Labour must Begin Immediate Mobilization for Two-day General Strike and Mass protest
By Peluola Adewale
Despite the growing outcry, the Goodluck Jonathan government has pig-headedly resolved to intensify the neo-liberal capitalist attacks on the working people with the planned deregulation of petrol in the name of oil subsidy removal. Worse still, the government has sought to make the public believe this anti-poor policy is in the interest of ordinary Nigerians and the economy. According to the government and its town criers, the oil subsidy has to be removed because it is only a privileged cartel of private profiteers who benefit from it.
The working people must not accept this fraudulent basis to the attempt to increase their suffering in the midst of plenty. Labour and socialists have always insisted that government claims of subsidy are false as it is brazen transfer of public funds to the pocket of the few. Now in order to provide justification for this attempt to totally hand over the oil sector to profit merchants in the name of deregulation, the government has come round to indirectly admit that its so-called subsidies of prices has only been gratifying the greed of oil racketeers and profiteers within and outside government. But what deregulation really means is that instead of just gratifying oil racketeers and profiteers with “subsidy”, the entire oil sector will now be handed over to them for grabs under the guise of Public Private Partnership (PPP)!
In the not too distant past, capitalist spokespersons used to justify incessant hike of fuel prices with the excuse of meeting the real cost of these products and that, because of low price, oil was always smuggled out of the country. Then there was no talk that the subsidy regime only benefited a few profiteers. The fact is that the anti-poor, capitalist governments anywhere in the world invent any reason they can to justify brutal attacks on workers and the poor.
It is a scandal for government to admit that there is monumental fraud in the administration of the so-called oil subsidy which it cannot tackle and instead tries to force ordinary people to pay for the corruption and greed of the few fat cats. It is an appalling indictment of the failure of Nigerian capitalism that the government of the sixth largest exporter of crude oil in the world, whose brand of petroleum, sweet crude, is the easiest to refine, does not have functional and adequate refineries to produce petroleum products, not only for domestic use but also for exports. Nigeria is accursed with the most primitive specie of rent-taking, parasitic ruling capitalist elites.
If truly a government wants to block the drain on the public funds, it has to reduce the outrageous salaries and allowances of the bloated top functionaries to the level of average skilled workers, subject government spending to open and democratic workers’ control and have functional public works departments put under democratic management and control of workers and relevant professionals that could handle many big projects. But it is utterly utopian to expect any capitalist government to take these outlined steps, only a working peoples’ government could seriously begin to stamp out corruption and waste.
The government has said also that the resources freed up from the oil removal subsidy will be used for infrastructure development and social programmes. This is a blatant lie. We have heard this sort of thing before and we just have to look around us to see the result. Governments have canvassed the same arguments for past increases in the pump price of petrol and deregulation of other petroleum products like diesel and black oil. Yet the living conditions of ordinary Nigerians has been getting worse year in year out with the neo-liberal attacks on social services (education, health care, etc.) remain unabated while infrastructure like roads and power has continued to decay.
In 2005 when the Obasanjo government gifted the global financial sharks about $12.4bn in the name of debt relief, the argument was that the money that would be saved from the annual debt servicing would be used for the benefit of all. The London Financial Times specifically reported Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala saying that the debt service savings would be channelled into water resources, power, roads, health and micro-finance for farmers (Financial Times, October 21, 2005). Today, six years afterwards, not only have the masses not benefited anything from the so-called debt relief but also the debt stock of Nigeria has increased. Indeed, after the Paris Club “debt relief”, the total debt stock of Nigeria was reduced to $12.9bn comprising $3.9bn external debt and $9bn domestic debt. Today the debt stock outstanding has skyrocketed to $34.7bn comprising $4.7bn external and $30bn domestic debt, and this took place during a period of oil income windfalls!
