Nigeria: After June’s general strike, what now?

Between June 20 and June 23, 2007, Nigeria came to a complete halt as working people led the mass of the population in struggle against the latest attacks of the ruling robber elite.

Overall, this general strike and mass protest recorded a huge success in terms of the massive support it enjoyed amongst working masses, in both the formal and informal sectors of the economy, across the country. This general strike, the eighth since 2000, showed once again the huge potential power of working people – without them the rulers could do nothing.

The demands were very clear: to protest against and achieve the reversal of the latest hike in fuel prices and the 100% hike of Value Added Tax (VAT). Other principal demands included a 15% pay rise as well as the review of the recent privatisation of the Port Harcourt and Kaduna oil refineries.

Against this background, the massive support which the strike and associated protests achieved represents a crushing refutation of the brazen lie of the ruling elite that over 30 million people voted for the main capitalist parties in April’s fraudulent general elections. If such numbers actually voted in support of the government parties, representing peoples’ happiness with government policies, the strike would have not been as successful as it was.

But why did this highly successful general strike fail to fully achieve its goals? Some commentators have questioned the tactic of the general strike, claiming that the concessions made by government were not radically different than those made before the movement began.

For the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM), these questions can only be answered within the context of an understanding that the general strike is not just an end in itself but a means to achieve a society that can guarantee a permanent decent living standard and genuine democratic and political rights.

This is not an abstract discussion. The Labour movement has to draw conclusions from its experiences. Since 2000 there have been eight general strikes or mass protests in seven years. But, unfortunately, while these actions achieved massive support, they did not result in any improvement in the masses’ living standards, let alone any fundamental change. If future struggles are to have different results the lessons of the last seven years have to be learnt.

Lessons of June’s strike

The general strike showed again that the Nigerian working class has the potential power to run society but also that an unbridgeable gulf exists between the working masses’ actions and that of the outlook and methods of nearly all labour and mass movement leaders. This is demonstrated most clearly by the reasons given by labour movement leaders for calling off the strike.

Whilst the DSM has sharp criticisms of the way in which the strike was ended by its leaders, we backed the decision of both the Nigerian Labour Congress and the Trades Union Congress to go ahead with the scheduled strike notwithstanding the last minute concessions made by the Yar’Adua government on the eve of the strike. It is also the case that the leadership produced more publicity materials in preparation to build the strike when compared to previous general strikes. With a determined leadership and a clear programme, this movement could have been the start of a socialist transformation of Nigerian society. But, frankly speaking, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and Trades Union Congress (TUC) leaders did not have this idea. The decision of labour leaders to call off this strike at the time they did, reflected their own political views, while the absence of sizable opposition to the leadership reflected the current basic organisational and political limitations of the general working class movement in Nigeria. Sometimes in the class struggle, it is necessary to make a tactical retreat, but then, it is always essential that the reasons for this are openly explained and a perspective given of what should be done to prepare the next stage of struggle.

The strike involved nearly all parts of the working masses, the employed as well as the unemployed across Nigeria. Unfortunately, the actual control and leadership of the strike was in a few hands – a few trade union leaders and their civil society allies. Apart from Lagos State where the DSM and United Action for Democracy (UAD) members were able, in some areas, to organise strike committees, there was hardly any organisation at rank and file level. In Lagos these committees organised pickets and leafleting in local communities on a daily basis. The strike in most other parts of the country was run solely on the basis of what the TUC and NLC leaders did or did not do. Therefore, as the strike progressed, most layers of the working masses were not in any sense being collectively involved in an organised manner, either in the actual running of the strike or making decisions on tactics and strategy.

Start organising an alternative

A key issue facing face labour movement activists in Nigeria when a general strike is planned is food and water supplies for the working class and poor peasants. In a country like Nigeria many workers in the informal sector are paid daily and usually working class and poor families rely on daily shopping for food because they cannot afford the costs of buying a refrigerator and a generator to keep it working during the frequent power cuts. In many working class areas, people have to go to standpipes or rely on mobile water tanker trucks to obtain water supply. During a strike these supplies are interrupted. Trade union activists have to be able to provide concrete solutions to overcoming these problems if a strike is to be sustained for any length of time.

