Mark Sandell looks at Nigeria’s wave of general strikes
A burnt out skyscraper juts into the skyline of Lagos Island, the commercial heart of Nigeria’s biggest city. It is the remains of the Nigerian oil ministry.
This burnt-out building is a fitting monument for today’s Nigeria. In its shadow the workers of Lagos, like other Nigerians suffer, grinding poverty. Forty eight per cent of the population live below the poverty line. Seventy per cent of people live on less than $1 a day. Average life expectancy is 47 for men and 49 for women. The World Bank ranks Nigeria as the 13th poorest country in the world, and things are getting worse. Per capita income in 1980 was $1000. It is $250 today.
But not all of Nigeria’s 120 million people are suffering.
The last military dictator, General Abubakar, who was forced to concede civilian rule, was allowed to keep $100 million. The Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, insists on being paid in US dollars. A former World Bank Vice President, she takes home $247,000 a year.
The Nigerian ruling class have no qualms about moving their fortunes out of the country.
An Oxford University study estimated that in 1998 70% of Nigerians‚ private wealth, $107
billion, was held outside Nigeria. Much of this wealth is looted from the oil industry, the world’s sixth largest, which accounts for 98% of Nigeria’s export revenue.
Yet the state owned oil sector is as much a wreck as the former Oil Ministry. Its four oil refineries simply do not work. The reason? Pure negligence. This means that Nigeria has to import fuel, and the cost of fuel for cooking, heating and transport is set on the world market. At the same time the Government has been keen to follow the IMF agenda and
cut subsidies for fuel. This has resulted in price hikes for fuel in June 2000, January 2002, June 2003 and June and October this year.
And every increase in the price of fuel creates price inflation for food and basic goods, increasing the poverty and misery for ordinary Nigerians.
The corrupt and IMF-friendly government of President Obasanjo is now serving a second term after last year’s widely criticised rigged election, where Obasanjo gained 99.92% vote in his own state! Western leaders continue to support his “democratic”‚ “civilian” Government.
The good news is that every one of the oil price hikes has been met by general strikes organised by the Nigerian unions.
Led by the four million strong Nigerian Labour Congress, the unions have become the main opposition in the country, despite only 10% of the workforce holding union membership. General strikes are supported not just by workers but by small shopkeepers and market women.
The leading role of the unions is a vital and inspiring element in this country in crisis. It is a movement that can create solidarity in a country where in the last few years inter-ethnic and religious tensions have generated local conflicts that have killed 10,000.
Repression has been meted out by the Government in an attempt to cow the unions. In the run up to a fuel price rise this October the Government used the High Court to declare any strike over the fuel rise illegal and then arrested leading trade unionists. But the bully boy tactics failed and the strike went ahead. The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) called last month’s four day strike a warning strike.
The NLC President Adams Oshiomhole, a one time supporter of the county’s president, has now called for an indefinite general strike from 16 November aimed at hitting oil exports. This has been backed by the white collar oil union PENGASSAN. Shell, who run half the Nigerian oil fields, has responded by going to the Nigerian courts to try to get PENGASSAN ordered not to join the strike.
In the oil producing areas Shell and other major oil companies are a law unto themselves. Faced with a general strike they are now working hand in glove with the Government. They both want to oppress the union movement who are leading the fight for the workers and poor of Nigeria.
The last military dictator of Nigeria was forced out of power by a massive protest movement led by an oil workers’ strike. The start of the general strike on 16 November will be a nail in the coffin of the current regime. But to ensure change delivers for workers, the workers’ movement will need to lead a revolution against the Nigerian capitalist class, the military top brass and the oil companies and take Nigerian society and its oil wealth under their own democratic control.