The latest general strike in Nigeria ended when, on 23 June, the trade union leaders accepted a government offer that granted most, but not all, of their demands.
This four day stoppage was the most widespread and complete of the eight general strikes or mass protests that Nigeria has seen over the last seven years. The entire country stopped. Not just the organised workers, but wide sections of the working population, including artisans and the self-employed, joined in the protest.
The strike’s strength was not simply because of the huge popular anger that outgoing president Obasanjo increased the price of fuel by over 15% and doubled Value Added Tax (VAT) to 10%, just before his term of office ended. It also was due to a realisation that nothing had changed when Yar’Adua, the new president, came to power. Yar’ Adua simply defended the price and tax increases, despite not having even hinted at them in his presidential election campaign. But many workers expected little from Yar’Adua. Last April’s elections, which he "won", were blatantly rigged as Obasanjo ensured that his chosen successor was wheeled into office.
For four days the Nigerian working class, once again, gave a lead and the mass of the country followed it. The strike’s success was a marvellous demonstration of the power of working people. The government’s isolation was clear; it had no significant forces supporting it, hence its retreat.
But, at the same time, this was another lost opportunity to fundamentally change Nigeria. This mighty mass movement posed the question, "Who runs Nigeria?" The labour movement stopped the country; it demonstrated that the rotten elite can do nothing on their own, except steal. With a clear socialist programme and a concrete plan of action, the way to breaking with capitalism could have been mapped out. But now, as this was not done, it is clear as night follows day that, sooner or later, the government will return to the offensive against the working class. This is because Nigeria’s crisis is rooted in the capitalist system that, despite its oil wealth, cannot develop the country or even maintain existing living standards.
However, the leaders of the workers’ movement in Nigeria do not want to challenge the capitalist system. This strike was not called to lead to a "system change", in reality it was not really properly prepared and its success was due to the burning anger in society. The workers’ leaders are not even prepared to challenge Yar’Adua, who only sits in the presidential chair because he and his backers stole April’s elections. On the contrary, the trade union leaders praised Yar’Adua and stated that they "wish to thank [Yar’ Adua] in a very special way … for the statesmanship he has demonstrated."
Even before the strike commenced, many worker activists questioned the role of the labour leaders. There were bitter memories of how, in November 2005, a general strike was called off, with no concessions. The fact that, this time, some concessions were granted, may reduce immediate criticism of the leaders, but the unending crisis in Nigeria means that soon these concessions will be seen as both far too little and fleeting. There will be disappointment that the rise in price of fuel, really the key issue in the strike, was not completely rolled back, as the union leaders agreed to a increase being halved, which still means a nearly 8% price hike.
Balance sheet needed
Before and during the strike, the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM - the CWI in Nigeria) played an important role, nationally. In the regions where it has support, the DSM worked to help make the strike a success by striving to organise local activities and Action Committees. One of the DSM’s Strike Bulletins explained, "The DSM is fully committed to the total realisation of all the goals of the current struggle. Our members have been involved in the preparation and organisation of the current struggle up till this moment.
"However, we will continue to drive home the point that unless the current self-serving, unjust capitalist system is replaced with a workers’ and poor peasants’ government, where the commanding heights of the economy, including banks and financial institutions are commonly owned and democratically run by the working people themselves, primarily for the purpose of meeting the economic and political needs of the working masses and the poor, in general, any gain(s) made from the current struggle will sooner than later be claimed back by the greedy capitalist ruling elite ten fold."
The experience of this latest general strike, and what happens next, will help more activists in Nigeria draw both socialist conclusions and make them determined to build a powerful movement that can end, once and for all, the misery in the midst of plenty that most Nigerians now endure.