PHCN WORKERS STEP UP FIGHT AGAINST PRIVATISATION OF POWER SECTOR
PHCN WORKERS STEP UP FIGHT AGAINST PRIVATISATION OF POWER SECTOR
Keep the PHCN Public!
Capital NO to Privatisation
NLC and TUC Must Organise Solidarity Actions to Support Them
The struggle against privatisation was stepped up on Monday 25th October, 2010 when about 1,500 electricity workers, labour and human right activists under the auspices of Joint Action Forum (JAF) and the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) took to the streets of Lagos to protest against the planned privatisation of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN).
The protesters carried placards bearing messages like “PHCN not for sale”, “Resist the handing over of PHCN to private sharks”, “Reject privatisation of all public enterprises” etc. Members of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) participated in the protest carrying a banner and placards bearing such inscriptions as “No Privatization, Put PHCN under workers democratic control and management”, ” For A Socialist Nigeria”, “Join and build the Labour Party as a Fighting Working Class Party” etc.
The protest was seen by many as the beginning of a long battle. In their separate remarks, the General Secretary of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), Joe Ajaero and its President, Mansur Musa, called on Nigerians to resist the privatisation of the energy sector. According to Joe Ajaero, “this is just the beginning of the struggle against privatisation, after this protest, we shall not hesitate to embark on civil disobedience including strikes until the federal government meets our demands.” Speaking further, Joe exposed government’s plan, “their plan is to hand over the existing 3,000 megawatts being generated by PHCN to these looters’ companies to distribute at high cost to consumers, and the tariffs will move from N4 per kilowatt-hour (pkwh) to N18 and N22pkwh”. Truly, government has said that an increase in tariffs by over 500% is necessary in order to attract private investor into the power sector. In his own speech, Abiodun Aremu, the Secretary of JAF, explained that of all the 20 private power companies granted licences since 2005, none is yet to add a single megawatt of electricity to the national grid.
The Chairman of the JAF, Dr. Dipo Fashina, debunked the claim by government that power supply will only be stable and adequate if PHCN is privatised: “The already privatised companies like NITEL, Nigerian Airways, Daily Times, Nigerian Ports Authority, Ajaokuta Steel and Delta Steel etc. have not been working; they are now in worse situation than they were when publicly managed. The essence of government is to provide public good to the people, any government that cannot provide electricity and social services like education, healthcare, etc. do not deserve to remain in office”.
The passionate anger of the PHCN workers in the protest attracted mixed reaction from the public. In most cases where the masses on the streets expressed their opinion on the issue of privatisation of the PHCN, the mood of the public was mixed as to the real solutions to electricity crisis. Indeed, a section of the public openly called for the privatisation of PHCN owing to the fact that they have never enjoyed stable and adequate electricity supply while others opposed privatisation because other public corporations that have been privatised never functioned or are performing worse. Their attitude was if privatisation would improve power generation and distribution, then so be it. In any case some of them have also bought into disinformation being peddled by government which employs the debatable “success story” of the telecommunication sector as the justification for the privatisation of public enterprises. One of the onlookers who spoke to one of our comrades questioned the privatisation on the basis that the same lies was told to the public when they were about to concession the Nigeria Sea Port (Apapa Wharf) and after the concessioning, things went from bad to worse including sharp increment in the cost of clearing goods.
However, some protesters were quick to explain that the entrance of private companies like MTN, Zain and Glo into the telecom industry was as a result of the liberalisation of the industry after NITEL (the publicly owned company) had been looted for years and cheaply sold off, and that NITEL has now been left in a much worse condition. Yes, there is improvement in telecommunication with the advent of GSM providers compared with the era of monopoly of NITEL when telephone was only meant for the elite. The fact is that the service is poor and tariffs are outrageous. This explains why most people who have phone lines (despite being considerable are indeed a minority in the country) hardly have any credit to call with, thus making the telecom companies to resort to lottery and promotional advertisements in order to lure subscribers to buy credit. Their poor service accounts for why the vast majority of people using telephone subscribe to more than one network. If NITEL had been kept public with massive investment into it and run democratically under elected committees of workers, consumers and relevant professionals it would have provided much better land and mobile service at a far lesser rate. Besides, electricity is not the same as telecommunication in the sense that while most people with telephone lines can afford to do without credits as a result of high tariffs and still receive calls and indeed communicate by “flashing”, such opportunity does not arise with electricity. Without paying for electricity one is cut off.
To socialists, the mixed mood expressed by the public is not surprising as it represents a transitory stage in the consciousness of the working and poor masses of Nigeria as a result of the weakness in the labour movement that lacked an alternative political program to neo-liberal policies. The task of PHCN workers, socialists, labour and civil society activists is therefore to patiently explain the error of this kind of thinking while pointing to the evils of privatization and what it really means. Socialists must also point out the fact that the profit interest and motive of local and foreign investors have always been part of the factors that worsened the crisis in the power sector in the first place.
