Nigeria has once again witnessed a massive show of anger as the entire country stopped when the latest general strike started on October 11. As on the four previous occasions this vast protest was provoked by another jump in fuel prices, the ninth since military rule ended in May 1999.
The fuel price has a direct impact on the masses’ living standards in Nigeria. Not only is fuel used to transport people and goods, kerosene is used in almost every Nigerian household to do the cooking and often to generate electricity. But most Nigerians do not see why they, living as they do in an oil-producing country, have to pay more for fuel when the world price goes up but the cost of oil production has not. Therefore every threat to increase the price of fuel has understandably led to outrage and anger amongst the Nigerian working class, poor masses and the middle class.
25% price rise
This four day stoppage has been called as part of a struggle to reversal the latest 25%, rise in fuel prices as the Nigerian government tries to carry forward its neo-liberal policies.
This new increase was imposed towards the end of September, less than 48 hours after the Nigerian Federal High Court decided that the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC - the main trade union federation) was not entitled to call strikes. Immediately the state owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNCP) jacked up fuel prices by 33%. In 2002 the price for one litre of petrol was 22 Naira, within days of the court ruling prices went up from 43 Naira to 53 Naira per litre. Kerosene rose to 60 Naira a litre.
These increases are a bitter blow against the population, over 70% of population live on less than $1 a day and whose life average expectancy is 47 years and 49 years respectively for men and women.
Fifth general strike
Historically every attempt to increase oil prices has shown the willingness of the Nigerian masses to struggle. In recent years this has been demonstrated in the massively supported general strikes and protests against previous fuel price hikes in June 2000, January 2002, June/July 2003 and June 2004, plus the suspended general strikes of October 2003 and February 2004.
The anger is not just that the price rise increases the costs of travel, goods and cooking. There is tremendous bitterness against the elite who are correctly seen as looting the country’s wealth, especially its oil.
Officially, one reason for the increase is that Nigeria, currently OPEC’s third largest oil exporter, imports refined oil and therefore has to pay the high world prices. But the only reason why this is the case is because the elite have ensured that Nigeria’s oil refineries are not capable of meeting local demand as a result of corruption limiting their output. This allows oil marketers to profit from the repeated oil shortages. Additionally it is estimated that annually crude oil worth between $2 and $3 billion is stolen and exported by corrupt elements in the state machine and by criminal gangs.
Even so the government could, if it so wished, continue to subsidise the retail price of fuel from its increased revenue from crude exports. In this year’s budget the income from a barrel of crude oil was based on an estimate of $25.00 market price, with the current high world oil prices it is calculated that the extra income is something in the region of $4.7 billion. However the Obasanjo regime, anxious not to alienate imperialism and its agencies like the IMF or move against its domestic partners in crime, attacks the living standards of the mass of Nigerians. As the Financial Times in London commented "the International Monetary Fund and western governments are enthusiastic about the programme" (12 October 2004).
Disillusion with civilian leaders
The anger behind this strike is not just rising prices. It is the severe disillusionment with the results of the rule of President Obasanjo and other capitalist politicians since the restoration of civilian rule in 1999. Apart from a booming mobile phone market and high oil prices the country’s economy has stagnated, while the elite have continued to loot and thoroughly rigged the 2003 elections to ensure they stayed in power.
The contempt with which the ruling elite view the masses was shown only last week when the Federal High Court ruled that it was legal for both the Foreign and Finance Ministers to be paid in US dollars rather than the Nigerian currency. Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala gets $247,000 a year, one of the highest paid ministers in the world, and she made clear last year that a dollar salary was a condition of her leaving her position as a World Bank vice-president and returning to Nigeria.
Labour movement is main opposition
This is the fifth general strike since June 2000 and each was solid, followed not only by Nigerian workers but also by small shopkeepers, market women etc, with the support of almost the entire population. As the Financial Times commented the trade unions have now become "the country’s most high-profile opposition movement".
This is the reason why the Nigerian government has been preparing to act against the trade unions. On the one hand it is trying to pass a new law that it hopes to break up both the NLC and individual unions. Simultaneously it wanted to use the Federal High Court decision to intimidate the NLC leaders from calling further action.
But the blatant way in which the High Court decision was used to raise fuel by 25% simply enraged the masses.
This struggle has now become a test by the government and its imperialist backers to see how far they can go in dismantling workers’ and trade union rights in Nigeria. The Obasanjo government is testing the water to see how far it can go in using repression to intimidate both workers’ leaders and the trade unions in general.
