Nigeria: How Labour should engage the Obasanjo administration

For the sixth time since June 2000 and for third time in year 2004 alone, the working people of Nigeria have resoundingly through nationwide general strikes and protests, expressed their total objection to the pro-rich, anti-poor neo-liberal policies of the Olusegun Obasanjo capitalist government. In this regard, the four-day warning general strike and protest across the country between October 11 and 14, 2004, constituted a crushing refutation of the false theory, which always claims that the Nigerian masses are docile and that is why poverty pervades the land.

The following article by Segun Sango, general secretary of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM, cwi in Nigeria), was published in Vanguard, one of Nigeria’s biggest daily papers, on Friday 12 November. In the article Segun explains the DSM’s argument that the indefinite general strike scheduled to start on 16 November has to have a perspective of not just reversing September’s rise in fuel prices but of replacing Obasanjo’s regime with a workers’ and peasants government. Segun is a prominent member of LASCO (Labour and Civil Society Coalition), the broad grouping initiated by Nigeria’s trade unions and radical groupings. Further information on the mass struggles in Nigeria can be found on the DSM’s website

How Labour should engage the Obasanjo administration

More than what any written reply can achieve in refuting this baseless theory, the masses’ heroic and organised compliance with the strike appeal issued by Labour and Civil Society Coalition, LASCO, not only clearly shows that the labouring masses are ever ready to fight to protect their interests, but also, and very importantly, that they are ready to fight in an organised manner under an organised banner and leadership.

Therefore, the greatest challenge facing LASCO leadership today is how to come up with appropriate policies and methods that are capable of permanently winning the struggle against the Obasanjo led PDP government and its anti-poor policies. But despite the heroic determination of most of LASCO leaders within the trade unions and civil society organisations, the philosophical and organisational perspectives of most of the LASCO leaders in the series of general strikes and protests which have rocked Nigeria in the past five years are to say the least, pitifully incapable of addressing the fundamental issues behind the incessant fuel price hike and the attendant general strikes and protests by the labouring masses.

This inadequacy in our view was, unfortunately, the greatest shortcoming of all the previous general strikes and protests, including that of October 11-14, 2004. Unlike in the previous strikes, and quite rightly so, LASCO adopted a strategy of protracted struggle of which the general strike and protest of October 11-14, 2004, constitute its first phase and therefore, carry with it, the threat that future actions will be taken in the immediate and medium term periods. By opting for a protracted action plan starting with a four day warning general strike and protest, LASCO leaders gave the impression that they have finally come to terms with the reality of the necessity of a protracted struggle to permanently terminate the current Obasanjo capitalist government and its central anti-poor policies.

Unfortunately however, a critical analysis of LASCO demands and general strategic orientation clearly reveal a mind-set trapped in an utopian, petty bourgeois, fantasy land, where "useful and concrete suggestions" proffered by a stakeholders committee, (mostly made of government functionaries, oil marketers, governors, national assembly leaders and a token representation of labour and civil society organisations), are expected to guarantee decent living for the vast majority of the working people, the youths, the old and the unemployed! It must be stressed that the very term "stakeholders", is an attempt to hide the class divisions in society by falsely claiming that workers and poor peasants are social partners with the super rich and therefore, we should all sit round a table to work together. Socialists are not opposed to negotiating with either employers or the government in pursuit of workers’ specific demands. However, it is another ball game entirely when representatives of labour accept to serve in standing committees composed and dominated by capitalist governments whether tagged "stakeholders" or by any other name whatsoever and regardless of what terms of reference are given or claimed by such committees.

In the October 11-14, 2004, general strike and protest, one of the leaflets circulated by LASCO among other things made the following demands:

  • We should demand immediate return to the old price of petrol, kerosene and diesel
  • Immediate repair of the refineries
  • Creation of jobs
  • Stop the devaluation of the Naira
  • Use of extra money from sale of crude oil to improve the standard of lives of Nigerians
  • Pay pensioners and workers on time and in full
  • Stop selling Nigeria’s property

We want a country where:

  • Government will listen to the people
  • Government will meet the needs and expectations of the people
  • Government will promote and defend the welfare of the people
  • Those in government will put public interest above their selfish and personal interest
  • The Judges and the Courts are not politically used to oppress the people
  • A people’s Constitution based on popular dialogue will operate."
  • Also, LASCO leaders publicly pledged to resume the second phase of the current struggle in two weeks time unless the government reverses the latest hike in fuel prices and set up a "stakeholder committee" through which "lasting solution" can be found to the incessant fuel price hike.

Programme and perspective

Under the prevailing capitalist socio-economic system, these demands, at best, are utopian and at worst deceptive. For instance, if the prices of fuel, as a result of this strike is reversed back to pre-September 23, 2004, under the current capitalist deregulatory atmosphere, these prices will sooner than later, jump even beyond the current price of N54 per litre of petrol. This is one irrefutable experience learnt in the past five years under a market driven pricing strategy.

