[DEBATE] : NIGERIA - Femi Aborisade on strikes
pbond at mail.ngo.za
Fri Jul 13 05:51:05 BST 2007
NATIONWIDE STRIKES IN NIGERIA
A critical analysis
The recent national strike in Nigeria ended after only four days. Femi
Aborisade argues that despite the sudden surrender of the unions,
working class people have shown that they are a force to reckon in the
process of policy formulation and implementation.
The four-day general strike in Nigeria has once again demonstrated the
potentials of the working class to influence the course of history.
President Umaru Yar’Adua admitted this much when he said the strike
‘wreaked havoc on economy and our people’ (24 June 2007). Government
offices, private companies, petrol stations, ports, airports, schools
and hospitals closed down. Commercial vehicles were off the road and
major highways became football pitches for youths. Oil exports in all
terminals except one were prevented. In short, the strike ‘paralysed’
While President Umaru mourned the paralysing effects of the strike on
crude oil exports, ordinary people saw in the strike an opportunity to
express a striving to free themselves from the shackles of poverty. Over
70 per cent of Nigerians, about 98,000,000 people of a population of
140,000,000, live in extreme poverty, with less than a dollar a day. In
the midst of pervasive poverty, former President Obasanjo, in the
twilight of his tenure, took the following actions: The prices of
petrol, kerosene and diesel per litre were increased by ten Naira
(^10.00); petrol (PMS) was raised from ^65 to ^75, kerosene (DPK) from
^54 to ^64 and diesel (AGO) from ^54 to ^64. This amounted to an
increase of over 15 per cent in the price of petrol/litre, and about 19
per cent increase in the prices of diesel and kerosene. VAT rate was
raised by 100 per cent, from 5-10 per cent. In addition, six companies,
including the Port Harcourt Refining Company Ltd (PHRC) and Kaduna
Refining and Petrolchemical Company Limited were sold to foreign and
local private companies without resolving labour concerns. Public sector
employees were also agitating for payment of 15 per cent increase in
basic pay, which the former President had granted but never implemented.
The poor perceived government actions as punitive measures to compound
their agony. The payroll tax, called PAYE (Pay-As-You-Earn) has recently
been changed to 10 per cent of gross pay instead of the previous policy
of taxing only basic pay, after making allowances for dependants,
children and the aged, etc. There are also the following taxes: National
Housing Fund (NHF), 2.5 per cent of salary; Pension deductions, 7.5 per
cent; National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), 5 per cent. These add up
to 25 per cent of the employee’s pay. Workers earning poverty pay would
be hard hit by the increase in VAT because they spend the bulk of their
earnings on consumption items. Increases in the prices of petroleum
products automatically cause increases in the prices of all other goods
The process of increasing the prices of petroleum products was illegal.
The Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPRA) was established
by the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPRA) Act No. 8 of
2003. Section 2 of the Act provides for the membership of the PPRA
Governing Board, which includes representatives of organized labour.
Section 7 empowers the Board to determine the pricing policy of
petroleum products. Paragraph 1 of the 1st Schedule to the Act
prescribes that the Board shall take decisions by majority support. The
Board never met. It was the Secretariat of the PPRA that unilaterally
increased the prices of petroleum products. The increases were therefore
Besides, there was no economic rationale for the price increases.
Nigeria currently produces an average of about 2.6 mbd (of crude oil)
and exports about 2.3mbd. (Udo, 2007: C7). The 2007 budget was prepared
on the basis of a benchmark value price of US$30 per barrel. With the
price in the international market hovering between US$65 and US$70 per
barrel, this translates to between US$35 and US$40 per barrel going into
the excess crude oil account.
The privatisation of public enterprises, including the sale of
refineries, violates the current Constitution of Nigeria, which provides
that wealth shall not be concentrated in a few hands and that the State,
not the private sector, shall manage the major sectors of the economy.
[Section 16 (4)].
The strike was therefore declared to achieve the following: reversal of
the N10 increases in the prices of petrol, diesel and kerosene; removal
of 100 per cent increase in VAT, from 5-10 per cent; payment of 15 per
cent increase in basic pay for public sector workers, and review of the
sale of refineries and power generating plants.
The labour movement gave a 14-day ultimatum, which government treated
with levity. In fact, spokespersons of the regime threatened that even
if labour embarked on strikes and mass protests for ten years nothing
would change (The Guardian, 19 June 2007: 2). The Government declared
the strike illegal following the judgment of the Court of Appeal in an
earlier case where the court held that the Nigeria Labour Congress had
no right to call out workers on strike against general economic and
political decisions of the Federal Government because such have nothing
to do with breach of individual contracts of employment with various
employers as envisaged in the Trade Disputes Act.
