After the latest betrayal - Time to change the leadership of the Nigerian trade unions

Last week's general strike in Nigeria revealed the enormous power of the working class. Unfortunately, once again they have been betrayed by their leaders. The government has got away with a 30% increase in the price of fuel! It is time to build the left in the unions and a mass workers' party.

After a one-week general strike the leaders of the Nigerian trade unions have called it off. And for what? The government had increased the price of petrol from 26 naira to 40 naira. Initially the trade unions has said they would stand firm, the government had to bring the price down to 26 naira. Then the negotiations started and the agreed price was 34 naira. That is a 30% increase! The workers and poor people of Nigeria had shown a bitter determination to continue the strike, but they have been terribly betrayed by their so-called leaders.

In the two previous article we wrote about last week's general strike we pointed out how the NLC leaders would behave. Unfortunately, we have been proven right. This means there will be further suffering for the Nigerian masses. How can they afford such a price hike? Their daily lives will become even more miserable as a consequence of this rotten deal. It is clear that this situation is unacceptable. Something must change in the trade unions. But before we look at how this can be done, let us look at the dynamics of the past week.

Massive support for the strike

When the general strike was called there was massive backing from the workers. Not only the organised workers got involved, but also many traditionally unionised sectors joined in. The youth, many of whom are unemployed, enthusiastically backed the strike and took part in the picketing and roadblocks. The strike was becoming a major standoff between the working class and the Obasanjo regime and his capitalist backers, both inside and outside Nigeria.

Many sectors were involved. In the manufacturing sector all the main firms were completely shut down. Such conglomerates as Nigerian Breweries, Guinness Nigeria, Cadbury Nigeria, the Nigerian Bottling Company, were all affected. The top 13 claim to have lost 11 billion naira in sales. A lot of companies in the petroleum industry, such as Unipetrol, African Petroleum and Mobil, were also affected as their stock values fell sharply. Stock market performance indicators on the Nigerian Stock Exchange hit a record decline last week as the strike unfolded. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) has ten ships (oil tankers) that were all blocked during the strike. Other ships belonging to other companies were also blocked. Overall these vessels would have lost around US$5.5 million.

We can see that the strike was beginning to bite seriously into the profits of the Nigerian and foreign capitalists. The key element that contributed to the climbdown by the NLC leaders is the fact that the strike was beginning to spread further. The oil workers had not initially taken part in the strike, but as the situation became more tense oil workers in the Delta region were coming out. The leaders of the two main oil workers unions, NUPENG and PENGASSAN, had given the government ultimatums. If the government did not bring down the price of fuel they were threatening to bring out the full force of the oil workers.

The despicable role of the TUC

No doubt the NLC leaders will plead that they did not have the full support of all the trade unions. The NLC mainly organises industrial and manual workers. There is another trade union confederation, the TUC, which organises mainly the white collar and senior layers. Over the weekend the leader of the TUC, Shina Luwoye, called on his members to return to work. This affects in particular the oil workers, where the white-collar section is organised by PENGASSAN (Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria) and the more manual sectors are organised by NUPENG (National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers). NUPENG is affiliated to the NLC while PENGASSAN is affiliated to the TUC. Thus the call from the TUC would have an immediate impact on PENGASSAN. At midnight Sunday, July 6, PENGASSAN was to act on its ultimatum to the government by calling out its members. Such a step would have brought immense pressure to bear on the government. Thus we can understand why the TUC leaders decided to call of their action. This was a deliberate manoeuvre to split the oil workers, where the NUPENG members had already come out on strike.

The first reaction of the NLC leaders was to say that the strike would continue with or without the TUC. The TUC has a certain weight in the Nigerian labour movement. It is made up of 24 associations of senior staff of both state owned and private companies. It has affiliates in sectors such as the oil industry, banking, insurance, food and beverages, textiles, iron and steels and many others. In all these sectors there is a division between so-called senior staff (in the TUC affiliates) and junior staff (in the NLC affiliates).

But very shortly afterwards the NLC leaders also backed down. On Monday, yesterday, they called off the strike, accepting a fuel price of 34 Naira per litre. As we said, they will undoubtedly try and cover their backsides by putting the blame for the "weakness" of the movement on the shoulders of the TUC leaders.

Behaviour of NLC leaders was the key

It is clear that the TUC leaders played a despicable role in this strike, but the NLC leaders really have to take the main responsibility for what has happened. Throughout the strike they said one thing and did another. They said they would stand firm on the 26 naira price and then almost immediately (on the second day) started saying they would accept 26 naira, then 30 naira. This showed that they were not really determined to carry through the struggle to an end. At the end the standoff between the government and the NLC was no longer between the 40 naira and 26 naira levels, but between 33 and 35 and at one point the difference had become half a naira, or 50 kobos! The TUC leaders played on this saying that it was unjustified to keep the masses "suffering" for a mere 50 kobos!

The behaviour of the NLC leaders is really what determined the final outcome. They cannot hide this fact.

They can sue the excuse of the TUC but if we look more closely at the situation we can see that the struggle could have gone much further. Upon hearing the TUC leaders' call for an end to the strike, eight of the TUC affiliates pulled out of the confederation denouncing the "betrayal" of the leaders. Among these were the following sectors: Air Transport, Electricity, Statutory Corporations, Construction Workers, Chemical and Non-Metallic, Iron and Steel, Bank and Insurance Workers.

