After The NLC October General Strike – What Comes Next?

This article was written by a member of the Editorial Board of the Nigerian Marxist journal, the Workers’ Alternative. Shortly after we received it we were informed that the government has increased the price of fuel by a further 15 Naira. This can only be seen as a serious provocation. It exposes the government for what it is. And it renders almost impossible any idea of a deal between the unions and the government. If the government does not back off on this then the leaders of the Nigerian unions have no choice but to pull out all the workers again.

The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) formally suspended the latest nationwide general strike against the recent increase in the prices of petroleum products by over 25% on the 14th of October, 2004. The strike action had spanned through 11th to 14th of October 2004 with most of the organised workers and large layers of the ununionised also partaking in the four day strike nationwide. Lagos, the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria, was down completely while the strike lasted; this was also the situation in other parts of the country.

According to the initial agenda for the strike, the action was to commence on the 11th of October with a four day warning strike with the main demand that the prices of the petroleum products should return to the pre-September 29th, 2004 prices. Other demands include the refurbishment of the Petroleum Refineries in Nigeria and the need to stop the massive importation of refined products.

So Many Strikes – The Same Demands

This last general strike was the fourth in a series in the last fifteen months and the sixth in the five years of ruling of the Obasanjo-led regime. And the interesting thing is that the demand of the previous strikes have been consistently the same as the latest one.

Five years ago, when the regime came to power, the price of petrol was N20, that of kerosene and diesel was N18. Systematically, the prices have gone up a minimum of N53 and N62 respectively, i.e. by an average of 150% increase within the last five years. The implication of this increment is very obvious to the Nigerian populace, where, according to standard indices, more than 70% of the population lives below the poverty line, with respect to the fact that this increment has a multiplier effect on every day’s cost of living.

The prices of transportation have gone up manifold, which has resulted in an increase in the cost of goods and services. This is also the case with the cost of production in the industries, which is more so in a country where regular electricity supplies remain unavailable and the energy supplies to power the industrial machines mostly come from the petroleum products.

The Higher The Price The More The Poverty

The increase in the price of diesel especially adds a very high side to the cost of production, which has subsequently led to workforce shedding and not uncommonly leading to many industries closing shop. Hence, leading to a worsening unemployment rate. And more unemployment certainly implies to worsen the poverty level in the country.

In the light of the above, it is not difficult to appreciate the reason for the consistent enthusiastic support that the NLC general strikes enjoyed each time they have been called. The populace’s objective conditions vis-à-vis the harsh economic realities has already mobilized the mass of workers and the poor, including small business owners, who realized the fact that things are already tough and any increment in petroleum products prices can only lead to a worse situation.

Mobilisation Must Be Massive and Mass-based

Notwithstanding, it must be said that the NLC mobilization method does not usually commensurate with what is necessary for the type of strike envisaged. Unlike the usual method of passing directives across to the ranks through the bureaucratic channels of the unions, which does not make a clear distinction between what is required for the type of general strike that is taking up the regime frontally on his anti-poor policies and the other type of strikes that usually involve complaints at the workplaces.

The mobilization should have been effectively complimented through mass meetings on the factory floors, other workplaces, on the campuses and also in the neighbourhoods. The essence of this type of mobilization is that it will take the struggle to the masses directly, organizing the ranks for action from below, allowing a one on one clarification and the formation of strike committees, which will include the rank and file among others.

Undoubtedly, this approach will also bring out the ingenuity of the mass of the workers and the other poor layers in the organization of things and society as a whole, when orders do not flow from the governmental structures but now directly from the leadership of the trade unions as we saw in the last strike and the previous ones.

Another advantage that will arise with the formation of strike committees from below at the factory floor level and in the neighbourhoods, etc., is that they would provide an independent forum for the direct passage of undiluted messages from the structures above down to the rank and file working masses, without necessarily relying on the magnanimity of the owners of the electronic and print media houses as it is usually the case.

Having said this much on the shortcoming of the method of mobilization, it would be interesting, although doubtful, to see the commencement of another round of general strike at the end of the two weeks ultimatum [that expires on October 27] that the NLC has again given to the government for a reversal of the recent increment, having been unsuccessful with the last four days ‘warning strike’.

This anticipated strike could only commence on a more invigorating basis if the campaign is carried to the rank and file members of the affiliated unions in the work places and by directly canvassing for support through mass meetings in the communities by the union activists and others actively involved in the campaign.

What is more important is the critical attitude of the workers, the poor artisans, the petty traders and a notable number among the middle class who have been supporting the previous strike actions all along. The notable point that a majority of these NLC strike supporters are making, is that based on the past experience of petrol price increments and the attendant NLC strikes, it appears that when we moved forward with one step, we then moved backward with two steps.

