stated: “The Federal Government should as a matter of utmost urgency fund from the national treasury, the process of re-opening all closed down factories in order to reverse the present trend towards de-industrialisationâ€¦as this has continued to harm employment generation as well as generate lower economic growth. The ongoing nation’s economic crisis is a pointer that only a new system of government that pushes forward the decent work agenda is needed that would put an end to massive inequality which has characterized the nation’s economy. We reject the continuation of the neo-liberal economic policies, which has resulted in massive closure of factories, particularly in the textile and the footwear and rubber industries, reduced power generation, collapse of public infrastructure. Government partnership is critical to ensuring the effective implementation and sustainability of the 7-point agenda, industrial revolution through power and energy agriculture and food security, wealth creation and employment, mass transportation, land reforms, security qualitative and functional education and of course, Niger Delta development”.
Babatunde Ogun and Peter Akpatasan, Presidents of PENGANSSAN and NUPENG respectively, the two industrial unions operating in the oil sector, have equally expressed their opposition against the latest policy of “full deregulation” and “privatization” of the oil sector. According to Ogun: “Government has betrayed the trust of Nigerians. Before you can deregulate, certain conditions must be fulfilled. When other nations are injecting money into their economies, the Nigerian government is withdrawing money. The refineries are not working and government is deregulating to inflict more hardship on the people. It is not acceptable and we must resist it. By deregulating at this time of the global economic crisis, the government is calling on Nigerian to revolt”. On its part, Peter Akpatasan has stated thus: “Deregulation cannot work. Deregulation requires that certain parameters must be in place. You cannot deregulate in a market dominated by a cartel. This cartel is so strong that it can continue to manipulate prices out of the reach of common man. You cannot deregulate when you have no refineries. There will be serious economic crisis”.
A SOCIALIST ALTERNATIVE TO DEREGULATION AND PRIVATISATION
To be able to halt and ultimately defeat the anti-poor, pro-capitalist rich policy of deregulation and privatization, would undoubtedly require massive and sustained mass actions of the working people themselves. However, labour would be unable to sufficiently guarantee this kind of mass mobilization and struggles unless its programmes and strategies are entirely based on democratic socialist agenda. The demand that government should play “a strong and leading roleâ€¦ in business and economy â€¦ be a key player in the ownership and management of business and non-business institutions” on the surface sounds very radical. Equally desirable is the TUC President’s demand that “The Federal Government should as a matter of utmost urgency fund from the national treasury, the process of re-opening all closed down factories in order to reverse the present trend towards de-industrialisationâ€¦as this has continued to harm employment generation as well as generate lower economic growth”. However, only those suffering from a stupendous political naivety and or treacherous bankruptcy would expect the Yar’Adua capitalist government to implement this kind of demands. In a world dominated by capitalist neo-liberal economic agenda, and especially in a country whose ruling capitalist elites have, time and time over, shown a limitless capacity to implement anti-poor policies in order to preserve profits and privileges, only an outright socialist, mass struggle which end up putting in power a government of the working people represents the only real way to achieve this kind of demand.
On the one hand, there is the admission that “privatization has adverse effect for employment, prices and public welfare and that there should be no privatization of the strategic economic social sector and public monuments”. On the other hand and without cogent and principled reasons, labour leaders at the same time say: “where privatization is inevitable, the process must be transparent, participatory and accountable with emphasis on the need to protect jobs and benefit of Nigerian workers in the affected enterprises. It is in this light that we kindly request Mr. President to revisit the entire privatization programme with a view to instilling sanity and transparency in the process”. Bluntly put, this is nothing but a double speak i.e. speaking from the two sides of the mouth at the same time. On the one hand, labour leaders argue against privatization because it can only bring harmful effect on the masses living standard. But for an inexplicable reason, the same labour leaders are at the same time, prepared to accept “privatization” if it is “inevitable” and only insisting that “the process must be transparent, participatory and accountable”. The truth however must be told that privatization abinitio, especially when it involves the handing over of the commanding heights of a nation’s economy to a few capitalist individuals and corporations at the expense of the crying needs of the overwhelming majority, is an unfair process that can never be implemented in a truly transparent and accountable manners. Labour should instead fight for the nationalization under workers’ control and management of the commanding heights of the nation’s economy including the critical oil sector. This is the only scientific way to avoid “privatization” becoming “inevitable”.