The masses need to know that right from former President Obasanjo’s regime when government started series of investments in the power sector the private sector has been actively involved in the power sector through various contracts collected for major repair and maintenance works without any improvement in electricity generation and distribution. The masses need to know that the private sector was heavily involved in the fraud and sleaze surrounding the investment of $16 billion into the power sector by the Obasanjo government, which instead of increasing power generation only worsened it as most of the money (according to the findings of a probe by the House of Representative years later) were siphoned by private companies both registered and unregistered with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC) in collaboration with those in government!
Indeed, the aim of President Jonathan’s agenda to privatise the power sector is to carve out for himself, political associates and godfathers a business empire to make easy profit. The argument and propaganda of the government in defence of its privatisation policy as the only solution conceivable for the resolution of the crisis rocking the power sector is not only illogical but also plain fraud being orchestrated by the Nigerian capitalist ruling class to convert collective property into their private concerns. For instance, all the major and active proponents of the privatisation agenda have one thing or the other to gain from it.
To start with, Vice President Namadi Sambo who is a major proponent of privatisation owns Manyatta Engineering Services Ltd which has been given license years ago, yet has not generated a single megawatt. Prof. Barth Nnaji (Special Adviser to the President on power) owns Geometrics Power Ltd in Aba, one of the companies to benefit from the privatisation, and is the Chairman of the Presidential task force on power charged with the responsibility of seeing to the sale of the power sector. Obasanjo (former President) wasted a whole $16 million on the power sector few years ago, now he owns Farm Electric based in Ota and also has a hand in Ziglasses, both of which are positioned to get a share of the power sector once it is privatised. The list goes on and on.
The question Nigerians must ask is if the Jonathan’s government, Barth Nnaji and former President Obasanjo who siphoned a whopping $16 billion meant for the power sector during his regime could not ensure efficient power generation, how would they perform any better if the power sector is now sold to them and their private companies and especially when they would be accountable to no one?
A SOCIALIST ALTERNATIVE TO PRIVATIZATION
The reality which the vast masses of Nigerian workers, poor masses and youths must face is that even though power supply is nothing to write home about at the moment while PHCN remains a public enterprise, power supply will surely get nightmarish if the power sector is privatised because only the corrupt politicians using different fictitious private companies as fronts as well as profit-seeking foreign companies will benefit from it. The only solution which will take care of the interests of poor working class people and small and medium scale businesses who require stable and affordable electricity is for the PHCN to remain public and for government to invest public resources to boost power generation, distribution and supply. However unlike the usual situation where public enterprises are run by bureaucrats who are unaccountable to no one except the government that appointed them, the power sector must be placed under the control and management of the people through elected committees comprising PHCN workers, government appointees, technical staff/experts and consumers.
It is such democratic committees, replicated on all streets, local governments and PHCN offices nationwide with centralised state and national leaderships, that must be invested with the powers and authority to make administrative, financial, legal and technical decisions on the basis of democratic debates and discussions. With this arrangement, it will be possible to banish from the power sector the bureaucrats, the lobbyists, individual and corporate bodies who have for decades perfected the art of siphoning the resources invested by government in boosting power generation.
Unfortunately, one major limitation in the speeches made by NUEE and JAF leaders at the protest was the absence of this kind of clearly articulated working class alternative to the privatisation of the PHCN. Although the JAF press statement and leaflet called for public ownership of the PHCN under workers and consumers’ control and management, it is doubtful whether some of these leaders think much of it.
THE STRUGGLE MUST BE INTENSIFIED!
It is necessary for PHCN workers not to rest on their oars after the mass protest. As the experience of this rally has shown, more and more working people will come around to understand the reason why privatisation will not be a solution to the problem of power supply only on the basis of patient explanation and agitation. Therefore, this struggle needs to be stepped up.
The PHCN workers and their leaders have clearly distinguished themselves as one of the most combative section of the working class in Nigeria. Aside the actions taken in Lagos, other form of mass actions are being taken in other states across the country by PHCN workers. Indeed, the National leadership of the NUEE, upon the declaration of a three-day warning strike by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) from 10 to 13 November 2010 to protest for a raise in the minimum wage, promptly called on its members to down tools within the period. This action will greatly help to bring the wheels of capitalist production to a halt during the three-day strike while raising the importance and economic weight of electricity workers, 50, 000 of whom are billed to be retrenched by next year when privatisation is expected to take off.
The DSM call on leadership of NUEE to build on the achievement of previous mass actions by calling for bigger demonstrations and rallies across the country. For this to be possible and much more successful than previous actions, struggle committees must be built among the rank and file of electricity workers at workplaces to daily discuss and take initiatives on what to do next to move the struggle forward. These struggle committees can devise programs including leafleteering and rallies in communities to explain to the people why PHCN is not working as expected, the evils of privatisation and the alternative. This kind of activity can provide the right impetus and build up for another round of nationwide strike action and protests.
Happily, the National Executive Council (NEC) of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) recently, took a decision to support and strengthen the struggle of electricity workers against privatisation. This must not just be a verbal resolution. The DSM therefore call on the leadership of NLC and TUC to match their words with action by organising solidarity strike actions and mass protests to back up the struggle of electricity workers. A good assistance can also be rendered for electricity workers’ heroic struggle against privatisation if the leadership of the NLC and TUC resign their membership of the National Council of Privatisation (NCP), a body empowered to oversee the privatisation of public corporations.