The lessons of the June 2003 general strike in Nigeria

We only received this analysis of last June's general strike in Nigeria a few weeks after it was written. This was due to technical reasons. Although we published several articles at the time of the strike, we believe the present article will be of interest to our readers as it was written by Nigerian Marxists inside the country.

We only received this analysis of last June's general strike in Nigeria a few weeks after it was written. This was due to technical reasons. Although we published several articles at the time of the strike, we believe the present article will be of interest to our readers as it was written by Nigerian Marxists inside the country.


The newly re-elected Obasanjo/PDP regime, announced new increments in the price of petroleum products of over 50%: petrol N26 to N40, kerosene N24 to N38 and Diesel N24 to N38 on June 20, 2003. This announcement coming less than a month into Obasanjo's second term of office, was met with wide condemnation, spontaneous protest marches; and most significantly by general strike action nationwide called by the Nigerian Labour Congress and supported by the splinter Trade Union Congress (TUC), Civil Rights Groups, UAD, the NCP etc.

As the anti-fuel increment indefinite general strike action called by the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), which commenced on June 30 entered its 8th day on July 7; the regime turned very violent. This was particularly the case in Lagos where four protesters were killed by police using live bullets, who shot directly into the midst of demonstrators. Three of the protesters were killed in Akowonjo area and the fourth was shot in the vicinity of the NLC Secretariat in the Yaba district of Lagos.

There were also reported cases of many who sustained gunshot injuries. These Lagos victims joined the previously reported similar cases of shooting of harmless protesters by General Olusegun Obasanjo's Military-Police Machine in the earlier days of the strike. At least eleven people killed were reported nationwide, while the strike lasted.

The violent turn of event in Lagos and other places betrays the desperation of the Obasanjo-led regime; and it came at the point when the NLC had earlier rejected the regime's proposed price of N35 per litre against the unpalatable N32/litre maximum ceiling proposed by the NLC the preceding weekend. Hence, it was not surprising that the striking workers, small businesspeople, unemployed youth, students etc, felt a logical urge to demonstrate their opposition to the latest increment in the pump price from N26 to N40 via street protests in a more determined manner. Reports late in the evening of Day-8 (July 7) of the strike indicated that regime had offered N34 per litre of petrol, an offer the NLC had accepted.

In the light of the foregoing, it is important to analysis the cogent lessons of the general strike as it relates to the course of struggle in the coming period. It is important to keep in view the following: was the increment justifiable in the first instance; did the strike action achieve its aims; what manners of treachery took place, courtesy of the Trade Union leaders who led the strike action; could more "concessions" have been won from the government; what lessons could be learnt that will aid the prosecution of a better strike action in future; and what are the political lessons and the perspective for the immediate future?

Was The Increment Justifiable?

One thing that became obvious during the general strike was the conclusion by a large layer of the populace that the Obasanjo regime does not mean well for the poor in society, with his consistent anti-poor policies. What is particularly revealing and annoying is the fact that the regime's reasons for the increment were far from convincing. The reasons were the same old ones put forward as solution to scarcity of fuel, when the last two increments were made by the Obasanjo regime in June 2000 (from N20 to N30, then later to N22 after the NLC General Strike) and again in January 2002 (N22 to N30).

Incidentally, the same arguments used to justify the removal of the "subsidy" were the very same ones used by the previous military regimes, such that a contributor at an NLC forum in Ilorin, Kwara State, said humorously that if a mental patient who had been out of his mind for the past ten years were to come to his senses and were then asked what are the "new" reasons for the increment, he would be right to recall the reasons given ten years ago, when he was last in a healthy state of mind!

Among such arguments were the following: that the four refineries located at Port Harcourt, Warri and Kaduna were in a deplorable state and were working at less than 30% capacity; that there are high levels of smuggling of petroleum products across the borders to neighbouring countries due to the cheapness of fuel in Nigeria and that the government is spending about N250billion (US$2b) yearly on subsidising the price of fuel for local consumption. Hence, the reason for the increment from N22 to N40, according to the government is to allow enough room for profit margins for the government-licensed importers of petroleum products. That is the language of "liberalisation" and the so-called "market economy": profit at the expense of the essential needs of the people!

