Nigeria’s January 2012 uprising: When strikes and protests nearly swept a capitalist regime out of power

Ten years ago, instead of the festivities that often herald the New Year, Nigerian working people and youth started the year 2012 at the barricades. The immediate spark was the New Year Day announcement of fuel subsidy removal by the President Goodluck Jonathan-led government. Immediately, petrol stations adjusted the pump price of fuel from N65 per liter to over N141 per liter. As transport costs shot through the roof, many who had traveled home for the yuletide celebrations became stranded. It was a sad New Year Day, to say the least. But once the masses recovered from the initial shock, the wheel of struggle was set in motion. Spontaneous mass protests broke out from January 2nd and these quickly spread across the country. On 9th January, an indefinite General Strike called by the NLC and TUC began and brought society to a halt. The General Strike lasted a week but was suspended thereafter without achieving its objectives. As Nigerian workers and poor masses now prepare to resist another attempt by the capitalist regime to remove fuel subsidy, it is important to examine the history of the 2012 uprising which clocks a decade this year in order to draw out useful lessons for today’s struggles, H.T SOWETO writes.

Many participants of the January 2012 uprising would be surprised that 10 years have gone by already. In a way, very little has changed in terms of the issues that working people face today compared to one decade ago. Between then and now, fuel price has increased multiple folds to N165 per liter. In fact, it is not an accident that as we mark the 10 year anniversary of this important struggle, the labour movement is once again preparing for another struggle against plans by the President Buhari government to withdraw fuel subsidy – something which may send fuel prices skyrocketing to about N340 per liter.

According to the latest pronouncement by the Ayuba Wabba-led Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), national rallies are to take place across the country on 27th January to be followed by a national protest in Abuja on 1st February 2021.  As much as these battle plans are welcomed, the truth that must be told is that the fact that the working people are once again mobilizing to fight against the policy of fuel subsidy removal 10 years after the January 2012 uprising is an indictment on the leadership of the labour movement.

We must also not forget that the section of the capitalist elite now in power today under the platform of the All Progressive Congress (APC) and who are now imposing the same policy of subsidy removal were in opposition in 2012. At the time, they were mainly organized around Bola Tinubu’s Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in the South West and Buhari’s Congress of Progressive Change (CPC) in the North. In fact, when the January uprising broke out, this section of the capitalist elite was compelled by the overwhelming opposition of the masses to also reject the policy of subsidy removal and support the uprising even though not sincerely. They eventually came to power in 2015 under the umbrella of the APC precisely because, after the January uprising did not succeed at ending the rule of the PDP, the working masses looked towards the electoral plane to kick the PDP out of power, but the labour leadership failed to build a mass workers’ party which could serve as a rallying point. Therefore it is for these reasons, and many more, that Socialists consider the January 2012 uprising as not only a missed opportunity by the workers’ movement to defeat deregulation, it was also a missed opportunity to begin the process to change the way Nigeria is run.

Jonathan’s New Year Gift

To start with, the January 2012 uprising was not simply a response to the removal of fuel subsidies and other anti-poor policies of the capitalist government in Nigeria, it was also inspired by the revolutionary movements that swept the world at the period. These include the Arab spring starting at the end of 2010 which toppled Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt as well as the occupy movements of 2011 in the United States and the 15-M in Spain. This explains why the movement dubbed “#Occupy Nigeria” combined many elements we saw in these international struggles including the use of social media (Facebook and Twitter) to mobilize and organize, self-organization of the masses through neighborhood and community action committees, occupation of public places and parks like the Gani Fawehinmi Park in Lagos, etc.

The immediate spark was the decision of the government to remove fuel subsidy but the fundamental factor was the masses’ anger and frustration about how the country is run. For the most part of the year 2011, the President Jonathan government committed enormous resources, time and energy campaigning for this step. Town halls were organized in several cities across the country and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) with federal government ministers and other officials traveling around to canvass and build support for the neo-liberal pill. This is aside from sponsorship of adverts and opinions in newspapers and televisions to swing public opinion. Despite all these efforts, rejection of the policy was overwhelming everywhere.  Nonetheless, the government insisted that it was going to ahead with the policy regardless. In fact as the year 2011 was closing, the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy Okonjo Iweala appeared on live television saying that the policy would be implemented in April of 2012. So no one, not even the activists organized under the Joint Action Front (JAF) who had started mobilization against the policy and had even announced 3rd January 2012 as a day of action, had a premonition of the sudden turn of events.