The only way the strike could have been successfully sustained was for the central leadership to put in place a comprehensive plan to form Action Committees in all parts of the country with the sole purpose of running the strike in such a way that the basic necessities of lives would be supplied to the working masses while still effectively shutting down the capitalist institutions of exploitation and oppression.

Fundamentally only an understanding of labour’s practical ability to show that it can safeguard the interests of the working masses while paralysing the capitalist state can enable the broad masses to effectively participate in sustained mass actions. To think that labour can sustain an indefinite strike without such organisation is nothing but a sign of a superficial understanding of the dynamics of a revolutionary agenda. To sustain and give direction to the strike in the given situation would require labour to up the scale by advancing the slogan of an end to all usurpers’ governments at central and state levels.

This also raised the question of what political alternative is being put forward by labour to replace the corrupt capitalist politicians. Overall, to be able to sustain the strike in the given situation would certainly require a revolutionary socialist outlook and perspective, which goes beyond what the existing society can offer. Unfortunately however, this precisely was the factor missing at all times. Thus, for us in the DSM, the major error of the labour leaders lies in the fact that they called off the strike on the basis of wrong and potentially dangerous premises, for mass struggles, both now and in future.

Strategic Partners?

In calling off the strike, the NLC and TUC leaders together with representatives of the federal government had, amongst other things, stated: "In the spirit of the strategic partnership between Government and Labour enunciated by President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in his letter of June 23, 2007 to the NLC and TUC, both sides further agree on the need for a mechanism for structured, proactive and routine interaction between Government and Organised Labour towards a qualitative process".

At a separate press conference in Abuja on the same day, the TUC and NLC leaders gave further amplification of why they had to call off the strike. The NLC and TUC presidents had attributed their decision to call off the strike for the following reasons, "the series of appeals for compromise by many Nigerians, including important institutions like the National Assembly, mass organisations, religious and traditional leaders and the media. Additional impetus for our interest in dialogue and finding the middle ground was provided by the personal appeal made by President Umar Musa Yar’Adua. The appeal by the President has been backed by an additional concession made by the Federal Government".

DSM members believe that the political and practical reason given above to call off the strike were fundamentally flawed and would prove dangerous to future struggles unless these are immediately corrected. In calling off the strike the labour leaders agreed to a "strategic partnership between Government and Labour" through "a mechanism of structured, proactive and routine interaction between Government and organized Labour". At best, this idea is sheer illusion, a phantasmagoria. At worst, it is nothing short of absolute betrayal of the interests and aspirations of the working masses.

All class societies, especially the prevailing capitalist system revel in inequality, between the haves and the have nots, between the exploiters and their victims. In fact, modern day capitalism has carried inequality to an unprecedented level wherein the major commanding heights of the economy and wealth are being converted to an exclusive property of a few capitalist individuals and corporations in the name of privatisation!

Recently, President Yar’Adua expressed his objection over huge domestic debts when he said, "I am concerned about the rising domestic debt and we must come up with a strategy to stem it and reduce its volume". And then significantly, he continued, "The CBN (Central Bank of Nigeria) must take appropriate steps to check the tendency of commercial banks to finance the social sector to the detriment of the real sector". (The Guardian, Lagos, June 14, 2007).

What does this mean? President Yar’Adua prefers a situation where fewer resources would be spent on social services which would benefit a far greater majority of the working masses. Like Obasanjo before him, the major priority remains the private sector alias "real sector". Most of the resources and debts purportedly invested on social services in the past were actually stolen by top government officials and their capitalist contractors, according to the government’s own Debt Management Office (DMO)! But never mind, the working masses must always pay for the recklessness of the ruling class!

