Nigeria: A smouldering rage; Disappointment and anger at strike suspension

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Anti-government rally, Kano, Nigeria, January 16, 2012.

By Nnimmo Bassey

January 18, 2012 -- Pambazuka News -- The nationwide strike in Nigeria against a petrol price hike ended under rather curious circumstances. The strike called by labour unions had crippled the economy save for the fact that the oil pipelines continued to deliver their load. Labour leaders and civil society coalitions entered into dialogue with a government that favours monologues. It was not surprising that the game was over before the labour leaders knew it.

Nigerians woke up at the dawn of the new year to learn that the price of a litre of petrol had been jerked up by about 120 per cent. Petrol now costs 141 naira and N200 (about US$1) per litre in an economy where the minimum wage is N18,000 (about $110). We note that even before organised labour called out workers on strike, citizens had already hit the streets in protest against what they see as an insensitive and unacceptable action by the government.

As negotiations went on, labour insisted that government had to revert to the pre-new year pump price of N65 per litre. As the street protests grew in size and creativity, and as government glaringly lost in the communications battle, they resorted to intimidation and use of brute force, sending the military to the streets of Lagos and elsewhere, against peaceful protesters. Labour suspended the street rallies and protests in the early hours of January 16. By 7 o'clock that morning the president addressed the nation using a script that was already circulating in social media up to four hours before then. With that speech he pegged petrol price at N97 a litre. No reasons given as to how that figure was arrived at. Five hours later an obviously harried labour leadership called off the strike claiming that this was after wide consultations with their constituents as well as civil society. As it happened, civil society groups could not locate anyone who agreed that he or she was consulted. Thus the underpinning forces that resolved the gridlock are yet to be known.

Analysts are busy putting pieces together and trying to see who won or lost this episode in the long struggle for socioeconomic justice in Nigeria. We will not do that here. We will rather examine some of the arguments canvassed by government agents for the removal of the so-called subsidy, which many people believe does not exist in the first place.

The response of government to the massive uprising was quite worrisome. First of all the government presented a front that suggested that there were no options to the move they had made. The speeches by the president and the many presentations by the governor of the Nigerian Central Bank, the ministers of labour/productivity, petroleum resources, information and finance, remain persistently paternalistic and convey the message that they do not hear the dissensions across the nation. In moments of dramatic expression, the minister of petroleum resources demonstrated on television how the government’s hands were tied on the matter of fighting the rot in the petroleum sector. It would be interesting to know why the government allows itself to be bound hand and foot by thieves!

The major anchor on which the petrol price hike has been tethered is that government is spending a disproportionate amount of the national wealth on subsidising the importation and circulation of petrol in Nigeria. The number one reason given by the minister of finance in her brief on fuel subsidy is that from 2006 to 2011, about N3.7 trillion was spent on subsidy and that a whopping N1.348 trillion was spent in the first 10 months of 2011. She projected that the figure would reach N1.436 trillion by the end of that year. This figure is said to be 118 per cent of the nation’s capital budget. New information now claims that the N1.348 trillion figure includes subsidies paid for kerosene. This was not said when government embarked on their town hall monologues and copious advertisements that regularly wrapped front pages of newspapers and magazines.

The debates that ran alongside the protests showed that a huge chunk of what was paid as subsidy in 2011 was actually "arrears from 2009 and 2010". Veteran activist lawyer Femi Falana raised this issue on a recent television debate (11/01/2012) and posed the critical question about the way statistics were used by government in attempts to get Nigerians to accept the huge leap in the pump price of petrol. The government has failed on this elementary point to use the figure of what was actually spent subsidising the cost of petrol consumed in Nigeria in 2011. They prefer the bogus figure that includes arrears for 2009 and 2010.

Nigerians are beginning to believe that the size of the cash doled out in “subsidies” in 2011 can be explained by the fact that this happened in an election year.

