The outbreak of anger and revolt in Nigeria cannot be attributed entirely to the removal of the oil subsidy by the government. The people are rising against decades of astounding poverty, insecurity and utter disillusionment.
Today, we the Nigerian people arise to take our destiny in our hands, as the most massive general strike and labour-led mass protests in our history commence, in a face-off with the state/government of the one percent that has held us in bondage and led the country to ruin, for the reversal of the increment in fuel prices, and indeed for more: for our self-emancipation! The revolutionary situation that marked this year as one that will birth change for us and for the children yet unborn started with the year itself.
2012 commenced with a big bang, ignited by the Federal Government when it raised the price of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS), better known as petrol, from N65.00 to N141.00, as its New Year ‘gift’ to the Nigerian people. Within days, well over a hundred thousand citizens had participated in some form of demonstration in cities across half of the states of the federation, in virtually all of its six geo-political zones.
New organisations and coalitions have been formed and old organisations and alliances revitalised in a massive wave of mass anger on the streets, by working people and youths. The two trade union federations, Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC), reached a historic joint resolution in defence of the Nigerian people against the fuel price increase at their separate National Executive Council meetings attended by radical elements of the civil society on Wednesday January 4, to prosecute what has been described as ‘the mother of all general strikes mass protests’ ever in Nigeria, commencing today, to subsist indefinitely, till the will of the people prevails.
The federal government’s response has been one of recalcitrance filled with arrogance. The Minister of Information, Labaran Maku, who used to be a firebrand activist and a founding member of the United Action for Democracy castigated the labour movement’s opposition to the so-called ‘removal of fuel subsidy’, while the Minister of Labour, Emeka Wogu, asserted that government would not submit to ‘threats’ from those it ‘rules’. The final word of the Federal Executive Council was by President Goodluck Jonathan on January 7. He claimed to understand how the people feel and promised palliatives. Such palliatives, which are part of the Subsidy Removal Reinvestment and Empowerment (SURE) scheme, headed by the former Cadbury Nigeria boss, Dr. Christopher Kolade, include the establishment of a ‘robust’ mass transit scheme. At the heart of this scheme is the distribution of 1,600 buses to various cities in a country with an estimated population of 167million people, to alleviate the pangs of transportation, considering the sharp increases in transport costs. Quite robust indeed, it could be said, if one where to think with his much loved shoes.
The president’s Rehoboam-like speech did not draw much applause from Nigerians. Yesterday, January 8, the House of Representatives stepped into the fray, with its special session to discuss the state of the nation. It passed a resolution moved by Comrade Paul ‘TeeJay’ Yusuf, a former students’ union leader, demanding that the fuel price increase be reversed. It was also to hold discussions with labour after an attempt to include calling on organised labour to call off its strike in its resolution was thrown out.
It was clear when the sun went down yesterday, that, the die was cast for a major battle between the 1 percent of the country’s population comprising its wealthy ruling class and the 99 percent dispossessed, suffering people who have chosen to stop smiling, who have borne the brunt of the fuel price hike this last one week and have equally fought against it with all our might. A revolutionary situation has sprouted in the country; what will come out of it is still in contention, but it is certain this time around that the masses, and no less the state, have dug into what could turnout to be Nigeria’s moment of decision.
AT A HISTORICAL JUNCTURE
We are at a crossroads, where the death of fear resurrects the boldness of life in moments of struggle. Here, for once, like never before, the nation stands as one against the bulwark of the might of the state and its few shameless paid tools who for the love of filthy lucre can not hear the bells ringing across the land, bells of the stiffest resistance in words and in deed. The National Medical Association, the Nigerian Bar Association, the Federation of Informal Workers Organisation of Nigeria and the Joint Action Forum of pro-labour civil society organisations have, along with hundreds of other national, regional and local organisations, placed themselves at the standpoint of the working class, demanding reversal of the fuel pump price and subscribing with no reservations to the leadership of the working class in the nation’s waging of this struggle against the state of the one percent.
Indeed, the binding demand has been ‘No to fuel price hike’. But with this, virtually every section of society, except for the big employers, has clearly said, ‘Enough is enough’.