There are sections of labour leaders who also wrongfully argue that deregulation can be beneficial to the working class people under certain conditions. For instance, PENGANSSAN President, Babatunde Ogun had argued thus on the current debate: “Before you can deregulate, certain conditions must be fulfilledâ€¦The refineries are not working”. His counterpart in NUPENG, Peter Akpatasan had similarly argued: “Deregulation requires that certain parameters must be in placeâ€¦You cannot deregulate when you have no refineries”. First and foremost, it should be correctly understood that the refineries are not working and will never satisfactorily function because this state of affair brings super profits to the self-serving members of the capitalist class, internationally and nationally. Thus, instead of making a futile demand that the neo-colonial ruling capitalist elites implement measures that would make the economy to serve the real interest of the masses, labour leaders must instead lead the masses to fight for the institution of a truly pro-working peoples’ and poor government.
In this regard, the building and formation of a genuinely independent working class political party to achieve this end constitutes the primary responsibility of labour. Under capitalist dispensation, calling on government to pump money into the key sectors of the economy on its own would not bring any tangible benefit to the ordinary masses. Yes, labour is right to oppose government using public funds to bail out private enterprises. At the same time, spending public fund to prop up key sectors of the economy under capitalist control and management is the surest guarantee of preserving the prevailing official corruption and dead end.
Equally false is the argument that deregulation and privatization would reduce prices and guarantee product availability. Currently, fuel prices are unnecessarily high, due to the profit margin being added by oil importers and sundry taxes. Tomorrow, these prices will remain high and can even become higher because there is no constant and cheap electricity, no sufficient underground pipes to transport products, a high cost of transportation on permanently bad roads, etc. Capitalist ideologues will cite the primitive and or absence of key infrastructures as reasons why the masses would have to pay unreasonably high prices for fuel, whether locally refined or imported. The moral is that under either capitalist regulation or deregulation, the profit consideration of the capitalist class could never guarantee oil products at cheap prices for industrial and domestic use.
Therefore, to guarantee sufficient and functional local refineries, which can produce fuel at affordable prices for industrial and private use, the working class, first and foremost, needs to fight for a working peoples’ government that is prepared to put the commanding heights of the Nigeria’s economy, including oil, under public ownership and working class control and management. It is only this kind of government that can be prepared and able to take fundamental decisions that would benefit the majority unlike the present order that only favours a rich few.
THE WAY FORWARD
On a good note, both the NLC and TUC originally pledged to fight the proposed ferocious attack on the living standard of the working masses. The NLC said it would “do everything in its power to save the nation from the catastrophic consequences of this ill-advised policy”. On its part, the TUC promised to use “all means possible to resist full deregulation”.
However, a critical evaluation of labour leaders’ commitment and decisions in this respect does not lend support to an unqualified optimism that there will actually be a fight or how effective such fight would be. To start with, the NLC’s call for an “urgent stakeholders’ forum” to deal with this crisis is based on a fundamentally false assumption that a mutually beneficial agreement can be reached between all classes, the rich and poor, on this issue as well as other key issues bordering on the well-being of the masses. Similarly flawed is the commitment to “resist full deregulation” because this gives the impression that labour would accept part deregulation. Very significantly, the NLC had “kindly requested Mr. President to revisit the entire privatization programme with a view to instilling sanity and transparency in the process”. Taken together, all these sentiments represent an illusory desire to avoid class confrontation. Nevertheless, truth must be squarely faced that only a determined mass actions of the ordinary masses themselves can temporarily and on the long run defeat government anti-poor policies and win concessions from time to time.
