NIGERIA’S GENERAL STRIKE/MASS PROTEST AGAINST FUEL PRICE HIKE: Vital Lessons For The Working Class A
Socialist Democracy April-May 2012 Edition
NIGERIA’S GENERAL STRIKE/MASS PROTEST AGAINST FUEL PRICE HIKE: Vital Lessons For The Working Class And Youth
By H.T. Soweto
For 6 days running in January 2012, Nigeria was in the throes of a general strike against an over 120% increase of fuel price from N65 to well above N142 per litre. It was the biggest and the most widespread general strike and mass protest in Nigerian history. The strike did not win a total victory yet, it forced a partial reinstatement of fuel subsidy and reduction of fuel price to N97. But as most Nigerians unanimously agree, the strike could have won far more if the bureaucratic labour leadership had not betrayed.
The strike exploded the myth that the revolutionary movements witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt last year were not possible here in Nigeria. It also exposed all the main opposition political parties as accomplices of the ruling PDP as they all supported fuel subsidy removal. Unfortunately, the correct explanations of this movement continue to elude the trade unions and there are also vital lessons for activists to learn.
Mass revulsion greeted the betrayal of the strike. Since then hostility to labour leaders has developed among large swathes of young activists for many of whom the January movement was their first taste of class struggle. Against this background, a serious analysis of the movement, its shortcomings and lessons is essential for the left, labour activists and the new generation of radicalized youths whose fervour for a determined struggle against neo-liberal attacks and revolutionary change was ignited by the January movement.
EXPLOSION OF MASS ANGER
The general strike lasted a total of 6 days but mass protests and demonstrations lasted even far more. Five days after 1st of January, spontaneous protests had erupted in over 10 states! Like a deluge, Nigerian society witnessed a mighty human tide as the masses fought heroically to roll back one of the most vicious pro-market attacks on their living conditions. For many, the movement offered the opportunity to achieve even far more; including eliminating corruption and reducing the outrageous salaries and allowances of political office holders.
The mass anger that greeted the fuel subsidy removal policy can only be understood within the overall devastating economic situation in the country caused by unrelenting neo-liberal attacks of the last 13 years. General strikes and mass protests against intermittent fuel price hikes dates back to 2000 under the hated pro-market regime of President Obasanjo. Between 2000 and 2007, labour called a number of general strikes against fuel price hikes. Many of these strikes were well supported, but failed to fully roll back the austerity policy of hiking fuel. Sometimes, partial concessions were won. For example the first of these actions, June 2000’s five day general strike against Obasanjo’s attempt to raise the petrol price from N20 to N30 forced a temporary reduction down to N22. But generally these protests did not succeed because of the labour leaders” ideological unwillingness to challenge capitalism and the absence of a strong movement based in the rank and file that could provide a fighting leadership willing to challenge the ruling class.
However the fuel price increase in January which was premised on the removal of fuel subsidy represented a qualitative stage in government’s agenda to completely hand over the oil sector to multinational oil companies and big business fuel marketers under the guise of deregulation. This vicious anti-poor policy was to be the first step in the process of full deregulation of the oil sector.
GRINDING POVERTY IN THE MIDST OF OIL WEALTH
The strike occurred against a backdrop of widening wealth gap and the driving down of the wages of workers, economic devastation of artisans, greatly impoverished middle class and colossal youth unemployment levels and job losses over the last 13 years of civil rule. This was despite reported impressive economic growth fuelled by crude oil export. According to a recent World Bank survey, only 1% of Nigerians consume 80% of oil wealth. Instead of using the huge revenues which crude oil exploration brings to expand public services like education, health care, electricity supply, descent housing, good roads and transportation, the local capitalist politicians are simply looting the oil revenues thus becoming millionaires and billionaires almost overnight.
The result is that living standards took a plunge below 1980 levels, with 23.9% unemployment level and over 28 million unemployed youths, devastation of the education sector and health care, the near total collapse of public electricity and chaotic transportation system. Despite oil wealth and impressive GDP growth, Nigeria is one of the most unequal countries in the world with a huge income gap between the richest 1% and the poorest 60%. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, income inequality rose from 0.429 in 2004 to 0.447 in 2010. It reported that 69% of Nigerians, about 112.519 million people (up from 54.4 % in 2004), live in relative poverty in an estimated population of about 170 million. The NBS added that “using the relative, absolute and dollar-per-day poverty measures, NBS estimates that poverty may have further risen slightly to about 71.5 per cent, 61.9 per cent and 62.8 per cent respectively in 2011.” (Guardian, February 14, 2012).
