FUEL PRICE HIKE: LABOUR STRIKE WAS TOO WEAK TO WIN ANY CONCESSION
FUEL PRICE HIKE: LABOUR STRIKE WAS TOO WEAK TO WIN ANY CONCESSION
By Peluola Adewale
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) led by Ayuba Wabba called off on May 22 its indefinite strike action against hike in fuel price by Muhammadu Buhari government just after three days of action. This strike, which commenced on May 18, was the least successful of the 10 general strikes staged since the return to civil rule. This was also the first anti-fuel price hike strike that did not gain any concession in terms of price reduction. This setback has encouraged labour’s enemies to go onto the offensive in criticizing the strike call, thereby hoping to prevent future such strike calls. Rejecting such attempts to neuter labour, activists need to learn from this experience in order to help ensure that future struggles are successful.
While the action was relatively impressive in some states it recorded resounding failures in the two most important cities of Lagos and Abuja. It was also business as usual in the major cities of Kano and Port Harcourt. In Lagos, Abuja, Kano and Rivers offices, banks, businesses and markets were open even though there were pockets of protest marches. Indeed the strike action was not observed in these cities. In cities like Ibadan where there was an effective strike action the society was not shut down as private businesses and markets were open unlike what obtained in 2012. However, the reception that the protest marches received as they moved though the cities like Ibadan, Osogbo and Ife showed a rejection of the fuel price hike by the working people and poor.
Strike successful in some states
The strike was largely successful in Oyo and Osun, two states where, in addition to Lagos and Abuja, Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) comrades were especially active. Media reports show that some states like Imo and Akwa Ibom recorded successes as schools and public offices were closed down; while there were partial successes in Plateau, Cross River, Bauchi, Edo, Ogun, Ekiti. In Bayelsa workers had embarked on strike over unpaid salaries before joining the nationwide strike against fuel price hike.
Generally it appears that the strike was relatively successful in states where there were local issues like unpaid salaries and pensions and the hike in fuel price worsened an already bad situation. Besides, the strike provided the opportunity for workers to let off their anger as the labour leaders had failed or refused to organize any action on this issue despite the harrowing suffering of the workers.
Strike inadequately prepared
This strike failed for a number of factors but a key role was the unpreparedness and insincerity of most NLC leaders, who called for the action, towards the struggle. This does not dismiss the effect of the strike-breaking and anti-working people roles played by the leaderships of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), Joe Ajaero’s faction of the NLC, NUPENG and PENGASSAN on the overall outcome of the strike.
The fact is that there was no adequate mobilization and sensitization of workers and masses for this action. Since last year’s election there has been a new situation in Nigeria, on the one hand many hoped that the Buhari administration will really ‘change’ things and on the other there is the increasing impact of the world economic slowdown, especially seen in the collapse of the oil export price. Against this background the government unleashed an overwhelming barrage of propaganda on deregulation and removal of the so-called subsidy. On top of all this there was public opprobrium for labour leaders given their willingness to accept rotten compromises in order to end past actions especially the January 2012 strike.
Generally, while spontaneous struggles can break out, strike action is a process that entails sensitizing workers and the masses, mobilizing them for action and carrying them along throughout the process of struggle. The bureaucratic method of organizing a struggle, which the trade union leaders are comfortable with, relies upon workers’ loyalty to their organisations and the wider appeal that labour has, rather than grass roots mobilization. However this method does not work all the time, the working class cannot be turned on and off like a switch. In today’s Nigeria this method no longer automatically results in successful struggles, particularly because the issues at hand are not only economical but also political. Had it been that congresses of workers were called at different industrial affiliates, the mood would have been properly gauged and adequate response worked out for an effective mobilization. This would also help determine the strategy of the struggle and actively involve the widest layers.
Before the strike the members of DSM, in public statements and at meetings, had called for a 48 or 72 hour strike in the first instance together with formation of action committees at workplaces and communities as well as local, state and national levels for an effective mobilization and organization for a successful strike. This could have built a firm basis for continuing the battle. Unfortunately, the NLC leaders chose to declare an indefinite strike more so without adequate mobilization and preparation.
