Between October 11-14, for the third time this year the overwhelming majority of Nigerians showed their opposition to the continual rise in fuel prices in a totally effective four-day general strike.
The stoppage, the sixth since June 2000, was called as part of the campaign to reverse the 25% rise in fuel prices imposed at the end of September. Most Nigerians do not see why higher world prices mean they, an oil-exporting country, must pay more for fuel. A popular demand is that the price windfall be used for the needs of the people and not stolen by the elite.
This latest increase was implemented less than 48 hours after the Federal High Court ruled that the Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC – Nigeria’s main trade union federation) was not entitled to call any further general strikes.
But this ruling had no affect whatsoever on the strike. Most Nigerians were incensed at the Obasanjo government’s blatant maneuvering to first get a legal ruling and then ram though another fuel price increase.
There were attempts by police to act against strikers, but this did not affect the strike’s success. In Lagos, police harassed union officials and on one occasion stood by while an armed group attacked strike activists.
More seriously, in the northern city of Kaduna police shot and killed a 12-year-old boy during a protest, and at least 16 bodies have been exhumed from a graveyard. Local residents claim they were strikers arrested by police, while the authorities say they were armed robbers shot trying to escape.
If it turns out that police murdered strikers, this will require an immediate, decisive response from the entire labor movement in Kaduna and throughout the country.
The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM – the CWI’s Nigerian section) played an important part in the strike mobilization on the ground, arguing for socialist policies and participating in both the national discussions on what should be done, and in labor’s negotiations with Nigeria’s rulers.
Now the DSM is calling for a wide-ranging mobilization to prepare for the next battle. At the same time, the DSM demands a full debate within the Labor Civil Society Coalition (LASCO – the joint body formed by the NLC with radical political, social, and community organizations) on how to bring down the Obasanjo government and the need to replace it with a workers’ and peasants’ government that could break the chains of imperialism and capitalism.
This would allow Nigeria’s huge resources to be used in the interests of the countries working and oppressed people, not local and international elites.
The front-page headline of This Day read “Total Shutdown” as schools throughout the country were deserted. All the teaching unions joined with the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU – the 1.8 million-strong Congress of South African Trade Union’s biggest public sector affiliate) to take mass action in their second “chalks down” in as many weeks.
Marches were organized in over 20 towns and cities throughout the country as the majority of the 800,000 unionized government employees struck in a show of unprecedented non-racial workers’ unity, in South Africa’s biggest public sector strike in history.
SADTU’S 100,000-strong September 2 national strike provided the spark that lit the fire of government employees’ anger raging across the country.
The deterioration of conditions of service over the past five years, as well as the decline in infrastructure and the quality of service delivery in health and education, have resulted in an exodus of teachers and health workers, leaving the service to go overseas.
In addition, the accelerating class polarization, particularly within the black population with newly-enriched black millionaires who flaunt their wealth ostentatiously and now make up a significant component of millionaires (numbering over 700 compared to 100 in 1994), inflamed the sense of alienation and exploitation felt by workers.
Electricity and water cuts, evictions for non-payment of rent and rates, containment of wage increases and retrenchments have continued to provoke the masses. Since the ANC’s election landslide in April 2004, there has also been public outrage over corruption and an attempted cover-up scandal.
An important feature of this strike is the political conclusions workers are drawing. Rank-and-file workers are beginning to witness with their own eyes what the DSM has been warning about for some time – that while the Tripartite Alliance (between the ANC, COSATU, and the South African Communist Party) was being promoted and maintained in the name of unity, it has become a source of disunity. The outline of the consciousness necessary for the re-assertion of the class independence of the working class through the break-up of the Tripartite Alliance is beginning to take shape. The situation is pregnant with the possibility of a mass workers’ party, albeit in the first month.
The survey carried out by COSATU’s research arm, into whether workers would support the establishment of a mass workers’ party to stand in elections, found 33% in favor in September 2003 – just over six months before the last general election. No doubt, today, hardly six months after it with the lessons of the public-sector battle burned into workers’ consciousness, that figure would be significantly higher.
The workers may not win this dispute, although there is no reason for them not to, provided the leadership is prepared to fight. But the leadership is itself fearful of the political implications of escalating the action. It would tear away at the Tripartite Alliance’s credibility, with whose maintenance many of their careers in the corporate world and senior government posts are tied up.
A concession is not ruled out, however, as sections of the ANC leadership may regard the Tripartite Alliance’s collapse as undesirable and premature despite the ANC’s 70% majority in the last elections.
However, even if the workers are defeated, they will have lost after a fight. They will have learned profoundly important lessons from this strike. The class polarization and political differentiation will continue.