Nigeria: For a working class economic and political alternative

Gentlemen of the press, this press conference is organised by  the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) to draw the attention of the general public and the working masses in particular to some recent dangerous and ominous developments in the country. We consider it absolutely important to address these issues not only because they are inimical to the rights and welfare of the working class but also because they constitute fundamental threats to the survival of civil rule in particular and the stability of the country in general.

Press Release – 19 December 2000

In ten days’ time, it will be exactly nineteen (19) months since the civilian section of the ruling class assumed power at federal, state and local government levels. For many years, the working masses waged titanic battles which eventually compelled the military wing of the capitalist ruling elite to relinquish power on 29th May, 1999. During these struggles against military dictatorship, personal liberties were sacrificed and hundreds of lives were lost. The working masses, labour, youth and human rights activists made these sacrifices out of conviction that civil rule will bring about an end to both vicious political repression, mass poverty and declining living standards which characterised the one and a half decade of military rule. There were huge expectations among the various layers of society that civil rule will usher in an era of improved living conditions, security of lives and property, and respect for human rights.

Our organisation, the DSM, was at the forefront, with many other organisations in fighting against military autocracy. However, we are among the very few groups which had at that time warned against the expectation that civil rule, on the basis of the present capitalist order, can create an economic and political El-Dorado for the working masses. We explained then that given the profit-oriented, selfish and individual characteristic of capitalism, especially its new-colonial variety which operates in Nigeria, the working masses will have to fight hard to secure any improvement in their conditions of life. Not only that, the working class will have to struggle to transform the decadent capitalist society along socialist lines before any gain or improvement secured by the working masses can be guaranteed on a lasting basis.

Struggle, Solidarity & Socialism

Regrettably, events in the past nineteen months and most importantly in the recent period have confirmed our fears. Not only has there been no substantial improvement in the living and working conditions of the masses, the period has also witnessed some of the types of violations of human rights which occurred under the military. For instance, after marginal improvements in the first few months of civil rule, acute fuel shortage and epileptic electricity supply have returned fully,   taking tolls on the economy and the lives of the masses. Also, the civilian politicians have shown that they are more than capable of matching the records of the military in the looting of the nation’s treasury. The multi-million naira furniture allowances collected by National Assembly members, the contract scandal in the senate which led to the impeachment of former senate president, Chuba Okadigbo, are a few of the incidents which show that as far as corruption is concerned, it has been business as usual, the so-called anti-corruption crusade of the Obasanjo administration notwithstanding.

Attacks on workers and the Labour Movement 

But our immediate focus in this press briefing is the recent escalation in attacks on the rights and conditions of workers in many parts of the country. The first on the list is the recent retrenchment of 6,000 workers by the Governor Bisi Akande administration in Osun State.

 In Kwara State, there is a plan by the state government to sack 5,000 out of the state’s 14,000 civil servants. This sadistic downsizing has already kicked off by the victimization, through retrenchment, of 25 civil servants most of whom are labour leaders in the state. Among those already sacked are Messrs. G.J..   Omotosho (state chairman of National Union of Typists and Allied Workers), F.A. Adebiyi (chairman, Senior Staff Association and leader of the workers’ negotiating committee) and M.K. Onagun (chairman, Medical Health Workers’ Union). Even Mrs. Toyin Ayeoribe, the wife of the secretary of the Kwara State NLC, who works as a typist in the state civil service, was not spared in this orgy of witch-hunting being perpetrated by the Kwara State Government. The state government has resorted to this witch-hunting exercise mainly because of the disagreement between the government and the unions over the implementation of the new minimum wage agreement signed on 31st July, 2000. The unions were of the view that government’s guidelines on the implementation will actually lead to the demotion of civil servants already in service and that it is a misrepresentation and deliberate breach of the agreement (Vanguard, 14th December, 2000).

In Lagos State, the Tinubu administration is also threatening to sack 15,000 civil servants as a result of the deadlock in the negotiation between it and the unions in the state civil service over the implementation of the new minimum wage. It will be recalled that Governor Tinubu had earlier sacked 10,000 workers on assumption of office last year.

In addition to the retrenchment and threats of retrenchment is the phenomenon of either non-payment or late payment of salaries and allowances. In this out-going year, so many public service employees had to endure the agony of delay in the payment of salaries for many months. Even now, some employees of federal, state and local governments are being owed months of arrears of salaries. Furthermore, the traumatic plight of the nation’s pensioners who for years have been subjected to non-payment of their pensions have continued resulting in several needless and avoidable deaths.

