Tense situation in Nigeria as general strike begins

The leaders of the NLC have confirmed the strike is going ahead today. Saturday’s arrest and injury of Adams Oshiomhole, President of the Nigerian Labour Congress, is an indication of the tension building up.

Adams Oshiomhole, Nigeria Labour Congress President, has confirmed that the general strike against the latest fuel price hike is starting today and will be total. It is going to be a four-day warning strike.

The situation in Nigeria is very tense as over the weekend Oshiomhole disappeared briefly. He was arrested on Saturday morning by men of the State Security Service (SSS) at the International Airport in the capital Abuja. The SSS claimed Oshiomhole had been released, but the NLC secretariat reported that he had not been seen.

In fact, when Oshiomhole reappeared in public to announce that the strike was going ahead he was wearing a bandage on his left elbow, indicating that he had been physically manhandled by the SSS. Witnesses say he was dragged along the tarmac of the Abuja Airport by about 15 armed men of the SSS and his left arm was badly bruised.

Oshiomhole was released by the SSS on Saturday evening. His doctor confined him to bed because of his high blood pressure and the injuries sustained during his arrest. This fact alone reveals the real attitude of the Nigerian bosses towards the working class and its representatives.

The Police has also warned the NLC not to embark on any protest without a police permit. This is clearly a threat aimed at stopping any mass street mobilisations. In previous general strikes workers have been killed as the police opened fire on unarmed trade union rallies. The same could, unfortunately, happen again.

The IGP (Inspector-General of Police), Tafa Balogun, at the weekend, announced that “Nigeria Police and other law enforcement agencies have the constitutional mandate to ensure that law and order reign supreme in the country,” adding that the NLC leadership to adopt “peaceful means” to attain their objectives and they should legal means rather “violence and disturbance of public peace”. Rumours coming from police sources in Abuja indicated that trade union leaders who may try to prevent anyone from going about their work during the period of the general strike would also “not be spared”. Around 200,000 policemen have been deployed on the streets of Nigeria up and down the country.

Oshiomhole has stressed that the NLC will do what it can to keep the strike peaceful, but he also warned that the duration and character of the dispute could change if the police attack or kill any Nigerian workers in the process. He added that the NLC would be ready for the consequences.

Oshiomhole is quoted as saying the following, “let me restate that we are not at war with this government; we are not at war with Nigerians. We cannot be at war with ourselves. We certainly aren’t at war with our nation. But we take this decision in defence of our people, in defence of democracy and in demand for good governance and accountable leadership.

“The entire option of the government is to rely absolutely on the military solution and police solution. Our position is clear. This protest is meant to be peaceful. Everything will be done to make it peaceful, but we will not be intimidated by the armed forces and we will not be intimidated by the police.

“Should the government allow the police or use the police to shoot people and to cause the death of any Nigerian in the course of this protest, we reserve the right to elongate the process. Rather than making it a four-day warning strike, we would deregulate it and we also reserve the rights to make additional political demands.

“We ask Nigerians to refuse to be intimidated. We ask Nigerians to appreciate that they own the country. We ask Nigerians to remind the police that it is from our taxes that they are paid, and that their mandate is to defend the people of Nigeria. We want to be able to say that the police are our friends. We do not want to be able to say that the police are a tool of terrorism by those against whom we have grievances.

“We insist that under Section 40 of the Nigerian Constitution, our people have the right to go out and organise peaceful procession. The Police cannot rewrite the constitution and we will not enjoy those rights under licence. If licence was required, it has already been generously provided by the Nigerian Constitution.

“We appreciate that to organise this strike against the wish and the will of public authority cannot be a tea-party. We appreciate that everything will be done to intimidate us, but as I have said before, some of us have overcome fear, and each time we are harassed, it reminds us that society is not yet free and that the struggle for freedom must continue.”

He added that, “the unemployed, the market woman, the market man would suffer, but it is better to suffer for a few days than to become slaves in our own territory. The choice is clear: Fight today for a better tomorrow or go on your knees and be a perpetual slave.”

In spite of some clearly ambiguous statements, it is this kind of speech that makes the NLC leaders extremely popular among the Nigerian workers and poor. They have become the only real opposition in the country. This also explains why earlier this year the government passed a bill to weaken the powers of the NLC. But you cannot destroy a union by decree. The NLC is a power because the masses need the NLC. It is their only organisation. It is the only organised force of the Nigerian working class that can strike blows at the rich and privileged, and defend workers against the constant onslaught of the bosses.

In this tense atmosphere the strike looks set to be very successful. Many different sectors are taking part. Most importantly, the oil workers’ unions have brought their members out. Both PENGASSAN (senior staff) and NUPENG (manual and unskilled workers) have called for strike action. This means bringing all oil production to a standstill.

Alhaji Tokunbo Korodo, the Chairman of the Petroleum Tanker Drivers, a branch of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), said his union had called on its members to stop all loading of fuel until further notice. Interestingly, youths in the Niger Delta area have been mobilised to ensure compliance with this call. This means roadblocks and pickets that could become focal points of conflict with the police.

