June general strike highlights need for genuine workers' party in Nigeria

On June 9 the workers of Nigeria embarked on yet another general strike. Two days later it had already been called off. There is a stalemate situation that has developed between the classes that must be resolved one way or the other. For the workers to come out on top they need their own party.

On June 9 the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) called out the workers of Nigeria to take part in yet another general strike. What provoked the general strike was another increase in the price of fuel, which brought the price to around 50 to 55 Naira per litre. We must remember that as recently as June of last year the price stood at 26 Naira. These price increases are making life for ordinary Nigerians unbearable. The bulk of Nigeria's 130-million strong population survives on less than $1 a day.

Before the strike began the leader of the NLC was warning the population to prepare for at least 21 days of disruption, and yet three days after it started he had already called off the strike. The government had backed down and the price was brought down.

What this reveals is that there is a delicate balance between the classes in Nigeria. The working class does not have the leadership to overthrow the government and the government does not have the strength to just steamroll through its policies. How long can this situation last? In order to understand what is going on we have to wind the film back to the beginning of this year.

Courts intervene in January

On the morning of January 1st, 2004, the people of Nigeria woke up to find that their President, Obasanjo had delivered a late Christmas present. He had introduced a 1.5 Naira per litre fuel tax. The effect on the prices of food and transportation were immediately felt. The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) responded, by giving the government an ultimatum: either it withdrew the new tax or there would be a nationwide general strike on January 21.

Right up till the early hours of Wednesday January 21, workers across the country were preparing to come out. But the NLC called off the strike after a last minute intervention on the part of the Appeal Court in Abuja. The Court issued a double-sided order by which it called on the government to remove the tax and, at the same time, barred the NLC from going ahead with the strike.

To many people's surprise the government abided by the court order. Its usual reaction to any such Court order hada always been to simply ignore it. This time the government climbed down. This was clearly a face-saving operation for the government. It allowed it to put up a pretence of "listening" to the people, while at the same time giving it a breathing space to prepare its next onslaught. It was also an excuse for the NLC leaders to call off the strike.

This is the second time the NLC leaders had called off a general strike before it had even started. The last time was in October, when the government climbed down at the last minute. (See Nigerian general strike called off - Workers win by simply flexing their muscles) The NLC leaders seem to have learned nothing from that previous experience. The government climbed down, only to change its tactics: instead of an increase in the price of fuel it "deregulated" the price, thus allowing the pump price to soar.

There is widespread opposition in Nigeria to any further increases in the price of fuel. Again, it looked as if a massive general strike was about to break out. The cancellation of the strike came so late in the day that in some parts of the country the workers came out anyway. In Borno State a lot of activities came to a halt because public offices and even banks suspended their operations. In Lagos too there were pockets of protest. The same was true of Awka, Edo State and Enugu. In Benin City the workers took over the streets.

The insincerity of the government was quickly revealed when it immediately went back on the offensive against the unions. It went to the Court of Appeal in Abuja to challenge the right of the NLC to organise strikes against the collection of the fuel tax. It claimed the unions have no such right, apparently quoting the 1999 Constitution, where the right to strike is limited only to issues concerning working conditions and wages! This appeal came up in court on January 26. The decision of the Court of Appeal was to delay passing any judgement. In the meantime the previous order would hold.

Finally on February 9, the courts ruled that the status quo be maintained until a suit filed in the courts on this issue was finalised. This meant the unions should not call any further strikes and the government should keep to the old price of 38 Naira. As no date for a new hearing was announced, the situation remained that of a temporary stalemate: the fuel tax was withdrawn while the unions waited to see what the next move of the government would be.

A very tense and unstable situation

This scenario created a very tense and unstable situation in the country. Last year the price of fuel went up from 26 Naira a litre to 34 Naira. Then the government "deregulated" the price of fuel, which had the effect of pushing the pump price to 40 Naira and more. This had a knock-on effect on the cost of transportation and many basic goods. People simply cannot make ends meet anymore. They are reaching their limit.

The government continued to blissfully ignore the real living conditions of the masses in Nigeria. If it believed that by simply lifting the 1.5 Naira tax it could defuse the situation then it was inevitable that it was going to get some surprises. The threatened January general strike was formally about the 1.5 Naira. In reality it would have been a protest about all the problems facing the Nigerian workers and poor. The cost of living has risen sharply over the past period. Ordinary Nigerians are becoming poorer by the day.

The masses no longer have any illusions in this government. Last year it "won" the elections with a massive majority, but everyone knows that the result was rigged. (See Workers need their own party to put an end to this sham "democracy") This government has lost any basis of support. It is regarded by many as merely the tool of the IMF, the World Bank and the imperialist powers. Therefore the court decision did not save Obasanjo, it merely put off the day of reckoning.

The general mood of the workers is that the January general strike should have gone ahead anyway, court ruling or no court ruling. People do not trust the government. From their own experience they knew that Obasanjo would try and introduce the tax at some point in the near future. If it did not directly introduce the fuel tax it would increase the price of fuel anyway.

