Nigeria: Fuel price rise provokes renewed anger

The end August 30% rise in Nigerian fuel prices has provoked a renewed outburst of mass anger in Africa’s most populous country.

Officially the Nigerian Government allowed this increase because the world price of oil has risen. But this argument has not cut much ice in Nigeria. Nigerians obviously know that they live in a major oil producing country and that, irrespective of the world price, the cost of actually extracting oil from the ground has not jumped this year.

It is true that, due to long-term corruption, Nigeria’s oil refineries cannot meet local demand and therefore refined oil has to be imported. But most Nigerians argue that the increased cost of imported oil can be covered by at least part of the $10.27 billion extra revenue that the Nigerian Government says that it has received in the first eights months of 2005 as a result of higher oil export prices. This extra income is equal to N1.43 trillion naira, over three times more than the 400 billion naira that Finance Minster Ngozi Okonja-Iweala has said that subsidizing fuel would cost for the whole of 2006.

The Nigerian government began “deregulating” the fuel prices in June 2000, when petrol stood at 20 naira a litre, after the latest hike it stands at least 65 naira. The now regular fuel price increases have resulted in higher transport, travel and cooking costs, while also hitting the local economy.

This has taken place against a background of an almost continuous fall in living standards. Only a few days before the latest increase the International Monetary Fund published a report that stated that in Nigeria “most indicators of social and economic progress, including real per capita income, real per capita consumption, literacy, access to clean water, and income distribution, indicate that poverty has worsened since 1960. Despite its human and natural resource wealth, Nigeria has become one of the poorest countries in the world. Per capita income in real terms was lower in 2002 than in 1975.”

Since 2000 the hikes in fuel prices have been met with mass opposition and mass action, or threats of mass action, by the trade unions led by the Nigerian Labour Congress. In the last five years there have been five general strikes, including one lasting eight days in June/July 2003. But in November last year the NLC called off, at the last moment, a well prepared general strike because, in reality, its leaders feared that the strike would go beyond purely economic issues and become a challenge to both the government and capitalism.

After that there was a down turn in the movement, but the latest increase created enormous anger that has begun to rekindle mass opposition.

Monday, September 5, saw a five hour meeting of the NLC, Trade Union Congress and “civil society” groups to discuss action against the latest fuel price rise. Significantly it was generally accepted that Nigeria was in a deepening crisis and it was it was necessary to widen the struggle.

NLC President, Adams Oshiomhole explained that experience had showed that “it has thus become necessary to adopt more far-reaching and comprehensive strategies, mobilise a wider spectrum of the Nigerian society and broaden the issues. In the light of these, LASCO resolved to initiate the emergence of a broad, popular movement aimed at a far-reaching and fundamental restructuring of government system in the country. This movement will include Labour, civil society groups, women, students, pensioners, professional and religious bodies and the informal sector.”

Unfortunately this was not linked to any concrete plans for determined action against the government. Indeed Oshiomhole justified his new approach on the basis of the “failure of strikes to achieve meaningful goals” when it fact the “failure of strikes” has been due to the policies of the NLC leaders themselves rather than the method of struggle.

It was agreed that LASCO (the Labour Civil Society Coalition that links the unions and other groups) would call eight rallies in different parts of the country, starting with one in Lagos on September 14 and ending in Jos on September 30. These would be called on only to protest against the end August increase in the price of petrol, but against the “anti-people reform programmes of the Federal Government”.

At this September 5 meeting the Democratic Socialist Movement welcomed holding rallies but proposed that they should be part of a mobilisation for definite action and moved a resolution called for the Federal Government to be given a clear ultimatum to withdraw the fuel price increase. Unfortunately this was not accepted and instead it was agreed that if the rallies did not lead to a price cut then there would be “mass protests and work stoppages”. There is a danger that the NLC leaders are starting to use radical phrases about the need for political change to hide their reluctance to launch any struggles now.

Despite this Segun Sango, the DSM general secretary, was elected to a nine person “technical committee” formed to organise the rallies and is arguing for the DSM’s proposal that local work stoppages to be organised alongside these rallies as part of preparation for a general strike.

As Dagga Tolar, the editor of the DSM’s paper “Socialist Democracy”, recently explained the immediate challenges before socialists in Nigeria is how to articulate and carry out series of mass propaganda agitations among the working class people at workplaces, communities, schools etc. Tens of thousands of leaflets have to be produced giving broad socialist and struggle ideas in the course of mobilisation for mass resistance against the latest fuel price hike. The aim is to reach out to mass of change-seeking elements and win them over to a rounded revolutionary, socialist option.

The DSM has already helped initiate the formation of the Joint Action Forum (JAF), a coalition of DSM and various well known civil rights groups, after last November’s general strike was called off and LASCO became inactive. The JAF chair is Dr. Beko Ransome Kuti, a very well known civil rights activist and brother of the famous musician Fela Kuti, while the secretary is Chima Ubani of the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO. The JAF is now part of LASCO and hopefully will play an important part in the coming struggles.

In the article “One Fuel Price Hike Too Many” the DSM explained that “Right now, JAF has called on the Nigerian people to organise Protest Coordinating Committees in their neighbourhood to ensure coordination of struggles in different areas. For us in DSM, the acceptance of this demand provides the rank and file working masses the opportunity to take concrete and real control and influence on general strikes and protests that will ultimately make it impossible for top labour and civil society leaders to run and end particular struggles in an undemocratic and pro-status quo fashion.”

What this means was explained in a DSM statement issued earlier this year “The series of general strikes that have taken place against the Obasanjo government are the irrefutable proofs that the masses are yearning for a clean break with the present rot. If however, despite these general strikes and protests, the Obasanjo government has been able to retain power and in consequence is able to continue with its anti-poor economic and political agenda, the primary blame should go to labour leaders who have always, against the grain of fact and logic, confined themselves to an half measure struggle and isolated demands instead of using these general strikes and protests as part of the processes to effect the total transformation of the current unjust capitalist, economic and political dispensation. The DSM struggles for a fighting labour leadership that will act, not just speak militant words.”

Just before the most recent fuel price hike was implemented the DSM published the latest edition of its paper, Socialist Democracy, and wrote:

“We therefore call on all the three labour centres, NLC, TUC and CFTU, civil society organisations, student and youth groups, pro-people political parties and organisation, to commence various activities to drum loudly the people’s objection and be prepared for popular resistance that will include strikes, demonstrations, rallies, etc.

“However, as the experience of the last six years has shown, the working masses and their organisations must be prepared to get rid of this capitalist and pro-imperialist government with its anti-poor policies, including incessant increase in fuel price, astronomical rise in price of foodstuff, retrenchment of workers, privatisation, etc.

“We, thus reiterate our long held call on the labour leaders, pro-people organisations and parties, change seeking individuals and socialists should, at communities, factories and workplaces, local, state and national levels as soon as practicable, convene conferences to discuss and fashion out a coherent economic and political alternatives to the prevailing unjust capitalist order. To that effect, those conferences should be geared towards the formation of a genuine working peoples’ party with rounded socialist programmes. The most correct and scientific lesson that can be drawn from the general strikes and protests that have been held so far in reaction to the policy of incessant hike in the fuel price is that the ultimate goal of the struggle should be the overthrow of capitalism represented by Obasanjo, the PDP and other pro-capitalist parties and its replacement by a workers and peasant government which only can potentially carry out pro-masses policies of affordable housing, free and qualitative education, healthcare, constant electricity, portable water, functional transport system amongst others.”

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September 2005