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19 November 2004

AN OPEN LETTER TO LASCO

STRIKE SUSPENSION: A BIG BLUNDER

The second phase of the indefinite general strike/protest, against the recent hike in fuel prices, by the Obasanjo’s capitalist government, planned to start on November 16, 2004 was shelved at the eleventh hour by LASCO leaders.

We, in the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), an active participating group in all the general strikes/struggles waged so far against incessant hike of fuel prices regard the suspension of the planned general strike as a serious set back for the struggle of the working masses, against mass poverty in the midst of inexhaustible abundance, in the immediate and long term basis.

And, by suspending the planned national stoppage at the eleventh hour, after members of the public including working class people had stored food, fuel and other necessaries, the credibility of future mobilisation of the working masses for a mass action that may be called by LASCO leaders has become dented.

Whatever those in support of the suspension may say, this particular suspension has revealed a sharp gap between LASCO leaders and the vast majority of the working masses striving to permanently overcome mass poverty and political repression.

While most of LASCO leaders still remain trapped in the illusion that the capitalist system, if properly run, can meet the yearnings and aspirations of the working masses, growing layers of the working masses are already instinctively drawing the conclusion that a determined struggle and confrontation with the government and its anti-poor policies are an inevitability.

This position was sharply underlined by the mass anger and passive resistance of the cross sections of the working masses, across the country, to the news of the suspension of the planned nationwide stoppage and protest. In Lagos, and several other major cities across the country, there was actual partial general stoppage of work as workers and the generality of the working masses stayed away at home.

Business activities only started at around 12.00noon in most places. "Transportation picked up very slowly, as all the major bus stops were crowded with people who had learnt of the suspension and wanted to move out, were forced to wait for hours on end. There were very few vehicles to board. Operators of commercial transport vehicles, under the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) and Road Transport Employers Association of Nigeria (RTEAN) had strongly supported the planned strike, and did not intend to use their vehicles yesterday". (The Guardian, November 17, 2004).

For most of the day, banking services were virtually paralysed. The above edition of The Guardian quoted a bank worker thus: "We are aware that the NLC president last night announced a suspension of the strike but we are not doing anything today … We are awaiting instructions from the secretariat of the Association of Senior Staff of Banks and Insurances".

Vanguard of the same day also reported that most workers stayed away from work in Akwa Ibom State. Of course, this situation could be easily attributed to the fact that news of the suspension did not get far enough to many places, hence workers stayed at home. In reality, however, this was just a contributory factor.

"Despite all the announcement made on the suspended action, many stayed at home on Tuesday feigning ignorance of news of the suspended strike. Many roads had light traffic and the popular Aswani market in Lagos was almost deserted. .... Mrs. Echeme Chima, a house wife, lamented that she spent her last kobo in stocking food and other essential commodities in anticipation of the strike that labour claimed was to be indefinite….

.... When informed that labour suspended the strike based on the respect for the rule of law and for the interest of democracy in the country, she retorted "When have Oshiomhole and his people started obeying court judgments not to talk of obeying Abuja High Court pronouncements which it has always condemned. In fact they should leave us alone to face whatever policies that the government wants, since they can no longer fight for us. One day we shall take our destiny in our own hands and confront the government". (New Age November 17, 2004).

A BIG BLUNDER

The eleventh hour announcement by government of partial reduction of the recent increase in the price of petroleum was correctly described as a victory for the protesting working masses.

This is because various government’s spokesperson including president Obasanjo had all along insisted that nothing could make them effect the reduction of one kobo from the said price increment. But faced with a determined preparation for the second phase of the general strike/mass protest over the said increment, the government panicked and consequently announced the said reduction.

Unfortunately however, instead of intensifying the struggle for more far reaching concessions, the majority of LASCO leaders decided to back off, in the false believe that they will be applauded by the masses for having forced the seemingly impregnable president Obasanjo’s government to buckle by announcing the N4 reduction in the price of a litre of petrol. But while majority of LASCO leaders were in this state of fantasy, cross sections of the working masses thought little or nothing of the announcement that did not take the price back to the level before September 21.

Most working class people including sections of the middle class were of the firm opinion that the planned general strike/protest should at least have gone on for at least one or two days to achieve two immediate objectives.

Firstly, going ahead with the strike they believe would have been the best way to ensure that the announced partial reduction is even effected.

Two, some also felt that going ahead with the planned general strike and protest should have been the best way to send a clear message to the capitalist ruling class that the labouring masses will under no circumstance surrender their inalienable right to fight for their own well-being and permanent decent living standard.

Even bourgeois media have been forced to give expression to this kind of feelings. One Mr. Samson Suibere, an apparently lower middle class worker, spoke to the November 17 edition of The Guardian thus: "I am happy that the strike was called off but petrol marketers are yet to revert to the price conceded by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) to government. This is another thing. Has Labour been fooled again? As at yesterday afternoon, I still bought petrol at Oando Petrol Station for N52.20".