So, how can a "strategic partnership" and "middle ground" formula, mutually beneficial to both the poor working masses and the Adenugas or Dangotes (members of the rich capitalist elite who were close to the previous corrupt regime) of this world be forged? How can a "proactive and routine interaction between Government and organised Labour" alter the fact that the lowest paid legislator will this year officially earn above N20 million ($157,000) while the lowest paid federal worker will earn just N120 000 ($940) per annum?

Joint Committees with the Government?

According to the communiqué signed by labour and the federal government, "Expert Committee will examine the recent privatization/concessioning exercises, especially the sale of the 51% government equity in the refineries and the proposal for the power sector". In addition to this, "Govt will set up an expert committee to examine the pricing mechanism of petroleum products and make recommendations".

DSM members firmly believe that nothing will come of this so-called concession. First and foremost, what is needed, but sorely lacking, is a principled opposition to the entire privatisation agenda and a democratic socialist alternative of controlling and running economy and society in the interest of all and not just for a capitalist few.

Apart from the fact that the mandate of the so-called "expert committee" is limited only to "the recent privatisation exercises", the best that can be achieved under this "expert committee" would be a situation where the recent controversial privatisation exercises are revoked and later likely sold to new buyers or same buyers on similar or even worse terms!

The acceptance of "pricing mechanism committee" for petroleum products within the framework of the market system can only ultimately mean one thing – the surrender of the right to the capitalist state to periodically hike fuel prices while doing nothing to ensure working masses adequate access to basic needs like foods, housing, health care, education, jobs, functional and affordable social infrastructures and other necessities like transportation, telecommunications, etc.

It is very commendable that the strike has forced the government to agree to implement a 15% pay rise to federal government workers and also the total withdrawal of the 100% increment in VAT rate recently imposed. However, on their own, these are inadequate concessions. Put differently, these so-called concessions can hardly alter the current, deplorable living conditions of the vast majority of the working masses.

To start with, the agreed pay rise only covers federal workers, whereas, the struggle actually involved the working masses across board. Secondly, when compared with actual cost of living and when placed side by side of what top government officials are awarding themselves in the name of "monetisation", the 15% pay rise was too little and too late. Thirdly, the 15% pay rise did not carry a proviso for a periodic increment to keep up with the rate of inflation. Fourthly, and most importantly, the 15% pay rise was conceded by the government on the basis "that there would be right-sizing (euphemism for retrenchment) in federal civil service". (Source, Segun Adeniyi, the Special Assistant (communication) to the President in The Lagos Guardian of Sunday June 24, 2007).

Yes, the VAT reversal is 100%. Nonetheless, this would only mean that the vast majority of the working masses remain in their current intolerable and deplorable living conditions! If President Yar’Adua keeps his promise, there would be no "official" price increment of petroleum products in the next one year. Leaving aside the fact that these products are currently sold in many parts of the country far above the officially agreed prices, what happens after the one-year moratorium on fuel prices? The more a critical appraisal of the reasons given by labour leaders in calling off the strike in issue is made, the more apparent becomes the necessity to develop a trade union and mass movement leadership with a revolutionary outlook for a struggle against the unjust capitalist system.

Labour and April’s elections

Labour, like many sections of the Nigerian society, totally condemned the farce dubbed the 2007 general elections. In fact, the NLC, in a press statement dated April 24, 2007 and signed by its General Secretary, John Odah, had amongst other things stated,

"The Nigeria Labour Congress finds it difficult to accept the outcome of the presidential elections and the emergence of Alhaji Yar’ Adua. This is not because we have any personal disagreement with him, but the fact that he is a beneficiary of a fundamentally flawed electoral process, which was programmed to fail.