Two days before the general strike was due to commence State Security Service agents physically assaulted and then seized the NLC President, Adams Oshiomhole, as he was about to board an internal flight. He was then held overnight for no reason. Then on the first day of the strike police raided the NLC headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital, and even tried to prevent Oshiomhole leaving for negotiations with President Obasanjo. In other cities such as Awka and Kaduna police arrested labour leaders. However these tactics have only served to increase workers’ anger.
Since 2000 previous general strikes only won, at best, partial victories. Generally the fuel price has continued to rise.
Before last June’s general strike NLC President, Adams Oshiomhole, gave an interview to the Vanguard (June 3) in which he accurately described what had happened during previous anti-fuel price struggles:
"Congress, he said, would not make the mistakes of the past in the execution of next week’s strike in view of the past deceitful manner in which the present government had dealt with the NLC each time it called similar strikes…We now know that they may wait till the last minute before they will call us to a discussion where they might make undertaking that they may not implement, we want to assure the Nigerian people that errors of the past will not be repeated."
But, despite these words, unfortunately last June the NLC leaders made another rotten deal. Just before this strike Oshiomhole gave a similar interview to another Lagos newspaper, PM News, and said "We have learnt our lessons from previous nationwide strikes and this time around, we will ensure that all our goals are achieved before we call off the strike," (September 29).
Socialists’ key role
The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM, Nigerian section of the CWI) has consistently argued that unless the militant words of the NLC leaders are translated into deeds that there will be no escape for the Nigerian masses.
A successful struggle depends upon mass action and involvement. The DSM has called and worked for a real mobilisation for the struggle especially by the creation of joint strike/action committees in the workplaces and communities. These, it argues, should develop into the focal points organising both the struggle and the means for the masses to sustain themselves in a longer struggle.
The DSM has played a prominent role in the organisation of the struggle in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city of over 12 million people, and elsewhere. Its members play leading roles in the both the Labour Civil Society Coalition (LASCO - the joint body of unions, political and social organisations initiated by the NLC) and the National Conscience Party.
Segun Sango, the DSM General Secretary, has been a main speaker at LASCO rallies, appeared many times on television and was part of the NLC/LASCO delegation that met the Governors’ Forum (the representatives of the Governors of Nigeria’s federal states) three days before the strike. In these talks Segun Sango insisted that the strike must go ahead unless there was an immediate full withdrawal of the price increase.
The DSM’s activities are fundamentally based on the struggle on the ground, in the workplaces, communities and universities. In many communities DSM members have been organising meetings to build support for the struggle and to initiative strike/action committees. 5,000 copies of a special edition of the DSM’s paper, Socialist Democracy, sold out in Lagos within four days of publication and had to be been reprinted. (The text is on the DSM’s website www.socialistnigeria.org). By the end of the first day of the strike the DSM had completely sold out of all its material, including selling copies of previous issues of its publications.
The NLC plans to give the government another 14 day ultimatum if it does not back down on fuel prices by the end of this stoppage. The DSM has argued that, if the government does not retreat, this four day strike must be seen as a preparation for the next stage in the struggle. Already this general strike has shown that the vast majority of Nigerians stand fully behind the labour movement’s resistance to fuel hikes and the government’s isolation. Activists must use a two week ultimatum to build support for further strike action in the workplaces and communities, involve more people in activity and also to explain the reasons for the continual fuel price hikes and the country’s general crisis.
Socialism or collapse
The DSM argues for a bold policy to force the government to retreat, but at the same time works to help working people draw general conclusions from the chronic and worsening situation they face. It explains that a longer general strike would pose the question of who runs the country, a small corrupt elite or the working masses.
There is in Nigeria the urgent necessity to build a mass movement capable of changing society, ending the grip of imperialism and capitalism over Nigeria. Unless this is done the country will never develop and indeed will continue to go backwards. Just before the strike began, an official report stated that nearly 54,000 people died in clashes in Plateau State between September 2001 and May 2004. This is a terrible reminder that, unless the labour movement shows a way out, the desperate struggle for survival can lead to bloody warfare between different ethnic, tribal and religious groups fighting over scarce resources.
This is why the DSM calls both for a fighting strategy to win the battle against the fuel price hike and simultaneous argues, as the last Socialist Democracy explains, for "the formation of a genuine working peoples’ party with rounded socialist programmes. The most correct and scientific lesson that can be drawn from the general strikes and protests in reaction to the policy of incessant hike in the fuel price is that the ultimate goal of the struggle should be the overthrow of capitalism represented by Obasanjo, the PDP and other pro-capitalist parties and its replacement by a workers and peasant government."
Only in this way could a start be made in planning the use of Nigeria’s vast resources in the interests of peoples’ needs not private profit and beginning the construction of a socialist Nigeria.