Summarizing the views of others interviewed by the quoted Guardian, the newspaper wrote thus: "Some people were happy that the strike was cancelled for "at least business activities will go on," they said. Others who were apprehensive of such decision said NLC should have ensured that marketers reversed the price before they took the decision to suspend the strike.

….An engineer, John Olarewaju argued that NLC is dealing with a government that is not sincere and marketers that are greedy. The strike has been suspended but the marketers are still selling at the old price. All over Lagos yesterday, from my observation, not a single petrol station sold at N49, rather they still sold at between N52.50 and N53. The price of kerosene has not changed either".

Against this background, the suspension of the planned general strike/protest was a big blunder. Sadly however, this only fundamentally reveals the fact that the majority of the current LASCO leaders both within its labour and civil society sections are very far behind the aspirations and mood of the working masses whose struggles they should be leading. Unfortunately too, the conduct of the LASCO leaders in suspending the planned general strike/protest does not suggest that their action was an accidental error based on momentary miscalculations of the balance of forces and the issues at stake.

Going by the reasons adduced for the suspension, the current general strikes and protests against capitalist neo-liberal anti-poor policies of the Obasanjo government faces an immediate and long term dangers of being led by leaders who are not prepared or who are unable to draw the necessary revolutionary conclusions from the issues posed by the social economic situation on the one hand and the perennial struggle of the working masses for permanent decent living standard on the other hand.

This, should be stressed, constitutes the greatest danger to the further growth and the deepening of the said struggles against all the anti-poor policies of the Obasanjo government or that of any other capitalist government for that matter. Warning strikes can be necessary as a show of strength and a preparation for further struggle. But warning strikes cannot continue forever.

If workers´ demands are not met then the question is posed of an indefinite stoppage. However an indefinite stoppage raises the question of who runs the country? If the working masses can stop the country why can they not consciously run the country? But the present labour leaders do not want to challenge the present rulers and therefore retreat when faced with this question.

A MISTAKE OF THE HEART OR THAT OF THE SOUL

In suspending the planned nationwide stoppage/protest, the NLC president, Adams Oshiomhole who spoke for LASCO was quoted thus by the Guardian of November 16, 2004: "Labour and our civil society allies decided to suspend the strike on two premises. One, because the government in its wisdom decided to reduce the prices of petroleum products from their present levels to lesser prices. Though we had asked for a price reversal, but since the government has agreed to reduce and not reverse to the pre-September 21 status, we thought it fit to suspend the action and continue to dialogue for a better price regime".

Oshiomhole continued: "We also decided to suspend the action due to last week’s Court of Appeal’s order restraining the NLC from embarking on the action. By so doing, we have prevented ourselves from committing contempt of court while affirming the need to challenge the incessant increases in the prices of petroleum products in the country".

Hinging the suspension of the planned general strike/protest on the basis of the fact that the federal government had announced reduction in the recent hike in fuel prices, betrays a conspicuous misunderstanding of Nigeria’s recent labour history as well as the central nature and workings of Nigeria’s neo-colonial capitalist system.

In October 2003, a planned nationwide general strike/protest was similarly suspended, at the eleventh hour, on the basis of an agreement reached with the governors, and other government’s functionaries, to reverse the then hike in fuel prices. But sadly, this agreement was never implemented for a single day by the government.

On the contrary, government effected another hike within a few days after it had unilaterally repudiated an agreement made with labour. Even where government and marketers had effected/implemented agreement with labour and civil societies to reduce the hike of fuel prices in the past, government and marketers had always come back with higher prices than it was previously reduced.

Under capitalism, where the profit consideration of a few capitalist elements constitute the essence of economic and political policies, this kind of vicious circle is an inevitability. Speaking on "Kaakaki", a privately owned television programme, in the morning of November 16 2004, Adams Oshiomhole himself instinctively painted a conclusion similar to the one drawn above.

When asked why could the government not ensure that the local refineries are functional and thereby stop importing refined fuel with a view to bring down the prices of petroleum products locally, Oshiomhole answered by stating that there are a few but very powerful elements that are raking millions of dollars through importation of refined petroleum products and that it is for this reason that the refineries are not working and may not work in the coming period. The regime claims to have spent over $700million on the Turn Around Maintenance of the refineries without achieving any result.

But so powerful is the influence of those profiting from importation of petroleum products that those who collected the $700 million without effecting the required repairs remain untouchable notwithstanding the regimes self-professed commitment to fight corruption. Consequently, sooner than later, this government and marketers will effect another hike of fuel prices.