Programme and strategy needed for success
It is even doubtful whether the principal leaders of Wabba led NLC were themselves convinced of the action as there were no or ineffective directive by many industrial unions to workers for the action. The experience in Ajegunle, Lagos, where Dagga Tolar, a member of DSM and Chair of Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT) was able to mobilise teachers in the council to join the strike suggests that if the industrial unions had given directive many workers and unions might have participated actively including in Lagos and Abuja. The fact is that many labour leaders believe in deregulation and privatization policies as the best way of running the economy as shown by their lack of support for struggle against electricity privatization before it was implemented by Jonathan government. This is in addition to the illusions in Buhari government held by many labour leaders.
This explains why they were not decisive in mobilizing workers and masses for resistance against the neo-liberal attack even when it was clearly looming. They indeed helped create a feeling of despair or helplessness by workers and the masses when unleashed with the attack. For instance, fuel scarcity lasted for many months without labour leadership doing anything. They could not even make good their threat of mass action and general strike over fuel scarcity made well over a month before the fuel price was hiked. Over this period workers and the masses spent many hours at filling stations or patronized black marketers to buy petrol in some cases at a price higher than N145, the new official price. With the disappearance of queues at filling stations and availability of the product following the hike, though this may not last long, the new fuel price is seen by many people as a bitter pill they have to take.
Over the previous 16 years the NLC led over 9 general strikes with the biggest in terms of mass participation and compliance being the January 2012 general strike that came at a time the working masses had totally lost confidence in the PDP government. Also, at that time there was no polarization and division in the trade union movement.
Deregulation no solution to perennial fuel crisis
However for many people, given that strike actions in the past did not resolve perennial fuel crisis, are now giving Buhari’s government a chance based on the postulations that deregulation will resolve the problems was something they felt should be considered. Besides, the trade union leaders have failed to offer real alternative that the people can relate with. And this was responsible for the state of confusion. The way and manner in which the 2012 general strike was called off by the then Abduwahed Omar-led NLC was also seen as a betrayal by the working masses. Hence, the credibility rating of the NLC is currently low, something seen in the poor turnout at recent May Days.
The government was able to send the message that deregulation will end the massive corruption in the downstream sector since the marketers will no longer get subsidy payment and such money will be harnessed for infrastructural development. The fact however is that the private domination of the oil industry and the neo-liberal policy thrust of the government will not allow for a functional public refinery and affordable petroleum product pricing. Already, many advocates of deregulation are saying that the current increase in price is not far reaching enough. They argue that the cap has to be removed for true deregulation of petrol. This government which panders to the interest of the private profiteers may sell the existing refineries ushering complete deregulation and full private sector domination.
The government and its town criers have been telling the masses that deregulation will bring down the price of petrol in the long run. This is a big lie. Diesel has been deregulated since 2009 yet the price remains high (about N155) despite slump in crude oil price from well over $100 to $45. It is more profitable for marketers under deregulation than under a regulated regime with subsidy payment which could be owed. These oil majors will form a cartel to determine price that will maximize profit.
Deregulation is a wind that will blow the masses no good, if anything at all, it will intensify the massive exploitation, prices of petroleum product will rise and it will worsen the living condition of the working masses. No doubt the effect of deregulation will be felt harshly by the poor. This may however compel them to fight back sooner than later.
The big business attacks on regulation and subsidy show that the only viable alternative that will serve the vast majority of the working masses is the nationalization of the oil sector (that is taking the sector into public ownership) and other commanding height of the economy and introduction of democratic control and management of workers and consumers. This is the only way to free the sector from the rapacious hands of the corrupt private sector and its collaborators in public sector/government.
More seeing government’s real character
While this strike cannot be said to be successful, the fuel price hike has helped clearly define to increasing numbers this government as anti-poor, despite its continuous anti-corruption propaganda. Gone were all the pretexts. Buhari has chosen to pitch tent with private profiteers at the expense of the poor masses. Buhari cannot resolve the current deep crisis of capitalism, and therefore more and more people would become disillusioned as the government is unable to guarantee adequate supply of petrol on a lasting basis as promised while it continues with neo-liberal attacks. Petrol being sold now is the stock hoarded by the marketers during the artificial scarcity. Therefore, when the stock finishes there may be a relapse of scarcity. Already some marketers have started complaining about difficulty of accessing forex. Many that did not join the last strike would readily join one in future if when faced with return of fuel shortage. That is the experience with electricity privatization as many community people that were deceived to support the policy have been organizing struggles in communities against electricity tariff hike, poor supply and estimated bills. Indeed, some have come to the conclusion of the failure of privatization.
