Nigeria’s General Strike/Mass Protest against Fuel Price Hike
Nigeria’s General Strike/Mass Protest against Fuel Price Hike
VITAL LESSONS FOR THE WORKING CLASS AND YOUTH
(This article first published on 17 April 2012 is republished below, in an edited form, to mark the one year anniversary of the January uprising)
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 most widespread general strike/mass protest in Nigeria. The strike did not win yet it forced a partial reinstatement of fuel subsidy and reduction of fuel price to N97. But as many people believe, the strike could have won far more had the labour leadership been more resolute. Put simply, this was another lost opportunity to transform Nigeria.
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 workers, youth and poor masses fought heroically to roll back one of the most vicious pro-market attacks on their living conditions.
The strike exploded the myths 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.
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 and poverty over the last 13 years of civil rule. This was despite reported impressive economic growth fueled by crude oil export. According to a World Bank survey, only 1% of Nigerians consume 80% of oil wealth. Instead of using the huge revenues which crude oil exploration brings to better peoples live, 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 youth, 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. 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, 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.
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.
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. None of the impressive protests and spontaneous demonstrations had halted economic activity or decisively threatened the regime and the capitalist system. But 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!
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.
A key feature of the struggle was the unity of the working class and all oppressed people. While the general strike lasted, not a single bomb exploded. With the masses on the street struggling through collective action, even Boko Haram became isolated. This is because with the class struggle on the rise, belief in collective mass action dominated the hearts and minds of millions over and above individual terrorism. Kano supplied one of the iconic images of the January movement with online media pictures of Christian protesters standing guard in a circle around a crowd of Muslims observing their midday prayers.
LABOUR’S EXCUSE FOR SUSPENDING THE STRIKE
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. Showing the mass radicalisation taking place, the idea of the need for “regime change” began to spread.
The police were generally idle and many of the lower ranks showed sympathy to protest. About 20 protesters were shot dead across the country with over 600 injured. This is mild by Nigeria’s standard. The regime would have carried out bigger repression but for the overwhelming support for the strike. 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. Faced with the deployment of troops, the correct and most productive tactic that could ensure victory was for the trade unions to make class appeal to the army and police. This would also have to go hand-in-hand with forming of democratic defense committees (armed if necessary) to steward protests/rallies and to defend barricades.
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. No doubt 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.
A GENERAL STRIKE WITHOUT PREPARATION TO TAKE POLITICAL 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 neighborhoods 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 – a force greater than any army!
But even this, just as all actions of the labour leaders during the strike, fell short of the mood on the streets. The movement as it grew provoked an increasing questioning of the legitimacy of the corrupt ruling class and the system. Anger was not just directed at the subsidy removal policy alone but also against the system and its representatives.
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.
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 neighborhoods 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. 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. 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. Yet despite this betrayal, the masses fought valiant battles 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 the so-called subsidy and deregulation of the oil sector. 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. 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 also why they cannot consistently struggle for the most basic material interests of the working class and often betray in key situations.
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 and a struggle against all anti-poor policies.
FOR A MASS WORKERS’ PARTY
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 mass workers’ political party armed with socialist programs, it is possible to provide a political leadership for the working class and poor masses during struggle and an electoral voice during elections.
To be a worthy alternative, such a party must be built both as a fighting platform as well as an electoral machine representing the political interest of the 99%. This means that in and out of elections, such party must constantly stand with workers, youth and poor people to collectively struggle against privatization, retrenchment, unemployment, education commercialization and all anti-poor policies. During struggle and electoral campaigns, the party must be able to explain how with the socialist program of nationalization of key sectors of the economy under workers democratic control, the wealth of Nigeria can be rescued and used according to a democratic plan to begin to expand social infrastructures, create gainful jobs and improve living standards.
To avoid the ugly fate of the Labour Party which was formed by the trade unions but abandoned to anti-poor politicians to, such a party must be directly owned, built and funded by the workers, youths and poor masses. At the same time, such a party must equally adopt the socialist program of party’s officials and its members in government not collecting more than the wage of average workers and subject to recall. This will demonstrate to vast majority of Nigerian workers and poor angry at the corruption of the ruling elite an example of how a new society of equality can be built. Only a party built on the above enumerated programs can effectively provide a clear alternative to the Nigerian working masses and youth seeking a way out of the crisis of capitalism.
The DSM is committed to the task of campaigning for the formation and building of such a party. This is why a year after the January uprising, we have formed the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) to provide an electoral voice for change-seeking workers and poor masses in the immediate period and also to demonstrate the desirability of a such a mass workers political party embracing the whole working class and poor. As we commemorate the one year anniversary of the January uprising, we call on workers, youth and poor masses to join the SPN so that we can collectively struggle to end capitalism and enthrone a workers and poor peoples government that can begin to use society’s resources in the interests of all.