It was therefore a bewildered nation that woke up on the fateful morning of 1st January 2012 to the New Year Day announcement by the Petroleum Pricing and Regulatory Agency (PPRA) that fuel subsidy had been removed. Apparently, President Jonathan who had just won the 2011 general elections was counting on his popularity to be able to force through the policy. In reality, the policy of full deregulation of the oil sector and removal of fuel subsidy had been a legacy project of all capitalist regimes, with the support of imperialism, at least since 1999. However, every regime that had attempted it was often confronted with mass resistance.

For instance, between the early 2000s and 2010, Nigeria had experienced nothing less than 7 general strikes, plus 3 more called but then cancelled, led by the labour movement mainly against the fuel price hike. During every episode of fuel price hike, government often canvassed the idea of removing subsidies and deregulation as the only solution but this was often rejected by the mass of the working people. Apparently, Jonathan hoped to go down in history as the President who succeeded where others had failed. He and his out-of-touch advisers also reckoned that announcing the policy during the festive period would undermine any effort to mobilize and fight back. But this was not to be as their actions succeeded in detonating a mass movement that nearly swept the regime away.

An Uprising Begins

Initially, the working masses were stupefied especially given the insensitive nature of the announcement on a day many were in a festive mood. But soon, shock turned into rage. By the 2nd of January 2012, spontaneous protests broke out in Ilorin, Kano, and Abuja. Over the following days, protests spread like wildfire across the country. Protesters shut petrol stations and formed human barriers along motorways. As the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) reported on its website on January 4th, 2012, a practical stay at home developed in Lagos, the commercial nerve centre of the country, this was “informed largely by the practical inability of most people to afford the huge increment in the cost of fueling and transportation especially at the beginning of a new school term when most parents are compelled to look for means to pay the school fees of their children”.

Against this background, the 3rd January day of action initially announced in December by the Joint Action Front (JAF) became the rallying point for all those who wanted to show their rage. Over 5000 turned up for this protest. In contrast, a similar protest called by Mrs. Ganiyat Fawehinmi with JAF four days earlier on 31st December 2011 had just about 100 participants. DSM reporters had this to say about the mood on January 3rd, 2012 when JAF had its protest:

“In Lagos, the usually bubbling commercial drivers took their buses away from the streets. Lagos was really on holiday. The Lagos state BRT buses, apparently hoping to break the voluntary resistance of the people, flooded the city with their buses charging the old fares as opposed to private commercial buses and motorbikes that have doubled their own fares in immediate reactions to hike in petrol price. Most significantly however the BRT buses paraded the streets almost empty because most people chose to stay at home and away from work…Equally, as the protest in Lagos was underway, there were reports of protests in Kogi, Kwara, and Osun States. In Osun States, DSM comrades with other activists organized community mobilizations and a press briefing. In Kogi State, a mass of poor people and youths blocked the Lokoja-Abuja expressway and similar mass actions in Ilorin Kwara State. Unconfirmed reports also have it one protester was shot dead by the police in Ilorin. Against this background, JAF’s protests were enthusiastically received by the masses in their various communities. There was huge support from the public as crowds lined the sidewalks and flyovers”. (Fuel Price Hike)

Over the next few days, protests and mass occupations continued daily across the length and breadth of the country. Unlike today when many may not look towards labour because of the successive betrayal of its leadership, in 2012 many instinctively realized that “bolder actions than a protest march was required”. On January 4th, 2012 Daily Trust, an Abuja based newspaper visited the federal secretariat in Abuja and reported a low turnout of workers in its January 5 edition. One of the senior civil servants interviewed spoke thus: “I used to fill my tank with just N4, 500 but now I need over N10, 000 to fill my 70 litres tank. This is unsustainable for any civil servant and we are waiting for Labour to give direction”. Some of the few workers that reported for work on January 4 stated that they may not come to work the following day because “it won’t be wise to spend the little money I have now because I want to use it to sustain my family during the strike that may follow”. The leadership of the labour movement realized they had to do something. An indefinite general strike was declared for January 9 and this transformed the situation altogether.

The General Strike

The January 2012 general strike is one of the most popular, so far, in the annals of strikes in Nigeria. As directed by the NLC and TUC, all offices, oil production centres, air and seaports, fuel stations, markets, banks, amongst others across the country were shut down. At its height the strike and mass protests involved millions taking strike action; there were huge demonstrations across the country while tens of millions stayed at home in protest. Among the most active participants in the protests were youths and students who in places like Lagos organized street demos and rallies raising resources on their own to have public address systems powered by generators to address neighborhood crowds. Indeed the one-week general strike of January 9th to 16th and the mass protests it engendered was, no doubt, the biggest movement of such scale and depth so far in the history of Nigeria. The strike was total even in North-Eastern states where the state of emergency had been declared in response to the state of insecurity created by Boko Haram’s terroristic activities. It gave a glimpse, even if so briefly, of the possibility of revolutionary change in Nigeria.