The Labour leaders must begin to sincerely and seriously identify with the plight of workers and the masses. Now, given the setback of May’s strike call, the groundwork needs to be seriously done to prepare the way for new, popularly supported struggles. This is not simply an issue of propaganda but also showing that there is a strategy that can bring success. One immediate struggle they have to initiate is around the issue of unpaid salaries which affects workers in about 26 states of the federation. They must begin to mobilise determined action over this issue. Such a campaign could also help win support for the NLC’s new demand for a N56,000 minimum wage which is already overdue given high cost of living, something worsened by the hike in fuel price. Labour should also provide national coordination for the struggle in various communities over electricity tariff and poor supply.
Its recent actions show that the Buhari government has elected to make the poor to shoulder the burden of current capitalist crisis which has shown no sign of abating as costs of living keep going high. This will help the working people draw the conclusion that Buhari government just like its predecessor, Jonathan administration is pro-rich and anti-poor. This explains while members of DSM call on workers, youth and masses to join us in the effort to build Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) as well as in agitation for a mass working people party on socialist program
Members of DSM participated in this strike and protest, especially in Lagos, Abuja, Oyo and Osun states. About 700 copies of special edition of Socialist Democracy were sold while about 10,000 copies of Socialist Party of Nigeria leaflet were circulated. This is addition to about 6,000 copies of a handbill circulated to mobilize for a May 30 public meeting in Ibadan. In all the centres of intervention DSM comrades met people interested in joining us.
Below are reports from four states DSM comrades were active in the strike and protests:
By Abbey Trotsky
In Oyo State, the indefinite strike/mass action declared by the Ayuba Wabba-led Nigeria Labour Congress, NLC, which commenced on the 18th May, 2016, against the recent 67% hike in pump price by the Buhari/APC-led federal government clearly showed how fast this government is losing its seeming mass support and sympathy upon which it rode to power one year ago. The kind of mass support and participation this strike/mass action which only lasted for three days enjoyed among the working people in the state, also revealed an impressive level of a growing anti-neo-liberal consciousness which is indicative a huge potential for a rapid growth of left forces or radical ideas in Oyo.
Despite, various forms of gimmicks and propaganda purportedly employed by the ruling elites and their apologists, both at the national and state level, the three days strike/mass action enjoyed a huge and impressive turn-out particularly in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital. Take for instance; thousands of tens of working people which comprises of workers, students, youths, market women and men, artisans participated actively in the three days mass action.
Except on the first day when a sizable numbers of public workers in the state went to work owing to the atmosphere of confusion created by the court injunction purportedly gotten by the APC-led federal government to prevent the trade unions, NLC and TUC from leading Nigerians in a struggle to reverse the 67% hike in the price of petrol, the was an impressive level of compliance among civil servants in the state with the directive for a strike/mass action.
However, it is worthy to note that, unlike 2012 when the entire state was completely shut down by the then mass protest against a hike in pump price from N65 to N140 by the hated former president Goodluck Jonathan/PDP-led administration, this time around, markets were opened while many other commercial activities also continued uninterruptedly. This is largely as a result of the refusal by the state leadership of National Union of road transport workers, (NURTW), an affiliate of the NLC to mobilise its members to join the strike and mass action
Nevertheless, comments, reactions and prevailing mood expressed by many working but poor people met and engaged in the course of the three days protest match/possession along some working people dominated areas like Bere, Oja Oba/Mapo, Agbeni, Dugbe, Mokola, Oje etc within Ibadan clearly showed that, there exist a huge prospect to have won more oppressed Nigerians to join the struggle. This is possible despite the government propaganda had it been that the leadership of Nigeria labour centres, NLC and TUC had commence early mobilisation and education programme especially immediately the decision to embark on 24hours mass action across the country against lingering fuel scarcity and non-payment of salaries was made few months ago.
