The four day nationwide strike in Nigeria from 20 to 23 June has once again demonstrated the revolutionary potential of the working class. Nigeria’s President, Umaru Yar’Adua, said the strike “wreaked havoc on our economy and our people” in a letter to the President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC).
Throughout the strike, government offices, private companies, petrol stations, ports, airports, schools, hospitals, and so on closed down. Commercial vehicles were off the road and youths turned major highways into football pitches. Oil exports were affected at all terminals except one.
Unemployed youths, semi-employed and petty traders also observed the strike by either staying indoors or closing their shops. Some 75 percent of trade unions supported the first day of the strike according to the Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO) – comprising the NLC, Trade Union Congress (TUC) and the Joint Action Forum (made up of human rights organisations). And each day more unions joined the strike.
However, as President Umaru was mourning the paralysing effect of the strike on crude oil exports, ordinary people saw in the strike an opportunity to liberate themselves from the shackles of excruciating poverty into which IMF/World Bank dictated neoliberal policies have subjected the poor. Over 70 percent of Nigerians, about 98 million in an estimated population of 140 million population, live in extreme poverty, with less than $1 a day.
It was in this context that the former President Olusegun Obasanjo, in the twilight of his tenure, increased the prices of petrol, kerosene and diesel by ten Naira (N10), the Nigerian currency. This amounted to over 15 percent increase in the price of petrol per litre, from N65 a litre to N75. In addition, the VAT rate was raised from 5 to 10 percent. Refineries and power generating plants were sold at give-away prices.
On 28 May a day before the handover to a new president, Obasanjo sold the following six companies to private companies and individuals: Port Harcourt Refining Company Ltd (PHRC) and Kaduna Refining and Petrolchemical Company Limited to Bluestar Oil Services Consortium; Onigbolo Cement Company in Benin Republic to Dangote Industries Limited; Anambra Motor Manufacturing Company (ANAMMCO), Enugu to GU Okeke & Sons Ltd; Izom Bricks and Clay Products Limited, a subsidiary of Nigeria Mining Corporation (NMC) to Continental Project and Supplies Company Ltd., and STEYR Nigeria Limited, Bauchi to Scintilla Prime Investments Ltd. Egbin Power Generating Plant had also been sold to Korea Power Corporation.
Workers saw all the acts of government as nothing but punitive measures to compound the agony of the poor. Besides, the acts were illegal and unconstitutional. For example, by the Act of the National Assembly, a body called the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPRA) had been set up to review the prices of petroleum products, most of which are imported, depending on the variations in the international market.
That body includes representatives of labour as members. The board of the PPRA never met. It was the Secretariat of the PPRA that unilaterally increased the prices of petroleum products.
Similarly, privatisation of public enterprises, including the sale of refineries and power generating plants, violates the current constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. This provides that wealth shall not be concentrated in a few hands and that the state, not the private sector, shall manage the major sectors of the economy.
The unions further argued that increasing the prices of petroleum products and VAT amounted to indirect cuts in the wages of the workers. First, workers earnings are meager and do not match the rate of inflation. The current minimum wage ranges between N7,500 for federal civil servants and N5,500 for public sector workers at the state and local government levels.
The current exchange rate is about N130 to US$1. Workers earning poverty pay would therefore be hard hit by the increase in VAT because they spend the bulk of their earnings on consumption items. Secondly, increases in the prices of petroleum products automatically lead to increases in the prices of all other goods and services.
Though spokespersons of the regime had vowed that the strike could not influence government policy, 24 hours before the strike started, the following concessions were made:
While accepting the 5 percent reduction in VAT, N10 per litre reduction in the price of kerosene and diesel, labour insisted on reversal of the price of petrol/litre to the old rate of N65. The strike then continued till it was called off midnight of 23 June.
Young people are angry about the sudden change of attitude of the top labour leaders. Rank and file leaders and activists were hopeful that the strike would not be called off until the mandate of N65 a litre was achieved. The question on the lips of many is that why ask the people to make the sacrifices to prolong the strike by rejecting the N70 a litre price of petrol which government had offered in the bid to prevent the strike taking off, only to turn round to accept what had been rejected?
But the strike was called off without winning the demand. The unions backed down on the basis that president Umaru Yar’Adua personally wrote a letter, promising not to increase the price of petrol for the next one year. In effect, petrol will continue to sell at N70 per litre.
