Nigeria: As four-day warning strike comes to an end – What is the next step?

Today is the fourth day of the Nigerian Labour Congress’ four-day warning general strike. However, the strike may be resumed on Monday after the police have killed, arrested and beaten workers and trade union leaders. The general strike is posing the question of power, but the union leaders refuse to call for the downfall of the government.

Today is the fourth day of the Nigerian Labour Congress’ four-day warning general strike. Yesterday, the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Adams Oshiomhole, hinted that the strike may be prolonged. Although tomorrow workers are expected to return to work, as of Monday strike action may resume.

Following the killing of workers in Kaduna by the Police and the arrest of eight NLC leaders in Abuja, the situation has become very tense. Apart from the killing in Kaduna, many other workers were arrested along with their leaders, in Borno, Anambra, Akwa Ibom, and Edo states. And in many areas strike organisers and workers have been brutally attacked by either the police directly, or by armed gangs while the police just stood by and watched. In some areas workers’ leaders have been later released on bail, but with a warning that if they “disturb the peace” again they can be re-arrested.

Strike may be extended

Prior to the strike Adams Oshiomhole had given warning that if workers were killed again then this would change the character of the dispute. The original plan of the Nigerian Labour Congress was that the strike would be in phases. The first phase ends today. The next step was to be a two-week break to give the government time to review its decision to increase the price of fuel. If the government does not come up with a satisfactory proposal the action is to be resumed.

The killing and arrests have created a new situation. They are a clear message to the Nigerian workers. The bosses are not prepared to retreat from their inexorable onslaught on the living standards of the Nigerian masses. The bosses are only prepared to discuss by “how much” the price should be increased. That is why all they have come up with so far has been a “committee” set up by President Olusegun Obasanjo to look at ways of cushioning the effect of the fuel increases.

Initially this committee included Oshiomhole, but under pressure from the masses he was forced to withdraw. This shows that the level of the struggle in Nigeria is on a higher plane now. The masses have learnt from past experience and will not be duped again by the same tricks.

There is no room for negotiation here. The NLC leaders must call on Obasanjo to resign. The whole lot must go! Obasanjo has in fact accused the NLC of “running down” his government. And yet, Oshiomhole has objected that this is not true! He said, “We want to publicly deny that that is our intention. We have nothing to gain by running down this government because we are not a political party that is planning to take over the government.”

This statement of Oshiomhole highlights the limitations of the present leadership of the NLC. The accusations of Obasanjo are not plucked out of thin air. Whether Oshiomhole likes it or not, the general strike is posing the question of power in Nigeria. It poses the question of who should govern the country.

No sit-at-home but mass rallies!

As the strike has progressed over the past four days the situation has been getting ever more tense. The NLC leadership called for a “sit-at-home” – as usual. The purpose of this is to keep the masses indoors and off the streets. But this weakens the movement. It does not make it stronger. It means the masses do not get a feel of their own strength. They do not come together in rallies to discuss the issues involved and what is to be the next step in the struggle. Instead of a “sit-at-home”, the NLC leaders should be calling mass rallies and demonstrations. There should constant mass assemblies in the workplaces to consult the workers and better organise the strike. Instead the NLC leaders want to give the masses a passive role, as they desperately hope and wait for Obasanjo to make them an offer.

However, the Nigerian masses are becoming impatient. Support for the strike has been almost total. Some of the Nigerian press have tried to give the impression that many workers have turned up for work these past four days. But that is not true. The masses have no other alternative but to struggle.

The fact that the NLC leadership may be forced to resume the strike on Monday, instead of waiting for two weeks as they had planned shows that they are under enormous pressure from the rank-and-file. One could ask the question: why interrupt the strike at this stage? Why not just extend the present strike? The killing in Kaduna, the arrest of NLC leaders, the beatings of striking workers – after last Saturday’s arrest of Oshiomhole himself – should be sufficient evidence to show what the intentions of this government are. How can anyone have illusions in Obasanjo any longer?