Despite all effort by members of the ruling party and its apologists to frustrate the resolved of the Nigeria working people, thousands of working people in Ibadan were sustainably attracted to consistently participate in the three days mass action against the hike in pump price and deregulation of oil sector by Buhari/APC-led administration in less than a year of its inception. This kind of huge turnout recorded in Ibadan, is quite amazing given the mass illusions people have invested in Buhari-led administration coupled with the existing discontent among the working people against labour leaders in the state who had at different occasions failed to lead a determined struggle of workers against non-payment of salaries and pensions in the state.
Quite aware of this mass anger, the state labour leaders are doubtful of its own credibility to call a mass action that will enjoy an adequate and massive support among workers. They are also fearful that such a mass action could also provide an outlet for workers who are grossly dissatisfied to vent their anger on them. Thus, they decided to make a political overture to the leadership of the Oyo State Chapter of Joint Action Front, JAF, a coalition of socialist and radical civil society organisations in which members of Democratic Socialist Movement, DSM, has been playing crucial roles in the state. This is was with a view to revive the dying confidence of workers and general public in labour movement in the state.
Oyo mobilization campaign started earlier
JAF in Oyo State has been consistent with its pro-working people programme and activities despite its limited numerical strength and structure. This is evident in many of its various recent activities which are largely organised to register itself in the minds and consciousness of the working people in the state as a pro-working people platform. For instance, during the 2016 May Day celebration, thousands of JAF leaflets and posters were produced and massively circulated at the occasion to mobilise workers, youths, artisans and the general public to attend a public symposium organised by JAF on the next day, May 2.
This symposium, which held at the secretariat of the Oyo State Council of NLC and attended by sizable leaders of the state NLC including the Chairman, was used to agree for an independent mass action scheduled to hold on May 29. With all these kinds of activities and projections showed, even before the national leadership independently declared the strike/mass action, that the Oyo State chapter of JAF has an independent political programme to that of NLC.
There is no doubt that, the mass anger among civil servants owing to non-payment of over five months of salaries and pensions in Oyo State could be one of many factors responsible for the huge turn out that characterised the three days’ mass action in the state. However, such mass anger owning to non-payment of salaries alone could not have been responsible for the huge turn-out recorded in Oyo during the three days mass action/strike. Otherwise, other states like Osun State where workers are owed even more months of salaries and pensions arrears would have recorded more massive turn-out than the one seen in Ibadan.
Going by this background, it could be said that the early and consistent pro-working people programme and activities, organised sometimes independently by DSM members or within JAF platform, played a major role in huge turnout recorded during the three days mass action in Oyo State. Worthy to note that, the impact of these activities was also reflected in various speeches of the state chairman of NLC who, at different occasions, repeatedly declared for socialism as the only socio-economic alternative capable of bringing an end to all forms of crisis humanity is plunged into by the rotten capitalist system.
Similar declaration also reflected in speeches of the Oyo State caretaker chairman of Trade Union Congress, TUC who was part of the mass action in the first day as a sign of protest against the decision of the national leadership of TUC who pulled out of the struggle at the last minute.
The mass appeal the protest enjoyed created a favourable ground for the sales of the special edition of Socialist Democracy (SD), over 400 copies of which were sold within two days. No paper was sold on the strike’s first day due to the late arrival of the new edition from Lagos.
In conclusion, over 6,000 copies of SPN leaflets which were produced to mobilise the workers and the general public to a public symposium scheduled to hold on May 30 were also exhausted in the course of the mass action.
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) might have suspended its national strike and protests against the hike in petrol price from N86 to N145, but the effect of the struggle cannot be easily wished away, especially in Osun State where members of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) and Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN), played active and leading roles in the struggle.
With government announcing the increase in fuel price on Wednesday, 11th May 2016, members of DSM held a meeting where we agreed to reorganize Joint Action Front (JAF) in Osun State as a platform to champion the struggle in Osun State. It would be recalled that JAF Osun State played active role in the January 2012 mass uprising against hike in fuel price by Goodluck Jonathan government. The DSM then played leading role in the then JAF. Although the SPN has not been formed at this time, a register opened by DSM members for those who wanted a new working people’s political party collected over 400 signatories. This shows the impact of our idea and work.