"The plan to subvert the will of the people, rig the elections and impose a politically disabled leadership on the country was so clear that the NLC convened an urgent meeting of its Central Working Committee on April 19, 2007 in what has turned out to be a vain attempt to steer the country away from an avoidable disaster …

"It is clear that Nigerians have been robbed of a unique and historical opportunity to freely choose their leaders. The NLC thinks that the Presidency is being half smart and myopic by dangling appeal tribunals before the victims of this blatant robbery carried out in the presence of domestic and international election observers.

"The NLC is convinced that the long-term interests of our nation will be better served by rejecting these elections."

Just like many others, Labour had at one time or the other, called for an outright cancellation of this gargantuan fraud and a re-run of the entire exercise. As is well known, the ruling PDP government of ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, the authors and beneficiaries of the election farce, totally ignored the popular call for a cancellation and re-run. The main capitalist parties, i.e. the All Nigerian Peoples’ Party (ANPP), Action Congress (AC), Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA), could not come up with any persuasive or formidable programme and platform to fight the PDP on policies and methodology, even though they were the direct victims of the PDP’s electoral robbery.

In reality, both of these sides of the capitalist class are equally anti-poor and utterly corrupt. Both the PDP and main capitalist opposition parties operate ruthless, intolerable and undemocratic regimes in their own parties. Both of them manipulated and rigged the elections in accordance with the money and control of state apparatus at their disposal before and during the farcical exercise called the general election.

Thus, faced with an unacceptable situation where both the ruling party and the opposition parties do not in any major sense represent the interest and aspirations of the masses, how precisely should Labour react to the colossal electoral robbery which characterized the so-called 2007 general elections?

Working class resistance needed

Expectedly, the PDP and most layers of the thieving capitalist class, constantly urged Labour not to intervene in the political situation because, according to them, Labour must never be "partisan" in politics. Most unfortunately however, this kind of anti-working class perspective found some echo among some elements within Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO). To these elements, the colossal electoral robbery perpetrated in the name of 2007 general elections is nothing more than a squabble between the different sectors of the capitalist ruling class. While DSM members generally agreed with this characterisation, we nonetheless advocated that organised labour should take practical steps to fight this electoral robbery, of course, without siding with any of the bourgeois contenders but precisely to use the failure of the entire process to advance a distinct, independent working masses alternative political agenda, including the defence of democratic rights and free elections.

Unfortunately, while the organised labour correctly decided to intervene in the political situation in the aftermath of the controversial elections, however, it has now been revealed that that intervention was primarily based on a futile perspective of guaranteeing the "stability" of the prevailing indefensible social economic system.

In a special interview granted to "Saturday Tribune" of 14, July, 2007, Abdulwaheed Omar, the NLC President, had, amongst other things, argued: "what we tried was to do things that would certainly stabilise Nigeria, not create chaos. Even when attempts were made to use the platform of the NLC or labour to do certain things, we said no, we had to separate these things. For example during the May Day celebration, which everybody knows is a day that is very special to workers, some of the political parties certainly wanted us to use that platform, but we said no. We considered this to be holiday for workers and it is only for the celebration of the workers. So if we were politically motivated, that would have been the first port of call. ……During the inauguration, the congress decided that there was not going to be a street protest but a sit at home protest and of course with some neighbourhood protest. The congress did that in the belief that the inauguration was part of the process of democracy, which needed not to be stalled. Otherwise, the congress could have come out to protest because earlier on we condemned the elections as not transparently done. We could have come out that time and it would have been a bad situation for the country".

This is a stupendous revelation! Labour, quite rightly in our view, condemned these highly manipulated elections but was only prepared to organise symbolic resistance which would not in any way jeopardise Nigeria’s "stability"! Yes, it would have been totally wrong for Labour to base its fight against electoral fraud on the demands of the equally anti-poor, corrupt politicians of the bourgeois opposition. However, the idea of stalling a just fight to defend democratic rights so as not to rock the stones of the prevailing capitalist "stability", is nothing short of a betrayal of the interests of the working masses. The question of whether this act of treachery is a conscious or an unconscious process will not, at the end of the day, alter the fact of treachery in itself. This refusal to seriously defend democratic rights and free elections sets a dangerous precedent and labour’s ranks must call their leaders to account.