NLC Must Demand For Obasanjo Resignation

This is the only logical thought that is coming out of the fact that from N20, the price of petrol is now an average of N55 in spite of the various strikes that took place. To this extent, it is important that subsequent strikes, particularly the anticipated one for later this month, must take this into consideration, which must be done by explaining the political expediency of these strikes and, as a logical necessity, the NLC leadership must advance the slogan that should be aimed at the jugular of the regime by asking for the regime to resign in the face of its socio-economic failure.

The failure of the regime in the daily realities of the masses is all too obvious in all facets of life. Goods and services are now much more costly than before Obasanjo came to power. Salaries and wages are not paid when due. Most establishments, particularly government owned organizations are owing workers many months’ salaries, and a worse twist in the situation is that many establishments are even cutting the employees’ wages with an unprecedented impunity. It is so common nowadays to hear of workers being paid as little as 35% of their monthly salaries, on a regular basis, without any hope that the situation will improve.

Worst hit are the so-called ‘senior workers’ – the pensioners – whose allowances and pensions have been rendered worthless and, to make matters worse, these are not paid regularly. Many of them are being owed many months of pension arrears and overdue gratuities. Life has become most miserable for this category of the aged population. The recently passed Pension Scheme Act, which is saying that workers must contribute substantially to their pensions in advance while they are still working, is another indication of the fact that in principle the regime is not committed to pension payments, and its interest is to always pass more burdens on to the shoulders of the working masses.

Times are hard in the most terrible way on the campuses. Here school fees are very much on the increase and the condition of learning is much on the terrible side. While hostel accommodation fees have increased by as much as 10,000% over the past five years in schools, the conditions of living remain indecent and most precarious.

Politically, the regime has lost popularity; all previous bragging of having won last year’s election by a very wide margin (never mind the large scale rigging that even the invited foreign election observers had to acknowledge) is now lost with the wind; this is flowing from its present loss of political authority. The regime has lost so much placement and authority in the mind of the populace, such that the people largely ignored even its recent call for people to stay at home for just five hours for children’s polio vaccination, two days before the commencement of the NLC strike. This is, however, a far cry from compliance of the populace to the NLC call for a four-day stay-at-home general strike that held the country to a standstill.

To this extent it is only logical to call a spade a spade. The Obasanjo regime has failed the mass majority of Nigerians. The NLC should include this in its demands, particularly since the regime has said that it is not ready to change the present crippling economic policy draft wanted by the imperialist finance organizations, i.e. the IMF and World Bank. Interestingly, to show where the dictation is coming from, while the nation is scoring the regime very low as per its socio-economic policy, the IMF and the World Bank have been consistently being scoring the Obasanjo regime very high.

Another reality of the moment is the historical role that the NLC is playing now in the country. All recent attempts to dubiously remove the democratic rights and to limit the struggles of the NLC to trade union economic demands of the workers in the work places have failed.

This is vis-à-vis the recent judgment delivered two days before the last increment in the price of petrol by Mrs. Roseline Ukeje, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, and the anti-Labour Bill passed by the Senate a few days before the last general strike. They both said that strikes beyond wage demands and other similar trade union demands are illegal; in other words general strikes against bad policies of the government not related to wages, like the last NLC general strike, are unlawful. The shameless judgment even went further to declare that the law does not recognize the office of the NLC President!

To this extent, events are daily confirming our perspectives as outlined in the various editions of the Workers’ Alternative – the journal for the workers’ and youth movement. This is with regard to the role which only the organized workers, through their organization, the NLC with the TUC, CFTU, etc, can play in the shaping of the Nigerian situation.

The recent strike, like the previous ones, has shown that it is only the NLC that can unite the majority of the population across ethnic and religious divides in the country. And undoubtedly the authority that the NLC and, to a large extent, its leadership in the person of Adam Oshiomhole has is unprecedented in modern day Nigeria.

For A Labour Party With A Socialist Programme

This authority must be used in a more pragmatic manner by using it to declare the formation of a genuine Workers’ Party that will rest unambiguously on the trade unions with support form the other oppressed layers in the society. It is too obvious to see the enormous support such an historical declaration would enjoy. The examples of the support the general strikes enjoyed in the past are clear pointers to this.

Now is the time for Adams and co. to break completely from the regime, which already is dying away on a daily basis. All this while the NLC had provided the major pole of support for the Obasanjo regime and some of his policies. Now is the moment to create and alternative platform for the masses not only to fight but to ride to power.

This will, however, become more feasible if the Labour Party is formed and if it adopted the socialist programme of an immediate halt to the present anti-poor privatisation policies of the Obasanjo regime, and called for free health care, free education for everybody, a guarantee of the right of the minorities and more importantly the nationalization of the commanding heights of the economy under the democratic control and management of the workers, since this is the only way that resources generated can be distributed to all equitably.

The above enumerated represents, in summary, the only way to fight the Obasanjo regime and win the battle.