Nigerians are also told that the only way to stop the smuggling of petroleum products is to get Nigerians to pay a higher price for the product. Really? One official even said that Nigeria’s border is so vast that it cannot be policed and therefore smuggling will thrive without a price hike. Really? And who is supposed to watch the borders, to protect the citizens?

We hear over and over again that the lower petrol costs do not benefit the poor. The reality on the ground just a few days into the new price regime has shown that this is not convincing argument. Small-scale entrepreneurs, for example those who run barber shops, depend on small petrol-powered electricity generators to stay in business. With huge public power deficits, many homes are powered with the same type of generators. Nigerians buy potable water from suppliers who own water boreholes. Some of these citizens’ water works are powered with the same type of generators. Because of absence of public goods and services we run autonomous or deregulated services at home and at work.

Another argument for the removal of subsidies on petrol in Nigeria is that in the league of oil-producing countries the price in Nigeria is only higher than that of Brunei, Yemen, Oman, Algeria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela. Whereas Ghana recently increased the price of petrol by about 20 per cent, in Nigeria it is a minimum of 120 per cent. Do not forget also that the Ghanaian economy is not run on petrol powered electricity generators. Nigerians have seen that it is more helpful to extend the comparison to the minimum wage figures of the countries also. It is at that level that the hole in this argument becomes apparent.

OPEC member countries fuel price per litre (naira)/minimum wage (in naira)

1. Venezuela 3.61/ 95,639
2. Kuwait 34.54/ 161,461
3. Saudi Arabia 25.12/ 99,237
4. Iran 102.05/ 86,585
5. Qatar 34.54/ 101.250
6. Algeria 63.55/ 55,957
7. Libya 26.69/ 23,813
8. Iraq 59,66/ 25,813
9. Nigeria 140-200/ 18,000

Non-OPEC countries

1. USA 157/ 197,296
2. UK 334.41/ 295,644
3. Oman 48.67/ 91,583

The Nigerian government continued to talk tough while the number of protesters on the streets swelled. In fact some of the spokespersons managed to hiss out their disdain for the protest without moving their lips. The SURE (Subsidy Reinvestment and Empowerment Programme) promises are taken with a pinch of salt by a populace who see these as the sort of political campaign talks they are used to hearing.

Nigerians are not opposed to making sacrifices that would put the nation on a sound economic footing. The government’s effort at taxing citizens so as to generate more revenue should not be embarked on without showing seriousness about halting profligacy by public structures. Why can our political office holders (executive and legislative) not take a 50 per cent cut in their salaries and allowances? Why the retinue of advisers and ministers?

Nigerians have been bemused by the amounts in the 2012 national budget earmarked for expenditure on food, cutleries, newspapers and medical facilities for pets.

In and outside of government, immoral display of wealth is an indication of primitive accumulation through dispossession of the poor or some less than transparent means. We can pay attention to individuals that take up several pages in the newspapers to celebrate birthdays within the range of 30 to 50 years whereas simple birthday cards can do the job. The same indicators can be noted from newspaper page uptakes for individuals whose cronies take up several pages to send congratulatory messages; such persons get political appointments or receive chieftaincy titles, honourary degrees and other things that bloat their egos. There are many other ways to track the leakages in the economy where productivity brings poverty and non-productive "enterprises" yield scandalous wealth.

Tensions need to be doused and one way will be for public officials to watch what they say as the incoherence in government circles is adding to a smouldering rage even after the bon fires have been smothered. There is still anger in the land!

[Nnimmo Bassey is chair of Friends of the Earth International. His latest book is To Cook a Continent is published by Pambazuka Press.]

Struggle forces Jonathan back a bit, but could have won far more

By Peluola Adewale

January 17, 2011 -- Democratic Socialist Movement -- January 16 saw the Nigeria Labour Congress and Trade Union Congress call off the general strike which had paralysed activities in Nigeria for one week. The whole country had come to a halt in anger at the surprise new year day's fuel price hike, the government was completely isolated during the strike's duration. If labour had offered a clear lead this struggle could not only have forced back the price hike but also laid the basis for a complete transformation of the country. Now there is the danger that this result will lead to a temporary disappointment with the results of mass labour struggle.