Where now?

The decision of the NLC, TUC and Joint Action Front (JAF) to organise the strike is highly commendable. The DSM applauds all the practical steps taken by labour leaders and the entire labour movement in making the initial strike call a success. While we fully appreciate the disappointment experienced by the working masses in the sense that petrol price was not returned to N65 per litre as demanded, we nonetheless hold the view that the importance of the June 2007 general strikes/mass protests go beyond the issue of petrol price alone. If for nothing else, the struggle has once again underlined the determination and preparedness of the working masses to wage a serious battle against the prevailing unjust economic and political order.

The strike has also demonstrated the fact that the past general strikes had not been organised against President Obasanjo personally, but against the entire economic and political interests represented by Obasanjo and Yar’Adua, his imposed successor. That was why the masses supported the strike notwithstanding the last minute concessions made by Yar’Adua. Of course, ending the strike without achieving total reversal of the petrol price to N65 a litre after the titanic struggles of the masses was frustrating.

The reversal of petrol price to N65 a litre would have been a great morale booster to the working masses in general, particularly those involved in the struggle. However simply limiting labour’s demands to these issues will not permanently alter the material and political living conditions of the working masses in today’s situation. To hold otherwise would be to accept that the prevailing social economic conditions of the masses are palatable. It would mean admitting that mass and permanent poverty in the midst of abundance is an inevitability. It would mean admitting that Nigeria’s political affairs would always be solely run by the different sections of the capitalist looters and gangsters. It would mean accepting the fact that the current deplorable health care and education services cannot be run for the better. It would mean accepting the fact that mass unemployment, crimes, prostitution, frauds, drug peddling, etc, which presently dominate the lives of the working masses youths are unchangeable.

This is why the June 2007 general strike was so important. For us, the determination shown by the working masses in the period before and during the strike clearly revealed that there exists inexhaustible prospects for a successful transformation of the current, unjust capitalist society. All that is required for this potential to be translated into reality are basically these: Labour and all mass organisations leaders must totally jettison their pro-capitalist outlook or be replaced by those that are prepared to fight the system.

In place of half-hearted and incoherent opposition to privatisation, Labour leaders need to mount a vigorous opposition to privatisation in principle and in reality. Therefore, simply opposing the sales of state’s assets to capitalist corporations and individuals on its own, cannot effectively roll back the tide of privatisation. Everyone knows that these assets do not presently thrive well under capitalist state control. Therefore, Labour needs a comprehensive working class, socialist economic agenda within which the major resources and wealth of societies are commonly owned and democratically planned and controlled by the working masses. This would guarantee all the basic economic needs of life for all and not just for a few capitalist elements and their hangers-on. This is a key to winning future struggles.

The NLC leaders’ aim of stabilising capitalist Nigeria is the political reason why they did not want to use the general strike as the starting point for a socialist transformation. Secondly and simultaneously, Labour has to consciously begin an immediate effort to create a distinctly working class party entirely devoted to working class needs. The express goal of this party must be to capture of political power from the self-serving capitalist class and the formation of a genuine workers and poor peasant government, on a socialist foundation.

We consequently urge labour leaders and all pro-labour forces to commence practical action in this respect so that future elections and mass struggles would not meet the masses in a state of political unpreparedness as in the 2007 general elections period. The capitalist class want power for their own self-serving ends. For this reason, unless the working masses intervene, an electoral contest only limited to these vampires will always be manipulated in a "do or die" fashion. However, if Labour, energetically, raises a political platform primarily dedicated to meet the genuine needs of the masses, this could become a formidable political instrument through which the rule of all shades of exploiters and oppressors can be quickly terminated once and for all. The alternative would be the deepening of the prevailing socio-economic barbarism ravaging the working masses and the society as a whole.

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August 2007