The country has been bedevilled by astounding poverty, rising insecurity and utter disillusionment. The general elections last year were for many a first step towards re-making this country despite its condemnable flaws. But the elite, comprising the ruling class, has not only failed to provide moral and intellectual leadership, but it has also wittingly or unwittingly made the state of the nation worse. Most of those who voted for the current government now regret it. This, of course, is not to say that there were alternatives that could have turned our lives around; for without us as the people fighting to emancipate ourselves, as we now shall do, all hope is lost.
While grinding want and despair reign with no regards to the creed, ethnic identity or region Nigerians live in, sectarian violence has been the dominant news focussed on globally. This has been defined more, in recent times, by the terror antics of the Boko Haram group, which reports, including from Wikileaks show, has had the tacit support of key figures in the state machinery at different times. Where we are now, however, has demonstrated even within the miasma of continued perpetuation of such dastardly acts, gallant expressions of solidarity across faiths.
Last week, non-Muslims stood guard in Kano as Muslims said their prayers in the City Centre now called Liberation Square, where they were all brutally evicted from at about 1.30am by anti-riot police; while on Sunday at Funtua, Katsina state, Muslims surrounded churches as Christians worshipped, to provide security. This was in response to threats of Boko Haram attacks that had spread across the state. Similarly, Muslim youths who had been Occupying the sidewalk of Eagle Square since Thursday, as well as civil society activists, organised around the Alliance for Credible Elections and the Joint Action Forum, went to churches with leaflets, forging solidarity across creeds.
We now fully know that it is the elite who play up our ethnic and religious identities as ‘differences’ to be manipulated to keep us divided and thus weak. Hunger and disillusionment know no creed or ‘tribe’. And the elite when they meet to decide our fate and fleece our social wealth do not consider themselves as Muslims, Christians, animists or atheists! But they have pitted us against ourselves, time and again. But now, the hour has come for our self-redemption through collective struggle for a better society.
It would not be out of place, in considering how we got to this conjuncture, to point at the contentious issue of ‘subsidy’ removal. While barely 17,000 executives and their coteries across the country pocket N1.125 trillion annually and the National Assembly alone gulps a quarter of the total recurrent expenditure, the state claims that the N1.3 trillin fuel ‘subsidy’ for the Nigerian people is not sustainable. It further goes tongue-in-cheek to admit that this amount arises not from subsidising petrol for Nigerians but largely as corrupt enrichment of a ‘cabal’ in the oil sector. This is despite the fact that, if the country’s four refineries with a combined capacity of 445,000 barrels per day were producing at optimal capacity, domestic need could be secured. Why must Nigerians pay for the government’s subsidising of corruption and its grand inefficiency?
To limit the cause of the extent of anger and simmering revolt in the land to the fuel subsidy question would, however, be to fail to see the wood for the trees. The clouds of revolution had been gathering for years in the horizons of Nigeria, as even members of the ruling class could see. In 2008, 2009 and 2010, different leading members of the elite class of capitalists in the country, from diverse ethnic and regional backgrounds, had pointed at the possibility of such in the near future. They had noted: abysmal poverty; severe rates of unemployment; mass discontent and the bland ostentatious lifestyles of the elite in the face of these. They could point at the symptoms but dared not identify the crux of the matter; the inhumanness and non-sustainability of capitalism for lasting social development.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, Dimeji Bankole, then Speaker of the House of Representatives whom an anti-corruption agency has clearly identified now as a mega-thief, declared that revolution could never occur in Nigeria. Months later, former President Chief Olusegun Obsasanjo who sold off our collective patrimony for a pittance to himself and his cronies as part of the neoliberal agenda of the Nigerian state, warned in faraway Geneva that revolution might be imminent in Nigeria. He reiterated this position in December when in a seemingly uncharacteristic manner he took a stand against the then looming ‘removal of fuel subsidy’.
The people of Nigeria now rise, to reverse the increase in the price of petrol and for more. ‘We have been naught, we shall be all’, that is the cry that rings through the land today as we face our destiny. That is the crossroad at which we now are; to win or to fight to the last drop of our blood!
