Nigeria: After the nationwide mass protests - Labour must give a clear political lead

September witnessed an unprecedented wave of protest across the whole of Nigeria, with mass trade union rallies in all the major cities. The spark that set the movement in motion as the latest increase in the price of fuel, but the demands being raised, such as the call for the government to resign, and the mood displayed on the rallies all serve to underline that Nigeria is moving towards a revolutionary upheaval. An editorial statement from the Nigerian Marxist journal, the Workers’ Alternative.

The month of September 2005 in Nigeria witnessed an unprecedented wave of protests in the form of mass demonstrations and rallies that were held in at least ten major state capitals across the country. The demonstrations and rallies, which were held in Lagos, Benin, Kano, Maiduguri, Yola, Ibadan, Asaba, Akwa, Owerri and Abuja, were organised under the auspices of the Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO).

Notwithstanding the fact that the mass protest was called in the aftermath of the September increment in the prices of petroleum products by over 30% by the Obasanjo regime, the demands that fed into the demonstrations and at the rallies were much more than a mere reversal to the old prices.

Chiefly, the demonstrators that included factory workers, civil servants, market women, commercial motorcyclists (Okada riders), middle level professionals, etc., spelt out their demands clearly: rejecting all forms of increment in prices of petroleum products; loudly proclaiming ‘No to deregulation of the downstream sector of the petroleum sector’; a rejection of the on-going IMF/World Bank killer economic reform programme of rationalization of the workforce, liberalisation, commercialisation and privatisation of government owned companies.

Also significant among the prominent demands of the protesters was the demand for the immediate resignation from office of the Obasanjo regime, this is more so the case since the regime’s more than six years of reign is tantamount to mass misery and overwhelming impoverishment for the mass majority of Nigerians.

One other significant thing to note in the September mass protests is the unanimity of purpose in all the cities where the demonstrations and rallies took place. Across the country, regardless of the geopolitical zone and the predominant ethnic and religious grouping, the demands were unanimous. Here, the voices of the various demonstrators are the same: chorusing an end to the impoverishing economic policies of the regime and the call for the regime to hands off governance.

The above is a confirmation of our previous assertion in the pages of this paper, and in our other publications, where we had variously emphasized that it is only the Labour movement that is historically placed to lead an all-oppressed-classes mass movement against the present capitalist oppressive regime in Nigeria. History has bestowed this responsibility on the Labour movement; to shy away (as it appears to be the case for now) from it will be disastrous for the country.

The Mass Protest in Perspective

This last increment in the price of petroleum products is the tenth price adjustment since General Olusegun Obasanjo took over the reign of leadership in Nigeria in May 1999. Effectively, the regime has increased the price of fuel from N20 when it took power to N65 six years later. The multiplier effect of these callous increments has been enormous on the Nigerian populace.

Directly, it has meant sharp increase in the cost of household energy procurement, since most households rely on kerosene and other petroleum products for domestic fuel to cook food, etc. The recurrent increment has meant that more of the already inadequate income of the workers and others are now going towards household energy procurement. For those who cannot cope, it has meant going back to wholesale firewood cooking with its numerous health and environmental hazards.

Similarly, on the industrial plane it has led to an enormous increase in the cost of industrial energy procurement and hence a rise in the cost of production. This is more so the case since the electricity supply remains predictably epileptic and most of the factories and other industries have no choice but to rely on diesel generators to propel their productions. This added cost has led to a major crisis on the industrial plane with the untoward effect of workforce load shedding (another term for mass retrenchment) and in some circumstances, leading to the outright closure of factories and other workplaces that depend heavily on diesel running generators.

The transport sector is obviously the worst hit among the sectors under review. Increment in prices of petroleum products has led to a direct increase in the cost of transportation of commuters and goods. This has made a nonsense of the meagre take-home pay of the workers as well as an astronomical rise in the cost of commodities in the markets.

To say the least, the last increment in the prices of petroleum products is generally seen as a killer dose by the toiling masses across the country. This has also drummed it home clearly for all to see that the IMF/World Bank policies of the regime will further make life worthless for the workers and other toilers. This underlies the socio-economic consideration that spurred the mass protests nationwide.

The Drums of Revolution

In a way, the Nigerian revolution is brewing; and with the recent mass protests nationwide, it shows that the masses are beginning to take their fate into their own hands. The workers and other oppressed layers are no more carried away with the belief that the present machineries of governance in the country, occupied by the President, Governors, Parliamentarians, etc., meant well and perhaps can serve any useful purpose for them. The masses have moved into the arena of struggle marching for a change in the situation of their lives and proclaiming that the on-going misery in the country must not continue.