In the next few days and weeks we will see how much room for manoeuvre Oshiomhole has left. In any case he is in a very tight corner. The workers are putting big pressure on him. As we said, they have learnt from previous experiences and they do not want to repeat the same things. The more advanced layers of the working class must have a position of little trust in Adams and therefore they are vigilant.

In his statements Oshiomhole seems to want to defuse the situation, but it is the logic of the situation that is making this difficult. It takes two to tango, as the saying goes. Oshiomhole would like to dance with Obasanjo, and Obasanjo would like to have the cooperation of Oshiomhole. But this spectacle is being watched by millions of Nigerian workers and poor.

The regime is very weak

The fact is that the present regime is very weak. It has used up the reserves of support that it had. The workers and poor are against it. But also the middle classes are moving into opposition. And in this situation even sections of the ruling class are preparing to jettison Obasanjo. He is becoming a liability. All he is good at is provoking one general strike after another. He is now discredited. The dilemma of the bourgeois is how to continue with the same policies while disguising what they are doing. The logical next step is to present the masses with a new face.

That explains why some forces within the bourgeois parties have been calling for the resignation of Obasanjo. The workers of Nigeria must have no illusions in these people. The only reason they wish to remove Obasanjo is because he is sinking and they don’t want to sink with him.

The logical thing for the NLC would be to step in and provide an alternative. But Adams Oshiomhole doesn’t want that. He can see that there are huge expectations among the Nigerian masses. They want change, big change. They want jobs, housing, decent wages, a fuel price that corresponds to their purchasing power. These things cannot be achieved unless the whole rotten ruling Nigerian elite is removed. But Oshiomhole seems to want to go back to a situation where a cosy relationship could be maintained with the government. Let us not forget that Oshiomhole supported Obasanjo in the last general elections. Oshiomhole has even supported Obasanjo’s privatisation programme.

In spite of this, he is forced to give some kind of expression to the Nigerian masses. But the masses want to go further. This creates a political vacuum. The present regime is in difficulties. It could easily be brought down. It may well fall in the next period. But the leaders of the Nigerian labour movement are not prepared to step in and take upon themselves their responsibilities. This leaves room to other forces to intervene, forces that in reality count for very little in Nigerian society.

Some of these forces are calling for the resignation of Obasanjo. Even the Senate and House of Representatives have distanced themselves from Obasanjo. And we have to remember that these are packed with Senators and Deputies who belong to Obasanjo’s party! Some of them must be thinking along the lines of finding Tweedle-dee to replace Tweedle-dum, i.e. another individual who will carry on the same policies.

But the distrust of the masses goes beyond that of an individual. They can see that the whole system is rotten. Everyone knows full well that Obasanjo was elected through fraud. They know this parliamentary set up does not represent the true wishes of the masses.

“Conference” is not the way

It is in this context that the old idea of the “Sovereign National Conference” has been dusted down and brought out again. This idea has been gaining ground among some of the smaller petit bourgeois political formations. It is the Nigerian version of the Constituent Assembly. In fact, it is not only these smaller formations that are discussing this idea, but even some of the bourgeois.

As the present set up is discredited, some of the more intelligent bourgeois must be thinking that a constitutional crisis that would lead to the scrapping of the present system would be a convenient way of confusing the masses and diverting their attention away from the real issues.

If they were to call for such a “Conference” it would mean spending a lot of time on discussions and debates about what type of parliament they would need, what kind of constitution, etc. They would probably have an “interim” regime for a period that supposedly would have no real powers. This would also give the NLC leaders the excuse they need to demobilise for a period. The NLC leaders would say something along the following lines: “we have to wait for the new constitution, for the new assembly, we have to be part of the process, etc.” The end result would be the same. The bosses would still attack on the question of the fuel price, on pensions, on education, etc. This would not stop them from sowing illusions among the masses that such a new set up would be better than the present.

