Nigeria’s Labour and trade union congresses’ lack of resistance exposes workers and poor to intolerable suffering

The past few weeks have been one of intolerable suffering for the workers and oppressed masses of Nigeria as the new capitalist government of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu unleashes an avalanche of neo-liberal and anti-poor reforms. Each of these IMF/World Bank-backed reforms, starting from the subsidy removal which has sent fuel prices up by about 300 per cent, the devaluation of the naira which has exponentially increased prices of goods and services and the planned introduction of tuition fees/student loans in public tertiary institutions which will send many out of school while trapping others in debt, have contributed to further pauperisation while unlocking new levels of misery for Nigerian workers and the poor.

The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM, the CWI in Nigeria) identifies the ideological capitulation of the Joe Ajaero-led Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Festus Osifo-led Trade Union Congress (TUC) and their lack of a fighting strategy as the principal reasons for this unfortunate state of affairs. We consider the suspension of the planned general strike which, if it had been well mobilised could have stopped the Tinubu government from going ahead to remove the oil subsidy, and its replacement by a strategy of negotiating for palliatives as not only an ideological capitulation to the capitalist market. It was also a weak, barren approach that has so far done nothing to relieve the daily suffering workers now endure due to high cost of fuel and transport fares.

Interestingly, earlier this year Joe Ajaero started off his leadership of the NLC on a promising note, issuing radical statements and leading a flurry of sectoral strikes and protests in Imo state and other places to defend workers’ interests. In fact, his immediate radical response to the petrol subsidy removal rejecting the move and threatening to fight it raised the hope of Nigerian workers and poor masses that the end had come to the ignoble era of labour’s policy of class collaborationism. Hence his sudden about-face and capitulation have had the opposite effect of demoralising many while badly damaging labour’s reputation.

Now labour’s negotiation with FG for palliatives which commenced earlier in the month has become an unending circus of mendacious tomfoolery. Every day, the newspapers talk about the Federal Government and labour beginning talks, continuing talks and resuming talks. All the while, nothing concrete is announced to help workers and ordinary people on the street. All the while, President Bola Tinubu is busy announcing ever-more outrageous neo-liberal policies even before the working people have had time to digest the import of the preceding one. All the while the suffering continues to worsen daily. According to the Punch Newspaper on 24 June, since May 29, when the subsidy was removed by President Tinubu, hapless Nigerian workers have had to devise desperate strategies to survive. These include sleeping at their offices, abandoning their cars or turning them into taxis! Here is the experience of a typical worker, Christian Ilemobayo, a resident of Gateway Sparklight Estate, Magboro, Ogun State: “My husband is the breadwinner of the family and had been complaining that his income was inadequate to meet our needs before the fuel subsidy was removed. Our eldest child is in a private university and we have two sons in private secondary schools; my husband has been responsible for their schooling and taking care of the family. I earn less than N45,000 monthly as a private school teacher. “Since the fuel subsidy removal, my husband has been moody and always complaining of inadequate funds; I pray every day that he won’t enter into depression and that we won’t have any health crisis. My youngest son’s school just wrote to us that the bus fare has increased by N10,000 for the current term and I know that school fees will increase by next session” (Punch, 24 June 2023).

So bad is the situation that at least two state governments not known to be labour-friendly, Kwara and Edo states, have been forced to recognise that workers can no more come to work daily and as a result had to reduce the working week to three days to try to relieve the burden a little bit! Is there any better argument than this for a general strike? To be clear, this desperate situation workers have been forced into is an indictment on the leadership of the NLC and TUC. Firstly, it shows that the approach of the labour leadership is doing nothing to help their members, and by extension the working class as a whole, who are confronting a nightmare with the sharply risen prices and collapse of living standards. Secondly, it shows just how much-disconnected trade union leaders, who are labour aristocrats in the true sense of the word, are from their members! If comrades Ajaero and Osifo are feeling the pinch of these policies as bad as their low-paid members, they would be the most adamant supporters of a general strike right here and right now!

Tragically, last week it was revealed that the negotiation of the palliatives will take another eight weeks. On Monday 26 June when Labour and government delegations met again to review the framework and set a template for so-called deliverables, it was once again revealed that even eight weeks might no more be enough. According to the Guardian newspaper, published on the same day, when a reporter asked “a source who did not want his name in print” if the eight weeks are feasible for the committees to complete their task, he said: “It may not be feasible, but what I see happening, going forward, is that the committees on their own will request an extension to deliver benefits to Nigerians” (Guardian, Monday 26 June 2023).