The cynicism of the NLC leaders

Since that court decision a lot of attention was focussed on the NLC leaders. The masses were waiting for their call to action. Unfortunately these leaders played out their waiting game for far too long. For how much longer could they hold the masses back? These union leaders ignored the fact that further increases in the price of fuel were inevitable. The pressure of the IMF on this government is inexorable. So long as capitalism survives in Nigeria its people will suffer. On a capitalist basis Nigeria is called to pay its debt with a huge interest burden. Unless the trade union leaders are prepared to break with capitalism, then they will face more and more of the same.

In spite of themselves these leaders were however forced to warn the government that if it did introduce any form of new taxation then they would have to call the workers out. As one leader, Joe Ajaero, of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) pointed out at the time, "When next labour goes on strike or protest, the government would now go to the moon to get somebody to intervene because labour would no longer listen to the court. It would not listen to the legislative arm and even the governors, because the government would have lost credibility, trust and decency. This is the last chance. If government defies the judiciary, then maybe the government would go to the moon."

But of course, such leaders hope that such a scenario would never materialise. Another union leader, Onikolease Irabor Vee Pee, President-General of the Maritime Workers Union of Nigeria (MWUN), gave us an idea of their thinking. He said, "The stability of this country is our paramount concern." He went on to say, "The reform of the economy should be gradual, and not with immediate effect. We have been talking about N34 and deregulation issues, those have not been settled, it was unfair to try to add salt to an injury by imposing N1.50 tax and telling us that it is irreversible. What sort of thing is that? Whoever gave that advice should have his head re-examined."

By "reform" he meant of course privatisation and deregulation. He is not opposed to these measures, he simply wishes the government wouldn't rush these measures. Let it proceed but more slowly, so that we can avoid a mass mobilisation of the workers! This is how cynical these leaders are.

As could easily have been predicted at the end of May the government moved and upped the price of fuel. The NLC leaders were forced to act and they called the workers out.

Trade Union leaders forced to move

In the build up to the June 9 general strike they were making all kinds of speeches about not being duped by the government this time round. On June 2, Oshiomhole made a statement in which he seemed to imply that they wouldn't make the same "mistake" again.  He said, "Congress would not make the mistakes of the past in the execution of next week's strike in view of the past deceitful manner in which the present government had dealt with the NLC each time it called similar strikes."

So the strike went ahead. The first day, Wednesday, June 9, saw a massive participation. What was striking was the line up of forces backing the NLC. The Trade Union Congress (TUC), the Congress of Free Trade Unions (CFTU), the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS), the National Association of Nigerian Traders, the Ijaw National Congress, Afenifere, the university lecturers and so on. All these clearly feel the pressure of the masses and were lining up behind the leaders of the Labour movement. It serves to underline how the NLC is forced to play a political role in spite of its own unwillingness to do so.

Oshiomhole insisted that even a resort to the judiciary this time round would not succeed in getting the strike called off. Even the president of the TUC, an organisation known for its moderate stance, was forced to declare that, "Injunction or no injunction, arrest or no arrest, strike commences on Wednesday."

The government's initial response was to take a tough position. Its position was "no work, no pay". It ordered the police to make sure the previous court rulings were abided by. The situation was getting tense.

Ruling class fears the masses

The Minister of Labour and Productivity, Dr. Hassan Lawal, expressed clearly the fears of the Nigerian ruling class. He said that before now the NLC had always been fighting the cause alone but now other groups were trying to align with them.

"It gives government concern because labour movements are democrats and have been consistent in their fight for democracy. A lot of you are now trying to align with the NLC so you have to be cautious. The utterances of the NLC president in the media are not the true picture of the personality of Adams Oshiomhole. We are glad that yesterday he denied claims that he will make Nigeria ungovernable."

The fact that the masses were lining up behind the NLC must have worried them indeed. The fact that other political and trade union forces were backing the NLC emphasised how powerful the NLC is becoming. However, what Lawal's speech also reveals is that the rulers of Nigeria also know that they can count on the NLC leader, Oshiomhole to betray. Lawal added that the NLC or Oshiomhole had never really come out to say they are against deregulation. He stressed that what they are against is the way it is being implemented and that they "would want the government to do something to cushion the effect on Nigerians".

So there we have it in a nutshell. Let us continue to attack the workers, let us continue to privatise, to cut back on pensions, to increase the price of fuel, but let us do it more slowly and in such a way as not to arouse the masses. This is an incredible state of affairs. It amounts to collusion between the union leaders and the bosses. They play a game before the masses in which each pretend to be fighting, but in reality they all have a very watchful eye on the Nigerian working class and poor to see that they don't take their destiny into their own hands.

The government did its bit by pretending to come down heavily on both the fuel marketers and the NLC, as if they were impartial. But the workers know better. The marketers will try and put up the prices again, once the situation has calmed down again. The courts have been trying to establish social peace by pretending to be impartial and against government, NLC and the marketers. In reality this means putting big pressure on the NLC and the working class because they are the ones who suffer the most. In practice they are trying to deny the workers their right to strike. The tragedy is that the NLC play along with this.