Therefore, labour must put in place a programme of sustained mass actions and mobilizations of the ordinary working masses. Labour leaders must show readiness to engage in serious struggles and not just making a token show as mostly done in the recent general strikes. A determined fight must be waged to defend and improve living standards. In recent days official statistics have confirmed again what we all know, that for the mass of Nigerians life is, at best, a bitter struggle. At the end of February the United Nations’ Habitat organisation reported that while in 1996 the poverty rate in Nigeria was 46 per cent it had now sky-rocketed to 76 per cent. At virtually the same time the Federal Government’s own Bureau of Statistics reported that 40 million Nigerians are unemployed, that’s a 65 per cent unemployment rate among employable Nigerians. Remember these woeful figures do not take account of the miseries that the world capitalist crisis can inflict, they were collected while the oil prices were at record highs!
This is why it is a matter of life or death for millions of Nigerians that labour wages a serious struggle against a worsening of living standards, the loss of jobs and a better life for all. But for maximum lasting success to be achieved in this regard, labour’s demands and strategies must be based on an idea of changing society by replacing the prevailing unjust capitalist system with a people oriented democratic socialist order. Merely presenting the impending battle as being solely against Yar’Adua’s government could prevent an effective struggle being started now and if an actual struggle started the masses would only, in the long run, be led to a blind alley if no socialist alternative was offered. Unfortunately this is what the labour leaders did in the series of general strikes against fuel price hikes under Obasanjo’s government. During Obasanjo’s rule there were six widely supported general strikes, three other general strike calls cancelled at the last minute and the September 2005 mass NLC rallies around the country, but the labour leaders always drew back from challenging Obasanjo’s position and the capitalist system he defended.
Consequently, the DSM urges the NLC and TUC to give specific ultimatum to the government to withdraw these anti-working class measures. Simultaneously, we urge the entire labour leadership to commence the immediate mobilization of the rank and file workers through mass rallies and peaceful demonstrations with a view to prime the labour organisation for inevitable industrial and political mass actions on these issues. Sadly, so far, nothing concrete has been done to achieve the NLC’s recent demand for a new N52,000 minimum wage. We therefore urge the NLC and TUC to combine the struggle against deregulation and privatization of the refineries with the struggle to achieve the new minimum wage. We equally call on Adams Oshiomhole, the Edo State governor, who had for several years led mass actions against features of deregulation and privatization, to immediately resign his membership of the Yar’Adua’s Presidential Steering Committee on Global Crisis.
Instead of working with Yar’Adua we urge Adams and the entire trade union leaders to help build a viable mass movement of the working people to resist this latest ruling class onslaught. We specifically urge Adams to quit the capitalist AC and help build a truly fighting Labour Party with a view to put in place a government of the workers and the poor with the ultimate aim of ending deregulation, privatization and the entire exploitative capitalist order. The DSM equally calls on the rank and file working class people and youth to begin to put in place plans for struggles and resistance against the latest onslaught from the capitalist ruling elite. We advocate actions to be based on struggles/resistance committee of actions within and among the unions as well as in the working class communities.
Simultaneously, we call on the leadership of the Labour Party together with the leaders of all genuinely pro-masses’ organisations to fully rise up to collaborate with organized labour to prosecute the impending struggles. Our fighting slogans must be a total and unconditional opposition to deregulation and privatization. The government’s capitalist agenda is to make the poor masses and workers that did not benefit from the boom to pay for offsetting economic slump with increased taxes and neo-liberal attacks that will make them pay more for education, healthcare, self-power generation, as well as goods and services. Labour must be prepared to mobilize workers, youth and poor in the struggle against all neo-liberal attacks and specifically fight that public resources be really committed to socially beneficial programme like housing schemes, quality healthcare and education for all, stable and affordable water and electricity services, etc.
With a determination to implement such a programme Labour could mobilise the mass of Nigerians in action to break with capitalism and begin to live a proper and decent life. But a campaign on these lines could have a wider echo. Throughout the world, not just in Africa, the rapidly worsening international economic crisis is now causing millions upon millions of working people to lose their jobs and homes, or simply fear the future. A determined struggle in Nigeria could show the world that there is an alternative to the chaos of capitalism and help inspire a movement to break capitalism’s grip over the world and begin to build a socialist world where resources are used in the interests of human need and not the private profit of the ruling classes.