The working class of Nigeria is once more on the move. And behind it all the other poor layers of society are lining up. The market women have been directed to close down their stalls and join the strike. One of their representatives has stated that they, “are ready to follow the leadership of the NLC, even to death.” The National Association of Traders, Artisans and Service Providers (NATASP), has come out in support of the strike. Its leader is quoted as saying, “The present situation is too harsh for us to operate. We will join the strike. Let the government come and kill us. We know that one day our children will be proud that we fought for our rights.”

The students are also mobilising behind the NLC. The President of the National Association of Polytechnic Students (NAPS), Abiodun Mayegun, said, “all Nigerian students…should come out en-masse, marching to all Government Houses in the country and media houses to register their protest.” Teaching staff has also given its support to the strike. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) has announced its readiness to join in the fight.

Thus the mood is one of a readiness to struggle and take the fight to the very end. The only logical conclusion is that the NLC should be calling for the resignation of Obasanjo. There have been many general strikes. Each time the government has climbed down partially, only to return to the offensive once the working class has been demobilised. The NLC leaders cannot keep playing the same game. It must go beyond the level of a strike over fuel prices. The strike must become political. The workers are expecting more this time round. They are asking themselves what is the point of a general strike that leaves the status quo as it is now. The NLC must call for the resignation of Obasanjo and the whole regime.

As we explained above, the NLC is in fact the only real “political” opposition in the country. Even already existing political parties have declared their support for the NLC strike. One example is the National Chairman of the “All Progressive Grand Alliance” (APGA), Chief Chekwas Okorie. Incredibly he said that opposition political parties support today’s strike called by the NLC, because the union leaders have provided the leadership, which most of the parties lack in “structural strength.” He is quoted as saying that, “if we the opposition political parties had the structural strength like the NLC, we would have carried the strike on our own to express our dissent at what is happening in the country, but thank God the NLC is giving us the needed leadership structure and support”. He added that the opposition political parties are not only interested in the reversal of the prices of petroleum products, but the resignation of President Olusegun Obasanjo! This is extremely significant, because Oshiomhole is not calling for the resignation of Obasanjo.

The position of the APGA reveals how isolated the regime has become. Even bourgeois politicians are distancing themselves from Obasanjo. The regime has used up all its reserves of support. Three weeks ago there was even a one-day strike of the police! This was followed by a strike of the riot police! These not unimportant details show that if the leaders of the NLC were to appeal to the rank and file police, the Inspector-General could make all the statements he wants to, but he would have no forces on the ground to back them up.

The point is that the APGA does not represent the Nigerian workers, but it is jumping on the bandwagon in calling for the resignation of Obasanjo. It is trying to exploit the workers’ protest to their own advantage. They think that by siding with the strike they can pick up support. Some elements within the Nigerian ruling class must be thinking that they need to find an alternative to Obasanjo that would guarantee the continuation of their system. They know Obasanjo is discredited. They can see the enormous political vacuum opening up in Nigeria and wish to fill it would someone they can trust.

This can only happen because the NLC is not a party. That is why the NLC should immediately launch its own party. Imagine how powerful a party of the Nigerian working class would be, with a figure like Oshiomhole at its head!

The Nigerian trade union leaders must not repeat the mistakes of the past. Oshiomhole has already said that the strike would not exclude the possibility of dialogue with the Federal Government. Oshiomhole’s exact words were: “We have decided among ourselves that even while this strike is on, we are open to dialogue because strike is not war and if those dialogues produce desired results, we are in a position to deal with them as they arise. So, the commencement of the strike… is not tantamount to foreclosing the possibility of dialogue to which we remain open and for which we remain convinced that in the final analysis, it is the solution.”

The Labour-Civil Society Coalition (LASCO) has added its own confusion to the situation. It has urged Nigerians to “sit-at-home” in order to “save lives.” We have seen this before. Instead of bringing workers out onto the streets, they are called on to stay at home. That means the workers are not allowed to get a feeling of their own strength. They are not called on to organise mass pickets, etc. This has been an element that has always weakened the mobilisation of general strikes in the past.

It is time to put an end to such talk. The arrest of Oshiomhole and his physical ill-treatment at the hands of the SSS gives a real indication of the intentions of the government. By manhandling Oshiomhole they were sending a clear message to the workers of Nigeria. This is not the behaviour of a government prepared to listen to the workers. This is an act of war. The workers’ leaders need to respond accordingly. If Obasanjo wants war then the big battalions of the working class must be brought out. By bringing out the oil workers the union leaders are indeed on the warpath, even though they may not want to present it that way.

This general strike has been announced as a four-day warning strike. What happens after the four days are up? Do all workers just go back? What if the government is not prepared to back off? Even if the government does back off, what guarantees are there that it will not return to the offensive? What will have been achieved by four days of strike action? These are all questions that the workers of Nigeria will be asking themselves. In order to move forward the NLC leaders must assume a political role by bringing down Obasanjo and by launching their own party. That is the next step.