The other concessions made included setting up expert committees, which would include representatives of labour to examine the issues of sale of refineries and power generating plants, as follows:
“Government will set up an expert committee to examine the pricing mechanism of petroleum products and make recommendations bearing in mind the strategic nature of the products and the impact of their price levels on the economy, social life and livelihood of Nigerians.
'Both the NLC and TUC would be represented on the committee.
“Government will establish an expert committee to examine the recent privatisation/concessioning exercises, especially the sale of 51 percent of government equity in the refineries and the proposals for the power sector. Labour will fully participate in the work of this committee.”
The anger of the student and working class young against the sudden backdown of labour leadership is understandable. In the weeks preceding the strike, there had been a series of strikes as dress rehearsals, preparatory to the nationwide strike. The Labour and Civil Society Coalition made up of central labour organisations, trade unions and some civil society organisations in the Joint Action Forum (JAF) had declared May 28 and 29 as protest days when Nigerians were asked to stay at home in protest against the controversial 2007 general elections.
On 28 May, the police had laid siege on the Labour House, the headquarters office of the Nigeria Labour Congress in Abuja with three truck loads of armed policemen. About 100 policemen sealed off the entry and exit gates to the premises. In spite of the intimidating and repressive actions of the police, youths burnt tyres to block movement of people, in some parts of Abuja and some other major cities. Banks and other commercial activities were also closed.
Assessing that protest, the NLC general secretary, John Odah, said there was massive support for the sit-at-home call in over 31 states of the Federation as the federal government sensing that the action would be massively supported asked workers to stay at home without declaring a public holiday!
As LASCO called on Nigerians to sit-at-home to protest election results, community protesters from K-Bere in the Ogoni district (Niger Delta) took to the streets and invaded Shell’s Bomu Manifold facility on Monday 28 May, tampering with some pipeline equipment and forcing shutdown of the facility to advance their demands for political autonomy, resource and environmental control. According to Shell’s spokesman, Precious Okolobo, this was the second disruption of crude supply on the pipeline.
Earlier, in the week preceding Sunday 27 May, workers of the Delta Steel Company (DSC), Ovwian-Aladja, Delta State, began an indefinite strike over President Obasanjo’s failure to honour his promise on pension and severance payments. Similarly, workers of the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) were also on strike in protest against the sale of Port Harcourt and Kaduna refineries, without a resolution of their pension and terminal benefits.. Members of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) also threatened to embark on strike action against the sale of the Egbin power station. The strike was shelved only due to an agreement with government to set up a government-union committee to look into the workers’ demands.
What the foregoing shows is that the working class, in several sectors, had been infuriated and imbued with a fighting spirit to protect jobs and improve their overall living standards. That opportunity to express their anger and reverse the privatisation process has temporarily been botched by the sudden strike call off. But it would be a temporary set back. On the basis of a system of exporting crude oil and importing refined products, we do not need a soothsayer to predict that crises lie ahead.
The working class will learn from the gains and setbacks of their own struggles. For example, regardless of the weaknesses of the strike, the working class has shown it is a force to reckon with in the process of policy formulation and implementation. The recent strike represents a message to the ruling class that labour will not just slavishly accept attacks on its rights without a fight. No matter how marginal, the reductions in VAT and prices of petroleum products are gains that could not have been won without a fight.
But fighting defensive battles will not be sufficient. Labour must also organise to change society on socialist basis, in the process of fighting to improve current living standards. In that regard, the lesson must be learnt that there is a need for a resolution that the organs that take the decision to embark on strike must also be the ones to decide to call it off. With that kind of perspective, the need for mass protests and rallies rather than a-stay-at-home strike action will be seen.
The stay-at-home strike action deprives the strike of the inputs and influence of the rank and file in determining the direction of the strike and leaves the decision to call off or continue strike actions to the whims and caprices of the few leaders who may succumb to multiple pressures from the state. In the same vein, the recent strike has revealed the weakness of ‘indefinite’ strike action. Indefinite strike action is applicable in a situation in which the objective and subjective conditions point to the possibility of the working class taking over political power. Without such a revolutionary situation in existence, the state cannot tolerate “indefinite” action.
The situation will have to be resolved one way or the other, in revolutionary change or restoration of political control by the capitalist ruling class. For a working class leadership that completely lacks the perspective of the working class taking power, “indefinite” form of action is a recipe for sudden back down. Therefore, it might be better to base actions on defined, limited number of days or weeks, continuation or discontinuation of action being determined by the mood and preparedness of the working class and the other poor strata.