Once again a general strike in Nigeria - The tasks posed before the leaders of the Nigerian labour movement

Tomorrow, Thursday, October 9, an indefinite general strike is scheduled to start in Nigeria. The reason for the announced strike is another increase in the price of fuel, which follows on from last June's increase which provoked an 8-day general strike. The country is now bracing itself for a major confrontation between the classes. What is being prepared is a colossal clash between the mass of working people and the privileged few who sit at the top.

Tomorrow, Thursday, October 9, an indefinite general strike is scheduled to start in Nigeria. This has already had an impact on the price of crude oil worldwide. Brent North Sea rose by 25 cents to $28.96 per barrel.

The reason for the announced strike is another increase in the price of fuel. Back in June the government increased the price of petrol from 26 naira to 40. This provoked an 8-day general strike which forced the government to accept a 34 naira compromise. It was a bitter strike with several people losing their lives when the police shot into crowds of demonstrating workers in different parts of the country.

As we have pointed out many times the push to increase the price of fuel is relentless. Now people are having to pay between 39.5 and 41 naira per litre. The government wishes to remove all subsidies and redirect resources to paying back money to the IMF, World Bank and the Western banking system in general. This means that de facto the workers and poor in general of Nigeria are paying to keep the rich rich!

The latest manoeuvre of the government is to effect so-called “total de-regulation”. In this way it can blame the oil marketers for the increase. The government claims it has no say in the fresh price hike and blames everything on the marketers. But this fools no one. Everyone in Nigeria knows that Obasanjo is behind the increase. In reality what Obasanjo is doing is tantamount to a declaration of total war on the working people of Nigeria. He wants to crush them into the ground and squeeze every last kobo and naira out of them.

The country is now bracing itself for a major confrontation between the classes. What is being prepared is a colossal clash between the mass of working people and the privileged few who sit at the top.

Support for NLC call growing

The Trade Unions have come under enormous pressure. They managed to reach a “compromise” back in July, but this latest action of the government is an open provocation. The masses are now lining up behind the NLC (Nigerian Labour Congress) leaders and they are pushing them further than would wish to go. But they have no choice. Room for manoeuvre is wearing thin.

Oshiomole, the President of the NLC appealed over the weekend for people to go to the banks “withdraw money and stock food in their houses because we expect a prolonged strike.” The NLC is demanding an immediate reversal of the prices to the previous levels of N34 for petrol and N32 for kerosene and diesel.

The government has for now maintained a hard-line position and is not budging. The people can sense that it is going to be a bitter battle and have taken note of the NLC’s advice. They have gone to the banks and have been to the markets buying up stockpiles of food. The fuel stations have also witnessed long queues of drivers filling up their tanks.

This is happening while more and more sections of the working class have been expressing their support for the NLC call and have declared their intention to fully participate in the strike. This is particularly the case with the nurses, the local government workers and maritime workers. The Secretary of the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives (NANNM) has ordered nurses and midwives to stop admitting new patients and to discharge those on sick beds.The teachers are also preparing to take part in the strike as are the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW). This is a key union as the overwhelming bulk of goods and passengers in Nigeria travel by truck and bus. The students are also preparing to back the workers. For instance the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) Zone B have announced their intention to bring the campuses to a standstill.

Police preparing

How bitter the situation is becoming can be seen by the behaviour of the police. Last time, as we have explained, they opened fire killing several demonstrators. A repeat of such behaviour can lead to a very dangerous situation for the bosses. It could lead to an uncontrollable situation. Thus the police have been warned not to repeat this. The Inspector General of Police (IGP) is apparently “more for dialogue”. He has ordered police officers not to shoot or use tear- gas. However, he also added that the police would use any “legitimate” means to stop any disorder or threat to lives or property. "It would be wrong to, for instance, say that in the name of protest you go and obstruct movement of people on the highway. Allow those who want to move to move without hindrance," he said. Thus behind the pretence of “dialogue” and moderation we have the threat to use any measures deemed necessary.

The NLC leaders have warned the police against “any act of provocation and high-handedness in the forthcoming national strike and mass protests”. If this goes unheeded then, “Congress reserves the right to expand the nature and frontiers of its demands.”

In spite of these warnings, the government and the police are quite clearly preparing to use harsh measures. The NLC leaders have stated that they have reliable information that would indicate that the government is preparing to clamp down on trade union leaders right across the country. There are rumours that security men have been trailing some of the labour leaders. Apparently the plan would include mass arrests of trade unionists, including the NLC President himself, Adams Oshiomhole. If such plans went ahead it would inflame the situation even further.

While coming out with very radical sounding speeches the union leaders have also been trying to limit the scope of the strike. They have tried to open negotiations with the government hoping for some kind of dialogue. But these are naïve illusions. The government has the pressure of world capitalism on its back. It is being pushed inexorably to abide by the wishes of its masters. It cannot turn back.

The union leaders have even attempted to get some of the state institutions to put pressure on Obasanjo. Typical of this behaviour is one of their recent statements: "The NLC uses this medium to commend the House of Representatives for the patriotic and bold decision it took against these arbitrary fuel prices and calls on it to press on demands for a reversal of the new prices. We also ask the Senate to join hands with the House of Representatives and Nigerians to check this reckless step of the President Olusegun Obasanjo government.”

