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Nigeria: cut in fuel subsidy sparks general strike

Millions of people in Nigeria took action against the government’s cut in fuel subsidies, writes Dave Stockton, but the union leaders have betrayed them

NIGERIA’S TWO union federations, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), have called off an eight-day general strike that mobilised 10 million workers and paralysed the country. They did so just as offshore oil workers, a key sector, were about to join the action and deal President Goodluck Jonathan’s government a devastating blow.

The union leaders had already been signalling their inclination to end a strike that they never wanted. NLC president Abdulwaheed Omar claimed, “both sides have agreed to shift ground“. In fact it is the union leaders who have shifted the most, letting down their members and the entire impoverished and exploited people of the country.

Their excuse for this betrayal was that the government came up with a “compromise”, setting the pump price of petrol at 97 naira (about $0.60) per litre, instead of the 140 naira set on 1 January. Even this is only for a few months, after which the price will almost double from its original 65 naira, threatening to eliminate what is in effect the only welfare subsidy available to millions.

The union bosses claimed that “lawless elements” were trying to take the strike over, and that there was a threat to national unity if it continued. The exact opposite was the case. The strike was truly nationwide, uniting North and South with huge demonstrations in Kano and Lagos, with Muslim and Christian workers in both areas declaring their solidarity and guarding each other’s places of worship. The main “lawless elements” were the Nigerian Army, called out onto the streets by Jonathan, where they killed three and hospitalised 600 demonstrators.

IMF diktats
The strike began in response to the government’s cutting of fuel subsidies on the advice of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Basic food prices rose immediately, with a basket of tomatoes rising sevenfold to 7,000 naira in a week.

Low petrol, oil and fuel prices are all that most Nigerians see from their country’s production of 2.4 million barrels of crude a day. The country’s wealth flows into the coffers of Shell and other oil giants, with kickbacks given to the country’s political, military and business elites.
This not only provides for cheap transport, but is also used to power the huge numbers of small generators that provide shops and homes with electricity, in a nation with a hopelessly inadequate national grid.

On 3 January mass rallies protesting against the price hike forced the unwilling leaders of the two union federations to call a strike starting on 9 January. In the first days of the strike, rallies across the country were wildly enthusiastic.

There were dozens of #OccupyNigeria protests, with young people mobilising through social media and mobile phones. Demonstrators made constant references to Egypt and the worldwide Occupy movements, testifying to the powerful social mobilisation, which accompanied the general strike. The universal demand of both workers and youth was for an unconditional and total restoration of the fuel subsidy.

However it was ominous that the union leaderships waited a week before calling out the oil workers, and at the same time cancelled the weekend rallies and demonstrations. Al Jazeera journalist Haru Mutasa reported that the leaders seemed “keen to end the strike. They don’t want to go back on the streets on Monday.”

Nigeria and its oil
Nigeria is the largest crude producer in Africa, with oil accounting for about 80 percent of the country’s state revenues, about 65 percent of government budgetary revenues,and over 95 percent of export income. It also supplies about 8 per cent of United States oil imports.

Of its population of 160 million, most are forced to live on less than $2 a day. A 2007 survey by Amnesty International found that 70 per cent of the six million inhabitants of the Niger River Delta, the main location of the country’s oil reserves, live on less than $1 a day.

The central question is who controls the oil reserves and their exploitation. Fuel subsidies are actually quite an ineffective way of giving workers and the poor the lion’s share of the country’s wealth – the wealth that they produce – and subsidies are prone to corruption and abuse. The answer is total nationalisation under workers’ control, the creation of a refining industry, a decent national electricity grid, and the ending of the horrific pollution caused by the oil multinationals.

The lessons of the betrayed Nigerian general strike – like those of the Britain’s of 1926 or France’s of 1968 – are never to trust the reformist trade union bureaucrats to lead a strike movement to victory. The bureaucrats must be controlled and as soon as possible replaced by a national strike committee of strikers’ delegates.

Action councils need to be elected from mass assemblies in every city and locality to unite union members with delegates of youths, housewives, small shopkeepers and stallholders. Once formed these councils must strive to take charge of the strike and form a national coordination.

The fact that President Jonathan will continue with the IMF-inspired robbery of the poor means that even this betrayal will in all probability not break the masses’ will to revolt. Nigerian workers urgently need to form rank and file organisations in the unions, and create a new revolutionary workers’ party, not only from the ranks of the union militants but also from the youth of #Occupy and other social movements.

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