However, many of the constituent organizations and individuals in JAF Osun State have joined the APC/Aregbesola bandwagon and in most cases stood against the working people’s interests, while serving as tool for implementation of anti-worker, neo-liberal policies in Osun State. Therefore, they lost the moral courage to play active role in JAF, fearful of mass rejection by working people they have sold out.
The DSM, initiating the JAF Osun platform, produced a mobilization poster that was posted across Osogbo Township to reject the fuel price hike and mobilize for a meeting on Saturday, May 14. This first JAF Osun meeting, initiated by DSM, was held at the SPN Secretariat in Osogbo. The meeting had in attendance 16 persons drawn from invited organizations and the public. Organizations that attended were the DSM, Federation of Informal Workers of Nigeria (FIWON), Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR) and Osun Civil Society Coalition (OCSC). The meeting agreed to organize mass action to oppose the hike in fuel price. Leaflets and banner were agreed upon, while a sum of N1, 200 in cash and N10, 000 in pledges were raised. The proposal by DSM to have a demo after the meeting was not generally accepted as most participants had not envisaged this. We made this proposal to gauge the mood, which was general good. The meeting agreed to a bigger and action-based meeting on Monday May 16. There was also a media briefing after the meeting. The meeting was covered by Galaxy TV.
On Monday, May 16, a meeting was held, attended by 16 persons, many of them new faces. After the meeting, there was a mobilization demo of about 13 persons with placards from Station Road, through Old Garage to Olaiya area, where we addressed people on the impending struggle. The message was well received with few more people joining the demo. The demo held around 5.30 p.m. On the following day we produced leaflets and a banner. 3, 000 copies of a JAF leaflet, which was written in English and Yoruba languages, plus 1,000 copies of a SPN leaflet were produced.
On the Wednesday, May 18, we set out around 8.00 a.m. for the protest rally. We joined the rally led by NLC leaders, which started from Freedom Park. The movement, comprising about 400 workers and activists moved to Olaiya junction, which is the centre of the town. By the time the movement got to Olaiya, it grew to as much as about 700 to 900. At the peak of the protest, over 1,000 people took over the Olaiya junction. Various speakers from various groups including DSM spoke at the rally. The DSM’s Kola Ibrahim and Alfred Adegoke spoke to working people, urging unity of the working and poor people, and their platforms. They maintained that working and poor people cannot pay for the crisis created by the capitalist class. They demanded immediate payment of outstanding salaries and pensions, and end to half-salary policy. Their speeches drew big applause. They also emphasized the need for labour movement to provide political alternative as all the ruling political parties are discredited. Kola Ibrahim later granted an interview to TVC.
Oyo NLC leaders back away
The NLC chair tried to call off the rally in the middle of the protest, without consulting with anybody. This was roundly rejected and he was openly lambasted by workers who were already angry with him. He retracted his early statement, but chaos was almost created. It was the intervention of DSM members, who coordinated the rally that saved the day. The rally was rounded off around 12.00 noon, and it was democratically agreed that the protest will continue the following day.
But on the Thursday, May 19, the labour leaders simply ran away, the signs of this were already were glaring on the Wednesday. Faced with this JAF tried to rally those who had showed up for the protest demo, but the turnout was too small for a demo. We consequently resolved to a standing rally at Olaiya. Later, members of NASU joined the rally, but their state chairman, who came later, dissolved the rally, claiming he did not receive any directive from NLC chairman for a rally.
When we called NLC Secretary, he said there was no plan for rally on Thursday. However despite this the strike was effective even in banks.
Effective protest in Ile-Ife
While the labour leaders botched the protest in Osogbo, workers, led by Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and Non-Academic Staff Union (NASU) from Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) organized an effective protest demo in the Ile-Ife township, which drew out close to a thousand people. The ASUU leaders had attended the Osogbo rally on Wednesday and correctly observed that the labour leaders would botch the protest there. Leadership of JAF led by Comrade Alfred later met with ASUU leaders in OAU to further plan for subsequent protests.