The fact that the NLC leaders did not call mass rallies but asked workers to stay at home is an indication of this fear that is embedded in their minds that the masses may go well beyond their leaders once they are on the move.

So once again, the government was forced to compromise. It knew what powerful forces were lining up behind the NLC leaders. What this situation reveals is that a stalemate has been reached in society. Neither class can outdo the other, the ruling class cannot act freely because the pressure of the masses is too strong, but the masses cannot remove this government because their own leaders refuse to mobilise seriously.

How long can this situation continue? It is clear that the masses are at their limit. Although the price of fuel has reverted to around 40 Naira this is still a heavy price to have to pay. Many Nigerian families are going hungry. They can barely put together the money to keep mind and soul together. The situation is an explosive one. Sooner or later the masses will move again and we can expect a powerful movement to develop. What we have seen in countries like Bolivia or Venezuela can happen in Nigeria. After last year's October general strike some commentators in the Nigerian bourgeois press made reference to the events in Bolivia, warning President Obasanjo that the same could happen in Nigeria. What they say is not an exaggeration. It could easily happen.

What is to be done?

The question is what is to be done. What do the Nigerian workers need to do?

The regime has been hiding behind the courts, to get the NLC to back off. Back in January the NLC abided by the court decision. It has done it again. For now the situation is one of compromise. But the workers are now waiting for something. They cannot stand this situation for long. Oshiomhole and the other NLC leaders will not be able to keep them waiting for ever. Oshiomhole is going to come under big pressure over the next period. For now the government has climbed down from 50 to 38 Naira. Some may think this is already a good result. The problem is that the government is only playing for time. They will increase the price again in the future. It is inevitable. This will increase the pressure on the NLC leaders and the workers will begin to see through Oshiomhole. The more advanced layers will become more open to the idea of the need to change the leaders of the NLC.

Among this layer the task of the Marxists in the movement is to help draw a balance sheet of what has happened so far. One of the first lessons to be drawn is that next time there is a general strike the workers must take control of the whole process.

There should be mass rallies to galvanise the workers and make a show of strength. If the NLC leaders are not prepared to do so then the workers should promote them from below.

In the workplaces the workers should elect action committees that link up different workplaces, offices, factories, transport workers, etc. and neighbourhoods. These committees should discuss the progress of the strike. They should be the ones that unions should consult for any decision. The decisions of the action committees should be binding on the union leaders. Unless this is done we risk the same situation again. If this game is repeated over and over again, the workers can begin to get tired and even demoralisation can set in. This must not be allowed to happen.

We also have to ask ourselves what would happen if the workers were so strong as to force the government to back off completely. Even in such a scenario victory would not be long-lasting. The government would merely wait to go on the offensive again.

The aim therefore should be to remove this government once and for all. But what can we replace it with? None of the other parties in parliament are any better than Obasanjo. They all represent the bosses in one form or another.

That is why we have to raise the question of a workers' party, a labour party. Who can build such a party? The only organisation which has the forces to launch such a party is the NLC. Last year it set up a party, the Party for Social Democracy. But it did nothing to build it into a genuine force of the working class. Oshiomhole actually campaigned for the re-election of Obnasanjo. Furthermore the programme of this party was not what the workers need. (See Can the programme of the PSD solve the problems of the Nigerian workers?).

What is needed is a mass workers' party with a real programme of socialist transformation of society. Building a genuine mass workers' party is an urgent question. Many workers would understand this now. We have to say to them, "we need our party, so that we can fight to have our government."

We have to start campaigning on this now. Meetings should be called of shop stewards and trade union activists to discuss this issue. As part of achieving this task we also have to raise the question of changing the NLC itself. There must be many workers who have seen through, or are beginning to see through the Oshiomhole leadership. If these are brought together they could form the basis of a workers' opposition inside the NLC. If this is done then systematic work of winning all the unions that are affiliated to the NLC to a genuine programme of social transformation could be carried out.

If this is done then we will be able to change both the NLC and provide the workers with their own party. Once the workers have their own party then they can begin to challenge the rule of the bosses in Nigeria. Such a party would attract the support of millions of Nigerian workers and poor. It would become an unstoppable force. It could fight to form a real workers' government. Such a government would proceed to take power out of the hands of the Nigerian bourgeoisie. It would nationalise the commanding heights of the economy and place them under workers' control and management. It would cancel the foreign debt and use the thousands of billions of dollars that are produced each year by the Nigerian workers to provide jobs for all, good housing, decent free education, free medical care and so on. At long last, Nigeria, a potentially very rich country, would be able to guarantee its people the life they deserve.

All this is possible. But the first step must be to start building an opposition inside the NLC now. Unless this is done the horror without end, which is the Nigeria of today, will continue remorselessly.