The fall in international oil prices has triggered a massive crisis in Nigeria, one of the world’s major oil producers, dependent on oil income and with a population of around 185 million, the largest African country. It has meant that the Nigerian government is now operating on about one-quarter of the $5bn monthly revenue it had before the price fall began in mid-2014. A majority, 27 out of 36, of state governments are not paying salaries on time.
At the same time a recession has already meant that officially half a million workers lost their jobs in the first four months of this year while the tens of millions trying to find work in the informal sector have been hit by both by the combination of economic slowdown and inflation of nearly 16 per cent, caused by a combination of worsening shortages of basic goods and a rapid fall of the currency on the parallel market, which was followed earlier this month in the official floating and devaluation.
Increasingly different crises, including ethnic clashes and insurgencies, are developing in the regions. Historically the labour movement has led the opposition and has been able to unify working people in struggle. But the most recent general strike in May, the tenth since the country returned to civilian rule in 1999, was not successful, it was not seriously prepared and, for the first time, saw divisions between different trade unions over whether or not to support the stoppage. (See “FUEL PRICE HIKE: LABOUR STRIKE WAS TOO WEAK TO WIN ANY CONCESSION” http://www.socialistnigeria.org/page.php?article=3113)
But the general strike’s failure has not stopped workers’ struggles taking place in different parts of the country, especially in some states where the general strike had been widely supported.
This is especially true in Oyo, a south-western state near Lagos, where since the beginning of June events have moved fast as workers and youth have taken to the streets both to oppose privatisation and demand payment of salary and pension arrears. Not deterred by the failure of May's poorly prepared general strike working people in Oyo have come out in great numbers and public sector workers have been on strike for three weeks to press their demands.
What immediately provoked mass protests by workers and students, as well as the strike action, was the arrest and detention of seven labour leaders after they had led a protest at a June 1 forum organised by the government on the sale of schools under the guise of Public Private Partnership (PPP).
They were arrested the following day, Thursday June 2, appeared in court the following day but spent the weekend in prison as the state government prevented their release on bail. The state government had hoped that workers’ disappointment with the labour leaders’ role in May’s general strike would mean that there would only be limited protests and that jailing would intimidate the union leaders. But this was not the case, workers surrounded the court house demanding the release of the seven.
Keeping the seven in jail enraged many workers and, following the release of the labour leaders on the Monday, a special Congress of workers declared an indefinite strike action starting on the Tuesday to press home their demands for: 1. Immediate withdrawal of all trumped-up charges levelled against the labour leaders who had been incarcerated; 2. The Government to rescind its decision to sell off any public schools in the state; 3. Proper and adequate funding of the education sector including payment of living wages and other incentive for education workers; and 4. Immediate payment of the six months' outstanding salaries and all pension arrears.
On the same day the growing fighting spirit was displayed when the Oyo state government secretariat was paralysed as hundreds of students from many secondary schools on Monday June 6 protested against the planned privatisation of secondary schools. That day there were similar student protests in many areas of Ibadan, the Oyo state capital.
The following day saw a bigger protest now involving workers, artisans and students as the indefinite strike action got underway for immediate payment of salary arrears which now amount to 6 months and pensions owing to retirees. This June 7 protest march, one of the biggest recently seen in Ibadan, was led by both the National and State leaderships of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Nigeria Union of Teachers, (NUT).
Oyo State has failed to pay civil servants their meagre monthly salaries since December 2015 without any resistance from the state’s labour leaders. Instead, the labour leaders signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the government that gave a false impression that Oyo State is completely broke and lacks enough resources to pay workers their paltry salaries even when the political office holders continue to receive their bloated salaries and allowances and maintain an opulent lifestyle.
Resulting from the failure of the labour leaders to defend the economic rights of rank and file civil servants in the state, who continue to groan under the pain of over 6 months of salaries' arrears, is the mass discontent workers and the general public against the labour leaders in the state. This existing mass discontent against the labour leaders was seen as the opportunity by the Oyo State government, led by the All Progressives Congress (APC) of President Buhari, to clamp down on the labour leaders for organising a mass action which successfully helped to stop a stakeholder meeting where the state wanted to seal up their plan to privatise public schools in the state.