Severally and collectively, every other economic and political demands quoted above are equally impossible to actualise under the current political and economic ethos dominated by capitalist politicians and policies. Even if by chance a "stakeholders" committee is formed and by further chance that committee recommends good proposals on how to guarantee availability and affordability of fuel products for all, these proposals will never seriously be implemented as long as Obasanjo’s capitalist government remains in power and as long as capitalism remains the bedrock of Nigeria’s economy. LASCO therefore has an inescapable duty to rise today and boldly and expressly demand that Obasanjo and all other capitalist government across the country must go.

Simultaneously, LASCO must demand an end to deregulation, privatisation and capitalism in all ramifications. Unless major sources of wealth in nature, industry, banking, finance, agriculture, etc are publicly owned and democratically managed by the working people themselves, from the point of view of meeting the basic need of every person in the society, all the demands for creation of jobs, stability of currency, listening government, etc will remain utopia and a cynical deception of the poor masses. The truth must be bluntly told, neither Obasanjo’s led PDP government nor indeed any other capitalist party, is capable of positively responding to the needs of the people.

Over four decades of flag independence have proved, notwithstanding oil exports, that capitalism cannot develop Nigeria. Consequently, our slogan and demand must be to rally people to fight to the end to terminate this anti-poor, pro-rich dispensation permanently. We must equally warn that all other prominent politicians across the parties equally subscribe to the prevailing anti-poor, pro-rich dispensation strategies of deregulation, liberalisation, privatisation, etc all of which simply means that the vast majority of the people have to be kept in conditions of perpetual want so that a few rich and oil marketers can continue to wallow in their luxuries. Consequently, LASCO leaders, both within labour and ‘civil society organisations must therefore openly demand that the deregulation and all other neo-liberal policies are, totally unacceptable.

Dialogue as a strategy

LASCO leadership has correctly rejected the committee to proffer palliatives to cushion the effects of incessant fuel price hike as diversionary. Sadly however, the same LASCO leaders falsely hold the view that another Obasanjo’s capitalist government committee of "stake holders" could dialogue and proffer short to medium and long term solutions to checkmate incessant fuel price hike. The president of the NLC and a foremost leader of LASCO, Adams Oshiomhole, outlined this line of thought thus: "This time around we have decided that we must sustain the strike until the issue of immediate reversal is achieved and a long term commitment to price stability is worked out, so that Nigerians can get out of this vicious circle". (Vanguard October 15,2004).

To say the least, this line of reasoning, this "dialogue as a strategy" line, can only in the immediate, medium and long term basis undermine the fight back efforts of the working masses by making them to invest their trusts and hopes in a hopeless government and system. The Obasanjo’s capitalist government implements its pro-rich, anti-poor policies not simply because it is devoid of creative ideas on how to implement pro-masses policies. On the contrary, the implementation of pro-rich, anti-poor policies constitute the best ways through which the selfish interests of the capitalist vampires nationally and internationally can be preserved. No matter how "brilliant", "patriotic" rational a suggestion may seem, within the framework of capitalist, deregulatory logic, incessant fuel price hike and other anti-poor policies are inevitable and unavoidable realities.

Despite the availability of inexhaustible natural and human resources, over 80% of Nigeria’s population live below United Nations defined poverty level i.e. living on less than N140 per day. What this brutally reveals is the utter incapacity of capitalism to both develop the economy as well as the living standard of the working masses.

Second phase

LASCO has every right and legitimacy to claim monumental success of the October 11-14 2004. In all sections of the country major business and commercial activities were completely paralysed in virtually all key economic sectors and main cities. More than any other factor, this phenomenon underlines the isolation of the capitalist government and its neo-liberal ideologues but at the same time, highlights the potential support which LASCO can muster among the working people.

Nevertheless, questions will be asked and in fact, posers are already being raised as to what can be considered the major central gain of the last general strike and protest. The "Bus stop parliament", a column in the Vanguard of October 13,2004, quoted a "bus stop" parliamentarian named Jude Okigbo thus: "But come 0, we no dey tire for strike in this country? It’s not as if I’m against the strike per se, but I think the time has come for us to ask ourselves the question of what we achieved with all the strikes we embarked upon in the past. Since we started striking against fuel price increase, have we been able to stop government from increasing the price of fuel? Since Obasanjo became president, he has increased the price of fuel five times. And each time, NLC organised strike to stop him, yet he went ahead to increase the thing. So, when you look at it, the only thing to say is that we just suffer ourselves for nothing by taking part in the strike because Nigerians usually suffer a lot during strike time. So, I prefer for us to look for another way of convincing the government to reduce the price of fuel".