Even more tragic is the likelihood, if not certainty, that more workers will face threats to their jobs in the coming years. This is as a result of the privatisation and commercialisation programmes to which the Obasanjo administration and all the state governments controlled by all the three registered capitalist parties are committed. For instance, the director general of the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE, the government privatisation agency), Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, announced in Abuja on the 26th October, 2000 that 18,000 NEPA workers would be retrenched before it is privatised (Nigerian Tribune, 27th October, 2000). 

Can society afford decent wages for all?

The major reason given by the various governments for the retrenchment, threats of retrenchments as well as delay in the payment of salaries is that the government cannot afford the payment of new minimum wage to all existing staff and that therefore they have no option but to retrench some workers in order to be able to implement the new minimum wage.

But once again, we in the Democratic Socialist Movement call on workers, the trade unions and the NLC to reject the capitalist argument that the economy cannot afford decent wages for all workers. As we in the DSM often explain, the enormous human and material resources with which Nigeria is endowed are more than adequate to guarantee decent living for all, with the payment of adequate wages to workers, provision of free and qualitative education and healthcare, decent and affordable housing, full employment and welfare benefits for the unemployed, the sick and the elderly.

What has made poverty wages the rule rather than the exception, what has condemned the overwhelming majority of the populace to mass poverty and misery is the capitalist market economy in which private profits and wealth for a small minority, and not the actual needs of the overwhelming majority, forms the basis of governance.

This exploitative and oppressive character of capitalism is not limited to Nigeria; rather it is a global phenomenon. The global crisis of capitalism and the neo-liberal capitalist offensive across the world has led to grotesque inequality both internationally and within national states. The gap between the rich and the poor is greater today than at any period in history. The world’s three richest men have as much wealth as the poorest nations in the underdeveloped world with a combined population of 600 million people. The world richest man, Bill Gates, alone has assets worth over $100 billion in the same US where one third of the population lives either on or below the poverty line. In the words of the British newspaper, the London Guardian: “ What is the difference between Tanzania and Goldman Sachs? One is an African country that makes US$ 2.2 billion in a year and shares it amongst 25 million people. The other is an investment bank that makes US$ 2.6 billion a year and share it between 161 people”.

Only through a democratic socialist system based on production for needs, with public ownership of the key sectors of the economy and democratic control and management by the working masses, can the needless mass poverty and misery be abolished and a decent life guaranteed for all at all times. This fact explains why, while fighting against retrenchment of workers and for the payment of decent wages, workers and the trade unions need to equally understand the urgent necessity to put in power a workers’ and poor peasants’ government which will put an end to the exploitative and unjust capitalist system, replacing it with a democratic socialist system in which the nation’s wealth and resources presently monopolised by a tiny rich minority will be put under public ownership with democratic control and management by the working people. 

And to actualise this very essential objective, labour and youth activists need to commence now the process of bringing about the formation of an independent political party of the working people whose programme and outlook will be fundamentally different from the existing pro-rich, capitalist parties – the AD, PDP and APP – all of which experience has shown, have nothing but poverty and misery to offer the working masses.

The policies and approach of the Labour leadership

Gentlemen of the press, the most worrisome development, however, is what we consider as the erroneous, and at times, perilous responses of the leaders of the trade unions and Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) to these attacks on workers’ rights and the various anti-poor policies of the government.

Most Nigerian workers rejoiced when in January, 1999 the new NLC leadership headed by the president, Adams Oshiomhole, assumed office. Undoubtedly, the new NLC leadership has shown a relatively higher sense of commitment to workers’ rights compared with its immediate predecessors, the openly pro-government and inglorious leadership of Pascal Bafyau. Among struggles which the Oshiomhole leadership could claim credit for include its support for workers fighting for the implementation of N3,500 minimum wage fixed by the then Abubakar military junta, the demonstrations at the National Assembly in Abuja against the outrageous furniture allowances of assembly members, the protests in December, 1999 against the attempt at that time to hike fuel price and the successful five-day general strike in June 2000 when the Obasanjo regime eventually increased fuel price. Also, no matter its inadequacy or the method used to attain it, the new leadership in May, 2000 also secured 53% and 83% increment in the minimum wage of federal and state civil servants respectively.

While recognising and commending the efforts of the new leadership for organising or leading the above cited struggles, however, we of the DSM would like to point out that recent activities and programmes of the leadership are capable of eroding whatever little gains the working class has made in the past two years or even put workers in a far worse situation than before.