The aforementioned reasons were correctly rejected by the workers and the poor layers in society, as the wide participation in and support for the NLC general strike showed. Significantly, the un-unionised workers, including the ones in the so-called new generation banks, joined the action; and even Policemen who interacted with our correspondents expressed their support for the strike. Of course, a major propelling force was the already terrible state of existence of most people in Nigeria. Hunger, joblessness, high rate of inflation, homelessness, etc., are on the order of the day. Hence, the support the strike enjoyed was an inner expression of the feelings of the people against the capitalist order of existence upon which Obasanjo's rule is based.

The Government's Self-indicting Arguments

Moreover, the government's arguments were self-indicting. For one, it shows that the over $800million said to have been spent by the Obasanjo government over the last four years on the repair of the refineries amounted to a naught. In the same vein, the argument of increasing the prices so as to discourage smuggling across the border has no historical justification, as previous increments had shown; and it is an indictment on the government, and its laughable anti-corruption posture, that it is unable to provide security at the borders, in spite of the heavy presence of the Customs and Military personnel. Furthermore, it is the very rich, who the regime obviously knows, that can afford to smuggle large petroleum-filled tankers across the borders, certainly not the poor layers in society. So why should the workers and the ordinary people in society be made to suffer for the failures of the government in this regard?

What is even more shocking is the fact that Nigeria is the eighth largest producer of crude oil in the world, and it also possesses four local refineries with enough capacity for local consumption. Hence, the argument of a fuel price increment to encourage importation makes no sense at all.

What is required is the injection of enough resources to put the refineries in order and place them under the democratic management and control of elected workers' committees. These would also supervise the distribution of petroleum products in conjunction with elected rank and file members of the trade unions and the concerned communities.

The Role Of The World Bank And IMF

However, behind the scenes we have the role of the World Bank and the IMF, who are the main formulators of the government's economic policies. They are the ones who determine the conditions to obtain more loans and debt rescheduling from the external creditors. For the creditors the only way to guarantee the servicing of the estimated $30billion foreign debt is for the government to cut spending on social services massively.

An insight into the creditors' instructions was the reported workshop organised by the World Bank in Lagos three days before the announced increment, where the Bank implored the government to immediately start to implement the seemingly unpalatable recommended economic policies, as (in their thinking) the "Obasanjo regime is enjoying a honeymoon with the Nigerian populace" in the aftermath of the recent victory at the polls. This apparently explains to a large extent the urgency behind the increment. However, unfortunately for the government, this first bitter antidote was so unpalatable that it has signalled the end of the honeymoon! The response of the populace was an 8-day general strike calling for a review of policy and with a rising call on Obasanjo to resign.

Did The Strike Achieve Its Aims?

The NLC nationwide general strike action that was scheduled to commence on Monday, June 30, 2003, was the main resolution of the June 24, 2003 meeting of the NLC National Executive Committee, held in Abuja. In line with the above, the NLC was to mobilise its rank and the rest of the society to resist the latest increment in the pump price of petrol from N26 to N40 - the initial slogan was "not a kobo increment"! However, at end of the 8-day general strike a "compromise" price of N34/litre for petrol, and N32 for both kerosene and diesel was achieved. In other words, the ultimate aim of no increment whatsoever was not achieved. But at the same time, the strike was not defeated. Far from it; the government was indeed humbled by the time the strike had ended.

However, the result could have been far better if the NLC leadership had mobilised much earlier before the government announced the new price regime. In spite of the fact that Obasanjo had never hidden his intention to increase the price of fuel months before the increment, the best that the Labour leaders could come up with was mere lip service against the proposed increment. No conscious campaign via informative posters, leaflets, rallies, etc., was organised to mobilise the workers and the populace before the announced increment. It made it clear to practically everyone that left to the leadership, the strike might not have taken place at all. It was only the massive antagonist mood from below that forced the leaders to call the strike.

We should recall that even before the NEC of the NLC had met to decide on the strike option, there had been pockets of strike action across the country, including student demonstrations, commercial buses and taxi drivers' strike actions, etc. Also worthy of note was the spontaneous protest of commercial cyclists (Okada operators) in Abuja on Monday June 24, 2003, reported to have had the presence of Chief Ojukwu and General Buhari, (the defeated Presidential candidates of APGA and ANPP respectively, at the last April poll).

To this extent, it is obvious that for the leadership of the NLC, including Adams Oshiomhole himself, who is generally seen as an apologist for the Obasanjo government, had almost no other choice but give way to the push from below if they wished to remain relevant and to maintain their credibility. Here we find the mechanisms of the momentum of the 8-day general strike. Unless they put up a pretence of militancy they would have destroyed their own reputation and would no longer have been able to play a significant role.

