Nigerian Labour takes a breather after general strike

After last week’s general strike in Nigeria the leaders of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) gave the government until October 27th to come up with a reasonable proposal on the price of fuel, otherwise the strike would resume. The leader of the NLC, Adamas Oshiomhole, has said that in such a secenario the unions would make the country “ungovernable”.

Last week’s general strike ended with rumours of a possible extension starting this week. In the end the leaders of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) decided to stick to their previous plan: to call off the strike for two weeks, and if by October 27th the government does not come up with a reasonable proposal on the price of fuel, then the strike would resume.

In the meantime the government has set up a Committee (which the NLC leaders are now a part of) to investigate what agreement can be reached and whether some measures can be taken to soften the blow on the Nigerian masses.

Adams Oshiomhole, the leader of the NLC, has made fiery speeches warning the government that if some acceptable solution is not found the unions will make the government “ungovernable”. The union leaders have warned Obasanjo that they will call an indefinite strike at the end of October if the government does not bring down the price of fuel. They have so far been saying that they want nothing less than an immediate price cut.

Last week’s strike closed banks, businesses, shops and public services. However, Nigeria’s oil industry was not affected as the unions did not mobilise the oil workers. This has been a common pattern throughout several general strikes in Nigeria. The union leaders threaten to call them out but then fail to do so. This weakens the impact of the strike. It is like going to war but leaving the most effective troops at home! It also weakens the bargaining power of the union leaders when they sit round the table with the government. If they knew that the production of oil could be seriously affected they might think twice before attacking the workers of Nigeria. Instead they continue to increase the price of fuel, massively cutting into the living standards of the poor masses of Nigeria.

The potential power of the Nigerian oil workers is revealed by the fact that last week, even though they did not come out and the industry continued to function during the strike, the international price of crude oil continued to rise as the international operators simply worried about the possible effect of the strike. The serious strategists are still worried, because they fear that an uncompromising position of the government may provoke another strike at the end of this month, and this time there is no guarantee that the oil workers would be kept out of it. An all out strike could lead to the heavy battalions of the Nigerian working class coming out in force.

The five big oil companies operating in Nigeria, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Total and Agip, have special plans to keep oil pumping out even if a total strike is called. This involves bringing in non-unionised scab labour. They take the threat seriously. The only way to get round is to call an all-out, total strike of the oil workers with mass picketing to stop scab labour being brought in. There are more than enough workers in Nigeria prepared to organise such picketing!

We will see over the next week what the government will come up with, and how the NLC leaders will respond. In the meantime the poor masses are getting poorer. Two-thirds of Nigerians live on less than a dollar a day. Cheap, subsidised fuel is the only tangible benefit they receive.

The stand which Oshiomhole has taken has made him very popular. He is seen as the only person who can really stand up to this regime. The workers and the poor masses of Nigeria are looking up to him to save them from the pit of hell they have been thrown into. The NLC has in fact become the only real political opposition to the Obasanjo regime.

This explains why the Obasanjo regime has been trying to weaken the powers of the NLC. In September a high court ruled that the NLC cannot organise “political” strikes. It must only limit itself to strikes on working conditions and wages. The idea is that a strike over the price of fuel should not concern the unions! Obasanjo has gone further and after last June’s strike he introduced a new bill which attempts to reduce the powers of the NLC. The same bill makes it more difficult for unions to go on strike “legally”. In practice as we saw last week, the NLC still has the power to mobilise the masses.

The fact is you cannot legislate the NLC out of existence, even though Obasanjo obviously dreams of this possibility. You cannot remove the NLC because you cannot remove the Nigerian working class. The masses need the NLC and look to it for leadership. Oshiomhole is probably the most popular man in Nigeria!

The political situation is deadlocked. No political party really represents the Nigerian workers and poor. The only force that can provide such a political voice for the workers of Nigeria is the NLC. The NLC should form its own party. If it did it could challenge the present government, take it on and defeat it. The masses would rally round a party led by the NLC leaders. There is no doubt about it. Therefore the central slogan here is: NLC build a Labour party now!