As we can see, these are important industrial and financial sectors. The NLC leaders could have used this division in the TUC to call on TUC members to stay out and continue the struggle. On Monday Oshiomole was saying that the latest government offer of 34 naira was unacceptable. He said, "We are desirous to have the matter ironed out in a win-win formula…"

Police brutality

At that point it seemed that there was deadlock in the standoff between the government and the unions. That is what sparked off the major clashes that took place over the weekend in Nigeria. In Lagos hundreds of young people took to the streets to vent their anger against the government. They said that the government was showing callous indifference to the plight of the poor. The demonstrations built up into a massive movement and lasted for eight hours.

The police intervened brutally against the demonstrators, firing tear-gas indiscriminately into the crowds and in several parts of Nigeria using live ammunition! As a result 12 demonstrators were killed. In the Yaba area of Lagos a rally was scheduled where the National President (Gani Fawehinmi, known for his stance on human rights) of the National Conscience Party (NCP), a radical opposition party, was to speak. The police were determined not to allow the rally to go ahead.

The call of the TUC had added to the confusion. Responding to their call to end the strike some drivers of commercial vehicles had begun to resume work. But the masses were of the idea that the strike should continue and many of the people of Lagos came out onto the streets to make sure there was no return to work.

"Nigeria is not Obasanjo's property"

In reaction to the killings many youth stepped up their protests. In the area of Akowonjo where three people were killed roadblocks were set up with bonfires being lit. In Dopemu, where another demonstrator was killed, the chants of the people on the street reflected the real mood of the Nigerian masses: "How many people Obasanjo and the police go kill. Dey go kill us until they are tired. Nigerians will not pay N35 for petrol. Nigeria is not Obasanjo's property."

Obasanjo may have won the recent elections through blatant fraud and ballot rigging, but the real relationship between his government and the people of Nigeria was seen on the streets of Nigeria over the past week. He has no real support among the masses. People can now see that beneath the very thin democratic veneer is the same old military dictator. "Democracy" was meant to bring the right to demonstrate and express one's opinions without the risk of being fired on. many workers and youth will be drawing radical conclusions from the events of the past few days. They have seen once again what power the working class has once it mobilises. They know they could have achieved far more and will be looking for a way out of this impasse.

What is keeping Obasanjo afloat is the leadership of the trade unions. The leaders of the NLC and TUC together have once again let Obasanjo off the hook. If they has stood firm no one could have stopped the masses of Nigeria. They could have brought the whole corrupt elite around Obasanjo tumbling down.

The question of questions is: what can take the place of this rotten regime? The other opposition parties in the Nigerian parliament are no better than Obasanjo. They merely represent different wings of the same ruling class.

Only a party based on the working class can really offer a serious alternative to the Nigerian masses. Thus what is now necessary in the Nigerian labour movement is to draw up a balance sheet of the past few years. We have had three general strikes and the price of fuel has jumped from 20 naira to 34 naira in three years. That is an increase of 70%. And it will not end there. The government will come back for more and more. What are the poor masses expected to do? Go on strike again when Obasanjo announces a price of 50 naira and then settle for 40 or 42? Clearly this must stop.

Build an opposition inside the unions

The first thing that needs to be done is to start organising the workers in the ranks of the unions. Shop stewards should start to co-ordinate the individual factory shop stewards' committees into local co-ordinating committees. These should then be organised at city, state and finally at federal level. This body should work towards changing the trade unions and making sure the wishes of the rank and file workers are respected. If we go into another strike like the one that has just ended, such a body could become an instrument for taking decisions from the bottom upwards. It could put a stop to the antics of the TUC and NLC leaders and force them to abide by the decisions of the workers. A channel through which the workers can express themselves must be built. In some areas industrial councils already exist. These must be expanded and built upon.

This does not mean a break with the NLC and TUC. On the contrary it means going into these organisations and making sure the will of the workers is imposed there. To assure this happens it is also necessary to build a left opposition in the NLC and TUC. Starting from the ranks an opposition should be organised with the aim of getting genuine working class fighters elected to leading positions in the unions. By doing this systematically at all levels eventually the workers would get the leadership they deserve.

Such a campaign should put forward some basic demands. These would include demands about working hours and conditions, about wage levels, the minimum wage, etc. But they should also include demands for the democratisation of the unions. Democratic elections should be guaranteed at all levels. All officials should be elected by the workers they are to represent. There should be the right of recall. If a leader or an official does not carry out the wishes of the workers who elected him or her, then they should be removed and replaced by someone who genuinely defends the workers.

Added to this we must insist on the demand that these trade union leaders and officials should not get a wage higher than that of the workers they represent. If they lived like the workers then they would have to think twice before accepting such rotten deals as the recent one on fuel prices. Where do Oshiomole and Luwoye live? We know it is not in the slums of Lagos or Abuja. Why should this be? They should live like the workers. If such a rule were introduced then we can be sure that the careerists and bureaucrats would be kept away from the leading positions in the unions. Only genuine fighters would come forward to be elected.

For a workers' party

There should also be a campaign to put an end to the formal divisions embodied in the very existence of the TUC and NLC. As we saw in this strike, the tendency towards unity was there in the rebellion inside the TUC. This divisions is maintained precisely as a reserve weapon to break the unity of the workers in key moments. This must not be allowed to happen again. One union federation for all the workers, under the control of the workers themselves!

However, even this would not be enough. As we have seen the workers could have brought down the whole regime last week. But the workers lack their own political voice. Therefore at the same time as fighting for the democratisation of the unions, a campaign must be raised for the unions to organise a party of the working class. Such a party has enormous potential in Nigeria. Hundreds of thousands and millions of workers and poor would flock to such a party. The conditions are there. It is a matter of merely organising it.

Thus all serious thinking workers and youth in Nigeria will be asking themselves where do we go from here. The inadequate leadership of the unions is a fact. It is an objective obstacle on the road of the working class. It must be changed. That is the urgent task today.

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