Whether we like it or not, these are fundamental questions that different section’s of the masses will continue to ask in different forms as we prepare for the next phase of the on-going mass action. Simply calling for a price reversal as the basis for continuing with the strike can easily be debunked by the argument that previous strikes and attendant price reversal have not deterred government and marketers from hiking the official price of a litre of petrol from N20 in June, 2000 to N54 by October, 2004. Consequently, LASCO, this time around, needs to upgrade its slogan. The next phase of mass actions must therefore be carried out in such a way that the demand for immediate price reversal is placed side by side with the perspective of the need to force the hands of the Obasanjo’s capitalist government and all anti-poor policies. This is the only scientific and realistic way through which the working masses can see the sense behind the strategy of a protracted, mass action. Otherwise, we may soon reach a stage where, though the working masses will oppose every anti-poor neo-liberal policy but nonetheless refuse to take concrete action in fighting against this because they are made to feel that nothing tangible can be achieved through such struggles.

By being able to shut down all key economic and commercial centres across the country, LASCO has revealed a potential organisational capacity that is needed to fight and win. Without any form of coercion, working class people in all key sectors of the economy and traders in big market voluntarily stayed at home for four days in obedience to LASCO appeal. However, the four-day general strike and protests also once again revealed the tendency by self-employed workers, artisans, etc to embark on actions which apparently run counter to any ongoing mass action. Therefore, in preparing for the next round of mass action, LASCO leaders at national, state and local government levels must take practical steps to reach out to the various strata of mass organisations of labour and civil society with a view to jointly plan and prosecute the next phase of mass action against the Obasanjo government and its anti-poor policies.

Organisation and mobilisation

The organisation of the last general strike and protest were in some respect better than the previous ones. Before and during the last mass action, there were more collective discussions, and in some cases, jointly agreed decisions between the labour and civil society wings of LASCO.

More LASCO meetings, especially at national levels were held to deliberate on day-to-day policies and running of the general strikes and protests. Unfortunately however, this kind of LASCO meetings and structure are not yet present and functional in many important zones and cities across the country. Therefore, a major preparatory measure for the next phase of struggle is to ensure that LASCO committee/strike committee is put in place in at least every local and state government levels. As mentioned earlier, the magnitude of the success of the last strike has shown beyond any doubt that the working masses will have nothing to do with neo-liberal, anti-poor policies. Therefore, formation of strike committees/LASCO committees at every local, state and national level constitutes one veritable means of assisting the working masses in their quest to permanently get rid of the pro-rich Obasanjo government. Similarly, the more developed and involved this kind of strike/LASCO committee becomes in the organisation and running of the general strike, the less will become the chance of labour leaders taking unilateral decisions such as they did by accepting to serve under a so-called committee looking for measures to cushion effects of anti-poor policies which form the bedrock of government policies!

If the next phase of the mass action is to achieve more meaningful response on the part of the working masses, then LASCO leaders will have to step up its mobilisation machinery. During the last strike, less than 500,000 leaflets and flyers were distributed by LASCO together with all its affiliate organisations in Lagos State. In a state with about 10 million adult population, the above represent a pitiful gesture. Therefore, to ensure that every household, every working class person and youth understand the basis of LASCO actions and its demands, there is the necessity to produce enlightenment materials in millions of copies. Yes, LASCO can justifiably claim that it does not possess material resources to undertake such kind of colossal project.

Nonetheless, the kind of magnificent response to LASCO’s call for general strike and stay-at-home for four days clearly shows the inestimable and inexhaustible reservoir of support which LASCO can gain from the public. In this respect, LASCO should not be shy from making direct financial appeals to the working masses individually and collectively. Suffice to note however, a considerable success can only be attained in this respect. It, LASCO is built as a fighting platform of the oppressed people themselves as opposed to a platform seen as "fighting for the masses". If strike/LASCO committee exists at all necessary levels, organising and prosecuting general strikes/protest, it would be easier through these committees to tap into the creativity of the working masses, who on their own can effortlessly take direct practical responsibility for the reproduction and distribution in sufficient manner of all LASCO relevant publications to all nooks and crannies of the society.

Publicise next day(s) of action on time

The nature and duration of the last general strike was not made known to the general public until a few days before October 11, 2004. For better response in the next phase of the current struggle, LASCO leaders after necessary consultations with all pro-labour forces should immediately make known the format, duration of the next phase of struggle. This is an important mobilisation and preparatory factor for success in the struggle. From now on and through the period of proposed actions, LASCO and its affiliates within labour and civil society organisations must begin to organise symposia, seminars, workshop, etc to rally the labouring masses and enable them to educate themselves, discuss, debate and decide upon all the relevant issues surrounding the struggle. Unless these steps are urgently and energetically implemented, the promised second phase may not commence as expected, let alone talking of working peoples’ positive response.

