ON THE EVE OF THE GENERAL STRIKE: CHALLENGES AND PROSPECTS
LABOUR NEEDS A COMBATIVE LEADERSHIP THAT LEADS STRUGGLES AND FIGHTS FOR WORKING PEOPLE TO TAKE POWER OUT OF THE HANDS OF THE CAPITALISTS AND LOOTERS
Baring last minute cancellation, Nigeria is likely to be gripped by a general strike and mass protest starting from Monday September 28, 2020. The immediate issues are the increases in fuel price, electricity tariff, VAT etc. But the groundswell of anger which is behind this strike goes beyond these immediate issues. They also include the rising cost of living, anger at the management of COVID-19 pandemic and its consequence for jobs, wages and livelihoods, as well as the disappointment over the disastrous performance of the Buhari led All Progressive Congress (APC) government over the past six years.
The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) fully supports this declaration of strike action and urges the working masses and oppressed people to enthusiastically join the strike and begin to organise from below to ensure that this struggle does not go in the way of previous struggles which were called off or suspended before fully achieving demands.
WILL IT TAKE OFF?
A flurry of meetings with labour leaders by the officials of the Federal government and the Governors Forum appears not to have succeeded in stopping the strike. Also there are two court injunctions procured by the Federal government and one of its stooge organisations from the National Industrial Court. Now judicial workers have pledged to join the strike – something which dramatically demonstrates how the court orders are not worth the papers they are written. The panic of the government over this strike is reflected in the directive of the head of service which warned civil servants not to join the strike. On Sunday September 27, a previously unannounced meeting of the House of Representatives leadership reportedly held with the labour leadership. Given these last minute moves, unfortunately it should not come as a surprise if the strike is cancelled at the last minute on the basis of a ridiculous excuse or it ends up just as a protest in a few places but without a shutdown of the economy.
But, if the general strike really takes off and stops the country, it could win some concessions. However, in the current situation, such a strike would not result immediately in a revolutionary transformation of society. Of this, there can be no illusion. Many things are responsible for this perspective. This includes the state of mass consciousness, the reluctance of labour leadership to fight consistently and the absence of a strong mass workers political alternative with a socialist programme. The Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) remains tiny and struggling to take its ideas to a wider audience.
But no doubt, a successful take-off of the general strike for even a day is likely to take the lid off all the social and political frustration and anger with the regime. If the strike successfully drags into the second or third day, this would have a greater effect, draw in bigger sections of the impoverished masses, become more political and could have indications of power on the street. But whatever happens starting from Monday, the growing rage in society means it is likely that a new phase in the class struggle opens – something which could lead to the regime facing repeated and relentless protests and crisis for the remainder of its tenure. In the same vein however, a failed strike or blatant sell-out, could impact the wider movement for a time while making the advanced and active layers angry and even frustrated.
A RELUCTANT LABOUR LEADERSHIP
The most important factor at this stage is the labour leadership which has been dragged into this fight kicking and struggling to break free. In declaring an indefinite general strike and mass protest, the leadership of the NLC and TUC were compelled by the anger on the streets indicated by the protests of the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) in Lagos on September 10 and that of the Joint Action Front (JAF) on September 16. This anger of the working class and popular masses was carried onto the floor of the National Executive Council (NEC) of the NLC held on September 22, 2020 by leaders and activists of affiliate unions and state councils. Many of the leadership of the state councils swore that if the NLC leadership failed to match words with action, many of them risked being stoned on the street.
But in agreeing to the mood of its members, the trade union leadership, like before, had no plan to prosecute a serious general strike, provided the strike takes off at all. The first indication of this is in labour’s principal argument against the increase in fuel price and electricity tariff which is anchored more on the timing of the policy rather than the anti-poor character of the policy. This presupposes that labour could agree to this policy if the timing was different. The second indication is the slogan of an “indefinite general strike” put forward. What is an indefinite general strike and should it even be the starting point of the struggle in the first place?