As a matter of fact, the announced reduction, as officially said, will only last till the end of January 2005. That is, assuming that the announced reductions are effected and products are supplied in required quantity between now and that date. Meanwhile, it should be stressed that the incessant hike of fuel prices is just one of the numerous multi-dimensional anti-poor policies being implemented by the Obasanjo’s government.

Government policies and conducts on education, health, housing, communications and transportations, etc are equally anti-poor in all essentials. Government has just introduced a new import policy, but according to the Association of the Nigerian Custom Licensed Agent (ANCLA). 30,000 Nigerians face the risk of loosing their jobs if this policy is not withdrawn. Banks and financial institutions have been ordered to increase their financial capital base from N2 billion to N25 billion within the next one year.

Apart from the fact that many of the current banks may end up being swallowed by big foreign finance interest, almost 32,000 workers are expected to loose their jobs as a result of this policy. Every other sector of the economy is sadly being run with similar, counter-productive strategy.

Politically, every major conduct of the regime represent a serious negation of what the democratic governance should be. Virtually, all the politicians in the ruling parties across the country acquired their positions through serious financial and electoral manipulations. Most, in plain language stole their mandates. Just like under military government extra judicial killings have continued unabated. Democratic rights of working class people and the poor continue to witness steady violation, with impunity, by those in authority. State security agents have resurrected their past time of crude violation of citizen’s rights. There are more politically motivated assassinations of persons under Obasanjo’s so-called civil rule than that of its military predecessor!

Recently, a local magazine "Insider", had its offices and equipment smashed and impounded with some of its officials clamped in detention without trial on the basis of an allegation that the magazine was publishing inciting articles against president Obasanjo. In a genuine civil rule, such barbaric action should never have taken place.

If the Insider was actually publishing inciting articles which are regarded as criminal by the security agents, what the law provide is that such magazine should be taken to court. But just like under the military, the regime’s opponent are just being summarily dealt with. During the last October 11-14 nationwide general stoppage and protest, several persons suspected to be protesting against the fuel price hike were summarily executed in Kaduna under the guise that they were suspected armed robbers.

Again it should be noted that no law gives power to the police or any security outfit to on its own apprehend, try and execute suspected criminals. Just last week, a violent terror and vandalism was unleashed on public properties and the people of Anambra State by hoodlums, with the active support and connivance of the federal government.

During the 48hours mayhem, the governor’s and deputy governor’s offices and annexes, the office of the state Electoral Commission, the State’s Radio and TV stations, the state house of assembly complex, the women development centre and innumerable government’s vehicles were all set ablaze in carefully coordinated attack.

Most significantly however, the police and the other security outfit could not effect a single arrest of any of these hoodlums throughout the 48 hours period of their nefarious activities! Instead, president Olusegun Obasanjo, commander in chief of all the nations armed forces, merely set up a committee ordering the besieged government of Anambra state, headed by Chris Ngige, to hold "peace meeting" with the acknowledged leaders of the mayhem as personified by Chris Uba, the estranged god-father of Chris Ngige. With this development, there is no hope that this government will ever prosecute anybody for the afore-stated destruction in which at least 27 persons were reportedly killed.

The Anambra crisis is one issue that clearly demonstrate the Obasanjo’s regime gangster character and its contempt for rule of law. At an earlier stage in the Anambra crisis, the security outfit of governor Ngige was withdrawn by the Inspector General of Police. In a subsequent legal action over this withdrawal, an appeal court gave an order that governor’s Ngige’s security outfit be restored.

Up till last week’s mayhem in Awka, the state capital, government and Inspector General of Police have refused to obey the court order. Currently, president Obasanjo’s regime presented a bill to amend the Labour Laws to the National Assembly. If passed as presented, the labour movement and the entire working masses will have added to their burden a reactionary legal shackle which aims to kill vibrant, fighting trade unionism.

Within this contest therefore, the decision to suspend the indefinite general strike meant to start on November 16 2004, on the basis of wanting to comply with an order of the court restraining the NLC from going on strike, represents a complete misreading of Nigeria’s contemporary political situation and what is required of leaders representing the interest of the working masses.

When this case first started at the High Court, the trial judge, Rose Ukeje, made an order restraining the government from going ahead to hike fuel prices while the action remains in court and also the NLC from going on strike pending the determination of the matter. Regrettably, this has not prevented the government from flouting this order through series of increments effected since that time. It is therefore dangerous to predicate the right to struggle by the working masses on a non-existing rule of law. The judiciary is a key component of the bourgeois state.

While on petty inter-personal matters it may be able to pretend to be a neutral arbiter but on every serious issue/conflict between the labouring masses and the capitalist ruling class, the judiciary most of the times will only act to preserve the selfish interest of the ruling class.