While the Nigerian labour law restricts the right to strike and the
judiciary goes ahead to declare strike action against general economic
and political policies illegal, Nigeria is a member of the International
Labour Organization, which recognises the right to strike as a
fundamental right. The Abolition of Forced Labour Convention No. 105 of
1957 prohibits the use of forced or compulsory labour ‘as a punishment
for having participated in strikes’ (Article 1 sub-paragraph [d]). Also,
the Voluntary Conciliation and Arbitration Recommendation No. 92 of 1951
states in paragraph 7 that no provision of the Recommendation ‘may be
interpreted as limiting, in any way whatsoever, the right to strike’. As
a member of the international community, it is incumbent on any country
that seeks to acquire the status of a civilised state to give effect to
resolutions emanating from an organisation to which it belongs.
In spite of all the pre-strike arrogance of government officials and
spokespersons, less than 24 hours to the strike, in a desperate effort
to avert the strike, government offered the following concessions:
increase in VAT rate from 5-10 per cent was revoked; 15 per cent salary
increase to be effected for federal employees with effect from 1 January
2007; the N10 per litre increase on the prices of kerosene and diesel
was reversed and reduction of the N10 per litre increase in the pump
head price of petrol to N5 per litre.
Labour accepted all the concessions but one, insisting on reversal of
the price of petrol/litre to the old rate of N65. The strike then
continued until it was called off suddenly with effect from the midnight
of 23 June 2007, without winning the demand. Labour capitulated on the
basis of a letter by President Umaru Yar’Adua promising not to increase
the price of petrol for the next one year. In effect, petrol will
continue to sell at N70 per litre. The other concessions contained in
President Yar’Adua’s letter included an undertaking to set up expert
committees, which would include representatives of labour to examine the
issues of petroleum pricing mechanism as well as sale of refineries and
power generating plants. Government also undertook not to take any
disciplinary action against any worker participating in the strike.
Daily Sun (25 June 2007: 6) explains that the role of traditional
rulers, particularly the Sultan of Sokoto, was decisive in the sudden
capitulation by the top labour leadership. However, there was a division
even within the top leadership. As Sunday Punch (24 June 2007:13)
reported, a section of the TUC leadership had threatened to call a Press
Conference ‘to express a few reservations on the agreement labour
reached with government’. Working class youths were angry about the
sudden back down by labour leadership: ‘why embark on strike by
rejecting the N70/litre price of petrol which government had offered in
the bid to prevent the strike taking off, only to turn round to accept
what had been rejected?, they questioned.
Dress Rehearsal Strikes
The anger of working class youths against the sudden surrender by
national labour leadership is understandable. Weeks and months preceding
the strike, there had been series of threats of strike and actual
strikes, as dress rehearsals, preparatory to the nationwide strike.
These included strikes by Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC)
workers, Electricity workers, Academic Staff Union of Universities
(ASSU), and protests against the controversial 2007 general elections
organized by the Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO). There were
also sabotage activities, bombings and kidnappings by militant groups
and mass protests in the Niger Delta against exploitative oil companies
as well as threats by self determination groups in the South Eastern
part of Nigeria to disrupt the hand over program to a new President if
key self determination leaders were not released from detention.
What the foregoing shows is that the working class, in several sectors,
had been infuriated and imbued with a fighting spirit to protect jobs
and improve their overall living standards. That opportunity to express
their anger and reverse the privatization process has temporarily been
botched by the shocking compromise and sudden strike call off. But it
would be a temporary set back. On the basis of a system of exporting
crude oil and importing refined products, we do not need a soothsayer to
predict that crises lie ahead.
Regardless of the weaknesses of the strike, the working class has shown
that based on a united force of organisations of the poor, it is a force
to reckon with in the process of policy formulation and implementation.
The strike represents a message to the ruling class that labour will not
just slavishly accept attacks on its rights without a fight. No matter
how marginal, the reductions in VAT and prices of petroleum products are
gains that could not have been won without a fight. Also, contrary to
the threat of applying the ‘no work no pay’ rule, one of the agreements
in ending the strike was that no worker would be penalized for having
participated in the strike.