GLOBAL CONTEXT AND THE WORKING CLASS
It is not accidental that the present situation is unfolding in Nigeria at this moment in history. We are living through historic times in which the ‘automatic legitimacy’ of the capitalist system has been critically cracked, but the ascendancy of an alternative is itself not assured. While we are surer now that another world indeed is possible, we must contend for what such possibility could mean. But without the generalisation of that ‘death of fear’ and commonsensical ‘acceptance’ of this anti-people order which while obsolete still remains real, no revolution from below could occur.
It is important to stress the crucial role the working class nationally and internationally has to play in finding and entrenching the emergent new. This has practical significance for us in the moment we now are in, as not a few of the youths who have tirelessly and ceaselessly been on the battle field of an unfolding revolution this past one week have many a time in discussions asserted that ‘let labour do its thing, we will (or can) do ours and still win’.
I will extensively draw from an earlier paper, ‘A World in Turmoil, Problems and Prospects of the MENA Spring and the Occupy Movement’, presented in December at the Social Action-organised anti-imperialist camp for youths at Port Harcourt, to drive home my point:
‘It is only proper to ask ourselves why such turmoil seizes the whole world in an orgy of ‘crisis and resistance’, ‘revolution and counter-revolution’. The capitalist system is now being questioned, even by its icons and epigones. But it is a system that in its very inhumanity could not but have always been questioned by the emancipatory spirit of humanity and all who stand for people over profit and the fulfilment of social needs over individual greed. Why now and why is it thus, that anger, sweat and blood mark its question mark?’
The capitalist system, like earlier class societies is based on the exploitation of the immense majority by an infinitesimal minority. Oppression tends to go with exploitation. The elite class has to wield state power to keep the majority who actually work to create society’s wealth, subdued. They use apparatuses such as the police, army, prisons and courts to coerce the poor. Even in Western ‘democratic’ states as we have seen in recent times, youths are tear gassed and the democratic freedoms of assembly, expression, etc, curtailed using truncheons, water canons, police dogs and guns.
It is, however, impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their dominant place in society with only the means of coercion. From the cradle to the grave, the status quo of particular societies is presented as divine and eternal. Under capitalism this is even more systematic and intense. The school system, mass media, religion and even family ties are used to make us believe that there is no choice for humankind beyond capitalism.
Thus, most people just try to live their lives, even if it is not much of a life, during periods of seeming stability of the system. Many cling to hope that tomorrow will be better somehow, under the system that keeps them down. They merely try to get some incremental benefits. But periods of economic and political crises shatter illusions of the system’s omnipotence and omniscience.
These objective conditions could lead to a revolutionary situation, a historical juncture where, in the miasma of disillusionment and despair, the very possibility of all things being possible is opened as vistas of what is to be done to those having nothing to lose but their chains, the indignant mass of working and poor people. With rising unemployment rates, austerity measures, cuts in public spending, etc, mass anger boils over. And in the present situation, as working people and youths see the capitalist state bail out the banks and businesses that led society to the brink of the abyss, while we are made to suffer like never before, angst paves way for confrontation.
Revolution as we see before our very eyes is primarily the indignant intrusion of the masses into the political arena, which under normal times is dominated by ‘statesmen’ and politicians. The wretched of the earth in revolutionary situations alone, the people, see themselves as the force that can determine their own fate and not some elected or appointed ‘representatives’.
The determinant force within ‘the people’, in revolutionary moments, is the working class. The turning points in the revolutions that swept through North Africa, for example, were when workers entered the insurrections as a class. Similarly, the support of the American trade unions for the Occupy Wall Street movement provided it with great leverage. This is because of the central role of the working class to capitalist production. Indeed, a deeper look at the three triumphant revolutions in North Africa and the different pathways they took shows that the nature and level of development of the working class was, to a large extent, the determinant factor.
In Tunisia, the UGTT was in a sense incorporated into the Tunisian regime’s corporate state. But it still had some more independence in its action compared to the parastatal-like Egyptian Trade Union Federation. UGTT even dared to voice anti-neoliberal rhetoric and was the anchor of the social forum process in the country, being the host secretariat of the Tunisian Social Forum. During the Tunisian revolution, its actions saw the entry of workers as a class much more quickly into the fray of the struggle.
