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Conflicting roles of unions and civil society

Anti-government protests have been quite successful, although with many reports of police brutality against protesters. But labour unions appear unable to provide a voice for the people in some parts of the country.

‘Labour has been bought. They have compromised. As civil society in Rivers State we thought we could work with labour, but they have compromised in Rivers State. How can you be having a protest and you just sluggishly walk in? There is lack of seriousness. It is so glaring,’ notes Celestine Akpobari of Ogoni Civil Society Platform in his response to my questions on protest against removal of oil subsidy by the federal government which started on 9 January. Cracks between the civil society, the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress over strategies in current struggles against fuel price increase arising from the removal of oil subsidy are already being noticed. Lagos, Kaduna, Abuja and so on had huge turn-out of protesters, but the same story cannot be told of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, where presently, the NLC and TUC are being accused of compromising.

Nigeria currently produces 2.6 million barrels of oil daily, but it is mostly refined abroad as its four refineries are sick of corruption, underutilisation and technical shortcomings, leaving the unhealthy option of highly subsidised importation of fuel. Nigerians have waited long for government to fix her refineries, even as licenses have been granted to a number of investors to operate private refineries for refining crude locally in order to meet local consumption which now stands at 300, 000 barrels a day. With this daily consumption level, and installed capacity of 445 thousands barrels a day at the refineries in Nigeria, one would certainly expect that 3.5 million litres per day should be generated. Local consumption needs would certainly have been met at minimal cost if the refineries were operating at full capacity. Instead, the Nigerian government has been involved in subsidising importation of fuel, a process which the government claims has been afflicted by corruption. The federal government insists on saving money for the welfare of Nigerians and on the need to address the problem of corruption in the marketing of fuel in the country by removing the subsidy. The result is the high-pitched price of fuel per litre from N65 to somewhere between N140 and N180 as at the time of writing. This means a lot for the poor as transportation, access to food and so on are now clearly linked with this rise in the price of fuel. Unable to cope with meagre income, having to part with twice or trice more in prices of commodities, Nigerians are in the streets protesting.

NLC and TUC, leading the protests in various states in alliance with the civil society, seem not to have, in a sense, been quite successful in some states, according to some activists. In this case — Rivers State — civil society groups have problems working with NLC and TUC, simply on grounds of perceived sell-out to the government of the state. According to one civil society activist, ‘leaders of official labour unions in this protest have allowed themselves to be influenced by political interest and forces by failing to work directly with the civil society and by agreeing to disperse from the protest on 10 January after being addressed by the governor of the state at the Government House in Port Harcourt.’ One journalist in the city of Port Harcourt, Steve Obodkwe, while interacting with me on the issue, argues a contrary view saying that suspension of work and closure of offices of well-established government and private organisations clearly point to the impact that the protest is already making.

Failure by NLC and TUC members and leaders to turn up early for protest on the first and second days of the protests in the city infuriated some of the civil society actors. As they mentioned, this lack of seriousness on the part of labour is not in the best interest of the masses of poor Rivers people. In Bayelsa State, NLC and TUC members were absent from the streets as they merely discussed in a hall and dispersed. As it was disclosed in a strategy meeting of civil society activists at Social Actions office at the Orominike Close, D-Line Port Harcourt, on 10 January after their protests and rally, the president and governor of Rivers State seem to have utilised co-optation to frustrate the protests in Bayelsa and Rivers State. It would appear that the unions are unable to provide a voice for the people in some parts of the country. Meanwhile, protests in many parts of the country have been quite successful, although with many records of police brutality and death of protesters.

The issue of increase in fuel price resulting from the removal of oil subsidy is serious enough to attract the anger of Nigerians, including the Nigerian Bar Association, who have promised to offer free legal services to all who suffer unjustly from the nation-wide protest. For the poor, it means a big leap into the abyss of poverty. The protest is a struggle for survival, and means much more than mere response to a government policy.

In any case, while the civil society in some states like Lagos, Ibadan and so on seem to have done substantially well in planning, lack of resources and effective mobilisation seem to have affected the momentum for sustained protests by groups after the first day of protests in the case of Rivers State. Local communities and the informal sector are rather lukewarm to the protest. Some simply prefer to sit at home watching developments on television – only if there is electricity. Electricity is a huge luxury in many parts of the city of Port Harcourt, including where I live with my family. It is either one powers their house with a mini- power-generating set, or stay in darkness for weeks before the power supply authorities come with at most two to five hours supply. Increase in the price of fuel now means that citizens would have to go most of the time without electricity. Food, transportation, payment of children’s school fees and leisure have now become very expensive. For example, fare within the city of Port Harcourt which was on the average N50 for every drop is now between N100-N200, a development that is already spelling doom and disaster in the days to come.

Removal of oil subsidy that produces more pain for the people may be as bad as the many years of subsidising a damaging product like oil. Not only is the issue seriously part of a neoliberal World Bank and International Monetary Fund project to further integrate the developing countries into the global capitalist order, the underlying interests of the developed countries which this serves orchestrates a zero-sum negative result for the poor, who are completely neglected in this project. What is even completely left out is the logic of several years of subsiding a very damaging product like oil, although some actually believe petrol has never been subsidised in Nigeria. Oil is responsible for the current global climate crisis and has been responsible for severe damage to the immediate environment or ecosystem in the Niger Delta.

In any case, a section of the civil society says that removal of oil subsidy is not the same as rise in fuel price. At least, Celestine Akpobari of Social Action, made this point clear as he suggested that the issue of removal oil subsidy could have been handled differently with regards to timing if the government consulted widely with stakeholders. Meanwhile, leaders of the two major labour unions driving the strike and protests nationally failed to come to an agreement with the federal government in a meeting that took place yesterday in Abuja. The strike continues today.


* Fidelis Allen, Ph.D, teaches at the School of Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.

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