Leadership's Treachery Exposed

There is a poverty of class analysis on the part of the labour leaders as per the crisis of present day capitalist society. They do not understand the need to reject all proposals whose aim is to transfer the burden of the present capitalist rot onto the shoulders of the workers and the poor. It was wrong on the part of the NLC negotiators to have boxed themselves into the argument of maintaining a marginal price that would still allow room for profit making for the importers of the petroleum products. The final N34/litre compromise that emerged from the negotiations was certainly far from the expectations of the striking workers, and the populace at large. This result further revealed the ideological corruption of the labour leaders who have come to regard the market economy's profit-making drive as the norm, at the expense of providing a socialist ideological focus that would plan the economy according to the needs of the populace.

The most glaring act of treachery came from the leadership of the Trade Union Congress (TUC). This is a union of Nigerian senior staff in major areas of industry. The leadership of this Union is made up mainly of renowned government apologists and careerists. By its social make-up it is closer to the bosses than to the suffering masses of Nigeria. It initially joined the NLC strike not because of its conviction to fight and strengthen the strike, but in order to adulterate the strike and to sabotage it once it was in full swing. Its formation a few years ago was actually to divide the working masses along artificial line of grade level. Therefore their betraying role was foreseen by careful observers long before this latest strike. What was most significant was the wave of denouncements from TUC affiliated unions that greeted their withdrawal from the strike. Many of its affiliated unions condemned the leadership and were more determined to continue to fight on. A sizeable number of these TUC affiliated unions only called off their strike when the NLC called it off. Even the President of the TUC himself did not have the courage to return to his office after the announced strike suspension.

Could better concessions have been won from the Government?

Of course there could. A better deal was not only desirable but it was also very possible. Considering the huge support enjoyed by the NLC, the initial slogan of "no kobo increment" could have been achieved. The NLC leadership was very reluctant to call the strike and throughout the strike did not incite the public against the government. The leadership found it more convenient to accuse the NNPC for the problem rather than the government of the day. Embarrassingly enough, the leadership of the NLC only blamed the Police for the killings that occurred during the strike and warned people not to blame it on the government, promising to report the Police to Obasanjo and assuring us that the government would do something about it! With this kind of "leadership", it was very difficult to get the people to fight in a militant fashion in the early stages of the strike. The militant action only finally emerged on day 8 of the strike. For the first week of the strike the NLC leadership and other human rights activists were calling on the people to stay at home rather than going out to fight. It was only when the anger of the people had reached an unbearable level that the masses came out in a determined manner on the eighth day of the strike This also explains why the NLC leadership hurriedly patched together a compromise with the government. The situation risked going beyond what they had planned for. As many people correctly pointed out, had the NLC maintained the same level of militancy throughout the strike as was shown on day 8, the government might have gone as low as N28 or may even have been forced to back off completely and keep the price at N26.

What lessons can be learnt that will aid the prosecution of better strike action in future?

First and foremost, this latest general strike graphically confirmed the fact that a "stay-at-home" protest is highly ineffective. The masses ought to be encouraged to organise neighbourhood rallies and mass protests as a sign of determination. One day of mass action that occurred on day 8 of the strike proved to be more powerful than all the previous 7 days of the strike added together.

And what are the political lessons and the perspective for the immediate future?

What this latest strike has revealed most significantly is the power and role of the working class. The price hike affects all and sundry, but no other class in society was able to mobilise the people against this callous sword of the capitalist vampires. Every other class just aligned themselves behind the working class. Many political parties have attempted to use this period to mobilise the people for their own populist agendas, but none of them was successful. It was only the working class through its traditional organisation, the NLC that was able to mobilise the masses. For 8 days no one was in doubt that the President of the NLC Adams Oshiomonle was in control. He gave the orders and everybody followed.

Despite the determination of the people and the immense power that momentarily fell into the hands of Oshiomonle, the struggle did not fully achieve its set target. This has highlighted the importance of the leadership in the struggle for emancipation. It is only a leadership that is independent of the ruling class, that is class conscious enough to know its class interests and that understands the science of struggle that can lead the masses to the promised land. In other words, a successful fight against the woes and destruction we are subjected to by the profit-driven, bloodthirsty and highly unproductive ruling class, is not possible unless we are guided by Marxist as Lenin clearly pointed out many times.