For instance, we have observed that rather than putting in place a coherent programme and strategy on how to ensure that state governments implement the minimum wage being demanded by their workforce, the NLC leadership has been primarily concerned with how to assist the state governments to get out of the debacle, even if that will be at the expenses of workers. In some states such as Lagos State, the NLC national leadership has been putting pressure on the state union leaders to agree to less than N7,500 across the board. It has refused to mobilize private sectors workers in Lagos state in support of the demand of the state public servants in spite of the fact the NLC Central Working Committee (CWC) passed a resolution to that effect.

Most distressing is the allegation made by the Osun State governor, Bisi Akande, that the recent retrenchment of the 6,000 workers in the state was carried out not without the understanding and approval of the NLC president, Adams Oshiomhole (The Guardian, 4th December, 2000). Up till now, the NLC president has not come out to contest this statement!

The NLC and privatisation

Another dangerous trend is the gradual incorporation of the labour leadership into the capitalist state machinery. The NLC president is now the chairman of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF) and also a member of the National Council of Privatisation. Rather than mobilising workers to fight against the privatisation programme of the government as a matter of principle, the new leadership is merely insisting that workers should also be allowed to buy shares in the privatised companies. This NLC’s position ignores the fact that the privatisation programme cannot, either now or in the future be of benefit to workers or the larger society.   If implemented, this NLC proposal cannot significantly mitigate the anti-poor, anti-developmental nature of privatisation and commercialisation. To start with, only a negligible proportion of the current generation of workers who become shareholders through such a plan can hope to derive any financial benefit. More importantly, going by the experience of other countries that have implemented this kind of programme, most of such small shareholders will be forced to sell their little shares to major shareholders in no distant future.

Already, the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) has defined those they have in mind when they look for buyers for the public enterprises slated for sales. According to BPE, a core investor or a strategic investor is a formidable and experienced corporation or a consortium which possesses the financial resources to pay for the shares it wishes to buy but also to turn around the fortune of the enterprise, using its own resources without relying on shareholders fund. Based on the aforesaid definition, it is very clear that most workers or so-called indigenous companies that may succeed in buying some of the enterprises being sold now would sooner than later be compelled to sell same to multinational corporations and their imperialist backers who were the original designers and primary beneficiaries of this pro-capitalist, IMF/World Bank policy.

The capitalists’ strategy of encouraging some workers to buy shares is really a means of sowing divisions among the working class. This is because while a very small minority of workers may temporarily become shareholders, overall the privatisation programme is not in the interest of the working class and the poor masses.

While the NLC leaders should be commended for withdrawing from the government’s committee on petroleum products distribution and prices (The Guardian, 24th October, 2000), but it must be said that a workers’ leadership with the correct political perspectives and policies would have anticipated from the onset that the committee is a trap to ensnare the trade unions into rationalising and backing government’s plan to deregulate fuel market and hike the prices of petroleum products.

No to class collaboration

Undoubtedly, the NLC membership of the government agencies and committees must have been informed by the false belief that such membership could be used to influence the government to implement policies favourable to workers. But as experience locally and internationally has shown, it is not possible to use the machinery of the capitalist state, which is intrinsically and fundamentally opposed to workers’ interests, to achieve such an objective. On the contrary, the labour leaders will get enmeshed into the state machinery and become tools that the capitalist government will use to impose unpopular, anti-poor, pro-rich policies on the working people.

The DSM calls on the NLC to rethink this class collaboration strategy before it is too late and withdraw immediately from government agencies and committees. Instead it should face its primary task of fighting for the rights and interests of workers and other oppressed strata. The leadership must immediately mobilise to stop the renewed wave of retrenchment, the victimization of labour activists in states like Kwara, the refusal by some state governments to implement the new minimum wage, the delay in the payment of salaries, the non-payment of pensions, and other attacks on the working class.

The need for a working class economic and political alternative

The basic problem of the new NLC leadership, we believe, lies in its failure to understand that the various anti-poor policies of Obasanjo and the state and local governments are the inevitable logical consequence of the capitalist economic crisis and the imperialist domination of the economy. The leadership often give the wrong impression that these policies (such as fuel price hike) were merely imposed by the IMF and World Bank on an otherwise good government of president Obasanjo. At some other time, a false picture is given that government’s anti-poor policies are due to wrong advice given to the president by his “bad” advisers such as Chief Phillip Asiodu (the chief economic adviser to Obasanjo).