To make matters worse, within the same week, President Tinubu said in a meeting with Nigerians in the diaspora during his visit to Paris for the Paris Climate Finance Summit, that the country has to save first before giving palliative! “Palliatives, we will get but we have to save the money in order to embark on palliatives” (Leadership newspaper, 23 June 2023). According to him, there was no plan to remove the subsidy, he simply announced it as an off-the-cuff remark during his inauguration because he was suddenly “possessed with courage”! “And then, Wale Edun and co, we started debating, putting my speech together without the question on subsidy. I got to the podium, I was possessed with courage and I said subsidy is gone. They thought it was a joke of the century until I called the NNPC” (Leadership newspaper, 23 June 2023). In short, there was no prior discussion of a contingency plan to cushion the effect except the $800 million World Bank loan which is inadequate to arrest the crisis, even if it does not become another slush fund for top government officials and cronies to loot. This in effect means that the terrible privation and suffering of the working people as a result of the subsidy removal has no expiry date yet!

At the moment, global capitalism is faced with weak recovery and geopolitical and trade tension threatening new crisis while Nigeria’s economy is in the throes of low growth, declining crude oil exports and rampaging inflation. The poor state of infrastructure including road and rail transport, air travel, electricity and others means that the conditions for the manufacturing sector to grow over the short and medium term do not exist. This alongside a burgeoning national debt whose servicing is already consuming over 90% of government revenue means that there is no prospect for any substantial saving without carrying out cuts in social services as well as mass retrenchment. In fact, shocks in the economy including a new recession are not entirely ruled out.

If you consider that the NLC leadership had just about a week ago confirmed that, by law, an upward review of the National Minimum Wage, over which labour leaders plan to commence negotiation in the last quarter of this year, cannot come into effect earlier than February next year, then workers have to be outraged by the unfolding ramification of the retreat of the labour leadership from going ahead with the general strike it called early in June. That general strike, if it had gone ahead alongside street protests and demonstrations, could have stopped the Tinubu regime, which was obviously blustering as the president himself revealed in Paris, in its tracks compelling it to reverse the criminal policy thereby saving the working masses from the nightmare they are in right now! It was a betrayal to say the least. In return for vague government promises of future ‘palliatives’ the labour leaders abandoned protest and the left masses to suffer. How can government promises be trusted when even now the 2019 minimum wage is not fully implemented across the country? Obviously, any palliatives granted have to be placed under democratic workers’ control otherwise, just like COVID-19 palliatives; they may end up being looted by corrupt politicians and officials.

A dilemma faces workers and poor people right now! Are we meant to continue to suffer a massive drop in living standards until the minimum wage is raised next year, something which cannot even be taken for granted. The labour leaders’ turn to inaction was a proverbial stab in the back! It transformed a working class that had for more than three decades successfully resisted a conspiracy of Nigeria’s capitalist elite and imperialism to deregulate the downstream sector into a lame duck that can only offer a whimper even as the ruling elite continues to rain on it waves and waves of brutal and menacing neo-liberal reforms. But now the time has come for Nigerian workers to ask their leadership to end the game. What is obvious is that labour has got itself caught up in a negotiation without a destination. In reality, whatever palliatives are granted will only amount to pissing to douse a forest fire considering the collapse of living standards that the neoliberal policies unleashed in the last three weeks have caused.

The same goes for labour’s obsession with Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) as a solution to the oil subsidy removal. On June 26, Joe Ajaero announced on his Facebook account that the NLC leadership had met with Innoson Group of Companies, a Nigerian indigenous vehicle manufacturing company, to discuss the feasibility of CNG-driven buses as part of efforts to provide effective and affordable mass transit platforms for Nigerian workers and masses. While we welcome the use of CNG, like any other technology, to also run vehicles or generators, the DSM must warn that whatever solution labour considers which does not start from fighting to defeat the control of Nigeria’s economy by profit-first private interests and to end the inequitable capitalist system will fail. Just as the oil sector, the gas sector is also dominated by private interests.