Most “pro-democracy” activists are also demanding this. This is a typical mistake of these petit bourgeois parties. If the present situation becomes untenable the bourgeois may even retreat temporarily on the fuel price hike to stop the movement, and thus play for time. That means these small “pro-democracy” forces would be playing into the hands of the bosses.

The duty of any thinking worker or youth in Nigeria is to explain that such a “Conference” will solve nothing. It is necessary to expose it as a manoeuvre. If they hold a “Conference” and then create a new parliament what will have changed? The economic set up of Nigeria will be the same. The same bourgeois class will be in power. Therefore the economic programme will remain the same. The same powers that today back and finance Obasanjo, will find another political voice to hide behind. Therefore any kind of “Conference” will not just be a waste of time, it will be a betrayal of the needs of the working masses.

Down with Obasanjo! Down with the government!

What the workers and youth of Nigeria need are clear slogans, clear tactics. We must call for: Down with Obasanjo! Down with the government! The NLC must build its own party and call for new elections. In such a situation an NLC-backed party would win a massive majority. By this means a workers’ government could come to power in Nigeria. Of course, that in and of itself would not be enough either. Such a government would have to break with capitalism. It would have to start to take over the main industries and banks, in particular the oil wealth. By doing so they would be in a position to use the huge resources that Nigeria has, to solve all the problems that the bourgeoisie has proven incapable of solving.

While working to build their own party, the workers must also take on a more active role in the present struggle. It is wrong to stay-at-home. The workers must build their action committees in all workplaces. All delegates to such committees must be elected and they must be recallable. These committees should link up at city level, state level and federal level. This would be a way of making sure the major decisions of the movement are taken by the workers.

This way all sections of the working class would be drawn into the struggle. But the potential is also there for other layers to be drawn into the movement, the market people, the peasants, the urban poor, the students, etc. The NLC could thus draw behind it the overwhelming majority of the masses.

The key question is that of building a party of the working class. Without a party the working class cannot go forward. In Nigeria some of these petit-bourgeois forces are saying that there is no longer any time to form a labour party now. They are obviously engrossed in the legal proceedings that such an operation would entail. They believe that this way they are being more practical, more immediate.

In reality, by demanding an “urgent solution”, they prolong the finding of a solution. Their urgent solution is a “Conference”. But a “Conference” is a long drawn-out process. We can ask some questions. Who would call the conference? Who would force Obasanjo to stand down? The present parliament is full of Obasanjo’s party MPs. He has an overwhelming majority. So how is he to be brought down? By appealing to him to go? This would obviously be ludicrous. Only a powerful movement of the working class could bring him down.

These people naively believe that all “forces”, including opposition parties, pro-democracy forces, students, and middle layers are to be involved in the movement to push out Obasanjo and that this “alliance” must be preserved at all costs! They say that a “Labour party” will only involve Labour, i.e. the organised working class. And, they say, Labour alone cannot do it.

This is either the height of naivety or short-sighted stupidity! The so-called opposition parties have among them representatives of the bourgeoisie. If they enter an alliance to bring down Obasanjo, it will only be to save themselves, as we have mentioned above. Their role would be to hold back an opposition movement and hold it within the narrow confines of the present system. They would be a bourgeois Trojan horse in the camp of the working class.

The only real force capable of bringing down this government is the NLC. Every time the NLC moves the others rally behind it. The working class is the only real class that can bring about a genuine alternative. If the NLC were to give a lead all the other forces would fall into line behind it.

The problem is the leadership of the NLC that is not prepared to take upon itself the responsibility of seriously leading. If the NLC declared a party tomorrow morning they would have mass support. Therefore the solution to the whole impasse facing the Nigerian masses passes through the NLC, though the Nigerian trade unions. Alongside this there must also be the organisation of action committees in the workplaces.

Therefore, although some may think this is the long way round, in reality the campaign to build a workers’ party in Nigeria is the only way of solving the present crisis.