Oil struggle aborted

Despite the ending of the protests, workers in Nigeria have demonstrated their potential power, writes Nick Rogers

The first two weeks of 2012 witnessed an impressive upsurge of working class and popular combativeness in Nigeria that for a few days took on the form of a social uprising. Even the compromise agreed by the country’s trade union leadership - that failed to secure the demands of strikers and protestors - cannot hide the potential of Nigeria’s working class to offer a progressive solution to the country’s multi-faceted social and political crisis.

The trigger for the explosion of demonstrations, occupations and strikes was the surprise announcement by president Goodluck Jonathan on Sunday January 1 of the immediate and complete removal of the subsidy on domestic supplies of petrol.

This was a step long demanded by the international financial institutions. Within Nigeria its keenest advocates were finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and central bank governor Lamido Sanusi - the key figures in shaping the economic policies of the Nigerian government formed after the April 2011 presidential election. These policies have recently been praised by Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund. Jeremy Sachs, visiting Nigeria earlier this month as special adviser to the United Nations secretary general, applauded the subsidy move - subsequently the cause of great controversy in the country and eliciting something of an apology from Sachs. Okonjo-Iweala and Sanusi allege that the cost of the subsidy has risen so much that it absorbs $8 billion of the government’s annual budget. Oil accounts for 95% of Nigerian export earnings and 80% of government revenues.

The day after president Jonathan’s announcement petrol prices increased from 65 naira (26p) per litre to at least 141 naira in filling stations; and from 100 naira to at least 200 on the black market, where many Nigerians buy their fuel. In some remote areas it was reported that petrol prices had tripled.

The subsidy, in place since 1973, has become a vital prop for the living standards of the mass of Nigerians. In the absence of viable public services and any kind of welfare state most Nigerians regard the subsidy as the only benefit they receive from the two million barrels a day that Nigeria produces - the country is Africa’s largest producer of oil.

It is not just those Nigerians who own cars who approve of cheaper petrol. The price of public transport is closely tied to the price of fuel. And, since almost all goods are transported by road, price levels of a wide range of the commodities sold in markets all around the country are dependent on the price of petrol.

Even in the short period since the subsidy’s removal minibus fares have doubled or tripled and, according the BBC, the price of the humble staple, the tomato, has risen seven times. For the population of 160 million, the majority of whom subsist on the equivalent of $2 a day or less, the president’s announcement meant a sharp cut in their standard of life.

Businesses and middle class households also use subsidised fuel to power the private generators that cut in when the country’s erratic power supply is unavailable.

Protestors on social media responded to the price rise by styling themselves Occupy Nigeria and articulating opposition to Nigeria’s ruling elite and the wide-scale corruption and outright theft by which it has enriched itself. Over decades politicians, military rulers and businessmen have squandered the billions of dollars-worth of oil that Nigeria has produced. Nigeria remains one of the most poverty-stricken countries in the world. Even its capacity to refine oil meets only a small part of its own needs. Oil is exported in unrefined form, leaving a large proportion of value to be added overseas and requiring Nigeria to spend a fortune on re-importing oil products such as petrol.

Even with the subsidy the Nigerian petrol price is higher than in virtually all other Opec countries. The government complains that the subsidy benefits the cartel that controls the import of petrol. However, rather than tackle the cartel, casting Nigerians into even deeper poverty is seen as the easier option.

Protests spread

The public response was instantaneous. On Monday January 2 people gathered in central Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, chanting, “Remove corruption, not subsidy”. There were reports of protests in the northern city of Kano.

Nigeria’s two main labour organisations, the Nigerian Labour Congress and the Trades Union Congress, issued a joint statement condemning the move: “We alert the populace to begin immediate mobilisation towards the D-Day for the commencement of strikes, street demonstrations and mass protests across the country. This promises to be a long-drawn battle; we know it is beginning, but we do not know its end or when it will end. We are confident the Nigerian people will triumph.”

By Tuesday January 3 thousands were demonstrating and the first death by police shooting was reported from Ilorin in Kwara state. On Wednesday January 4, the NLC and TUC announced an indefinite strike and mass demonstrations to begin from the following Monday: “After exhaustive deliberations and consultations with all sections of the populace, the NLC, TUC and their pro-people allies demand that the presidency immediately reverses fuel prices to 65 naira.” In the absence of a capitulation by the government, “all offices, oil production centres, air and sea ports, fuel stations, markets, banks, amongst others will be shut down. We advise Nigerians to stockpile basic needs, especially food and water.”

In the early hours of Thursday January 5 2,000 demonstrators, who had occupied the main traffic roundabout in Kano, renaming it Liberation Square, were beaten and tear-gassed by police. Three hundred were injured.

From Monday January 9, public servants, bank employees and other workers went on strike, in defiance of a ruling by the National Industrial Court against the strike. Not only workers, but petty traders and shopkeepers joined the stoppage. In addition to offices, schools, petrol stations and Lagos international airport, shops were also closed. The streets of Lagos were described as “eerily quiet”.