The calling off of the strike came hours after the labour leaders suspended street protests and mass actions. This suspension of picketing, protests and rallies was then followed by President Goodluck Jonathan's announcement of the reduction of the fuel price from N141 to N97 a litre and deployment of armed soldiers across the country. While the labour leaders want Nigerians to believe that the new price was a unilateral decision of the government, the sequence of events in the 24 hours before the strike was suspended, as well as the statement jointly issued by the two trade union federations calling off the strike, indicates that they had made a rotten deal with the government.

At its height the strike and mass protests involved millions taking strike action; there were huge demonstrations across the country while tens of millions stayed at home in protest. Among the most active participants in the protests were youths and students who in places like Lagos organised street demos and rallies raising resources on their own to have public address systems powered by generators to address neighbourhood crowds. Indeed the one week general strike of January 9 to 13 and the mass protests it engendered was, no doubt, the biggest movement of such scale and depth so far in the history of Nigeria. The strike was total even in north-eastern states where state of emergencies had been declared ostensibly in response to the state of insecurity created by Boko Haram's terroristic activities. It gave a glimpse, even if so briefly, of the possibility of revolutionary change in Nigeria.

In spite of the suspension of the street protests by the labour leaders and the government's announcement of a cut to N97, the strike on the Monday after the reduction was still very effective with total compliance and shutdown of all activities both in formal and informal sectors of the economy as it had been in the previous days. The streets and roads were deserted and only plied by soldiers who rode in brand new vans without plate numbers. Besides, in defiance of the suspension of the street protests and mass rallies, groups like Joint Action Front (JAF) organised a number of mass activities across the country. In Lagos, there was protest march of about 100 people from Yaba which was planned to be terminated at Gani Park Ojota before the combined forces of police and soldiers dispersed them with tear gas and live ammunition half way. In Oyo and Osun states there were mass rallies of thousands which came to abruptly end when the news of the call-off filtered in. There were similar mass activities across the country including in Kano and Kaduna in the north.

All this shows the resolve of people who had trooped out in millions to actively participate in various forms of mass actions nationwide in addition to those who stayed at home in compliance with strike to continue the action until the price was reverted to N65 if provided with leadership by labour.

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Kano, Monday, January 16, 2012.

Unfortunately, the labour leadership was not prepared for a long-drawn battle as an indefinite strike ultimately poses the question of power, of who runs the country, which is not on the agenda of the labour leaders! Indeed, on January 15 the labour leaders shamelessly issued a statement to explicitly dissociate themselves from the call for regime change which had started gaining echo among the masses, stating the strike's "objective is the reversal of the petrol prices to their pre-January 1, 2012 level. We are therefore not campaigning for 'Regime Change'." This was done not only to please the embattled government but also because the current labour leaders do not have alternative program to contest for power. With this kind of outlook the strike ultimately would not have been able to achieve all that was possible despite the huge support it enjoyed amongst the working masses and the utter isolation of the government.

In order to sweeten the poison of agreeing to a higher fuel price thel abour leaders highlighted the promises of Jonathan to promote accountability in oil industry, ensure that passage of petroleum industry bill and the probe of NNPC as the successes of the struggle. This however only underscores the deep-seated illusion of the labour leaders of influencing this capitalist government to act in the interests of working people. This is not accidental, but is borne out of the labour leaders' lack of an alternative economic and political framework to the current neoliberal, capitalist agenda. This also explains why the labour leaders agree to work with Belgore Committee which was set up to work out modalities of the implementation of deregulation. Their participation in such committee is clearly suggestive of labour support for the policy of deregulation which is at the root of the price increase in the first instance. This is much like the labour leaders' continuous participation in the National Council on Privatization (NCP).