Terrible suffering amidst stupendous oil wealth constituted the combustive materials that detonated the explosion of mass anger in January. Just as the masses were expecting the removal of fuel subsidy in April 2012, so also were they expecting a 25% to 88% rise in electricity tariffs due to “power reforms”. The shifting of the expected date of the attack from April to January 2012 acted as the “whip of the counterrevolution”. It lifted the lid on the welled-up frustration and anger of the working class, youth and poor masses.
THE LEADING ROLE OF THE WORKING CLASS
Starting from spontaneous daily mass protests from January 2, the movement reached its peak when the organized working class entered battle with an indefinite general strike that lasted 6 days before it was called off. As Socialists in the DSM often argue, only the working class because of its strategic and key role in modern economy can lead a serious struggle against capitalism and neo-liberal attacks. It is also this class, leading other oppressed masses behind it that can end capitalism; take the reins of political power from the corrupt ruling elite and enthrone a democratic socialist society.
When general strike was declared on January 9, the temper, scale and depth of the movement changed dramatically. All along, it was as the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky calls it, “the light Calvary” of the revolution – youths and the unorganized masses – that was in battle. Now the heavy battalion of the working class was unleashed.
However none of the impressive protests and spontaneous demonstrations had yet halted economic activity or decisively threatened the regime or the capitalist system. However with a general strike and the organized working class in the forefront of the struggle, everything changed. At its height, the whole economy was shutdown. The BBC’s Mark Lobel reported that the value of transactions on the Nigerian stock exchange was down to a fifth of its value on the first day of the strike!
Released from the rigor of work, the vast army of the working class poured into the streets in massive protests and demonstrations across the country. On the first day of strike, tens of thousands marched in Lagos. Several thousands marched in Edo, Oyo and Osun states. Daily mass assemblies of hundreds of thousands sprouted in the major cities of Lagos, Abuja and Kano.
At barricades, union vehicles or any vehicle carrying trade union flags were mobbed for leaflets and news of the strike. Hunger for ideas was only matched by yearning for action. The sheer scale and depth of the movement was unprecedented. The ferment in society infected almost all strata of the oppressed people. The middle class and youths were drawn to the movement. Doctors, lawyers, filmmakers, education workers, hairdressers and market women marched with the working class in the biggest movement ever against neo-liberal attacks.
THE UNITY OF THE WORKING CLASS AND OPPRESSED MASSES
A key feature of the struggle was the unity of the working class and all oppressed people. Throughout the period the general strike lasted, not a single bomb exploded. With the mass of the street struggling through collective action against the corrupt capitalist regime and its anti-poor attacks, even Boko Haram became isolated.
This is because religious fundamentalist terror groups can only gain mass acceptance when there is a defeat, lull or retreat in the class struggle. In this scenario, the idea of terrorism can actually be attractive to a layer of disillusioned youths. But with the class struggle on the rise, belief in collective mass action dominated the heart and mind of millions over and above individual terrorism.
Indeed in Kano, society witnessed what was to be a general feature later of the unity of the working class, poor and youth in spite of religious and ethnic differences. Kano supplied one of the iconic images of the January movement of Christian protesters standing guard in a circle around a crowd of Muslims observing their midday prayers. However, since the retreat in mass struggle, the same Kano where was witnessed such magnificent solidarity and unity of the working class in action has since been transformed into a killing field by Boko Haram and security forces!
POWER ON THE STREET
As the strike progressed, the government was suspended in the air. Across Lagos, the NLC flag and leaflets were the unofficial pass on both major and inter-community roads. Power was effectively in the street and it could have been taken just for the asking. Of course large scale repression openly backed by the state had not yet taken place to clearly test the resolve of the masses. Yet the temper of the masses and their determination to fight on was unmistakable. Several people, especially the most politically advanced of the working masses and youths, were coming to the conclusion Socialists had drawn long ago, which is that only by taking political power can the working masses and poor begin to design a new Nigeria of social justice and equity. Thus the idea of the need for “regime change” began to spread.