That was before large rallies began to gather and demonstrators starting marching in Lagos and other cities. A carnival atmosphere accompanied many of them. Musician Femi Kuti, son of Fela Kuti, addressed the main rally in Lagos, wearing a ‘Kill corruption, not Nigerians’ slogan on his T-shirt and calling for resolute opposition to the price rise. In Kano, police again used tear gas and this time live ammunition. Two demonstrators were shot dead. In Lagos there was one death in a confrontation with the police. As the week wore on, demonstrations grew in size and momentum continued to build.

The response of the state was increasingly harsh. On Tuesday January 10 a further five protestors were killed in Kano. The following day a 24-hour curfew was declared in Niger state and partial curfews in Kano, Zamfara, Borno and Oyo. The trade unions moved to up the ante. Oil production workers had not been called out on strike, but on January 12 the white-collar Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (Pengassan), threatened to call out its 21,000 members from midnight on Saturday January 14.

The oil workers’ strike was destined never to happen. By January 13 president Jonathan was offering talks to union leaders. As negotiation wore into the weekend, union leaders suspended the general strike - announcing it as a pause to allow people to restock their domestic supplies - and postponed the start of the oil production strike.

Discussions were reported by the union side as “fruitful”, but, with no concrete progress announced, workers began to resume the general strike on Monday January 16. The state’s response to attempts to march was even more brutal than the previous week. The army and police deployed tear gas and live ammunition in Lagos to try and forestall the return of hundreds of thousands to the streets. For the first time army checkpoints were set up. A pattern reminding Nigerians of the military’s post-independence role in suppressing popular dissent.

It was at this juncture that president Jonathan appeared on TV in a pre-recorded address to announce a partial restoration of the subsidy that would take petrol prices down to 97 naira. He also announced measures to tackle corruption in the oil industry. He said that total removal of the subsidy remained a longer-term ambition.

A 50% increase in petrol prices - rather than the earlier announced 120% - was enough to win the consent of the trade union leadership, who called off the strike at midday. They said they were acting to save lives, given the hard-line stance of the army and police, but would monitor the actions of the government in building up Nigeria’s infrastructure and rooting out corruption.

Conflicting forces

The trade union movement has played an extremely prominent role in Nigerian history. From the 1940s the unions were at the heart of the independence struggle. After independence in 1960, the demands they presented on behalf of the Nigerian working class were one of the determining factors in the Nigerian politics. The unions were the strongest opponents of successive military governments.

But, as has been demonstrated in the struggle of the last two weeks, union bureaucrats are incapable of presenting a positive alternative that can supersede the mess the various factions of the ruling class have made of Nigeria’s oil wealth and economic potential by directly empowering the working class and the social allies it is transparently capable of leading.

Instead - with tens of millions on strike or staying at home and probably millions marching on the streets - the trade union leaders appealed to politicians in the national assembly to remonstrate with the president. They accepted a modest concession that leaves Nigerians massively worse off in the third week of January than they were in the last week of December as an excuse to abandon a campaign that was developing a radical social critique.

They suggest that the current representative of the Nigerian ruling class occupying the presidential mansion might just be capable of resolving problems that are endemic to Nigerian capitalism. Yet in the space of two weeks the mass protests and strikes have demonstrated the ability to overcome divisions that increasingly looked likely to tear Nigeria apart.

Since the middle of last year the Islamist group, Boko Haram, has engaged in a campaign of attacks on mostly Christian targets in the Muslim north - Christian-Muslim violence has been escalating over the last decade in this, the most impoverished region of Nigeria. General Carter Ham of the US Africa Command alleges Boko Haram has pan-African links with al Qa’eda in the Islamic maghreb and Islamists in Somalia. That would justify increased US intervention in a country that supplies 10% of US oil imports.

Others, including the US state department, suspect links with internal Nigerian factions. On Christmas day Boko Haramspread its net to Abuja, bombing a Catholic church and killing 25 people.

In the delta region retaliation was taken against a koranic school. Mosques have also been attacked. The delta region itself, the source of most of Nigeria’s oil, has only recently seen the potential resolution - by means of an amnesty, and the promise of an increased allocation of resources and a clean-up of the environmentally-devastated Ogoni region - of a rebellion against the Nigerian state that severely cut oil flows.

The general strike and the protests that accompanied it were a truly national phenomenon. No part of the Muslim north was unaffected and Kano was one of the principal centres of the popular uprising. Muslims and Christians protested together and formed cordons to protect each other’s prayer sessions.

Only an independent party of the working class can build on the inspiring example of January 2012 to provide the vision of a genuine alternative. An alternative that democratises society, develops Nigeria’s economic potential to benefit the mass of Nigerians, and also points towards an pan-African solution to the crisis of the whole continent.