The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) condemns the heavy militarisation of the streets by the Goodluck Jonathan government to repress the people who have been protesting against the increase in petrol price. We call for the immediate withdrawal of soldiers who have already started, according to reports and pictures in social media, to subject ordinary Nigerians to harassment and physical assaults at various checkpoints particularly in Lagos. The strike and mass actions which drew millions of people on the streets since January 9 has so far being largely peaceful.

The only occasions of violence were the killings of over 20 people across the country, including youths taking advantage of the empty roads/streets to play football, by the armed police. This action of Jonathan government is reminiscent of military era where culture of fear and intimidation was imposed on the country and it portends serious dangers to the current civil rule as it promotes military as the only institution that could restore "law and order". It has become commonplace for the current government to rely on soldiers to intimidate those with divergent view in attempt to whip them to submission to its anti-people policies

Beyond all doubts, this movement has proved again the huge power of the working masses and that labour has the potential to lead the mass of the country in carrying through a real, genuine "regime change" and revolutionary transformation. Unfortunately instead of advancing the cause of revolution and working towards a real political alternative, the labour leadership did everything possible to assure the ruling elite they are not fighting for regime change not to talk of a revolution.

While tens of millions of Nigerians were determined to fight for the reversion of petrol price to N65, more and more protesters were demanding that Jonathan must go. This expressed the growing appreciation of the need for a political alternative to the present gangs ruling at all levels of the government as well as the alternative economic program to the anti-poor, neoliberal capitalist agenda. Sadly, the labour leaders stuck to the utopian idea that reversing the fuel price alone is the only prize, and then they failed to deliver on that! The lesson of this, and the other general strikes since 2000, is that striking on its own is not enough, labour needs to have a revolutionary program to sweep away this rotten system. This is why the DSM has always called on workers, artisans, traders, youths, farmers, etc. to agitate for a working people political party to wrest political power in order to commit the resources of society for the benefit of the vast majority of the population as against the current order where only 1% appropriate more than 80 per cent of the collectively owned wealth of the society.

Working-class activists and socialists have to continue to agitate for the formation of such mass workers party run on a socialist program as alternative to a neoliberal capitalist agenda of privatisation and deregulation. The trade unions, given their large working-class membership and their strategic importance within the modern economy and society are in a key position to launch the building of this kind of alternative party.

The pro-working class platform Joint Action Front (JAF) played a commendable role before and during the strike. In the course of the strike, action committees were formed in many communities by the JAF and other left forces particularly in Lagos. While there should be efforts to sustain the committees to continue to fight against anti-people neoliberal policies of the government especially in the communities and neighbourhoods, these action committees can also provide the basis upon which a mass, genuine working people's party can be built. This will require the JAF to immediately in the period after the suspension of strike begin activities and programs to pose this challenge boldly among trade unionists, socialists, activists and the working masses.

Ultimately only a victorious working masses' revolution that takes political power from the hands of the capitalist ruling elite and forms a workers' and poor peoples' government committed to using society's resources primarily for the benefit of the working and toiling masses can salvage Nigeria and Nigerians from the vicious cycle of fuel price increases and poverty amidst plenty. To succeed, such a government will have to implement socialist policies of public ownership of the oil sector and other commanding heights of the economy under the democratic control and management of the working masses.

The strike has also shown it is only Nigerian working people that can take concrete economic and political initiatives that can reconstruct Nigeria's polity and ultimately ensure its survival as a country. The Financial Times, the London-based paper of international capitalism, correctly commented that "the protests have emboldened ordinary Nigerians and raised new awareness of wasteful expenditure. In addition, many feel let down by the unions for agreeing to call off the strike without the subsidy being fully restored." Many will be drawing lessons from the mightly events of the past few days.

The DSM remains committed to these ideals and urges all those who are convinced of the need to intensify the struggle against all anti-poor policies of President Jonathan's capitalist government and for system change to join us so that collectively we can build a movement that can fight and win a socialist future.