Besides, as against the argument of federal government using the funds usually meant for the so-called oil subsidy on infrastructure and safety nets, a major reason for this hike is to refund the resources, naturally set aside for looting but which the both state and federal governments have been forced by Labour to spend on the new national minimum wage. It should recalled that in the wake of the minimum wage struggle, the state governments have been vociferously agitating for removal of oil subsidy as a means of getting more revenue which was put as the condition for payment of new minimum wage. This explains why the state Commissioners of Finance reportedly stormed out of the Federation Account Allocation meeting on October 18 protesting Federal Government’s deduction of N250 billion from the Federation Account to fund oil subsidy for the month of September (The Nation, October 19, 2011).
For Mass Resistance and Unconditional Rejection of Deregulation
Labour has already rejected the planned increase in the fuel price which the so-called subsidy removal means in the real term and declared its readiness to fight the anti-poor policy. This is welcome. But the Labour should immediately initiate the process of mass resistance against the planed attack on the living conditions of the people. We must not see a repeat of previous campaigns of strong words and little, or no, actions that have allowed governments to press home their attacks on working people and the poor. A Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO) meeting should be called soonest to deliberate on the strategy of the struggle. Such strategy should include the formation of action committees at workplaces, communities as well as at state and national levels. With effective and series of strikes and mass activities, the anti-poor policy can be defeated. A key problem in the struggle is the attitude of the labour leadership who appear to have adopted a half-measure approach with a conditional or tactical support for the deregulation or oil subsidy removal. As long as significant parts of the Labour leadership still see something good in the deregulation, this could constitute a serious clog in the anti-deregulation struggle.
For instance reacting to comments credited to the Chairman Dangote Group, Aliko Dangote, that Labour was part of the agreement reached in 2008 that fuel subsidy be removed, Peter Esele, President of Trade Union Congress (TUC), while not denying the Labour leaders’ endorsement of oil-subsidy removal in 2008, stressed that none of the demands of Labour then put forward had been met to date and that President Goodluck Jonathan was yet to explain to Nigerians the particular infrastructure the money would be used for (The Sun, October 17, 2011). Really it was naÄve, to say the least to expect the government to honour any agreement, all it was interested in was getting the Labour leaders to call off resistance.
But what were Labour’s demands then? These were contained in the two separate communiquÃ©s of the National Executive Council (NEC)’s Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) on December 15, 2009 and March 2010. These included: complete repairs of the four existing refineries; building of additional refineries either solely-owned by the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) or through joint partnership with oil companies, or better still through private sector initiative; a proper strengthening of the regulatory agencies so they can sanction defaulters; a level of power supply must be attained to encourage manufacturing and boost industrial growth; roads must be fixed and the railway system reactivated. The NLC also demanded that a viable system of mass transit be put in place to ease free movement of people and goods across the nation.
All this is shared by the TUC whose President was also recently reported to have said Labour would support the deregulation of the downstream sector of the oil industry only if it gets assurances from government on how it intends to spend the proceeds realized from the removal of fuel subsidy. He also said contrary to insinuations from different quarters, Labour was not averse to deregulation because “our position has always been very clear on the issue”. (This Day, October 17, 2011)
No to Illusion in Capitalist Politicians
Already, the government has indicated willingness to meet some of the conditions especially on the refineries. For instance, the Guardian, quoting a source in the presidency, reported that “a key component of the strategies being discussed is to encourage the establishment of more refineries. In fact as a sign of how seriously the government is taking the matter, the government in partnership with the private sector is working on plans to establish a refinery through a PPP arrangement” (Guardian, October 17, 2011). This is not different from the demand of Labour: “complete repairs of the four existing refineries; building of additional refineries either solely-owned by the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) or through joint partnership with oil companies, or better still through private sector initiative”. Even so, words are cheap. It is extremely unlikely that we will see, under neo-colonial capitalism, refineries that serve the needs of the people.
Obviously, a major stumbling block the struggle against deregulation would encounter is the ideological bond of the majority of the Labour leaders with capitalism and their deep-seated illusions in capitalist politicians. As we have argued in our publication, “Nigeria on a Cliff Edge” (February 2010), on the surface it sounds radical to demand that the existing four refineries be made to function and that more be built where necessary with a view to meeting domestic demand of products, guaranteeing stable electricity, making roads viable and reactivating the railway system etc. However, asking dyed-in-the-wool capitalist neo-liberal elements, who have only been able to prove their mettle by selling public properties and institutions to themselves at give-away prices in the name of privatization, to now begin to spearhead a programme of massive public investment in roads and rail construction is totally unrealistic. Asking elements that have allegedly already spent over a period of time, hundreds of billions of dollars to maintain the nation’s refineries and boost electricity generation and distribution with nothing concrete to show for it, to now assume responsibility for developing the nation’s refineries, electricity, roads and rail systems, is nothing but a hopeless illusion and deception.
