Nigeria on brink of another general strike

Down with the Obasanjo government!

For a workers’ government!

On Wednesday of this week the price of crude oil rose to $52 a barrel for the first time. The price continues to rise as on the one hand some sectors of the world economy are expanding, especially countries like China, and on the other, some key suppliers have been facing difficulties in maintaining output at sufficiently high levels to keep the price down.

As we mentioned in a previous article, Niger Delta, the price of oil and the class struggle, the problems in the Delta region of Nigeria have been a contributing factor to this sharp increase in the price of oil. But now the situation in Nigeria must be even more worrying for the rulers of the advanced industrialised countries.

As part of the policies imposed by imperialism (World Bank, IMF, etc.) the President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, has been trying to eliminate all fuel subsidies. Oil products, such as petrol and kerosene are fundamental to the everyday life of ordinary Nigerian working people. The main form of transport is by bus and truck and most people use kerosene to cook. In the past these products were heavily subsidised. In a sense it was a form of welfare state. It allowed for the poor of Nigeria to have access to these basic products and make life minimally tolerable. But imperialism wants these subsidies to be eliminated.

Every time Obasanjo has allowed the price of fuel to be increased there has either been a general strike or the threat of one. There have been two general strikes over the past year alone. This has usually ended in compromises, whereby the government has not been able to implement the full hike they had wanted. But nonetheless there has been an inexorable increase in the price of fuel.

Now once again there has been another hike in fuel prices; this time of 25%. This has brought Obasanjo once more into confrontation with the labour unions. Talks between the government and unions broke down yesterday. And Nigeria is once again on the brink of another general strike. The patience of the workers is wearing very thin. If this strike goes ahead it could be a very powerful one, and it could force up world oil prices even further.

Previous general strikes had not really affected Nigeria’s exports of oil (it exports around 2.5 million barrels of crude oil a day). That was because either the oil workers were not called to take part in the strikes or they were ordered back to work by their own leaders before the strike could really begin to bite. In effect the union leaders have always let the government off the hook.

This time the strike could be bigger. It also comes at a time when there is ongoing armed conflict in the Niger Delta region. (See Niger Delta, the price of oil and the class struggle). After the talks collapsed yesterday, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) announced that its members would stage a general strike starting next Monday. The strike may still be averted as talks may resume tomorrow, Friday, October 8. Going on past record the leadership of the NLC – while making militant speeches – are clearly looking for a way of avoiding such a confrontation. The problem is that the pressure is mounting up from below. Life is getting ever worse for the masses.

The political establishment is also extremely worried at the prospect of another general strike. The House of Representatives, one of the chambers that makes up the Nigerian parliamentary system, yesterday called on the government to revert to the old prices, and set up its own 17-man committee to try and open up negotiations between the unions and the government. The Deputy President of the Senate, Alhaji Ibrahim Mantu, has also intervened appealing to the NLC leadership, even showing “regret” for the fact that deregulation has not brought down the price of fuel.

These are cheap words, for both chambers are dominated by the deputies who belong to Obasanjo’s party. They defend the same interests but would like to appear to “sympathise” with the poor. The poor of Nigeria do not sympathy, they need food, clothing, housing, decent wages – something they will not get from these politicians who are renowned for spending most of their time lining their pockets and enriching themselves at the expense of the masses.

The Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC), traditionally a union that organises “senior staff” (and therefore a more moderate union organisation) has also appealed to President Obasanjo to organise a meeting of “all stakeholders” tomorrow to find a solution to the fuel price hike and the impending national strike.

What is clearly worrying these politicians (and moderate union leaders) is the announcement of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) that it has ordered its members in the oil and gas industry to commence strike action as of midnight on Sunday if the government does not revert to the old prices or at least open serious negotiations with the unions. The President of NUPENG, Peter Akpatason, yesterday announced that, “We gave a 14-day ultimatum which expires midnight on Sunday. We stand by that and members are only waiting for the day.”

If the oil workers come out – and stay out for any meaningful amount of time – then oil exports could be adversely affected. The present world conjuncture is one that gives an enormous advantage to the unions – if they are prepared to use their muscle.

The next few days will show whether the government is prepared to stick to its guns. If it does, then a major conflict will open up next week. On past record what has usually happened is that a few days into a general strike, the government has partially climbed down and reduced the amount by which it wishes to increase the price of fuel. The NLC leaders have then called off the strike action claiming to have achieved a victory. The problem is that the end result of all this is yet another increase in the price of fuel. Through this method the price has gradually gone up, and in just a few years the overall price has roughly tripled.

Each of these so-called “victories” has led to a worsening of the already terrible conditions of the Nigerian workers and poor. What the NLC leaders need to do is not enter into negotiations with the aim of reaching some kind of compromise. A compromise today only serves to put off the conflict to another day in the not too distant future. The government will continue its attack on workers’ livelihoods. They will take what they can today and will only back off in the face of serious strike action. But they only back off to get the workers back to work. Then they return to the offensive.

This game will not cease so long as Obasanjo is in power. He is there to do the bidding of imperialism. To believe that this man and his government can be won round to a more “reasonable” position is the height of naivety. He will continue to up the price of fuel at every chance he gets. He will continue with his plans for privatisation. Everything he does will bring suffering and pain for the Nigerian masses.

Already Nigeria has been hit by a wave of strikes in the recent period. This recent 25% hike in the price of fuel will bring all the Nigerian working masses together. It gives the NLC leadership the opportunity to bring down this rotten regime.

In fact, rather than appeal to Obasanjo to review the price of fuel, the NLC leaders should be demanding the resignation of this regime. The aim of the general strike should be to bring down the government.

In reality the NLC is the only opposition force in Nigeria. The NLC in Nigeria is more than a mere trade union. It is becoming the political expression of the working class. If the NLC called a general strike and demanded the resignation of the government and also combined this with the launching of its own mass party, challenging for power, it would become an unstoppable force.

Many workers in Nigeria must be asking themselves, “What do we do next? What is the next step after yet another general strike?” This is a logical question. The Nigerian workers have taken part in many general strikes over the past few years, but none of the fundamental problems have been solved. In this situation if the NLC leaders were to announce their own party the masses would come flooding in. Therefore pressure must be brought to bear on the NLC leaders. They must take up their responsibilities. They are the ones who can launch such a party. They are the ones who are in a position to lead the masses in a struggle to bring down this government.

Monday’s planned general strike should be organised under the slogans:

Down with Obasanjo! Resign now!
The NLC must launch its own Labour Party!
For a Nigerian Labour government on a socialist programme!

October 7, 2004

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