However, the basis of the united platform upon which the strike was
called was not brought to bear on the strike sufficiently. Whereas the
Federal Government made a concession to implement the 15 per cent
increase in basic pay, similar commitment was not extracted from the
state Governments. This resulted in the continuation of the strike by
State organs of the unions in states like Oyo, Osun, Ekiti, etc - after
the nationwide action had been called off (See for example Nigerian
Tribune, 26 June 2007: 5). Similarly, ASUU, which had started its strike
three months before the nationwide strike, had to continue its strike
until 1 July because the agreements reached did not touch on their
concerns. In the same vein, though workers in the Niger Delta
participated in the strike, some militant groups in the sub region
openly dissociated themselves from the nationwide strike on the ground
that the plight of the Niger Delta people had never been the concern of
Reactive or Proactive Struggles?
The 20 -23 June general strike was a defensive strike. Rather than being
proactive, the leadership of the strike was reactive and predominantly
economistic. The strike was not aimed at bringing about fundamental
changes to the root cause of the problems. Instead of addressing the
root cause, the strike was essentially about the effects of government
The behaviour of the leadership of the strike fits into Marx description
of non-forward looking trade union leadership:
Trade Unions work well as centres of resistance against the
encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of
their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla
war against the effects of the existing system, instead of
simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organised
forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class.
(Marx, 1958: 447, cited in Hyman, 1975: 98)
A more pro-active approach would require challenging the policy of
reliance on private importation of petroleum products, insistence on
investigation of corruption in the management of existing refineries,
and advocating local refining through existing and new state-owned
Central to the fuel crisis in Nigeria is the government commitment to
the neoliberal principle of disengaging from economic activity and
promoting the private sector in the supply of critical goods. The idea
of promoting the private sector, combined with stupendous financial
corruption involving about US$550 million in the Turn Around Maintenance
(TAMs) of the refineries, results in crippling the state owned
refineries, in order to justify reliance on the private sector for
importation of petroleum products and sale of the refineries under the
guise of inefficiency of state enterprises.
Who Should Control Industries?
As the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, 2001: 7-9) has pointedly
posited, the big question for today is: how is industry to be
controlled? Given the subsisting capitalist economic structure, the
challenge is to interrogate managerial control with a view to
accommodating a role for workers who work in each industry, and in the
cases of mineral producing areas, the communities, in managing the
enterprises. This suggests that working class organizations must reflect
and advocate comprehensive solutions to issues regarding production,
pricing and distribution of goods in an equitable and ecologically
sustainable manner through advocacy of involvement of the trade unions
and communities in the running of industries.
Mode of Strike Action and Process of Strike Call Off
That the strike was called off without resorting to the members, organs,
and groups that sustained the strike for the period it lasted raises the
issue of industrial/trade union democracy. Working class organizations
must provide efficient democratic structure and process for carrying on
daily struggles for better conditions and pay. The organs that take the
decision to embark on strike must also be the ones to decide to call it
off. With that kind of perspective, the need for mass protests and
rallies rather than a-stay-at-home strike action will be seen.
The stay-at-home strike action renders the rank and file passive
participants in the strike process and deprives the strike of the inputs
and influence of the members from below in determining the direction of
the strike, leaving the decision to call off or continue strike actions
to the whims and caprices of the few leaders. In this regard, the
Nigerian labour movement has a lot to learn from its South African
counterparts that subjected government offers of wage increases to
discussions at mass meetings of individual affiliate unions, during a
strike that was taking place simultaneously in the two countries.
Indefinite or Limited Strike Action?
The strike also revealed the weakness of ‘indefinite’ strike action.
Indefinite strike action is applicable in a situation in which the
objective and subjective conditions point to the possibility of the
working class taking over political power. Without such a revolutionary
situation in existence, the state cannot tolerate ‘indefinite’ action.
The situation will have to be resolved one way or the other, in
revolutionary change or restoration of political control by the
capitalist ruling class. For a working class leadership that completely
lacks the perspective of the working class taking power, ‘indefinite’
form of action is a recipe for sudden back down. Therefore, it would be
better to base actions on defined, limited number of days or weeks,
continuation or discontinuation of action being determined by the mood
and preparedness of the working class and the other poor strata,
expressed at mass meetings. In other words, an attempt should be made to
distinguish the Gramscian moments of ‘war of movement’ (when the actual
revolution is ongoing) from moments of ‘war of position’ (when slow but
steady preparatory revolutionary work is taking place).
The importance of drawing out lessons of struggles is implicit in a
statement by Marx: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it
just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by
themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and
transmitted by the past’ (Marx, 1958: 247). It is hoped the lessons
discussed in this paper will benefit future struggles.
* Femi Aborisade is a lecturer at The Polytechnic, Ibadan. He is the
coordinator of the Centre for Labour Studies (CLS) & an Associate of the
Centre for Civil Society, University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.
* Please send comments to editor at pambazuka.org or comment online at
For references, see link below.
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