Perspective for regime and system change

In the given socio-political situation, how can the working masses effect a beneficial regime change and at the same time a system change? This, admittedly, is a big question troubling many labour and pro-democracy activists. Many activists, for instance, refrain from making the demand that Obasanjo government must go because they are afraid that there are no forces strong enough to fill the vacuum that will be created by such eventuality. From a pro-labour revolutionary standpoint however, this fear is a needless one. First and foremost, what needs to be done first is to agree on the necessary political slogans to be raised. The Obasanjo capitalist government has lost what little support it had in the first place. It should not be forgotten that it was re-elected on the basis of rigged ballots and a low turnout of voters. Its neo-liberal policies have only been deepening the woe of the working masses. In these circumstances, a clear-cut slogan demanding an immediate end of the regime and its anti-poor policies becomes imperative.

There is a fear among some activists that if we demand an immediate end of the Obasanjo regime, its replacement will either come in form of a military putsch or from among frontline capitalist politicians like Atiku, Buhari, Marwa, Babangida, etc. Socialists must frankly argue that this does not necessarily have to be the case. Going by the degree of potential support enjoyed by LASCO among the vast majority of the populace, mostly the labouring masses, there is no other stronger forces in Nigeria today that can legitimately occupy political power unless such a force is tolerated by the leadership of the working masses. If a working people struggle is strong enough to bring down the anti-poor capitalist government of the Obasanjo regime, then, with a revolutionary leadership imbued with a programme and tactic of social transformation, such a working peoples’ movement can easily brush aside other capitalist contenders for power whether within the military or civilian sections of the ruining capitalist class.

In other words, if LASCO leaders rise up today to provide appropriate political and organisational leadership which are bold enough to match the aspirations and determination of the working people shown in general strike after general strike, then it should be entirely possible to immediately terminate Obasanjo capitalist regime and at the same time form a working peoples’ government that will begin the task of dismantling all anti-poor economic and political policies in all ramifications, and in all sphere of social life. But if such a working class peoples’ movement is not conscious enough to recognise its own weight in society, then in such a situation, capitalist elements, either the military or civilian section may rise up to take temporary advantage of the weakness of the working class movement.

However, under the current worldwide imperialist/capitalist socio-economic impasse, such capitalist government will always be unstable and in fact, incapable of resolving any of the fundamental problem ravaging the working masses. Lacking social base for its inevitable pro-rich policies, such government, regardless of its initial pretences, will ultimately always resort to crude force and coercion just like the present Obasanjo government to push through its anti-poor policies and conducts. Some say that only an armed struggle can ensure ultimate victory for the struggle of the working masses against capitalist exploitation and political oppression.

Certainly, the labour movement has to be prepared to defend itself from the attacks of the rich and privileged seeking to defend their power and wealth. Even during this strike, we witnessed the murder of demonstrators and the arrest of labour leaders. Every act of attempted repression or intimidation must be met by determined resistance from the working class. Labour must be able to defend itself.

Suffice to note however, the armed struggle issue is not a one-on-one issue. If a minority, acting the messiahs, either in form of a military putsch or guerrilla struggle succeeded in removing from power an admittedly exploitative and oppressive regime, unless checkmated by the collective and democratic control of the masses themselves, any government formed by such messianic armed "liberators" might easily resort to using the same arms to impose its own narrow minded agenda on the entire polity. Therefore, there has to be the recognition, from the beginning, that only an armed struggle built around mass struggles and labour and youth organisations, whose agenda combine the task of physically removing capitalist elements from political power with the task of abolishing capitalist, private monopoly of both natural and human technological heritage of mankind in the name of privatisation and deregulation. Only this approach can provide a sustainable reservoir of resistance to all anti-poor governments and policies.

There is an urgent need for a broad, democratic discussion within LASCO and all the bodies linked to it on what are the next steps. LASCO leaders must boldly come out with a coherent policy and strategy which can bring to power a working peoples’ government as quickly as possible. LASCO leaders must not shy away from the truth by warning the masses that only mindless ethno-religious conflicts and violence will continue to be the lot of the people of the country as long as the kind of self-serving elements which dominate its economy and polity remain in power. In the past five years, over 54,000 (Fifty four thousand) persons were reportedly killed through ethno-religious conflicts, in Plateau State alone. The stakes are definitely high, but equally high is the prospect of success if the task is diligently and correctly prosecuted. Therefore, the perspective the DSM’s raises as we prepare for the next phase of the current struggle is the perspective of a protracted mass struggle until the working masses are able to carry out a revolution which brings to power a worker’s and peasants’ government built on a democratic, scientific socialist foundation. Any other approach or theory which gives the impression that the masses aspirations can otherwise be met in the present epoch is nothing but self deception, if not outright treachery.

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November 2004