DSM members participated actively in the strike and also filed in almost daily reports. These reports written as the struggle was developing offer refreshing insight into the events one decade again. In the following account, a DSM member described the situation on the first day of the strike:

“As early as 5 am, tens of people could be seen gathered around bus stops in Lagos and across the country. Bonfires and barricades announced to people in the community that the mass revolt had started.  It was the biggest and most widespread movement in Nigeria and in particular Lagos since the return to civil rule. In Lagos, tens of thousands marched from the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) Secretariat in Yaba. Those who could not make the central protest organized pockets of action in their communities and neighborhoods.

“Both working class and middle-class elements were actively involved in the protest march. Associations of medical doctors and lawyers were ably represented. The medical doctors provided ambulances while musicians came to Gani Fawehinmi park (the terminus of the movement) to entertain protesters. Everywhere, every major and even community roads were deserted. Shops, markets, and offices were closed. The ubiquitous danfo buses were on holiday, so also were the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) buses which attempted to break the Joint Action Front (JAF) protest on January 3rd. On most roads inside the communities, young people could be seen playing football. Unlike other mass protests in which trade unionists and activists exert effort to barricades to enforce the directives of the strike, in this case the masses came out on their own to junctions and barricade points” (Nigeria: Day one of Indefinite Strike).

Tahir Square

The crowd grew bigger and bigger on subsequent days of the strike. Crowds at the Gani Fawehinmi Park which became the epicenter of the daily protest grew to about 500, 000 at some point. In Kano, the Jubilee square was occupied by protesters who camped overnight on a daily basis. The Gani Fawehinmi Park became a terminus for all the major and minor protests taking place in thousands of communities in Lagos state.

As DSM comrades who participated in the protest in Lagos reported, “The park itself is so filled that it is bursting at the seams. Everywhere and in and out of the park, a sea of heads and a jumble of colours can be seen. All roads leading to the Park are filled with protesters walking miles from their homes to be at the park. Occasionally, groups of tens and hundreds could be seen marching agilely along the road leading to the park apparently as the terminus of a movement that started from a distant community. Meanwhile, small actions of hundreds and thousands continue to take place at communities and neighborhoods levels. It is now a normal sight to round a bend on the road and come upon a new detachment of protesters with homemade banners and placards heading for God-knows-where. It is like society is awakened from its depth” (Day 3 of Indefinite Strike). This demonstrates the strong influence of the Egyptian revolution where the Tahir square become the epicenter of mass occupation that defeated the Mubarak dictatorship.

Despite the ferocity of the Boko Haram Islamic fundamentalist insurgency at the time, the uprising penetrated the North. Class consciousness and solidarity trumped sectarian division. The situation was aptly captured by a newspaper: “In a show of solidarity and never-before-seen religious tolerance, Christians stand and keep guard, encircling the praying Muslims. Policemen invade the venue at midnight and shoot live bullets, teargassing the people as they drive vans right through the centre of the crowd” (Daily Times, 8 January 2012).

Consciousness

But it was also a mixed grill. For instance, due to the role of the National Question, the movement was not as large in the South South where President Jonathan hails from as well as some part of the South East. Attempts were made to stop protests in these areas before they started and to intimidate activists. In fact, for some members of the South South minority ethnic groups, #OccupyNigeria was a conspiracy by the opposition to topple President Jonathan. This is not different from the argument that pro-government forces from the North also used to frustrate the #EndSARS protest from emerging in the North in October 2020 by tagging the movement as an anti-North conspiracy.

Of course, it is true that the bourgeois opposition then organized under the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) tried to benefit from the movement by lending it support. The Save Nigeria Group (SNG) led by Pastor Tunde Bakare which played a role in the struggle, especially in organizing the occupation of the Gani Fawehinmi Park in Lagos, definitely had the backing of the bourgeois opposition, especially the ACN-controlled Lagos State government. Pastor Bakare himself had been the running mate of President Mohammadu Buhari in the 2011 general elections. But this had little or no effect on the mass of the people. As far as the masses were concerned, the bourgeois politicians of the PDP and ACN were all the same and must all be kicked out. Despite their involvement and their use of the media for good effect, they had no control over the strike or the mass protest. This was firmly under the control of the trade unions and their civil society partners like the Joint Action Front (JAF).

