Which way forward for the Nigerian Labour movement?

An Editorial Board statement of the Workers' Alternative on the outcome of the June general strike and the political conclusions that can be drawn from it.

Here's what we wrote in the May/June edition of the Workers' Alternative shortly before the outbreak of the general strike:

"…The recent victory of Obasanjo at the polls, will undoubtedly be interpreted by the ruling elite as a mandate to continue to implement the various anti-workers and anti-poor IMF-inspired agenda of privatisation and cuts in social spending, as is being experienced in education, health, road construction, etc. Hence, the future is certainly bleak for the vast majority of the populace."

But we also added: "However, notwithstanding the seemingly overwhelming victory of Obasanjo in most parts of the country, the reading is certainly not a mandate by Nigerians for another tortuous four years. Unlike in 1999, when the military left, Nigerians are not ready to persevere. There is bound to be immediate fi8ghtback to all mis-policies of the regime."

Events have proved us right on both counts. It must be pointed out that the increase did not drop from a clear blue sky. It was always on the agenda. The regime was merely gauging its strength as to the appropriate time to effect an increase. And yet nothing concrete was done by the labour leaders to counter any such move. Indeed, it must be emphasized that the NLC played a major role in Obasanjo's victory, helping to prepare the way for this recent attack on workers. Their position is not surprising given the fact that the Labour leadership had previously agreed with the government over the question of fuel price increase, privatisation and various other policies harmful to the workers.

Elsewhere we have dealt with the criminal arguments put forward to justify an increase. Suffice it to point out that the real reason for the increase is to suck out more money from the workers, to make them pay for the crisis of the capitalist system.

As in the last general strike, there was no prior mobilisation, no clear-cut programme to resist the increase, no strike committees and so on. Days after the increase, the NLC was still not yet clear on how to react. Finally, they were forced to issue a call for a general strike.

There is no doubt that the recent strike possessed a quality that sets it apart from previous other strikes in the country. In actual fact participation in the strike took the labour leadership completely by surprise and revealed a leftward tendency within the labour movement. The ferocity of the government's response is explained by the fact the it knew it was fighting for its life. And the labour bureaucracy also knew what was at stake, being itself bound to the regime.

The strike may have come and gone, but its reverberations will endure a long time. So, too, will the concrete issues posed by the strike.

The general strike

The general strike - an indefinite one at that - is no small matter. It is the most powerful weapon in the hands of the working class and poses fundamental questions concerning society itself. Before it, all economic activities come to a halt. The workers feel their strength, their role in society.

For the strike to be successful it requires preparation, planning, clear-cut strategy, etc. These were precisely what were greatly lacking during the last strike. No doubt it was not an oversight on the part of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) leadership. In spite of this the strike recorded massive participation by virtually all sections of Nigerian society for the period that it lasted. Indeed, as the strike dragged on it began to extend, pulling in ever-wider layers of society.

What this reveal is the increasing resentment of the mass of working people and youth towards the regime and its policies. Clearly the regime was not going to sing about "winners" and "losers" like it did last time. This time the labour leaders - the pillars of the Obasanjo regime - could not conveniently hold back the workers and were compelled to go along with the strike in order to head it off at the critical moment.

Here we must tread carefully. No doubt there was no shortage of eagerness to betray on the part of the NLC leadership. But such an explanation leaves more unsaid. More was involved than the usual treacherous role of the NLC bureaucracy.

First, the strike was a result of the pressures of the workers on the NLC leaders who were compelled to act in order to protect their base and safeguard their privileges. If the fuel pump price failed to revert to its old price of N26 per litre it was not due to an absence of heroism on the part of the workers and youth. It was the result of the labour leaders' unwillingness to give decisive leadership. This refusal was predicated on a need to save the system which was seriously threatened.

And, this, too, informed the response of various state governors, senators, etc. Feeling the impending threat these individuals applied pressure to both the regime and the labour leaders - even begging them - to reach a quick compromise in order to resolve the crisis. Finally, having come down from N40 - which it had previously said there was no going back on - to N35 the regime was forced to come down to N34. This was not a humanitarian gesture. It was to prevent the further spread of the strike especially with the oil workers threatening to come out.

