Nigeria has been paralysed by a general strike called by the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC, the country’s main trade union federation).
Government attacks unions
Reports in the Nigerian capitalist media show that the strike, which commenced on 16 th January, 2002, was generally successful throughout the country. Government offices, industries, banks, markets and shops were shut. Most private and public vehicles are off the road and streets are deserted. Going by newspaper reports, it is in only one state (Kogi) out of the 36 states of the country that it was reported the strike was not observed on the first day.
The NLC leaders called the strike to compel the government to reverse an almost 20% increment on the prices of domestically consumed petroleum products announced on New Year day. According to the government, the increase marks the beginning of the "liberalisation" of the petroleum marketing industry in which "market forces" will dictate prices. The IMF, World Bank and Nigeria’s external creditors have always insisted that domestic fuel in Nigeria is too cheap and have always demanded increases as a condition for agreement on the country’s $32 billion external debt.
As in the past, the increase has led to a 50-100% jump in transport fares in both rural and urban areas; inflation rate will go up and standard of living further undermined. Remarkably, on the first day of the strike, the Obasanjo government also announced the details of the third phase of the country’s privatisation programme. This involves the sale of the country’s electricity corporation (NEPA), national airline, seaports, and twenty other public companies
This massive response to the strike call shows the depth of the anger of the masses against the fuel price hike and the devastating effects of other neo-liberal policies of the Obasanjo regime. Two and a half years after the end of military rule, the working masses could not see any improvement in their living standards. On the contrary, conditions are getting worse for the most impoverished sections of the population. This is the second increase in fuel price since Obasanjo came to power in May 1999. In June 2000, the regime raised petrol price from N20 to N30 per litre. It took a 5-day general strike before the price was reduced to N22.
Nigeria is renowned for ethnic and religious conflicts. But the success of the strike proves the capacity of the labour movement to cut across ethnic and religious cleavages among the working people, uniting them around a common working class cause.
On the first day of the strike, the police arrested the NLC president, Adams Oshiomhole, Dipo Fashina (president of Academic Staff Union of Universities, ASUU) and eight other trade union leaders while they were addressing workers at the federal government secretariat at Abuja. They were subsequently charged to court, accused of "criminal conspiracy, inciting disturbance, disturbance of public peace and unlawful assembly".. The magistrate released them on bail and adjourned the case to 19 th February, 2002. But on the second day of the strike, Adams and some other labour leaders were re-arrested in Abuja.
The same day, the Obasanjo government got an Abuja high court to declare the strike illegal. This would open the way for Adams and other labour activists to be charged with contempt of court and for workers to be intimidated and victimised. A newspaper reported that not less than 83 people were arrested across the country on the first day of the strike.
Among those arrested was Demola Yaya, Labour Organiser for Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), Nigerian section of the Committee for A Workers’ International (CWI), and a member of Mobilisation Committee set by the NLC. He was arrested while addressing a crowd comprising youth and members of the local community. The policemen forcefully dispersed the crowd and seized the megaphone being used by Demola and several copies of the DSM newspaper produced for the strike. He was detained for several hours.
Earlier, on 7th January, policemen in Abeokuta, Ogun State, arrested two students of University of Agriculture, Abeokuta during a protest organised by the Zone D of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) against the fuel price increase. The arrested students are: Ahmed Adesina (a member of DSM) and Shina Onifade (a member of National Voice of Democrats). The two student activists have been charged with "civil disturbance" and the case has been adjourned by the court to 11th February, 2002.
Members of Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), Nigerian section of the Committee for A Workers’ International (CWI), were involved in the "stay-at-home" strike in two areas in Lagos yesterday. In Agege, 211 copies of the special edition of the paper were sold while comrades in Ajegunle sold 291 copies. DSM branches outside Lagos also intervened in the strike in their areas. DSM members are intervening in at least 12 towns. Earlier, on 14th January, 84 copies of the paper were sold at a planning meeting held at the NLC headquarters in Lagos.
But a DSM rally scheduled for 17 th January, 2002, in Lagos to mobilise support for the strike was stopped by the police. Just like our anti-war, anti-terrorism rally that was scuttled by the state in October 2001, the venue of the planned rally was taken over by a contingent of 15 armed policemen who said they have instructions to stop the rally, to prevent "disturbance", according to them. Faced with this situation, we decided to go inside the community where we sold 23 copies of the paper.
The DSM is campaigning for the release of all the detained workers and labour leaders, an end to all cases against activists and a stop to state repression of the trade unions and socialists. We are also demanding for respect for freedom of assembly and association, right to hold rallies and other democratic rights.
Above all, we are campaigning for the working class to have its on independent political party which should fight against the anti-poor neo-liberal policies being implemented by all the country’s capitalist parties and which will implement socialist policies when it comes to power.