In addition, the radicalization of the masses which led to the popular call for an end to the Jonathan regime was provoked by their experience of the rule of the capitalist anti-poor parties especially the PDP since 1999 and a feeling that enough was enough. In fact, in one of the incidents of the uprising, a group of ACN Senators, including Senator Oluremi Tinubu (wife of then bourgeois opposition leader, Bola Ahmed Tinubu) travelling by road from Lagos to Abuja (because the airways had been shut down by the strike) ran into a barricade of protesters in Ibadan who held them up and only released them after hours of tongue lashing. So in reality, the role of the bourgeois opposition and their agents in the January 2012 uprising is often exaggerated respectively by the government and the pro-capitalist labour leaders – the former to justify its repression of the protest and the latter its betrayal. The bourgeois opposition was only able to profit from the movement three years later in the 2015 elections due to the absence of a mass workers’ political alternative.

Another feature of the uprising was how consciousness grew in leaps and bounds in a matter of days. The January 2012 uprising broke out about 11 months after a general election which President Jonathan won by appealing to his poor background and the fact that he is not a member of the cabal. Many had the illusion that he could make a difference. But as the general strike grew, the masses began to draw new conclusions and radical new demands including calling for an end to the Jonathan and PDP regime. A mass general strike that stops society poses the question of who runs society? If the working class and the poor can stop society why can they not replace the ruling class in running the country? Unfortunately, there was no clarity as to what would replace the Jonathan regime. As the DSM argued then, only a workers’ and poor people’s government armed with Socialist policies could satisfy the yearnings of the masses for change. Meanwhile, a fundamental flaw that has always dogged labour’s strategy is the inability of the bureaucratic and pro-capitalist leadership to understand that there is no prospect of guaranteeing a better life for the working masses within the workings of capitalism hence the need for a revolutionary perspective which links the day to day struggle of the working masses with the ultimate necessity of putting an end to capitalism. Consequently, the labour leadership has never given serious thought to the need for the building of a mass workers party fighting against capitalism. The Labour Party had been turned to the second-eleven of the bourgeois political parties and had no support from the working masses.

These weaknesses notwithstanding, the call for an end to Jonathan’s regime frightened the ruling class and imperialism. Given the recent examples of the Arab Spring, the regime clearly understood that the mass movement if it grew further could topple it even though the military would have been the only force capable of stepping into the vacuum in the prevailing circumstance. On its own part, the bureaucratic labour leadership instead of giving life to the aspiration of the masses for an end to the PDP capitalist regime of suffering also took fright at the radicalization taking place. On 15th January, the NLC and TUC issued a statement dissociating themselves from calls for regime change.  Thus began the frantic effort to make a deal with the regime in order to bring the struggle to an end. Eventually, the general strike was suspended on 16 January after the regime agreed to a reduction of the fuel price from N141 to N97 per liter.

While this reduction was welcomed, it was clear that more concessions could have been won. From the point of view of the working masses, the uprising represented an opportunity to carry out far-reaching change in the way Nigeria was run. The January 16, 2012 edition of the Financial Times, London, correctly commented that “the protests have emboldened ordinary Nigerians and raised new awareness of wasteful expenditure. In addition, many feel let down by the unions for agreeing to call off the strike without the subsidy being fully restored.”

Indeed, the suspension of the strike sparked widespread anger among the working masses with many tagging the NLC and TUC leadership as sellouts. Labour’s loss of credibility from this struggle remains till today, as it has been further reinforced by the subsequent betrayals, the latest being the aborted September 28th, 2020 general strike. But as Socialists always stress, the conduct and serial betrayal of the bureaucratic leadership of labour is a manifestation of its lack of an ideological alternative to capitalism. This is why there is an urgent need to rebuild the workers movement on a strong ideological and democratic basis so that it can consistently resist anti-poor capitalist attacks and build a mass working people’s party that campaigns on a socialist programme.

However, this has to be done side by side with the task, by radical trade unionists and socialists, of mobilizing workers to continuously place demands on the current labour leadership and asking them to fight in the interest of workers or step aside and be replaced by those who will fight. So, despite the past betrayals, socialists call on workers, other sections of working people and youth to participate in and organise for January 27th and February 1st actions called by the NLC against the planned fuel price hike and other anti-poor policies. However, beyond the planned protests labour leadership should begin to mobilise for a 48-hour warning general strike as the next step in order for the working people to show to Buhari government that they are prepared to resist capitalist attacks.

By and large, as the crisis of capitalism worsens, mass struggles will break out but only a workers movement with a leadership conscious of the historic role of the working class as the “gravediggers of capitalism” can ensure such struggles lay the basis for ending capitalism and ushering in the Socialist transformation of Nigeria.

 

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