Nigeria: Continual government fuel hikes

Mass action needed to stop anti-poor policy

The recent hike in fuel prices is one hike too many. It is the 7th time that fuel prices will be arbitrarily increased since the President Obasanjo-led People’s Democratic Party (PDP) government came to power on May 29, 1999. Then, a litre of petrol and kerosene cost 20 naira and 18 naira, respectively. Today, a litre of petrol officially costs between 50 naira and 51.50 naira, while diesel and kerosene sell for 63 naira and 62 naira (around 48 US cents). Suffice to say, these phenomenal increases in fuel prices would even have been bigger but for the fact that the working masses, under the central leadership of the National Labour Council (NLC), had gone on five nationwide general strikes/mass protests against the incessant hike in fuel price each time an increment had been made.

Since the mid-1980s, all the successive capitalist governments, including the current one headed by Obasanjo, have always claimed that there is no other viable option to avoid the incessant hike in fuel prices. Occasionally, government’s spokespeople do concede that this policy has been wrecking serious havocs on the living standard of the working masses but these, they always say, are just the unavoidable birth pangs that herald the joy of a new baby. In the long run, affordable energy will be guaranteed for all.

But, far from showing any prospect of a better future, this policy of incessant hike of fuel prices has only been yielding mass closures of factories and companies, which are unable to profitably pass on these increases onto consumers who themselves are mostly jobless and underpaid. Today, there is a growing layer of elements that used to use one form of automobile or the other before but could no longer afford to do so, not to mention the financial burden on those that are still using any while costs of public transport fares, cooking, etc are prohibitive. This is aside from those whose small scale businesses that have collapsed as a result of erratic electricity supplies and high fuel prices. Against this background, the current hike in fuel prices, and the reason given for this hike, clearly shows that real enjoyment can never come the way of the masses under the prevailing capitalist system.

Struggles against fuel price hike

The central position which fuel products occupy in the lives of industries, agriculture, public and private institutions, big and small businesses, individuals, etc underlines why the NLC has led five nationwide general strikes/protests against previous hike in fuel prices. Many honest followers of events will readily concede that but for these strikes, prices of fuel products would be higher than what they are today. However, the fact that these strikes have not also been able to prevent the rise, say in the price of a litre of petrol from 20 naira in 1999 to 51.50 naira in 2005, is also something that cannot be ignored by serious analysts. In fact, the fact that the NLC and most LASCO leaders from the civil society organisations have not come up with concrete and concerted programme of action to fight the current hike in fuel prices, shows that the main labour leaders are fundamentally bereft of an alternative workable ideas to the ruinous one being pursued by the government.

There are three immediate negative implications in the current labour leaders’ reaction or inaction. One, the inability of labour leaders to fight this increase might give the misleading impression that there is no other viable energy policy to the one being implemented by the government. Two, labour’s inaction on this issue may falsely reinforce the right wing, pro-rich position that mass struggles, including general strikes, are ineffective or irrelevant in the masses struggle for permanent decent living conditions. Three, the demoralisation produced by the NLC/LASCO leaders giving the impression that they are prepared to struggle and then, suddenly calling off struggles without any significant concessions being won.

Labour leaders’ fall short

As said before, but for the general strikes, more outrageous fuel prices and other anti-poor economic and political policies would have been imposed on the working masses by the Obasanjo capitalist government. However, there is a growing concern and depression among significant layers of labour activists and the masses, in general that the labour leaders’ outlook, strategy and tactics have fallen far short of what the situation actually requires. The false impression being given by the Obasanjo government, that its anti-poor, pro-rich agenda is unstoppable, is largely caused by the bankrupt outlook and wrong strategy being employed by the main labour leaders.

First and foremost, it should be stated that there is no rational and valid basis for the mass poverty and mass unemployment that pervades the land today. As a country, Nigeria is stupendously rich in mineral and natural resources. Proceeds from crude oil exportation alone could start to largely transform the economic and social conditions of the country and its people positively, if properly and equitably used. Instead, we have a grotesque situation, where according to a World Bank, only one percent of the populace consumes 80% of all generated wealth! Against this background, labour leaders continued support for privatisation of the major resources and key sectors of the economy is, to say the least, from the masses point of view, tragic.

Arising from this pro-capitalist outlook, labour’s strategy for mobilisation for the general strikes that have taken place in the past six years have, of necessity, been opportunistic and elitist. Firstly, these general strikes are regarded by labour leaders as mere means of exerting pressure on government and oil marketers to squeeze out limited periodic concessions on prices and not an expression of total discontent of the working masses against the entire economic and political agenda and conducts of the Obasanjo government. The labour leaders are not prepared to challenge capitalism and imperialism. Because of this approach, emphasis on mobilisation had always been primarily concentrated on enlisting the sympathy of “patriotic” sections of captialist society in the National Assembly, the media, among big time clerics and traditional rulers rather than grass root mobilisation of factory workers, rank and file public servants, and urban and rural poor, in general.

It should be stressed that these false approaches and strategies were often responsible for the sudden and needless suspensions of impending actions and or the signing of rotten compromises with the government after every general strike. Twice, in October 2003, and in November 2004, labour leaders had called off impending general strikes on the basis of a futile hope that a “solution acceptable” to both the working people and the capitalist class can be “dialogued”! Invariably, this servile approach on the part of labour leaders was exploited by the capitalist government to launch more brazen attacks on the economic and political needs of the masses.

The way forward

The current hike in fuel prices was made because the Obasanjo’s government feels that the incoherent policy and half-hearted strategy of the main labour leaders would have worn out the enthusiasm of the masses to resist government’s anti-poor agenda. Sadly, we have to admit that government’s calculation in this respect, to a certain extent, is correct. Unlike before, the current hike had not created the situation where different sections of the working masses put pressure on the NLC leaders to lead a struggle for reversal. The truth is that many layers of the working masses are either frustrated or wary of the inconsistencies of the labour leaders in struggles vis-à-vis government anti-poor policies. When told that the general strike planned for November 16, 2004, had once again been suspended, a house wife, Mrs. Echeme Chima, angrily told the ‘New Age’ (November 17, 2004): “They [labour leaders, editor] should leave us alone to face whatever policies that the government wants, since they can no longer fight for us. One day, we shall take our destiny in our own hands and confront the government”.

Therefore, for maximum success, future labour mobilisation against hikes in fuel price or any other anti-poor policy has to be waged within the context of an overall strategy that seeks to remove from power the Obasanjo capitalist government, and not based on the current utopian approach of hoping to cajole the government to do justice to the basic needs of the people.

Labour leaders need to stop giving the impression that general strikes can only be called against anti-poor oil policy. The anti-poor policies of the government on jobs creation, housing, health care, children education, social services, etc need to be vigorously combated as well. Therefore, in fighting the current fuel price hike, other issues negatively affecting the living standard of the entire working masses should be articulated with a view to mobilise the entire working class people and youths around these demands. If this is seriously and consistently done, a new wave of powerful working peoples’ resistance can be built within a very short period of time. This would not only be strong enough to force the government to reverse the current hike in fuel prices but would be powerful enough to begin the process of removing, once and for all, the unjust capitalist elements who preside over mass poverty in the midst of plenty, from economic and political control of society.

From a special May Day edition of ‘Socialist Democracy’, paper of the DSM, Nigeria

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May 2005