At barricades, mass of youths played football on the road and organized music, dance and food. The mass openly fraternized with the police at the barricade. The police were generally idle and many of the lower ranks showed sympathy to protest. It was the working class that was in charge of society and because of this, the official ruling class organs of “law and order” had no job to do. Of course about 20 protesters were shot dead across the country with over 600 injured, but some of these shootings were committed by senior police officers like Segun Fabunmi, the DPO that killed a protesting youth at Ogba in Lagos. But even this repression is mild by Nigeria’s standard. The regime would have carried out bigger repression but for the overwhelming support for the strike. Had the unions taken advantage of the mass support to consciously fraternize and make class appeals to the police, this could have further weakened the repressive abilities of the police and the lower ranks could have come over to the side of protesters.
An example of this was seen in the revolution in Egypt last year. However despite that the trade unions did not consider this tactics, the police could not be as reliable as expected for the ruling class to repress the movement. This is because just like other poor people in Nigeria, a majority of the poorly-paid lower ranks of the police could not also afford the new fuel price and secretly wished that the struggle would win.
LABOUR’S EXCUSE FOR SUSPENDING THE STRIKE
For the army too, the same tactics of open appeals and fraternization could have worked. Just like the police, the lower rank soldiers are poorly paid and the protest of some soldiers in 2008 over short-payment for UN peace keeping mission shows that radicalization is possible in the ranks of the army. In fact during the strike, the French agency AFP reported soldiers clapping and taking pictures as protesters marched in Lagos.
By suspending strike because of the threat of repression, the labour leaders have helped to strengthen the regime and dampen the confidence of the working and poor masses in their abilities to struggle in the face of repression. The excuse of the trade union leaders for suspending the strike which they claimed was to avoid bloodshed by the army is sheer nonsense.
The Nigerian working class, youth and poor masses have a long tradition of struggle dating back to the 1945 railway workers strike and the pro-independence struggle. Indeed for much of its 52 years of existence as an independent nation, Nigeria has been ruled by one military regime or the other. And this did not stop the many big battles of students and the working class throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Equally the fear of the army did not stop Nigerian working masses from fighting to end military dictatorship in the mid-1990s â€“ a struggle that lasted over 6 years!
If the current trade union leaders were really sincere, they would not have taken such a bankrupt position in the midst of a popular and well-supported movement. Faced with the deployment of the army, the correct and most productive tactic that could ensure victory was for the trade unions to appeal to the working class members of the army and police, reminding them of their own suffering under the corrupt capitalist government and urging them to join the struggle for change rather than turn their guns on protesters.
This would also have to go hand-in-hand with strengthening the movement through forming of committees to steward protests/rallies and building of strike/action committees to act as democratic mass assemblies of the working people and youth in workplaces, neighbourhoods, streets and communities where the masses can take active part in discussions and planning of strategies and tactics to defend the movement. If necessary, armed democratic defence committees subject to the mass assemblies at workplaces, neighbourhoods and communities will have to be formed to defend the barricades and the movement against repression and sectarian attack. In reality, the regime’s threat to embark on large scale repression was a good opportunity for labour to go on the offensive by shutting down oil production and taking over the control of transportation, air and sea ports, key industries as well as flow of goods and services. This could have tipped the balance of force in favour of the movement by isolating the government, weakening the effectiveness of armed repression and ensuring victory.
All this could only be done by a labour leadership prepared to struggle in a determined fashion until all demands are won. Unfortunately, the privileged bureaucrats of the NLC and TUC do not even want to struggle at all. Even the general strike was forced on them by the spontaneous mass protests that swept across the country in the first week of January. At the height of the general strike when the regime was already threatening to deploy soldiers onto the streets, the Presidents of the NLC and TUC announced that the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG)’s plans to join the strike had been shelved without providing any explanation!
If oil workers under NUPENG had joined the strike, it would have disrupted oil production and export – the very nerve centre of Nigeria’s capitalist state. The impact and reverberations would have been felt worldwide especially in the big capitals of capitalism. This would have greatly reduced the options before the regime and could have forced it to negotiate on the terms of the protesting masses! Unfortunately, the labour leaders failed to use this very important weapon at the time it would have greatly helped the movement.
COULD THE STRIKE HAVE WON?
With a bold and radical labour leadership prepared not just to win reversal of fuel price but also to enthrone good governance, the movement could have won far more. It could have been possible to win the full reversal of the fuel price hike. However on the basis of capitalism, fuel price would soon go up unless the multinational oil companies and super-rich fuel marketers are kicked out of the oil sector.
