Trade Unions issue 14 day ultimatum – but workers’ leaders must act decisively over new attacks
May 28 and 29 saw a two-day national protest against the recent fraudulent election in Nigeria. This was called by the Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO). The new president Umaru Yar’Adua’s was to be inaugurated on May 29 which would be a public holiday. Despite the declaration of Monday May 28 also as a public holiday by the government, the ‘stay-at-home’ call recorded a degree of success, particularly in Lagos, the commercial capital. Most people in the informal sectors like artisans, traders, etc who normally disregard public holidays decided to stay at home in compliance with LASCO’s directive.
Across Nigeria few people went to work and activists used the two days for campaigning and organising. In Lagos, Monday, May 28 was used to circulate materials in the communities about the issues involved. In Ajegunle there was a hugely successful street to street protest march and circulation of materials as also took place in Agbado and in Osogbo, Osun State. Activists, including members of the Democratic Socialist Movement (CWI, Nigeria), went round mobilising support for the May 29 demonstrations. In Osogbo this drew the ire of the Osun state government, which ordered out armed thugs and police to be ready to ruthlessly unleash terror on the protesters if they dared going out on May 29.
On Tuesday, May 29 the ever busy Lagos streets were deserted. The traffic was unusually light; it was a smooth drive to the rally at Yaba, but there was a small turn-out. About 200 civil society and student activists were there but very few labour leaders in attendance. They apparently thought they had done their best by asking workers to stay at home for the two days.
The take off point of the rally – the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) secretariat office – was cordoned off by heavily armed police. Thus, the protest march could not go more than 100 metres.
Before the police arrived, the rally had been addressed by leading activists like Dipo Fashina, (president of the Joint Action Forum (JAF)), Biodun Aremu (convener of United Action for Democracy), Joe Okei-Odumakin (President, Campaign for Democracy), Segun Sango (general secretary, Democratic Socialist Movement) and Bello Ismail, (secretary, National Labour Congress, Lagos State Council).
Segun Sango used his speech to canvass support for a Sovereign National Conference (SNC) comprising the elected representatives of workers, poor masses, professionals, etc to draw up a new constitution and conduct fresh elections. He said only on this basis can the call for cancellation of the 2007 elections be meaningful. This is because the existing 1999 constitution, particularly in relation to the composition of the electoral commission, provides conditions which enable rigging and manipulation of elections by the powers that be. He also spoke of the need for a mass working peoples’ political alternative to wrest power from the thieving, anti-poor ruling elite. This, he said, would ensure that we are not just struggling to provide a level playing-field for different sections of the ruling elite to contest political power.
Initial reports indicated that on the second day of the action, the venue of rally in Osun was sealed up by the police and armed police dispersed the rally in Edo state.
Members of the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) have played central and significant roles at all level of planning this struggle. We inspired the participation of the student body in south west Nigeria, which had been in a cocoon for more than a year. Together with the United Action for Democracy (UAD), our student comrades helped the National Association of Nigerian Students, Zone D, organise a meeting and prepare leaflets and posters for their intervention.
At the meetings of LASCO and JAF in Lagos, our intervention ensured that public messages were not restricted just to condemnation of the elections, but also called for an end to the anti-poor, neo-liberal policies of the government at all levels and for a working people’s political alternative.
In Osun State, our comrades are in the forefront of those mobilising mass action against the anti-poor, repressive Oyinlola state government. In conjunction with the Campaign for Democratic and Workers’ Rights (CDWR), Osun JAF has commenced a campaign with posters and fliers for a 15% pay rise for workers in that state. This campaign has been gaining support among rank and file workers.
In Lagos, our banner was widely filmed by the electronic media. The banner read "Reject Electoral Fraud: Build a Mass Working Class Political Alternative Now!" We also massively circulated our leaflets and sold a special edition of our paper, Socialist Democracy. We were also active in Edo State, where Adams Oshiomhole, the immediate past president of the National Labour Council, was a candidate in the April 14 gubernatorial election which was barefacedly rigged.
The two-day mass actions have come and gone. Certain important lessons must be learnt. The low attendance at the rallies reflects certain realities – the crackdown by the police and the relatively low level of mobilisation from the top labour leaders. Before and during preparation for the days of action, the main LASCO leaders failed to come up with clear, inspirational slogans. They could have made it clear that the struggle is about the welfare of the masses and not just to support one section of the ruling class against the other. The current struggle, unlike the previous ones led by Adams Oshiomhole, lacks important figures at its helm. Although featured in two press conferences in the run up to the struggle, none of the main labour leaders took practical steps to participate actively in the days of action.
A platform of opposition political parties called Nigeria United for Democracy (NUD), who are usually adept at rent-a-crowd rallies, could not muster even 20 people to the rally. None of the main opposition politicians was in attendance. Activists who wanted to support anything against Obasanjo helped distribute their fliers, but they lacked any specific demands.
Future of struggle
It would be wrong to draw the political conclusion that the masses have reconciled themselves to Umaru Yar’Adua’s stolen presidency. When a comparison of Tuesday’s protest is made with the situation during the transition from military to civilian rule in May 1999, the future of the working masses’ struggle, in one sense, looks brighter in the coming period. Exactly 8 years ago, on May 29, 1999, most of those protesting against the farce of the 2007 election were busy hobnobbing with one section of the ruling class or another. Then they had the false illusion that the physical exit of the military meant that the struggle for democracy had been won. Now they have seen that the last eight years have turned out to be a stormy period, recording seven nationwide general strikes and mass protests between 2000 and 2005, the most in Nigeria’s history. But there also is a negative legacy that these actions did not, because there was no leadership willing to challenge the existing order, result in any improvement in the working masses’ conditions. Unless a determined leadership is shown from the start there is the danger that workers will not regard the planned protests as serious.
By and large May 28 and 29 was positive being the first attempt at mobilising workers and poor masses around democratic demands since the exit of the military in 1999. The action has also put in the front burner the imperative of a mass working peoples’ political alternative and struggle against anti-poor neo-liberal economic reforms.
There is therefore every reason to look forward to see the potential for robust working class resistance and struggles in the current situation. This is especially so as the illegitimate government of Yar’Adua moves to intensify the capitalist, anti-poor policies of hikes in fuel prices, privatisation of the nation’s juicy heritage, mass retrenchment, commercialisation of education, etc.
Some leaders of LASCO have come to realise that the struggle cannot be limited to the electoral issues. They have agreed to support the demand for an immediate end to the neo-liberal policies of the government. The two trade union federations have now given 14 day ultimatums to the government over the new hike in fuel prices from Naira 65 to Naira 75 by outgoing Obasanjo government in the twilight of its administration, the simultaneous doubling of Value Added Tax from 5% to 10%, a 15% wage pay rise for federal workers and against the privatisation of the Port Harcourt oil refinery.
The May 28 and 29 days of action came at a period when workers in the electricity and oil sectors have begun taking action against privatisation of power stations and refineries respectively. The universities are still under lock and key due to industrial action by teachers.
We are canvassing for an immediate meeting of LASCO to start discussion around these issues with a view of arriving at a line of action. More importantly, we will continue to canvass for lessons to be learnt from the 2000 to 2005 movements, that the labour leaders do not abandon the field of battle, that a serious grassroots mobilisation is begun and the need for working people to struggle for a political alternative. We advocate a socialist programme as the solution against neo-liberal attacks on workers and poor carried out amidst the huge wealth of the country.