In spite of its attendant hardships the workers and other poor layers were quite prepared to carry on with the strike to get the price of fuel back to its old price. But this could have meant the collapse of the regime, something the right-wing leadership of the NLC did not want. At the NLC secretariat in Lagos where the slogan of "Obasanjo must go" was advanced they quickly rejected it.

Police brutality

The regime knew it was fighting for its life and this explained the ferocity of its response. How seriously the government took the threat posed by the strike spreading further was seen when the vice-president, Atiku Abubaker took direct charge over the negotiations. What the government was doing was to apply the old tactics of "stick and carrot."

From the beginning the regime had already revealed its determination to use force, and this it did. Across the country, riot police fired tear-gas and live bullets indiscriminately into crowds of protesters, killing and injuring in the process. Armed police also occupied the headquarters of the NLC in Abuja, beating up union activists and journalists not even sparing the NLC president Adams Oshiomhole who was tear-gassed. The federal government, which had first tried to stop the strike by means of a court order declaring it illegal, gave the order for these attacks. Obasanjo had, himself, directed the Inspector-General of police to "beef up" security and arrest anyone preventing others from working. Thus, the decision to use force came from the top.

The so-called "investigations" on the killings - organised after the strike - was diversionary and failed to go to the heart of the question. Marxists have always explained that the state is an organization for the subjugation of one class by another. This much is becoming clear to the most advanced layers of workers.

A leftward shift

The strike was the result of the pressure of the workers on the NLC leadership. As the strike dragged on the effects of this pressure began to reveal themselves. The pressure resulted in a noticeable leftward shift. Twice, in meetings that spanned twelve hours, the NLC president could not succeed in calling off the strike even though he had been vested with powers to do so. To some extent this was because the labour bureaucracy knew it was fighting for its life, fighting to maintain its base and that it would lose its prestige if the strike were allowed to fizzle out over the weekend. It needed to rehabilitate its image, its authority, with something that could be presented as a victory. They were caught in a quandary, before them the government to whom they were bound; and behind them, the impatient and exacting demands of the class they supposedly represent.

On a more fundamental level it was this that drove them on and inevitably gave rise to near splits and disagreements in their ranks. For us Marxists this raises the need to go into these organisations and fight to build an opposition within them, to ensure that the will of the workers is imposed.

Indicative of this mood of opposition within the unions was the conference of party organizers of the Party for Social Democracy (PSD), the NLC's party, just days to the strike to which a member of this editorial board was invited to attend and make a speech. The attitude was one of rising opposition to the right-wing leadership of the NLC.

This growing mood of opposition will be given impetus in the coming period by the deepening crisis of capitalism, particularly with talk of a new hike in the fuel pump price. This mood of anger will in time seek political expression. There is no reactionary mood of regret among the working masses following the last strike. The mood is still one of anger and resentment against the regime and its policies. The next wave of strikes will pull in ever wider layers and will further deepen the opposition within the unions. We must be prepared for this, to go in and reach out towards the most advanced layers seeking change.

Though the price of fuel did not revert to its former status the government came out of the strike weaker, whereas the workers came out stronger and more conscious of their strength. The current leadership of labour has proved to be a great barrier before the working class and must be changed

The role of the working class

In the days immediately after the elections, this question was widely debated among the left. Following the perfidious role played by the labour bureaucracy, a mood of pessimism , with regard to the revolutionary potential of the working-class, developed among certain layers.

But if there was one thing the strike revealed it was the tremendous role played by the working class. All other sections of the population - students, unemployed, artisans, market women, etc. - fell in line behind the leadership of labour. This silenced, even if temporarily, the sects who were of the opinion that, faced with the betrayals of its leadership, the workers would turn to, or create organisations of a new kind. All throughout the strike, however, the strike headquarters was the NLC secretariat.

In the coming period this revolutionary potential will further reveal itself as the workers move to claim back their organisations - including the mis-named Party for Social Democracy.