On Friday, JAF joined OAU Staff unions including ASUU, NASU and Nigerian Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT), and students’ union to organize protest demo in Ife. The protest moved to Lagere, which is the commercial centre of the town. About 300 people participated in the demo which stopped all vehicular activities for about 2 hours. Various speakers including Kola Ibrahim of DSM, who represented JAF, spoke to the crowd. He highlighted the struggle of the people and called for unity of the working people. He called for the protests to continue until government listen. He later posited that the fact there is no difference among the ruling political parties. Other speakers including representatives of staff unions, market women, okada riders, traders, women, etc. spoke at the demo, which ended around 12.30 p.m.
Clearly, the role of leadership is vital in all struggles of the working people. As much as mass of workers and oppressed were prepared for the struggle, the role of the labour leaders prevented the enthusiasm of the people from achieving its aim â€“ reversing the horrible living conditions of the people. DSM members were bombarded with calls from workers and oppressed who received our materials and wanted to know if the struggle will continue. The protests across the state also show the mass anger against the Buhari government and state governments.
The DSM and SPN raised their profiles with the leading roles played by leaders and members of the organization and party. We hope to build on this, by first organizing a public symposium to review the struggle.
By Chinedu Bosah
The fact that the strike had no real impact in Lagos state is a big minus as the city is the commercial capital of the country.
Protesters from the NLC and its affiliates as well as pro-labour organisations affiliated to the Joint Action Front (JAF) assembled at the NLC secretariat at Yaba on Wednesday May 18, for a protest march. This protest march, which grew in number as it proceeded, moved through Ojuelegba to Maryland to Ikeja before it culminated at the Lagos Airport environs. The procession stopped at 3 different major places (Ojuelgba, Maryland and Ikeja) to address the public. At the Maryland bus stop the Commissioner of Police and his retinue of armed policemen tried to stop the protest, but this was resisted.
On the streets many hailed the protest while some opposed. But it appeared that the protest enjoyed much more support than objection.
On Day Two, Thursday, the protest moved from Yaba to Ojuelegba to Mushin and finally culminated at Alausa where the Lagos State secretariat was picketed. Here again some workers openly opposed the strike and picketing.
On Friday May 20, 2016, workers from different affiliates and JAF members assembled at the NLC secretariat for a meeting to evaluate the strike
About 13 comrades from 3 branches (Agege, Ikotun and Ajegunle) and a newly recruited member from Aboru participated. Over 250 copies of Socialist Democracy (SD) and copies of the DSM pamphlet on the perennial fuel were sold while and over 5,000 copies of a SPN leaflet circulated. Also significant is that some workers assisted in carrying our banners, distribution of leaflets and selling of our SD, some of whom showed interest in joining us.
By Dimeji Macaulay
On the first day, Wednesday May 18, of the strike called by the NLC no fewer than five hundred persons from various industrial unions gathered at the NLC national secretariat in Abuja. It appears the regime had succeeded via media propaganda to announce that the strike had been suspended following the injunction it got at the Industrial Court to stop the nationwide strike and protest.
However the protest march grew in numbers as it moved round Abuja. The protesters move from NLC secretariat to Federal Secretariat and pass through Wuse 2 and the rally ended at Berger. Protesters were addressed by NLC President Ayuba Wabba, the Chair of JAF Dr Dipo Fashina and others.
There was low strike compliance by workers but the Academic Staff Union of University (ASUU) and National Union of Local Government Employee (NULGE) instructions to their members to close all universities and local governments’ secretariats around the country was successful in Abuja.
The second day’s protest commenced at Berger. After addresses by the labour leaders and civil society representatives the protest moved with a crowd of about five hundred to Area One where the rally ended after addressed by the labour leaders.
Third day had more protesters as students from two universities defied the NANS leadership to join the protest. Some workers also joined the rally for the first time. About one thousand persons was in the protest which marched towards Wuse market and Glo office to Wuse 2 and ended the strike at Unity Fountain. Many filling stations were locked and the popular Wuse market was locked down. However, we ran into a counter protest of a much fewer people apparently sponsored by government supporting the fuel price hike.
While the protest recorded a good turnout nationwide, albeit not to the level of January 2012, the strike compliance was very low.
We circulated about two thousand copies of Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) leaflet and sold copies of Socialist Democracy and other publications.