In fact, kerosene and cooking gas were the first to be completely deregulated before now. The prices of both products have gone up since then. At the moment some desperate Nigerians in an attempt to cope with the new situation are converting their petrol-powered electricity generators to gas-powered ones. Now within a few weeks of that initiative getting popular, the price of the gas conversion device has gone up astronomically and has even become scarce – apparently because a few importers want to drive the price even further up. This in a way shows what would happen with labour’s plan to only promote the conversion of petrol-powered vehicles to gas instead of fighting hard to reject the criminal policy of subsidy removal.

General strike

Workers must reject all these manoeuvring when the easiest way out is actually for the labour movement to call out workers to fight. We now must demand that the Ajaero and Osifo-leadership of labour call a new general strike now backed with serious mobilization in workplaces, campuses and communities. A 48-hour general strike and mass protest, especially one that involves the huge force of the oppressed masses who are in far more desperate circumstances, can still effectively force this government to retreat and, if it doesn’t, it can be an important step in building mass opposition. The government is weak despite its outward show of strength. If it is confronted by the united strength of Nigeria’s working people, it can be defeated. But to achieve this, labour must not repeat the examples of previous general strikes which were called and then suspended undemocratically following a rotten compromise! However, side by side with the call on labour leadership to carry out the task imposed on them by their position in a mass organisation of working-class people, there is a need for independent activities like mass meetings and protests to be initiated by pro-masses groups in communities, workplaces and campuses to fight back. These independent actions can be unified and form a basis for nationwide protests. Unless a mass struggle develops, there is a risk that anger at the intolerable suffering can at some point provoke violence and divisive conflict.

While building for a mass fightback to reject the criminal policy of subsidy removal, labour must not allow itself to be blackmailed by the government. Resisting the removal of fuel subsidies is not the same as agreeing with the corruption and scam in the subsidy regime. President Tinubu’s meeting with Nigerians in Paris is an eye-opener to how the regime wants to use the corruption in the subsidy regime to blackmail anyone who opposes this criminal policy. We must reject this and expose the subsidy thieves, some of whom are members of the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) and are President Tinubu’s own friends and kitchen cabinets. If President Tinubu is truly concerned about the subsidy scam, then he should go after his friends instead of unleashing Armageddon on the living conditions of workers and ordinary Nigerians. That it has not done so shows that it is only mouthing allegations of fraud because it is the most convenient argument to force through this criminal policy. Now labour should demand that the government allows an independent probe into the subsidy regime consisting of elected representatives of the trade unions, professional groups, and civil society to unearth those who had been smuggling crude oil, padding inventories and pilfering subsidy funds. The report of this probe which should be completed in a matter of weeks should be publicised and all those alleged tried and their ill-gotten wealth seized!

The only reason there is a subsidy in the first place is that Nigeria’s corrupt capitalist elite failed to keep the public refineries functioning at optimal levels and build new ones. Now they are placing hope on Dangote’s refinery and petrochemicals – a massive near monopoly supported by huge chunks of our collective wealth! But it is clear as daylight that if the giant refinery becomes operational, it would not automatically mean the price of fuel will be affordable considering how the price of cement, another industry where Dangote holds the monopoly, has increased exponentially over the past few years. Dangote himself has several times explained that the price of his products will be determined by the market and not necessarily by any patriotic considerations. This means Dangote’s refinery will offer little or no respite in the long run. Hence, labour needs to demand a restoration of the subsidy but this time under workers’ democratic control and management to prevent the looting that has gone on.

Most importantly, labour must offer a clear alternative to the policy of fuel subsidy removal starting from demanding repairs of the four public refineries, the building of new ones and nationalization of Nigeria’s oil and gas sector under democratic workers’ control and management. Labour must also demand a price cap on the Dangote refinery once it becomes operational and if it refuses, its nationalisation under workers’ democratic control and management. Ultimately, until the working class and poor masses struggle to end capitalism and take political power to begin to build a Socialist Nigeria under which Nigeria’s wealth is democratically managed and planned to meet the needs of all, the unending suffering and misery that plagues the majority of Nigeria’s population are only just beginning. The DSM is striving to win labour and wider layers to these ideas so that we can break out of the trap of capitalism that regularly produces wretchedness and despair for the majority.

  • Fight for real, immediate improvements in living standards
  • Palliatives, even if granted, will amount to pouring spit to douse a roaring forest fire considering the level of hardship many faces
  • Labour must reject capitalist ideology and instead prepare for a new General Strike Now!


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June 2023