About five months ago, precisely on 12th July, 2000, The Guardian reported that Adams Oshiomhole described the strikes going on in several states of the country over the minimum wage as a “quarrel within one family”.. But nothing could be farther from the truth. It is incorrect to give the impression that the capitalists and the workers who are the victims of their system are members of one family whose disagreement can always be resolved through dialogue. If the past 19 months of the Fourth Republic shows anything, it is that it has confirmed the insoluble and irreconcilable contradictions between the selfish aspirations of the bourgeois class and the basic needs and yearnings of the working people.

Therefore the NLC leadership needs to mobilize rank and file workers not only to win this or that concession for workers but also to utilize every such struggle to prepare the working class for the task of overthrowing capitalism and instituting a democratic socialist order. Once more, the DSM calls on the NLC leadership to stop their counter-productive class collaborationist approach and put forward an alternative independent economic and political programme that would represent the interests of the working masses.

Towards this end, the DSM would like to reiterate that the NLC, and labour, youth and community activists should begin the process of building an independent political party with distinct programmes and policies different from those of the capitalist ruling class and the existing parties that represent their interests. Such an independent political party will lead the struggles against the capitalist attacks on the living standards and rights of the working people. It will fight against the ongoing looting of public wealth in the name of privatisation, the retrenchment of workers and the commercialisation of education, healthcare, housing, water and other social services.

Instead of the present anti-poor policies of all the capitalist parties and governments, such a working people’s party will use the nation’s abundant resources to implement programmes such as provision of free and qualitative education, free medical service, decent and affordable mass public housing scheme, cheap and efficient mass transport system, full employment and welfare benefits for the sick and the elderly. By eliminating mass poverty, ignorance, illiteracy and diseases, the party will remove the real causes of armed robbery, prostitution, and ethnic and religious crises. Also, by ensuring that adequate wages are paid to workers and that public enterprises are democratically controlled and managed by elected representatives of the working people, the endemic corruption which continues to afflict the country can be drastically reduced if not totally eliminated.

But in order to achieve these lofty objectives on a permanent basis, the party will need to struggle for the abolition of the present unjust and oppressive capitalist order and for its replacement with a democratic socialist society whose hallmark will be common ownership of the commanding sectors of the economy, with production based on human needs and not profit greed, and the democratic control and management of the economy and society by the working people. This goal of the working people’s party will be realised by putting into power a workers’ and poor peasants’ government that will implement a socialist programme.

We in the DSM call on the leadership of the NLC and the various unions to take the initiative towards the formation of an independent working people’s party by calling as a matter of urgency a conference of labour, youth and community activists, trade unions, students’ unions, artisans’ and traders’ associations and socialist and pro-labour organisations.

The National Conscience Party (NCP)

In the absence of any viable mass working people’s party or an initiative in that direction by trade union leaders, working class activists and youths should make effort to build the National Conscience Party as their own political instrument in ideas and methodology. Yes, the NCP is not a professed socialist party. Nevertheless, the consistent radical opposition of its leader, in person of Chief Gani Fawehinmi, to successive government’s repression and corruption makes the party to be one of the few political platforms which can at this stage attract the genuine support and enthusiasm of the labouring masses. However, for this potential goodwill to be sustained and deepened, working class activists and youths must from time to time wage conscious and organised struggles to orient and build the NCP as a class struggle based party. This amongst other things will entail building the party in the following manner.

  • The party should strive to make workers, youths and the poor in general its bedrock.
  • The party must be able to clearly work out the socio-economic programme/framework through which it hopes to abolish poverty.
  • The party must be able to muster the necessary material and political resources to intervene in the daily struggles (electoral and non-electoral) of the masses.
  •  The party’s central strategy and tactics must at all times be primed to the goal of capturing political power and not that of a pressure group which sees its essence as that of giver of good advice to the government in power or the public at large.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the press, the above outlined position will still retain their validity even if the trade union leaders should agree to from a workers’ party tomorrow. Then working class activists and socialists will still have to wage an organised campaign within such formation to ensure that the party is a genuine working people’s party and not a workers’ party that will be implementing policies and programmes favourable only to the capitalists locally and internationally, as it is the case, for instance with the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), the governing party in Zambia headed by Fredrick Chiluba, a former leader of the Zambian trade union federation.

Unless the labour movement and labour and youth activists take this vital historic step now, the growing mass disenchantment against the civilian politicians will either be diverted into greater ethnic-religious conflicts as witnessed in the past 19 months or it will be utilised by the military wing of the ruling class to attempt to stage a comeback at a stage as it happened during the first and second Republics in 1966 and 1983 respectively.

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December 2000