None of the demands of the protesting masses against corruption in government and the oil sector could be achieved on a lasting basis without taking over the oil sector from the super-rich oil multinationals and marketers and putting it under democratic ownership and control of the working masses. This linked with nationalization and democratic control of other key sectors of the economy could for the first time ensure that Nigeria’s resources, including oil wealth, is used primarily to rebuild social infrastructures like roads and electricity, implement free education and health and improve workers’ living standards. This would of course require that the working class come to power and begin to reorganize society along socialist lines.
Unfortunately because of their ideological support for capitalism, the current labour leadership do not even raise demand for nationalization of the oil sector. In fact some of them sit on the government’s National Council on Privatisation. In reality these leaders have no alternative program to government neo-liberal policies of subsidy removal and deregulation of the oils sector. Indeed the labour leaders supports deregulation with the proviso that “refineries must be made to work” before full deregulation takes place.
A GENERAL STRIKE WITHOUT PREPARATION TO TAKE POWER
A general strike poses the question of political power. An indefinite general strike is almost an insurrection. This explains the fear of the ruling elite including the opposition parties. Unfortunately the labour leaders had merely called an “indefinite” general strike, they had no plan for a sustained struggle. Ordinarily an indefinite general strike could only be sustained for any period of time if there is access to food and other basic needs. This means that during the strike, there must be strike/action committees at workplaces, communities and neighbourhoods to ensure access to food and other basic needs etc.
But even with this, a general strike cannot go on indefinitely. Either it leads to the working class taking political power or, at the very least, a lost opportunity to change society or, at worst, a heavy defeat. This is why Marxists attach so much significance to a general strike. Marxists believe that if workers can shut down society as happened during the strike in January, then why can’t they run it? Why allow this life of suffering in the midst of abundance to go on when the strike poses the rare opportunity of rescuing Nigeria from the grip of local and foreign capitalist bandits who have been exploiting the people since the creation of the country?
But to the labour leaders, the whole point of the general strike was to frighten the regime to quickly grant concessions. We are not “campaigning for ‘Regime Change’â€¦ anybody or group that wants a change in the political leadership of the country at whatever level, should do so through the ballot boxâ€¦We pledge that once the price increase suspension is announced, Labour and its allies will immediately suspend the strike, rallies and street protests”. This was the weak and prostrate tone with which the NLC and TUC addressed the regime on Sunday January 15 despite being in command of millions on the streets â€“ a force greater than any army!
The labour leaders had been forced to call the strike because of the movement on the street. As much as the ruling class, the pro-capitalist labour leaders were scared of the strike continuing for any length of time that could begin to threaten the regime and the capitalist system. While announcing the strike, it was not impossible that the labour leaders had hoped that after a few days, hunger and food shortages would weaken the movement providing them the opportunity to strike a rotten deal that could be presented as a glorious victory justified with the excuse that “the masses were tired and could not go further”. The regime also counted on this.
Indeed, a day after the strike started, the DSM warned “Jonathan and Co. hope to be able to sit this struggle out. Hoping that poverty, food shortages etc. will break the strike. This is why it is essential that Labour continues to go onto the offensive… Such is the power of the current strike that it is possible that the government may offer concessions, but we have seen before temporary concessions being used by the ruling class to buy time for themselves by damping down the struggle. Instead of allowing the ruling class to continue to rule and exploit, labour must utilize this mass movement not just to reverse the fuel price hike but as a springboard to create workers’ and poor people’s government that can begin a real revolution by breaking with capitalism”.
But the regime and the labour leaders were shocked by the resilience and sacrifice the masses were willing to make for the continuation of the strike. On Thursday and Friday, January 12 and 13, the familiar sight in Lagos was masses of women and youths lining the streets and neighbourhoods and warning labour leaders not to betray. “Do not betray this struggle” was the familiar cry all over Lagos.
Workers and the masses were prepared to go further. They too had initially thought President Jonathan would back down after a few days, but now having seen the strike drag on for five days, they realized more determination was needed to defeat the regime. The general consensus among protesters was that by the second week of the strike, actions must be escalated. The slogan of “Jonathan must go” was beginning to echo from one end of the country to another. The labour leaders became alarmed! When over the weekend, NUPENG announced plans to join the strike, protesters rejoiced! People used the intervening weekend to stock up food and basic items with the intention of resuming at the barricade on Monday.
