Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM)

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25th October, 2004

ACTIVITY IN NIGERIA’S GENERAL STRIKE – A SOCIALIST REPORTER’S DIARY

By the evening of Sunday October 10, 2004 the Nigeria Labour Congress, (NLC) supported by the civil society coalition of which the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) is a key member, had firmly resolved to proceed with the 4-day warning strike against the latest increase in the price of petroleum products.

Sina Odugbemi, state secretary of the National Conscience Party (NCP) and I left the Lagos headquarters of the NLC armed with several leaflets pronouncing the commencement of the strike from Monday October 11 and generally appealing for mass support. We chose the Isolo area in western part of Lagos as our first stop for mass leafleteering. Enthusiastic Nigerians, who not only eagerly collected the materials but also declared that they were supporting the strike, easily mobbed us. At least one young adult offered to team up with us as a volunteer and distributed as many leaflets as he could.

We parked our vehicle close to a taxi-park. The owners and drivers openly complained about how difficult business had become because of very high cost of spare parts. Besides the number of Lagosians patronizing the expensive taxi services has declined. We told them that a government committed to the poor and affordable public transportation could assist such taxi driver unions with incentives like long-term loans to cover the cost of vehicle procurement. They would have enough time to repay and won’t be forced to charge high prices. That is one of the measures an NCP government could take if it were voted into government.

We had a more interesting experience on our way back through the local airport road. President Obasanjo was about boarding his presidential jet on the return journey to Abuja, the federal Capital on his way back from his residential farm about 50 kilometers from Lagos. He actually came into the Lagos airport in a helicopter but the roads were still closed nonetheless, that being the usual practice for alleged security reasons.

We targeted the angered motorists on queue close to the tarmac where the presidential jet was parked for another round of distribution of strike leaflets. We were actually now left with only a few copies for the day so what we had was quickly finished. Horns hooted as the motorists beckoned to us to let them have theirs. The motorists were predominantly middle class but none spoke against the strike. Some asked us questions: Has Oshiomole (NLC president) been released from detention? Others said: even if they do not release him please ensure the strike goes on. The mood that evening indicated the strike would likely be a success, at least in Lagos.

Still one was apprehensive. This would be the third strike in a year over the same issue of fuel prices and the labour leadership has so far not linked the campaign against it with the need for the change of the government and the capitalist system for which policies like privatization, deregulation, commercialization etc are cardinal principles. Besides, the leadership does not fundamentally oppose deregulation, but only price increases whereas both are two sides of a coin. You can’t have one without the other.

Yet, the working class need to be mobilised on the basis that they are fighting deregulation and its attendant fuel price increases as much as they are fighting for the defeat of the government and the installation of a workers, peasants and youth government which armed with a socialist programme would nationalise (instead of privatise or commercialise) the commanding heights of the economy including the oil sector, under working class democratic management and control, so that collectively produced wealth could be used to tackle the problem of mass poverty, illiteracy, poor health care, neglect of rural communities, collapse of public infrastructure etc.

Early morning of Monday October 11, the apprehension was laid to rest. I live in a largely populated Lagos suburb called Ejigbo. It has a notorious reputation for its traffic jams normally caused by the very poor state of its roads. Usually on Mondays, being the busiest day of the week the traffic build-up could be 3-kilometer long. Ejigbo residents actually need few lessons about poverty amidst abundant oil wealth. One of the big fuel depots of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is located there but even the road that runs through the front of the depot is un-passable. Accidents involving fuel tankers are common. Calls by the residents that NNPC should at least re-construct the road used by the tankers have been long ignored.

This Monday Ejigbo was very free of the usual traffic. The depot was shut, so also the nearby local government office, private markets, shops and offices. Four of us, members of the DSM as well as the NCP, canvassed a few motorcyclists and tri-cyclists that were working but who quickly pledged to join the strike. Again the leaflets were well received and as we moved to different locations to monitor the strike there were shouts of up-labour. We actually had an NLC banner on the front of the vehicle to indicate we were strike officials.

At about ten we linked up with Comrade Demo who had started selling the special edition of the Socialist Democracy (SD) that featured the attempt by the Obasanjo regime to dissolve the NLC through a so-called trade union act amendment bill. We joined in the sales as well as leaflet distribution and the copies were quickly exhausted. We then made a dash for the secretariat to get more copies and commenced sales from point to point specifically targeting major road junctions. We were now a team of seven – six DSM/NCP members and one sympathiser.

We gave out the leaflets free but explained that the SD was for sale. A few wanted it free but many more bought copies. By now we had adopted a four-way strategy. Some comrades handled the distribution of the leaflets. Some concentrated on the paper sales. Some combined both and some addressed the groups that gathered round us on the essence of the strike, the need to ensure its success, why the capitalist government of Obasanjo should be defeated and what DSM and its paper SD stood for. We explained to those who wanted to know how they could join the organisation.

After three major stops we again exhausted the SD copies and had to go back a second time for more copies. We then made several other stops along the Agege, Dopemu, Akowonjo, Egbeda, Idimu and Igando axis – all Lagos suburbs and sold many copies still. Among our buyers were armed policemen. Some of who though asked for free copies of the SD. It was only on one occasion at Iyana-Ipaja area that the police said we should suspend the sales because they feared that the crowd that had gathered around us could turn riotous. Indeed at a different place, one of our buyers identified himself as a police officer. He was in mufti and told us that the policemen too should have gone on strike. He said his monthly salary was a paltry N15, 000 (about $100) and he could hardly pay for the education of his three children. By the end of day one of strike we had sold about N18, 000 worth of SD.

We began paper sales and canvassing at Ejigbo on the second day of the strike. And we literally exhausted the copies there. One middle-aged person volunteered to join DSM and we gave him the relevant addresses for contact. Our presence encouraged those around to mobilise against some who were attempting to break the strike. The police watched as we carried out our agitation. We made a few more stops and had successful sales.

On the third day of the strike we changed our direction to the suburbs of Abule Egba and Alagbado. Sales were again good but noticeably some filling stations were opened for business. We intervened in two of the stations and warned them against breaking the strike. They promptly shut down.

We learnt more lessons on the class struggle during the three-day intervention. First, the idea of a warning strike made sense to the people, as they understood that the struggle would be prolonged. Second the period of a general strike is like a semi-revolutionary situation during which people are more receptive to revolutionary ideas. This partly explains the success of the paper sales even though the cover story did not deal directly with the fuel price increase but the general attack on the labour movement by the Obasanjo regime.

But the people saw a linkage between the two. It then means that in future general strikes more comrades should constitute themselves into groups and intervene in their neighbourhoods or where ever possible. Finally, we learnt that people are eager for news and information during strikes. They easily come around to listen to you once they know you are labour activists. The Labour leadership must therefore be made to understand that there is the necessity to build strike committees in all neighbourhoods with a view to ensure proper organisation of the struggle.

People should not merely be asked to stay in-doors; rallies, peaceful protests, workshops should also be organised as and when possible. With this combined approach, level of consciousness of the masses, not only on the immediate struggle but also on the long term objectives of the movement, can be rapidly enhanced.

Lagos, 25th October, 2004