AN INDEFINITE GENERAL STRIKE VERSUS A 48 HOUR GENERAL STRIKE
Because of how it stops all the workings of the capitalist system, a general strike often poses the question of which class runs society, hence political power. How much more an indefinite general strike which stretches for days and is reliant on who blinks first between the working class and the capitalist class? Such a strike presupposes a sharpening of class contradictions and mass consciousness and, to be fully successful, a conscious movement by the working class for the conquest of political power. Indefinite general strikes can spontaneously develop, like in France in May 1968, but then the question is what happens next. In the absence of a conscious programme for the conquest of political power by the working class, such a general strike can be defeated.
No doubt, class contradictions have sharpened in Nigeria, especially more so with the coronavirus pandemic but socialist consciousness is still not developed. In fact the idea of an alternative to the status quo is still unclear to many. In comparison to the 1980s, the working masses of Nigeria are angry, but broad sections have no inkling of what the solutions are. At the same time, there is the absence of a mass workers’ political alternative. Therefore, it seems the labour leadership have simply put forward the slogan of an indefinite general strike as the most radical-sounding slogan they can think of (and either want to cover up their policy of repeated rotten compromises with radical words) and not because they understand the full political ramification of this slogan. And here lies the danger of labour’s tactics and approach. It is an approach which is leading to defeat or compromise, and not victory in terms of not only reversal of the fuel price and electricity tariff hikes, but also a reversal of the deregulation and privatisation policy.
Right from the beginning, we in the DSM have raised the slogan of a 48 hours general strike and mass protest as a first step. This was because of our recognition that, given the weakness of the labour movement and other factors, a few days of general strike would be required as a starting point of the process of mobilising, organising and preparing the working class and poor masses for a series of struggles whose ultimate end point is the conquest of political power. This period of preparation is necessary and inevitable to help sharpen consciousness and also strengthen the political forces that have an alternative political programme and perspective to replace capitalism. Against this background, the slogan of an indefinite general strike without any form of preparation posed by the labour leadership is similar to mistaking the first month of pregnancy for its ninth.
Additionally, the slogan of an indefinite or unlimited general strike raises the question of how supplies of food and other provisions will be arranged and essential services kept running while the strike lasts. This cannot be done by the officials of government who by virtue of the general strike would be suspended in the air. In an economy dominated by informal workers who depend on daily earnings, an indefinite general strike has to immediately take up the question of the working class running society. Without this perspective and organisation, an indefinite general strike may not last more than a few days before it begins to collapse, not because of any serious attack by the capitalist state, but because of the oppressed masses who had initially enthusiastically supported the strike falling back due to exhaustion, hunger, lack of direction and control by the working masses. In this kind of situation, the labour leadership will come under more intense pressure to accept any compromise from government if only to avoid a situation where the indefinite general strike does not collapse on its head.
To prevent this kind of outcome, the DSM calls for the setting up of democratically-constituted strike and action committees in all workplaces, schools and communities which alongside taking up the general coordination of the movement. This should include deciding when action is to be called or suspended and also organising supplies and ensuring functioning of essential sectors like markets. Following the examples of January 2012 movement markets could be allowed to open for a few hours in the evening to enable the masses to restock provisions and be strong enough to continue the strike the next day. This should be organised along with democratic controls to prevent profiteering.
It is instructive that the labour leadership declared an indefinite general strike to start on September 28, in actuality three days to a public holiday marking the country’s independent anniversary on Thursday October 1, 2020. In the absence of labour declaring what it would do on October 1 as a continuation of the general strike, the #RevolutionNow movement has declared a protest for the day. This is likely to mean that even if the general strike and mass protest are seriously implemented from the first day, activity could come to an end on Wednesday as the entire country might be in a holiday mood from Thursday and into the weekend. Indeed this is what some labour leaders may be hoping for. While the #RevolutionNow protest which may take place on that day could get some popular support, it is likely to be incomparable in terms of size and impact to that which labour could mobilise if it held its own mass rallies and protest on October 1 to further deepen its demands against the anti-poor attacks of the Buhari APC administration.