But none of this happened. For on the morning of January 16 NLC and TUC leaders called off the strike without any meeting of the union organs empowered to do so! Clearly they were scared that this struggle was moving in a radical, anti-regime direction and quickly wanted to end the strike. Not only did this mean another lost opportunity to transform Nigeria but also, because of their haste, the trade union leaders did not even win major concessions. Yet despite this betrayal, the masses fought valiant battle on the streets of Lagos, Kano and many other big cities to sustain the movement. But it was already too late and there was no alternative leadership to turn to. While local meetings and assemblies to discuss the strike and plan activities had begun to develop they had not started to link up to form a grass roots based structure for the struggle. Furthermore there was no political party of workers and poor that could provide political leadership for the struggle. This is the most important lesson of the general strike!
TASKS POSED BY THE JANUARY MOVEMENT
While the strike did not win yet it did not end in a crushing defeat. Successfully, the masses forced back the regime even if partially. However this will only be for a while. Very soon, fuel price will go up as the regime again presses for the full removal of subsidy and deregulation of the oil sector. Despite the dampening of mood due to betrayals of the trade union leaders, new fuel price hike will provoke new outburst of mass struggle. However to win in the next period, socialists, the youths and activists must learn the vital lessons of the general strike.
Despite the treachery of labour leaders, the crucial role of the working class in defeating neo-liberal policies and socially transforming Nigeria from unjust capitalism to a democratic socialist future remains valid today. Workers who are members of the trade unions are not one and the same with their treacherous leaders. Therefore in correctly hating the trade union leaders for betraying the strike, activists must not draw the dangerous conclusion, as some “left” incredibly do, that the trade unions are not important in the struggle for social transformation. At the same time this latest retreat by the Labour leaders will play into the hands of those like the Boko Haram leaders who argue that national, united struggle cannot achieve anything for the poor.
The bureaucratic leaders of the NLC and TUC embrace a pro-capitalist outlook which explains their often counter-productive approach to struggle. They have no vision of an alternative to capitalism. This is why the current labour leadership cannot consistently struggle successfully for the most basic material interests of the working class in Nigeria and often betray in key situations. While Socialists condemn the reformist and bureaucratic trade union leadership, we do not confuse them with the working class organized in the trade unions who are strategically placed within the modern economy and are in a key position to lead the rest of the oppressed masses for a revolutionary conquest of political power and the takeover of the running of society from capitalist looters.
In preparation for a revival of class struggle, Socialists and labour activists must renew the mass campaign among rank and file workers to cleanse the unions of bureaucratic and reformist leaders, institute genuine workers’ democracy and build the unions as fighting platforms that can fight and win concessions. This has to be linked with campaigning for a fighting trade union leadership.
Scarcely three months after the general strike, already there are tell-tale signs of a new drive to increase fuel price. Across the country petrol marketers are hoarding supplies to create an artificial fuel scarcity all meant to enforce a new price increase. The DSM calls on the NLC and TUC to immediately begin preparation to launch a full scale mass resistance against any attempt to increase fuel price now and in the future.
However for workers to be able to defend gains won in past struggle and halt the worsening of the living conditions of the mass majority, the labour movement in the immediate period has to struggle with a new vigour against all anti-poor policies. This calls for a mass campaign against privatization of public electricity, retrenchment, slave working conditions and for full implementation of the N18, 000 minimum wage. This campaign, which must also cover low-paid workers in the private sector, has to be linked with demands for job creation, mass housing scheme, free education and healthcare at all levels.
The most crucial task however is the building of a mass workers’ political party that stands for the interests of the poor and working people and that can struggle for political power. This was a key missing element in the general strike.
With a workers’ political party armed with socialist programs, it will be possible to provide a political leadership for the working class and poor masses during struggle and an electoral voice during elections.
The DSM is committed to the task of campaigning for the formation of such a party. We therefore urge all those who are committed to genuine change to support this campaign and join the DSM.
The electoral success, officially winning over 77,000 votes, of comrade Lanre Arogundade, a member of the DSM, as the Lagos West Senatorial candidate of the National Conscience Party (NCP) in 2003 is a bold confirmation that a workers’ party can win. In a heavily monetized and rigged election, the party came third. This should be an inspiration to all those who desire an alternative party. Tragically today the NCP is no longer the radical campaigning party it once was and the so-called Labour Party has never developed as a real working people’s party. Despite being initially launched by the NLC the Labour Party’s heavily monetarised internal structure is a clear sign that it is run on the same lines as all the other existing parties. This is why the DSM argues for the creation of a new party. The DSM urges all those convinced of the necessity of a workers’ political party to support and join us so that collectively we can build a party that stands for workers and poor.