LABOUR MARCH FOR ELECTORAL REFORM
LABOUR MARCH FOR ELECTORAL REFORM
DSM CALLS FOR BUILDING OF A FIGHTING LABOUR PARTY
Report by H.T Soweto.
On Wednesday, 31st March 2010, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC), Joint Action Forum (JAF), Alliance for Credible Elections (ACE) and other civil society groups led a protest rally in Abuja (Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory) for electoral reforms and the removal of the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Maurice Iwu.
All the placards, banners and other materials produced by the NLC and TUC carried “Iwu must Go” slogans. Other demands for an end to deregulation and for living wage which took Labour to the streets in massive demonstrations last year in about 8 states of the federation were conveniently pushed into the background by the Labour leaders. Only members of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM and CWI section in Nigeria) together with the Joint Action Forum (JAF) â€“ the civil society partner of Labour – displayed placards which demanded an end to deregulation, for N52, 200 minimum wage and called for the building of the Labour Party as a mass-based workers’ political party with socialist programs.
The protest rally kicked-off around 9.45am at the National secretariat of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) with opening speeches from Abiodun Aremu (the Secretary of the Labour and Civil Society Coalition) and the NLC president Abdulwahid Omar. In his opening speech, Aremu said that the purpose of the protest rally is to state the opposition of Nigerian workers and poor masses to election rigging, deregulation and other neo-liberal policies of the government. He stressed the imperative of electoral reform as a pre-condition for credible elections in Nigeria and also condemned government anti-poor policy of deregulation which he maintained LASCO is still opposed to. He charged the Nigerian working masses not to relent in the struggle. In his own opening speech, the NLC President Abdulwahid Omar said the protest rally is being organized to demand electoral reforms, full implementation of Justice Uwais report on elections and the removal of the INEC Chairman, Maurice Iwu. He however said the call for Maurice Iwu’s removal is not a result of personal hatred of Iwu but his role in election manipulation and rigging in past elections in Nigeria. He ended by saying that only the removal of Iwu and the implementation of the Uwais report will guarantee the sanctity and credibility of elections.
After the opening speeches, the colorful rally hit the street with about 2,000 protesters drawn from the NLC, TUC and their affiliates as well as civil society groups. The rally was colorful with customized shirts bearing slogans and printed placards and banners. A live band in a truck serenaded the rally with music. Unlike other rallies where anti-government music of radical legends like Fela Anikulapo and Bob Marley were played, the only music played throughout this over 4-hour rally was a sickly repetitive chorus demanding Maurice Iwu’s removal. However, a small but distinct group of civil society members of the Joint Action Forum (JAF) armed with two megaphones blared anti-government songs and carried aloft banners and placards demanding a halt to deregulation, for a living wage and the building of the Labour Party. Compared with the series of protest rallies last year, the number of protesters in this rally was the lowest so far.
The protest stopped at the INEC headquarters in Maitama district in Abuja where for about 30 minutes, Labour leaders delivered speeches to the crowd of protesters and onlookers. The NLC president while addressing the crowd threatened that Labour will declare a strike if the demands are not met by the government. Among those who spoke were Peter Esele, President Trade Union Congress (TUC); A. A. Salam, the National Secretary of the Labour Party, Prof. Eskor Toyo, Lanre Arogundade (DSM member) and the President of the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), Prof. Ukachukwu Awuzie.
The highlight of the speechmaking was Prof. Eskor Toyo’s very brief speech. In frail and shaky voice, Eskor Toyo said the problem is not just Iwu but the absence of a workers’ party. He challenged the Labour leaders to give to Nigerian workers a workers’ party. This was received with huge applause from the crowd. Lanre Arogundade who spoke after him while supporting the demand for electoral reform made clear that this demand will not benefit the working class if there is no effort by the trade unions to enter the Labour Party and build it as a mass based working class party with socialist programs.
From the INEC office, the protest moved to the National Assembly where they were received by the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Labour, Wilson Ake, the Minority leader of the House of Representatives, Ali Ndume, the Chairman of the House Committee on labour, Ado Dogo and his House Committee on Climate Change counterpart, Ubani Ezeuche. The NLC president Abdulwahid Omar presented the Congress’ position in a letter addressed to the National Assembly calling on them to meet Labour’s demands for electoral reform and removal of Maurice Iwu. Then more speeches were made.
Hassan Taiwo Soweto (DSM Member and ERC National Coordinator) addressed the protesters as a representative of Nigerian students. In his speech, he declared support for electoral reforms and maintained that the entire members of the ruling class are guilty of electoral manipulations. He however pointed out that electoral manipulation is just one out of the many other problems faced by poor working masses at the hand of the Nigerian capitalist ruling class. Therefore what is needed is a complete economic and political change in society through a socialist revolution. He called for a mass-based workers party with socialist program as the first step to take in the quest to liberate working and poor masses from the status-quo. He condemned the 2010 budget just passed by the National Assembly as an anti-poor attack on education. He raised the demand for an end to deregulation and for N52, 200 minimum wage and challenged the labour leaders to give government an ultimatum at the end of which a 48-hour warning general strike should be declared. The call for a socialist revolution was received with applause by the crowd and he had to pause his speech as the crowd burst out singing “social revolutionâ€¦ social revolution â€¦ the only way to end suffering â€¦ social revolution!”
