For three days, June 9 to 11, Nigeria came to an almost complete halt in the fourth general strike in four years as workers and the poor once again moved into action.
Enraged by the latest rise in fuel prices, and alienated from the increasingly authoritarian regime of ex-general Obasanjo, the vast majority of Nigerians heeded the call of the trade unions to stop work. Millions of Nigerians, repelled by the continuing corruption of the ruling elite and seeing themselves disenfranchised by repeated electoral fraud, see the strike as the only way of making their voices heard.
It is less than a year since an eight day general strike completed stopped Nigeria last July when the Obasanjo government attempted to raise the petrol price from 26N (19 US cents) a litre to 40N (30 US cents). That struggle ended in a deal with the NLC (Nigerian Labour Congress, the main trade union federation) accepting a compromise price of 34N. But since then the price has relentlessly gone up. By the end of last month prices had reached 50N to 55N a litre for petrol, while the cost of kerosene used for cooking had jumped from 39N to 75N.
The repeated mass struggles over fuel prices reflect the anger of most Nigerians over a range of issues. First and foremost are living standards – the impact of fuel price rises on travel, goods and cooking costs. Then there is the knowledge that the ruling elite have stolen the vast majority of the income Nigeria receives from its oil exports. Additionally the elite have deliberately let the four local oil refineries, which are all state owned, run into such disrepair that refined oil has to be imported, something that provides another source of profit for the oil marketers. Finally there is the widespread feeling that the population should benefit from the high price of oil on the world market, instead of suffering from it.
In both last October and January the NLC called off general strikes at the last minute after agreeing new compromises with the government that included accepting a further increase in the fuel price to 38N a litre for petrol. But this compromise did not last.
Now the NLC has "suspended" the strike and accepted a new compromise with the government of the price returning to between "N40-N41" for petrol in Lagos, something that did not mention either kerosene or petrol prices outside Lagos. But even this deal has been immediately under attack with fuel shortages gripping Lagos as the oil marketers went "on strike" and said that they would refuse to sell fuel at this price.
The NLC leaders often make radical sounding statements but do not draw the conclusions from them. Just before this latest strike started Adams Oshiomhole, the NLC President explained to the Lagos Vanguard the conclusions he had drawn from the past 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 also want to re-assure Nigerian people, Nigerian workers and our allies that we have learnt sufficient lessons from the manipulations of this government, which has led to some confusion in the past. We now know that signing agreement with this government need not translate to reality because they have not respected previous agreements."
This is an accurate description of what has happened in the past, but is also what is happening now. If this compromise is already been broken the question is sharply posed what should be done next. Strikes cannot simply be turned on and off like a switch.
The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM, the Nigerian section of the CWI) has warned of the dangers posed by the NLC leaders’ policies. It argues for a thorough mobilisation of the working people with the formation of democratic bodies to run the struggle and for a socialist alternative.
Nigeria is facing an increasingly turbulent period. If the rising mass anger is not directed towards the real cause of the country’s crisis, the capitalist system, there is the danger of a further growth of ethnic and religious clashes. In May clashes in Plateau and Kano States caused another 57,000 people to flee their homes and join the already 800,000 internal refugees in Nigeria. Even during this latest strike sectarian clashes took place in Adamawa state.
The DSM is arguing that while determined struggles can win temporary gains, a general strike "throws open the question of political power, of who runs society. Last July’s general strike showed again the enormous role the working masses play, without which society cannot function. The capitalists may own the wealth but without the working masses, nothing happens. What this implies is that the working masses, if only they gain the necessary consciousness, can in actual fact, organise to take over political power and reorganise society in favour of the mass majority of the working people, through a workers and poor farmers’ government, that will nationalise the commanding height of the economy and place it under their democratic management and control."