Disagreement at the top

Another clear indication that the echoes of the Nigerian revolution is sounding loud and clear is the open disagreement at the top among the key members of the Nigeria ruling elite on what agenda of governance is appropriate for the country. At the present instance, the Vice-President, Abubakar Atiku and the President, General Olusegun Obasanjo, openly disagreed on related state matters and in particular on the self-succession story being orchestrated by the President’s men.

Significantly, this is one of the predictable developments which confirms the Marxist dialectical interpretation of revolutionary process, that when the revolution brews from below, it initially blows the top, by causing an open disagreement among the ruling elite as per what to do before the movement erupts from below.

When the heat of revolutionary movement start to develop, it will lead to a situation of open disagreement among the ruling class, where a faction of the ruling class will be advocating some kinds of reform from above with the intent of heading off the revolutionary movement brewing from below. On the other hand, another faction will be advocating the continual pushing of the policies, which is causing the present misgivings, claiming that a detour could be disastrous and further emboldened the masses to go for more.

Either way, both corrupt factions are right and wrong at the same time. Right, in the sense that something needs to be done to appease the mass movement or the whole class will be carpeted by the revolutionary movement from below. But wrong in the sense that once the masses enter the arena of struggle directly, a little appeasement or ‘palliatives’ will not be adequate to head off the revolution; the masses will continue to push forward until the revolution is completed. In a similar vein, the advocates of both no reforms or appeasement will also burn their fingers, since an open continuation of the old policy in a tenacious manner will infuriate the masses the more and further aggravate the situation.

A replica of the above scenario was what was witnessed in Nigeria over the period under review. The advocates of continuation of the on-going killer economic policies of the regime, personified by the President, are saying that there is no alternative to its continuation and that to guarantee its completion, General Obasanjo must continue in office beyond the terminal date of May 2007. On the other ‘side’ are those that surround the Vice-President, who are for an end to the Obasanjo rule come May 2007. They are also saying that the nation’s leadership needs to “listen to the voice of the people” or problems will arise for the ruling class and their system.

Both the President and his Vice at a number of public forums and in the mass media openly expressed these seemingly contradictory viewpoints on the state of the nation. The present situation is thus very significantly symptomatic of a revolution stirring from below.

The masses on the move

The present situation is thus very critical in the appraisal of the class struggle in Nigeria. The mass of workers and poor people are ready to struggle decisively for a better society that will guarantee a worthwhile life. This readiness was openly expressed at the various Labour-led mass protests across the country. So far, the old situation remains; the price increment is on and poverty remains endemic in the country. The question that naturally comes to mind here is: what is the way forward?

So far, the leadership of Labour seems to be applying the break to the mass movement as encoded in the communiqué of the LASCO meeting held on October 11, 2005 to appraise the report of the mass protests across the country. This is a very dangerous signal that is bound to lead to disappointment of the masses across the country that are apparently looking unto Labour for a lead out of their present misery. Any attempt by the leadership of the Labour movement organised in the Labour Centres, viz NLC, TUC and CFTU, to do otherwise will be tantamount to political treachery and a further indication that the Labour leadership was only forced to act for relevance in the first instance before the protests were called.

Certainly, if Adams Oshiomhole and other Labour leaders refused to give a platform for the completion of the struggle on both the economy and political planes, the results could be disastrous. There is pent-up anger everywhere and the reason is not difficult to see; no food, no jobs, no shelter; the education sector is fast collapsing and the costs are quite unbearable for ordinary people in the society. The story is not different in the health sector leading to the occurrence of cheap death every now and then.

Workers’ Party now!

If the leadership of labour does not provide the requisite and genuine political leadership, this anger may be let out in wrong and unpalatable directions. There is bound to be increased intra and extra ethnic/religious hostilities across the country. This development will come with the type of bestiality unimaginable in the past. Already, there are some on-going skirmishes like the recent Police-Soldiers ‘war’ on October 4 2005 in the Ojuelegba area of Lagos, as well as the bestial killings of alleged kidnappers/ritualists by the ubiquitous angry mob and the renewed bloody intra-OPC clashes in Lagos. As these avoidable unpalatable developments occur, perhaps on a bigger scale, the labour leadership should be held responsible for their dangerous ‘half-fight’ measures and an abandonment of the struggle when it matters most.

The call for the establishment of a mass Workers’ Party, with a socialist programme that will replace the misery of the present capitalist system and which will be resting on the Trade Unions, has never had more relevance than in this moment in the life of this country. Such a political party will serve as a platform for a clear-cut political struggle both in the field of mass struggle and on the electoral plane towards a revolutionary take over of political power in the interest of the poor masses in Nigeria. The potential for such a political party cannot be overemphasized, if the leadership of the labour movement, as presently organised in the NLC, TUC and CFTU, declared openly and mobilized en masse for such a Party. Here lies the way forward in the present circumstances.