After the speeches of the members of the National Assembly were made to boos and jeers from the crowd, the protest rally came to an end. On the way back to the NLC Secretariat, socialists and other activists exchanged comments and shared views on the just concluded protest. Most people agreed that the turnout was small compared to past protests and the demands were narrow. Tunde Dairo (Barryblacky) (DSM member) shared his experience while selling the DSM’s newspaper Socialist Democracy. An onlooker beckoned to him and asked him to help him deliver a message to the Labour leaders. He handed over a scrap up paper on which were scrawled the following words: “Abdulwahab, shame on you, you neglected your primary assignment”. When he asked what was the message’s meaning the man, according to Barryblacky, explained that he was angry because the demands that concerns ordinary working masses were not included in the slogans of the protest. This story led to serious reflections among us. Really, it is a huge advance for the Labour movement to struggle for political rights but where this is divorced from economic demands and the task of taking political power, the struggle will appear not just to Marxists but sometimes to rank and file workers as limited and avoiding the fundamental issues.
We also had a discussion with an NGO activist who upholds a reformist view about struggle. She defended the Labour leaders’ narrow demand for electoral reform on the basis that “this protest is just for election matters” as if there is any principled separation between struggle for economic and political demands. However, her view is symptomatic of the character of the protest rally itself which lacked the usual proletarian character of previous protests. It is not an accident that a young protester who was seen by comrades chanting “Iwu Must Go” slogans at the top of his voice was later complaining at the NLC Secretariat that he thought money would be distributed at the end.
This protest was in reality not organized on the platform of LASCO (the Labour and Civil Society platform that has been previously mobilizing Nigerian workers on strike actions and protest against neo-liberal policies) even though the media assumed this was the case. The NLC agreed at its National Executive Council (NEC) meeting to hold the protest, fixed the date and prepared for a press conference. On the day of the press conference, the NLC leadership informed a LASCO meeting in Lagos about the plan for a protest. The protest was accepted by LASCO but with a resolution that all demands on deregulation, minimum and neo-liberal policies should be included. However, the character of the protest rally shows this resolution was not implemented despite assurances to that effect. This explains why LASCO had no leaflet or banner in the protest rally unlike in the past when LASCO was the umbrella body for such protest rallies. The NGOs (ACE, CSCC and others) that, in actuality, partnered with NLC and TUC to organize the rally do not believe in a workers’ independent political party and action to transform society, the entire struggle in their own view is to make election fairer for a so-called progressive wing of the bourgeoisie. It is just unfortunate that Labour, instead of using the campaign for electoral reform to build the Labour Party as a real working class party to bid for political power, is wasting the enormous energy and potential power of the working class movement to advance the political interests of “progressive” bourgeoisie.
The writer of this report chanced upon a discussion of the ASUU team comprising Prof. Eskor Toyo, Dr. Dipo Fashina, Prof. Ukachuwu Awuzie, Sule Kano, Dr. Ife Adewumi and others as they prepared to leave the NLC Secretariat for home. Eskor Toyo was railing in his frail voice against the timidity of the Labour leaders. “I raised the need for a workers’ party and there was massive applause. This is not accidental. It has happened everywhere we have raised this demand. It is only that the Labour leaders are frightened, they are frightened!” I quite agree with him except that it is not just fright but that the Labour leaders erroneous believe that capitalism can guarantee even the barest relief to the mass of Nigerian working masses who are daily sinking into the abyss of mass poverty amidst abundance. The chance that capitalism can lift the masses out of mass poverty is not possible again even in the most advanced capitalist country not to talk of a neo-colonial outpost like Nigeria suffering under the twin evil of domestic capitalist exploiters and imperialism. Only the victory of genuine socialist idea of change within the workers’ movement can produce for Nigerian workers a strong-willed, uncompromising and bold leadership that will struggle for total transformation of society. This is much needed now than ever because every more year of capitalism’s survival in Nigeria means another great dip below the poverty level and a huge rise in the number of people on the dole.
Taking the stock of the rally, Labour must realise that it cannot win the struggle for a credible election with less than 2,000 people who participated at this Abuja rally. The mass action must be replicated across the country. But to ensure a truly mass participation by the working people at such actions, the demands for an end to deregulation and for a minimum wage must be brought back to the front burner. Besides the fact the Labour is duty-bound to remain steadfast on those demands, they are the issues that directly affect the living conditions of the people and could inspire them to move to the street. Also importantly, the struggle for electoral reform will remain a waste of energy and resources of Labour if the trade unions do not become active in Labour Party and reposition it as a fighting working class political alternative that could wrest political power from the thieving ruling elite at all levels. Good enough, the TUC at its recent delegate conference held in Benin, Edo State, passed a resolution that mandates it to participate actively in a better re-organisation of Labour Party. The NLC, which actually formed the party, has passed similar resolutions severally in the past. In fact, at the last Labour Party Convention in December 2009, the General Secretary of NLC, John Odah mentioned the plan to call a special convention to discuss the repositioning of the Party. It is incumbent on Labour now to match words with actions by building the Labour Party.
The Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI Nigeria) was prominent in the rally with leaflets and three different materials â€“ April/May edition of Socialist Democracy, DSM perspective documents titled ‘Nigeria on the brink’ and a pamphlet titled ‘Nigeria on a cliff edge’. In all, about 275 newspapers and documents were sold while 2,000 leaflets were distributed by seven members of the DSM who participated in the protest rally.