When Labour Shut Down Nigeria!

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By Oke Ogunde, Lagos    
Friday, 22 June 2007

Wednesday June 20th 2007, was the day that the strike action called jointly by the two labour Centres in Nigeria commenced nationwide. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) had called the strike action as a response to the 15% increase in the price of petroleum products, 100% increase in Value Added Tax (VAT), the rushed sales of two major government-owned refineries and to demand a 15% increase in the salary of public service workers.

The strike took off after the fourteen days ultimatum given by the labour centres lapsed and the newly "elected" government of Umaru Yar'adua refused to heed the demands of labour. The Yar'adua People's Democratic Party's (PDP) regime was just 23 days in office when the strike commenced and this development has raised a series of class-related issues about what this regime represents.

However, twenty-four hours before the end of the ultimatum, the regime, which had all the while pretended that all was well and that the ultimatum from labour could be rode upon, backed down on two of the demands. These demands are the return of the VAT rate to the old rate of 5% and the agreement to pay the 15% salary increase for public service workers. In spite of these concessions, the regime's adamant position that the price of petroleum products could only be reduced to 70 Naira per litre and the recalcitrant position on refusing to cancel the dubious sales of the refineries has created this present situation where the question has been posed: who is in control, labour or the government?

The question of who has power has been posed with the labour coalition asking workers to commence strike action and the government asking the populace to do otherwise. So far, ongoing events nationwide have shown once again that in the final analysis the labour movement remains a very potent force that can give a direction to how events move in society.

On Day 1 and Day 2 of the strike there was total compliance by the organised workers and to a very large extent by the unorganised workers nationwide. In Lagos, the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria, where close to 60% of the country's commercial activities take place, all major businesses were shut down. All factories, banks, government offices, public and private schools and most business complexes were shut. At the seaport, the usual bubbling of activity was completely grounded, the gates were under lock as dockworkers complied fully with the strike directive and stayed at home while the action lasted.

The situation was repeated at the Lagos airport, where activities were at the lowest ebb. Most scheduled flights were cancelled because of the strike action by the airport workers, who also complied with the directive of the labour coalition.

The reports from other parts of the country are also similar to the Lagos situation, and in some instances more qualitative than what was witnessed in Lagos. The compliance with the strike directive was complete nationwide in all the geographic regions of the country.

In the South-West, the home region of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was the PDP ruler just before Yar'adua, and the person who approved the new rates and dubious sales of refineries, the strike was total in Ogun, Oyo, Osun, Ekiti and Ondo states with all government offices, schools and banks closed. In Ogun state, Obasanjo's home state, there was also an open protest march led by students of higher institutions in the state capital, Abeokuta.

In the South-Eastern states, the strike action was also followed. Awka, the Anambra state capital, was a ghost of itself as all government offices, schools and banks were shut. The same scenario was also played out in the other states in the region.

The situation in the South states, where the Niger Delta region is situated, was also very similar. Apart from government offices, schools and bank closures, most oil workers did not report for duty, including those on off-shore duties; the situation here has a direct biting effect on the purse of the regime. In Bayelsa State, the home state of Vice-President Jonathan Goodluck, not only were the offices and banks closed, there was also a demonstration led by the local NLC, protesting the present socio-economic assault on the masses.

In Abuja, the nation's political capital, most workplaces were shut, including banks and schools. The federal secretariat offices complex was a ghost of itself, implying that most government business had been grounded. On Day 2 of the strike action, there was a mass protest led by NLC President, Abdulwaheed Omar, in the form of a procession around most places in Abuja. It enjoyed wide support and participation.

In other parts of Northern Nigeria, the strike was also strong. In Kaduna, there was a mass protest and demonstration against the new increase in the pump price of petroleum products and sale of refineries to private individuals, with active participation from the populace, including commercial motorcyclists.

The reports from the North-Eastern state of Taraba was also typical and striking in that it is the biggest following of nationwide strike action in history. Offices, banks, schools and motor parks were all shut.

The situation in Jos, Plateau state, North Central, was also similar to the ones described above: offices, banks, schools etc., were closed and there was a protest procession led by the local NLC leadership on the demands of the labour coalition to the office of the state governor in central Jos.

The above is the general picture of the ongoing strike action called by the two Labour Centres, the TUC and NLC, under the auspices of the Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO). The other arm of the coalition is the Joint-Action Forum, a coalition of civil society organisations. The situation is that of general enthusiasm and a there is a mood of readiness to give the regime a fight.

Even the law enforcement agents, particularly the rank and file policemen, readily showed their enthusiasm for the demands of the labour coalition. An experience at hand was the open hailing of the LASCO leadership in Abuja by the police manning the federal secretariat there when the coalition came for picketing.

The situation is not different from what was experienced in Lagos, where the policemen sent to the NLC secretariat to prevent possible procession by the coalition openly solidarised and fraternised with the picketing team of the coalition. This scenario is typical for most parts of the country.

From the above, it is clear that the mood is there for the labour coalition to insist on their demands: No to any increment above 65 Naira for the price of petrol and for a reversal of the sale of the refineries. One thing that is obvious, however, is that the labour coalition has to step up the mood by calling for organised rallies and demonstrations nationwide in order to galvanise the ongoing struggle.

It is also an opportunity to add the demands of the striking University teachers to the present demands of the labour coalition. These teachers have been on strike for the past three months. By joining in struggle with them the sleeping student movement can be stirred into activity and strike action.

In all, if the strike is maintained victory is certain. There is no need for the Labour Coalition leadership to consider compromise on any of the demands! The struggle must continue. The mood of the Nigerian working class is clear. They are prepared to fight. The level of mobilisation is unprecdented. It affects all layers of the working population. The poer is there to bring down this government and replace it with a workers' government. The NLC and TUC leaders must abandon any idea of returning to some form of collaborative relationship with any wing of this rotten ruling elite. Now is the time to launch a workers' party, a Labour Party and challenge for power.