Again in Abuja on Tuesday riot police attacked both union activists who were protesting and the journalists who were reporting on the event! Even the president of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), Adams Oshiomole, was tear-gassed! Armed police actually occupied the union headquarters and cordoned it off. About 50 policemen blocked access to the union building to all the workers who were arriving to organise a rally. This kind of behaviour of the police has been repeated throughout the country.
The response of the NLC leadership has been to lodge an official complaint and call on the police to behave in a manner that will not lead to unnecessary provocations and clashes. Oshiomole has called on the Chief of Police to investigate the individual policemen who carried out the shooting and the brutal beatings. This would indicate that Oshiomole believes it is a case of a few "rotten apples" and not a conscious decision taken right at the top.
The truth is that the decision to take these oppressive measures comes from the top. Obasanjo himself directed the Police Inspector General to "beef up" security and arrest anyone who attempts to stop others from working, obviously aimed at picketing activities. The Federal government has also attempted to use the courts to get an injunction against the unions and declare the strike illegal.
A very big stick and a very small carrot
They are applying the tactics of the "stick and carrot" - a very big stick and a very small, almost invisible carrot! On the one hand they clamp down very heavily on striking workers, and on the other they throw a small bone to the union leaders hoping they will bite. They have offered to reduce the increase in price of fuel. As we pointed out in our previous articles this still amounts to a massive increase for ordinary working people.
What is emerging from the last few days' strike action in Nigeria is the stark contrast between the immense willingness to struggle on the part of the Nigerian workers and the complete inadequacy of their leadership in the NLC.
Civil servants, hospital workers, bank workers and employees in large companies have followed the call to strike massively. Transport workers have also been out in large numbers. Even what would not normally be classed as trade union members have been involved, such as the market women, traders, artisans and small shopkeepers. The strike has begun to affect most airlines as well. At the Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos international arrivals were allowed to land, but due to lack of staff there were no departures; and those passengers who managed to land were subsequently blocked at the airport because there was no local transportation available. The strike has also started to affect the Nigerian Ports Authority, which has been losing 200 million naira a day as a result of the closure of the ports.
Union leaders prepared to climb down
While the workers have been showing a determination to see the struggle through to the end, the national union leaders have been sending out contradictory messages. First they said that they would not call off the strike unless the government brought the price of fuel back to its previous 26 naira level. Then they started sending out signals that they would be prepared to accept some halfway compromise.
On the second day of the strike they were meeting with the government and set up a committee to look into the question. At the beginning of this process the government was sticking to its initial position and was not prepared to budge, saying that they could no longer afford the state subsidy of oil. This forced the union leaders to declare that the strike would go on.
Then rumours began to be spread that the new price of petrol might be pegged at 35 naira. The response of the union leaders was to insist on a price of 28 naira. Thus they were already backtracking on their previous declarations.
Oil workers starting to come out
Meanwhile the strike has been spreading further. Yesterday the oil workers joined the strike in the Niger Delta, where most of Nigeria's oilfields are to be found. When the oil workers join a strike in Nigeria it is serious business. The bulk of Nigeria's exports and revenues come from the oil industry. Thus a paralysis of this sector would hit the government hard. The oil workers' unions have now given the government a deadline. One union has given today as the deadline, another, PENGASSAN (Petroleum Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria) has given the government until Sunday to rescind its fuel price hike. Some oil companies are predicting they will be facing problems by this Sunday if the strikes are not called off.
This means both the government and the NLC leaders will be looking to some compromise solution as they are both terrified of the possible consequences of such a widespread strike involving key sectors of the economy. That explains why the Vice President of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar, has taken charge of the negotiations directly. It is an indication of how seriously the government is taking the threat of the strike spreading to the whole of the oil industry.
Last night Oshiomole, standing next to Abubakar outside his house, talked to journalists and said that a lot of "progress" had been made. He added, "I believe we will finish by tomorrow. Between this morning and now, we have made more progress than we have made since last Monday. We can rap up by tomorrow." Already by Wednesday evening the NLC leaders had said they would be prepared to accept an increase to 30 naira, but the government was insisting on 38 naira. Last night the "gap had narrowed".
Thus what will the final price be? 32 naira? 34 naira? We will soon know. The end result will be a big increase in the price of fuel. Ordinary Nigerians, the workers, the poor, will suffer even more. The increase in the price of fuel is not just going to affect petrol, but also kerosene, widely used for cooking. It also come on top of rising costs of basic foods and a general increase in the level of inflation, which already stands at around 10%. For example, the price of a bag of rice increased by 11.3% in the first quarter of this year.
Further aggravating the situation is the expected sharp fall in the price of oil internationally. It is expected to fall to between US$16 and US$18 per barrel by the end of the year and into 2004. The government had had a moment of respite with the war in Iraq, when the price of oil shot over the US$30 mark. Its budget had been based on a price of US$22 per barrel. Now that the price is going to come down it will be under even greater pressure to eliminate subsidies completely.
Poor masses will pay once more
Thus if any compromise is reached today (or over the next few days) it will simply be part of a steady increase in the price of fuel. The general strike in June 2000 that was sparked off by Obasanjo's attempt to bring the price of fuel up from 20 naira to 30 naira ended in a compromise that was seen largely as a victory by the workers, because they managed to force it back down to 22 naira. Since then it has crept up to 26 naira. Now it will be well over 30 naira. The government is not going to stop. If this time it doesn't get the 40 naira it wanted, it will play for time, with the help of the NLC leaders, and come back again for more at a later stage.
How long are the Nigerian workers expected to tolerate these manoeuvres? For them it is a question of slipping steadily into a pit of dire poverty. These trade union leaders do not represent their members. They are the lieutenants of the bosses inside the labour movement. Without the NLC leaders Obasanjo would not survive five minutes!
What is needed in Nigeria today is not to sit around the table with the government discussing by how much to increase the price of fuel. The oil workers are starting to come out. Now is the time to spread the strike and make it rock solid in every sector. That is the only language the bosses understand. Hit them in their pockets! If you don't do that then at the end of the day it will be the workers that pay.
Need to change the leadership
The time has come to raise a campaign inside the Nigerian unions for a change of leadership at all levels. If the present leaders are not prepared to do their job properly they should stand aside and genuine fighting leaders should be elected in their place, leaders that will stand firm.
This fight has to be combined with the struggle to give the workers of Nigeria a political voice, their own party, a party based on the programme of socialism. Under capitalism we will see more and more attacks on the workers. They will squeeze every last drop of blood sweat and tears out of the Nigerian masses to pay the interest on the debts to the imperialists. The only solution is to break the power of the multinationals and their local hangers-on.
The general strike which has been developing this week has shown once again that the workers of Nigeria are prepared to struggle. They have no other alternative, but they are lions led by donkeys. The task is to patiently explain this to the masses and build up the forces of genuine Marxism among the workers and youth of Nigeria and prepare to remove these rotten leaders and replace them with a revolutionary leadership. There is no other way.