In Egypt, the ETUF was a dyed-in-the-wool ‘Mubarakist’ organisation. There were, however, more and stronger independent trade unions in Egypt than there were in Tunisia. These would constitute themselves as an independent federation, which has grown in numbers and in stature since then and is now at the fore of working class action. Well before the revolution, there were several wildcat strikes organised by these independent trade unions and even rank and file structures within the establishment ‘trade union’ federation, in defiance of both the state and the recognised labour aristocracy.
The so-called ‘brother leader’ on his own part constricted every form of civil life with political spirits, including, the trade unions. The national ‘trade union’ centre was not only incorporated, it was to all intents and purposes, not something really existing. Even the ritual of collective bargaining, which in many corporate states exists, albeit emptied of any but some supposed contents, was banned under the Gaddafi regime. As with many an underdeveloped country where the working class is weak in numbers and/or organisationally, insurgency became the pathway of insurrection.
It is important though to note that even in the worst case scenarios, such as in Libya, the working class from below burst asunder the fetters of its bureaucratic layers of official ‘leadership’ to assert its role as historical progress’ motive force in modern society. The fall of Tripoli, from within, lay in the uprising within the uprising that commenced from working class quarters in the city of the mermaid.
The spread of revolutionary fervour across the world reflects the close interconnectedness of the capitalist order. International working class and socialist solidarity is needed to overthrow capitalism and build socialist society. We are indeed at a revolutionary juncture. There would be more moments of triumphs and equally those of reverses. We should not be dismayed if this would not be the final conflict. A new generation of working people and youths is learning from the moment of history we are living through. As we remake the world, we would transform ourselves. The foundations of tomorrow are being laid now and blocks of struggle in Nigeria as well would be there moulded.
As our day starts today, with a national general strike and mass protests in every major city in the country, the might of the working class and the possibilities it holds for generalising and giving leadership to our collective struggle, definitely stamps itself on the course of the unfolding situation in Nigeria.
It is all well and good to interpret the situation we have entered and which is now deepening. The greater challenge might be that of adequately responding to the question, ‘what is to be done?’ In challenging the will of the state we are fighting against power. To win more, that is to emancipate ourselves, entails yet another logic being laid on this: our fighting for power.
In this light, we will have to organise organs of people and street power, as the situation deepens. In our neighbourhoods, schools and, yes, workplaces, we will have to entrench direct democracies by constituting general assemblies with action committees to address diverse needs of keeping the revolution alive.
I mention workplaces despite the general strike for a simple reason. In the course of the week, or even beyond it, it is not impossible that despite its bravado, the state would back down, although as they say, ‘those whom the gods would kill, they first run mad’. But even if with a reversal and consequent suspension of the strike (and this is not a given at this moment, but we must consider all possibilities), the wind is stolen from our sails, it cannot but be for a while. The genie is out of the bottle. We might be entering into a long drawn period of people and street power (PSP) of the 99 percent against the one percent that has brought Nigeria to its knees and made our lives a misery.
International solidarity will be crucial as the one percent is tied by a thousand strings across all lands. But no less so are we! The spread of revolutionary upsurge across the world, birthing now in Nigeria as the sub-Saharan Harmattan, further attests to this. Nigerians in the diaspora have taken up this gauntlet, starting in London and marching again in Washington. We must as well call on the police ranks to sheath their weapons if directed to shoot at protesters. The killers of 23-year old Mustafa Muyideen Mofoluwasho Opobiyi during demonstrations at Ilorin must be brought to book. The fact that some 300 police officers marched in Lagos and other junior ranks rebuffed a deputy commissioner’s order to use live ammunition on protesters also goes to show many junior police men (and women) would rather tear off their uniforms of servitude than become tools that will bring death to their brothers and sisters in our collective struggle.
It is still morning yet on creation day for the Nigerian revolution. But yes, we the people dare say: Our Day Has Come!
Forward to victory!
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* Baba Aye, deputy national secretary of the Labour Party, is also national chairperson of the Socialist Workers League in Nigeria.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.