Instead of putting pressure on Obasanjo, the Senate thought it better to apply pressure to the NLC! The Senate President, Senator Adolphus Wabara, appealed to the leaders of the NLC to shelve their plans for a general strike.

Lessons of the past

The situation has a logic of its own. On the one side we have the relentless pressure of imperialism, and their local lackeys, and on the other we have the masses, 80% of whom live in poverty, who have reached the limits of what they can endure. No compromise is possible in this situation.

Instead of wasting time in these naïve attempts to get the regime to “come to its senses” the energies of the NLC should be dedicated to mobilising the full power of the Nigerian working class. In the last general strike the union movement unfortunately did not move as one. The oil workers joined the strike at the last minute. In fact it was that that pushed union leaders and the regime to reach a last minute compromise. They feared the effects of a prolonged strike of the oil workers. They seem to have not learnt the lesson. On Monday, the leader NUPENG, one of the oil unions, announced that they were giving the government a week to clarify its deregulation policy. This would mean waiting until four days after tomorrow’s announced strike! The oil workers unions had in fact stated that they would "phase in" their participation in the strike. Many workers will see this as merely wasting time. The oil workers should come out with the rest of the working class. This time, in spite of whatever the leaders may say, the pressure for the oil workers to come out is immense and they may not be able to wait for so long.

Some important lessons have to be learnt from this situation. There have been several general strikes in Nigeria over the past four years. Each time we have witnessed the immense power of the working class. But unfortunately each time the full force of the workers has not been brought to bear on the government. This has meant each time the government has managed to get away with an increase in the price of fuel. A particularly important lesson has to be drawn from the last general strike. It was on the last day of that strike that the movement really began to become generalised. The oil workers were coming out and the people were no longer staying at home, they were coming out on to the streets. It was this imposing force that obliged the government to reach some form of compromise. Therefore surely this time round the union leaders should understand that all section should be brought out tomorrow. In fact in the logic of the present situation we can expect pressure from below to force a generalisation of the struggle. Already the NLC has been forced to appeal beyond the borders of its traditional workplace based structures. They have been appealing to the market women and the people in general.

The behaviour of the police is another important warning. The ruling class have nothing to offer the working masses but more price increases, more shortages, hunger and joblessness. There is no room for compromise. The only kind of compromise that can be achieved will be temporary, like the one in July. Here we are just three months after that “compromise” and the price of fuel is up again. It will continue to rise. Even the leaders of the NLC have warned that if total deregulation goes ahead the price could reach 200 naira a litre. How could any ordinary Nigerian survive if this were allowed to happen?

The problem is that the whole system is rotten. It is not about the individual quirks of Obasanjo. Remove Obasanjo and replace him with another puppet of the bosses and we will have the same policies again. It is the system that must be removed. Nigeria is a potentially rich country. It has huge oil reserves. The money from these reserves could be used to guarantee the working people of Nigeria a decent standard of living. There is no reason why this could not be. Nigeria pays out billions of dollars in servicing the over US$30bn foreign debt. That debt should be cancelled. Industry should be run by the workers themselves. But for this to happen we need the workers of Nigeria in power. They must have direct control over the country’s resources.

A fighting programme

This means we have to be totally opposed to any form of privatisation. Instead we have the absurd situation where the leader of the NLC is actually actively collaborating with the government in getting its proposed plan to privatise all the state-run industries. No, that is not the way. We must stop any further privatisations. We must demand the taking back of what has already been privatised and we must call for the nationalisation of the major private corporations.

But we must go further than that. It is not enough for these industries to be nationalised. The present state-run industries are not run in the interests of the workers. For years the generals have enriched themselves through their control of the state and through that of the oil industry. Nationalisation without workers’ control and management would not solve our problems.

For all this to be implemented the workers need their own party. It is the duty of the NLC to promote such a party. If the NLC leaders are serious about their opposition to this regime then they should prove it by providing the workers with a party of their own.

One of the consequences of the present situation is an opening up of divisions among the bourgeois. Some are distancing themselves from Obasanjo. Some will undoubtedly try and portray themselves as alternatives to Obasanjo. We can have no trust in these people. They all belong to the same class.

The workers of Nigeria will put to the test every political force in this situation. Eventually they will draw the conclusion that they can trust none of the bosses’ parties. They will want their own. That is now the urgent task in Nigeria today. Unless this is accomplished, sooner or later the present militant mood can be transformed into its opposite. Disillusion can set in. In the past once that has happened the Nigerian ruling class have had no doubts about the measures to be used, the naked fist of the military. Already the rumours about the police preparing to arrest trade union leaders is a taste of what could come in the future. For now it is most likely a measure to warn the trade union leaders and get them “to behave” but in the future the threat could be a more serious one.

The other nightmare scenario is that of intensified ethnic conflict. When the workers are moving forward, as they are doing now, the ethnic question recedes to the background. The workers of all ethnic groups come together in a united struggle against the common class enemy. The labour movement has an opportunity to cut across the national, tribal, linguistic and religious divides. But if the labour movement fails in its historical tasks then the situation can turn ugly.

This general strike is of enormous historical importance for the workers and the people of Nigeria in general. It is a further step in the revolutionary awakening of the Nigerian masses. The next few days will put to the test the leaders of the Nigerian labour movement.

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