Instead of making futile calls on capitalist politicians and government to implement pro-poor policies, the NLC and TUC leaders should immediately set in motion concrete steps to build a movement that can secure a real improvement in living standards. It is not enough for critical facilities like refineries to be publicly owned, they have to be subjected to open democratic control of the working people, trade unions and professionals. It is only on this basis that huge resources committed will be judiciously spent and translate into functional refineries that work optimally. It is also in this context that the demand for building new refineries, which are necessary in order to meet domestic demands for fuel, could be meaningful and achievable.
This will also mean that the working class elements have to fight for a working people’s government that would be prepared to put the commanding heights of the Nigeria’s economy, including oil, under public ownership and working class democratic control and management. Otherwise, the effort will either be sabotaged by the ruling elite who make quick and cool profit from the fuel importation or provide new goldmines for the public looters.
It is not accidental that the elements that have been granted licenses to build refineries have not done so since 2001. Most of them have not even laid foundations for the projects. Of course, if tomorrow, government decides to sell public refineries to private companies, there may be no lack of buyer as it was the case when Obasanjo, a day to the end of his regime, sold the refineries to Bluestar, a company hurriedly formed by Dangote and other lackeys of the government. It was mass popular resistance that forced Yar’Adua’s government to cancel the sale. Nigeria’s ruling elite are parasitic, they do not invest in long time projects that create jobs and have positive multiplier effects on the economy like refineries but in short time speculative activities.
For a Fighting Labour Leadership and Socialist Alternative
This is why Labour must consistently wage the struggle against deregulation and removal of oil subsidy and draw up bold alternative proposals to removal of oil subsidy and deregulation which would argue for public ownership of the oil sector under public democratic control and management. The next step should be a two-day general strike and mass demonstration to show the ruling class the working masses and youth are opposed to this anti-poor policy. Right from now, Labour must begin to prepare and mobilize for such a strike through leafleting, public meetings and symposia and rallies across the country.
This is another opportunity for the Labour leadership to restore the confidence of the working class and youth in its ability to lead a consistent struggle against anti-poor policies. The recent struggles across the country to secure the new minimum wage are an indication of a new mood amongst many workers who want to fight back. Significantly when they have been blocked by conservative or timid Labour leaders, as in Oyo, rank and file workers sought to by-pass these elements and build an alternative fighting leadership. Labour leaders have to be told that simply uttering strong words is not enough and that, if they are reluctant to lead a serious struggle, they should step aside for those who will. There have been far too many examples of workers gaining nothing when strikes are suddenly called off or simply postponed at the last minute.
This is a challenge to rank and file workers and trade union activists especially as we prepare for a protracted struggle against deregulation. The DSM campaigns for full democratisation of the trade unions with decisions to strike or call off an action resting in the rank and file members below as a key factor in cleaning the trade unions of bureaucratic leaders and building a real fighting labour movement that can uncompromisingly defend working masses’ interests. This is why we call for serious struggle against removal of oil subsidy and other attacks on living standards linked with active debates, discussions and programs of actions among rank and file workers and activists at workplaces to begin to rebuild Labour’s strength from the grass roots up and ensure that Labour has a combative leadership.
At the same time there is need for the creation of a truly working peoples’ political party that is committed to building a movement which can both defeat the attacks working people are facing while, at the same time, fight for a workers’ and poor peoples’ government. Only a workers and poor peoples’ government with socialist program can truly harness Nigeria’s natural and human resources for the benefit of all. To achieve this, such government would ensure that the commanding heights of the Nigerian economy are publicly owned, democratically run and planned by the working people themselves so that there will be more than enough resources to meet the needs and aspirations of all.