Nigeria: Mighty general strike ends with a compromise

The eight-day Nigerian general strike, which ended on 8 July, was a marvellous demonstration of the strength of the working class and the weakness of the political class.

The entire country came to a complete halt in protest at the massive increase in fuel prices suddenly decreed last month by the newly re-elected President Obasanjo. While this general strike did not last as long as those staged in 1945 and 1964 it was supported by far greater numbers of workers and poor people.

Significantly there was no serious opposition to the strike. Obasanjo claims to have received nearly 24.5 million votes in April’s heavily rigged election, but on the streets he had no supporters whatsoever. Despite the difficulties of daily life being increased by the strike, with food shortages developing in the cities, day labourers not being able to work, and other problems, the strike retained its massive support.

Unifying the population

The action of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) showed that the working class could be the real opposition, not just to Obasanjo, but also to the entire rotten elite. In contrast to other African countries, like the Congo, this struggle illustrated how the labour movement in action can unify the population in struggle and act as a barrier to social disintegration. In Nigeria, like in other countries, ethnic and religious clashes tend to develop when the working class is not showing a way out of the social crisis.

The struggle over fuel prices reveals the true character of Nigeria today. The country is one of the world’s largest oil exporters but the mass of the population have hardly gained from the estimated $280 billion that oil has earned in the last 30 years. The rotten, corrupt elite has looted the vast bulk of this income. The repeated shortages of fuel are the result of speculators ensuring that Nigeria’s four oil refineries work way below capacity, forcing the government to import refined oil.

The mass of Nigerians see cheap fuel as the only real help they get in life. Hence the enormous anger when Obasanjo suddenly ordered the price hike. Furthermore, no one believed that the money the government "saved" by this increase would really be used to benefit the working masses.

There is no doubt that the entire price rise could have been rolled back, but the NLC leaders were scared of the power that they had mobilised. The eight days of strike action showed that the NLC, as leaders of the working class, were the real opposition in society and potentially had more popular power than the elite. But the NLC leaders did not want to challenge the elite or their system. The strike stopped the entire country, posing the question that if the working class and poor could halt economic life then they could also run the economy and society as a whole.

More could have been won

Stepping back from a decisive showdown with the government, the NLC leaders finally agreed to a compromise deal, accepting an increase in the petrol price from N26 (20 US cents) to N34 (26 US cents) a litre, an increase of over a third. For a time, some Nigerians may see a success in the fact that the government had to back down from the N40 (31 US cents) Obasanjo originally ordered. But there will be many activists who will feel that more could have been won and that, given this limited victory, new struggles need to be waged on, for instance, Obasanjo’s refusal to implement previously agreed increases in the minimum wage.

The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM – the CWI in Nigeria) played an important role in mobilising for this strike. The DSM called for the building of local, democratic ‘Action Committees’ to deepen the strike’s support and argued that Nigerian labour needed to adopt a political platform that challenged the elite and fought for the socialist transformation of Nigeria. In this sense the strike was a missed opportunity. The continuation of capitalism means that there will be continual attacks on the Nigerian working masses and no real hope of breaking out of poverty until the system is overthrown.

Nevertheless, the strike’s enormous strength shows the potential power of the Nigerian labour movement to change society. The DSM will continue to campaign for that power to be deployed to end capitalism and open the way to a socialist Nigeria.

For current information from Nigeria, visit the DSM website:

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July 2003