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

When examined on the basis of the above premises, the suspension of the nationwide stoppage/protest by the majority of the LASCO leaders was a major set back. This conclusion has to be frankly and boldly drawn by the LASCO leaders and also individual groups that make up LASCO. Labour activists and most especially LASCO leaders must be prepared to organise mass meetings of members of the groups that make up LASCO and members of public to discuss the lessons of the past few days, discuss what to do next?

LASCO leaders must also be prepared to, at these meetings and in the course of mobilisation for future struggles, give frank and sincere apologies for wrongfully suspending a nationwide general strike and protest that enjoys massive support of the working people. This approach is needed to reassure the working masses that the leadership decision to suspend the impending mass action was an error of the heart and not that of the soul.

This even becomes more imperative given the fact that the regime has so far refused to implement the reductions announced by itself! Sooner than later, the capitalist government headed by general Olusegun Obasanjo will be forced by the logic of the selfish system it defends to carry out further mass attacks on the living standard of the working people.

On the basis of the insoluble crisis facing Nigeria’s neo-colonial capitalist system, a crisis reflected in a virtual collapse of all infrastructural and social values in all aspects of life within the context of a global capitalist milieu undergoing an historic/insoluble impasse, the most certain realistic prospect for the vast majority of the working people is greater misery and political oppression. Under this system, this will largely be the case irrespective of which capitalist politicians or section of capitalist class that may be in control of state power at one time or the other.

Therefore, to have the necessary moral force needed for a successful mobilisation of the working masses in mass actions in a coming period, it is imperative for the current majority of LASCO leaders to recognise the necessity of having a comprehensive pro-labour policies in both the economic and political spheres.

Already, the masses have in no unmistaken terms expressed their opposition to the capitalist neo-liberal anti-poor policies in all ramifications. More than under any other government in Nigeria’s history, including the colonial time and the years of military dictatorship, the working masses have carried out six nationwide general strikes/protests between June 2000 and October 2004 against the so-called civilian government headed by president Obasanjo. The basic message that can be inferred from this struggle is that the masses are saying no to Obasanjo’s government.

Therefore for the movement to be taken forward, the majority of the LASCO leadership has to come out boldly with a demand and programme for the immediate end of the widely hated Obasanjo’s government together with its anti-poor policies. Anything short of this will only deepen the current gulf between the working masses and LASCO leaders. As noted above, this unfortunately can only demoralize and set back the current developing tradition of resistance by the working masses.

Another issue which LASCO leaders need to urgently address is the issue of proffering working class political alternative to the current rot represented by the various capitalist parties at all levels of governance. Every elementary follower of Nigeria’s politics knows that nothing good, from the working masses point of view, can come out of any government that may be formed by elements from the PDP, ANPP, AD, NDP, and all other capitalist and/or pro-capitalist parties in year 2007 or at any other time.

Unfortunately however, majority of LASCO leaders have not drawn the inescapable conclusion that there is the necessity to forge a political platform which will embrace all the forces presently operating within LASCO and other layers of the working masses with a view to present a united working class platform to the capitalist parties in year 2007 or at any other time. But without this kind of platform, the working masses will simply be thrown helplessly at the mercy of the various contending capitalist parties at election times.

We in the DSM therefore reiterate the proposal that an immediate and urgent steps be taken by LASCO leaders to organise a pan-Nigeria conference of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC), Conference of Free Trade Union (CFTU), Joint Action Forum (JAF), National Conscience Party (NCP), etc with a view to fashion out a working class political agenda whose ultimate goal will be the capturing political power from the present ruinous capitalist class.

At the same time workplace, local and state level meetings should be organised with the same agenda. We advocate that the current general strike/mass struggles be directed towards the objective of bringing about a workers and poor peasant government built on public ownership and working class democratic control of the commanding heights of the economy as a basis of a socialist economy, an economy run primarily to guarantee the needs of all and not just that of a few capitalist profiteers.

We concede that these perspectives represent a sharp breach with the conventional capitalist trade union perspective. But the truth however, is that only this kind of sharp revolutionary policies and approach can resolve the unending social economic and political catastrophe which contemporary capitalist society mean for the vast majority of the working people.

Therefore between now and the next inevitable mass action that will develop against the provocative anti-poor policies of the Obasanjo’s government, the issues raised in this open letter and other relevant ones should be thoroughly and democratically debated by LASCO leadership and among its rank and file as well as by other individual organisations that make up LASCO.

This we believe is the best way that a better preparation and success can be achieved in the inevitable forthcoming mass actions. Unless this kind of working class, revolutionary approach becomes the most dominant feature of the working peoples struggle in the immediate and long term periods, Nigeria will only unfortunately sink deeper into mass destitution and escalated ethno-religious conflicts and mayhem, which for instance, recently engulfed Anambra State.