Therefore, as we saw most recently in 2016, issuing the slogan of an indefinite general strike without adequate preparations is a recipe for disaster, compromise and defeat. Meanwhile if the labour leadership had declared as a first step a 48-hour general strike and mass protest on September 28/29 as demanded by the DSM, this could have allowed it opportunity to avoid the strike collapsing after a few days and the associated intense pressure to agree to a rotten compromise. Rather such an approach could have meant a successful 2 days of general strike and mass protest which, if the government refused to back down, would resume on October 5 after the masses would have had sufficient time to rest, re-stock and rearm politically. Such a graduated series of general strikes and mass protests can then lead to an indefinite strike at one stage which could be aimed at conquest of political power.
The third indication of labour leaders’ reluctance to prosecute a serious struggle is in the lacklustre preparation. For instance, on Thursday 24 September 2020, a crucial meeting of the NLC and TUC, alongside JAF and the Campaign for Democratic Workers’ Rights (CDWR), held in Lagos to discuss how to prosecute the indefinite general strike. At the end of the meeting, two committees were formed – mobilisation and monitoring committees. While the mobilisation committee was having its meeting to draw up a budget and plans for materials to prosecute the indefinite strike, a bombshell was thrown. The national leadership of the NLC was going to send to each state council, including Lagos, a sum of just N100, 000 for the prosecution of the indefinite general strike while the affiliate unions and the state NLC leadership had, so far, failed to raise money independently!
Now to have a clear idea of how ridiculous this amount is, one needs to understand that since the times of the Adams Oshiomhole leadership of the NLC, the 10 percent of checkoff dues from affiliates which is meant to be paid to NLC state councils had been stopped. With little time to raise funds locally to add to this N100, 000, it is clear that the maximum national leaders appear to want across the 36 states of the federation and the FCT is possibly a one day strike and protest on Monday 28 September. After Monday, if the NLC leadership has its way, there is every likelihood that the strike would be called off or suspended.
Aside the lack of mobilisation of funds, there has been lack of mobilisation of rank and file workers at branches of the trade unions and workplaces beyond what workers hear in the media. The labour bureaucracy gives directives, but fails to take the agitation to the rank and file and hold meetings at the branches/workplaces where the strike will be most implemented, thus leaving employers the opportunity to use all subterfuge to compel workers to work. A general strike taken to workplaces and communities stands a better chance of success in terms of mobilisation and raising funds to prosecute the strike.
The most concrete conclusion that can be drawn by socialists, activists and workers from all the above is that the indefinite general strike and mass protest on Monday 28 September 2020, if it takes off, may win a few percentage point reversal in the price increases alongside one or two other demands. We are not, in principle, against agreeing to concessions. But it has to be remembered that many concessions, like the N30, 000 minimum wage, may be signed into law but are not implemented! That is why the key issue is defeating the entirety of the anti-poor capitalist policies of the Buhari regime and state governments.
The worst case scenario is that it does not take off at all given the internal weaknesses, intrigues and confusion that exist on the eve of the strike itself. But if it takes off at all, it would not be because of the preparedness of the labour bureaucrats to fight but their fear of the repercussions of not fighting at all given the damaged integrity of labour since 2012 and also the failed general strike of 2016.
Whatever happens, this development has the potential to open up new discussions within the movement about what to do with a labour leadership that is constantly failing the working class and oppressed masses. An indication of this was given at the symposium organised in Lagos by the Joint Action Front (JAF) on Friday 25 September 2020 where a debate broke out on this subject matter. This has to be deepened going forward.
As the DSM has always argued, the workers’ movement need to be rebuilt as a mass based and democratic movement with a bold Marxist leadership. This means the replacement of the bureaucratic leadership with those ready to fight. It would be the responsibility of the activists in the movement, socialists and radicalised young people to take up this task immediately. The DSM has long argued that building a mass workers’ party, committed to a socialist programme, is a necessary tool in doing this. Through the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) we hope to help stimulate the formation of such a party by building on the ground, in workplaces, communities and campuses, support for a socialist alternative. This would be the best preparation for the next upsurge in the class struggle in order to ensure that any new struggle aims for conquest of political power by the working class and the enthronement of a workers and poor people’s government armed with a socialist programme