But, unfortunately for the Ajimobi-led government, the arrest of these same labour leaders, who were once described as "generals without army", provoked an immediate mass sympathy which later snowballed into a mass action and declaration of an on-going indefinite strike in state.
Protest and strike activities
Unlike in other states like Ondo where workers are currently on indefinite strike and Ekiti and Bayelsa where strikes were recently suspended workers, the strike in Oyo over non-payment of salaries is not just a mere sit at home action. In Oyo striking workers are directed to always converge on regular basis, now three times a week, for mass meetings at the state secretariat of the NLC where discussion and debate to advance the struggle is often undertaken. Thousands of copies of materials like leaflets were produced and massively circulated among the community people to further deepen the understanding of the general public on the strike and the need for them to join.
The first week of action not only saw mass workers’ and school student protests but also pensioners, who are now owed over 24 months of pension payments, stage their own street protest on Thursday June 9 to demand immediate payment of all their pension arrears as well as to lend a principle support to all the demands of the striking workers.
The first week was rounded off by a mass meeting which saw, amongst other lead speakers, a member of Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) speak on how to move this struggle forward. These proposals included immediate constitution of action committees of workers at local government level to ensure adequate compliance with the strike directive especially at workplaces outside Ibadan and to organise activities like public meeting and mass protests at local level.
Going by this background, it is very clear that the sharp radical turn and the clear departure from the old "sit at home" approach that the on-going workers struggle in Oyo State is taking is a reflection of a growing radicalising mood among workers, students and members of the general public. Suffice to state that the basis for this radicalising mood was strengthened by the successful mass protest action in Oyo during the strike declared in May by the NLC against the APC-led federal government's pump price hike, something that unfortunately did not take place in all states.
While there is no dispute over the ineffectiveness of May's strike and protest to force the reversal of fuel price hike, the on-going workers' struggle in Oyo has clearly showed that the previous mass protest helped raise the political consciousness of the working people in the state. For instance, some of the songs the protesting secondary school students chanted were actually borrowed from the ones composed in the course of the last anti-hike in pump price struggle.
Again it must also be stated that this the same ruinous and neo-liberal policy of privatisation of schools which Oyo State working people are currently fighting against has been introduced successfully in a number of states, controlled by different parties, with lame or no resistance in the past. The fact that this same policy provokes mass action in Oyo state shows the changing mood of working people. Those who may be prepared to give a little time to the APC after Buhari won the presidency last year are now drawing the conclusion that they have to struggle to win anything.
This change has meant that the same labour leaders who were giving excuses on behalf of state government over non-payment of salaries and pension arrears a few months ago before the anti-fuel price hike struggle broke out are now leading struggles for full payment of salaries and pension arrears. This is despite that it is obvious that nothing has changed in terms of available funds at the disposal of the state. This shows a huge effect of the radicalising popular mood on the consciousness of the labour leaders themselves.
So far the on-going Oyo State workers' struggle has shown that a determined struggle of the people with a courageous leadership and appropriate tactics and strategies can bring to its knee any anti-people government. For instance, Oyo state government has not only apologised to Oyo State workers, but has also agreed to have made some mistakes while denying its planning to sell-off the public schools in the state and later agreed that no more steps to privatise the schools would take place while a 14 person commission, made up of 7 government and 7 union representatives, reviewed the policy.
What this shows is that it is possible for the on-going struggle to win concessions provided the leadership allows democracy to reign in terms of participation and involvement of the rank and file workers in crucial decisions that pertains to the struggle. This will encourage the further growth and development of rank and file activists, make it possible to measure and gauge at every stage the courage and determination of the mass of workers while strengthening those in the leadership who are prepared to struggle.
However in negotiations during the second week of strike action the state Governor insisted that his government has no money to even pay a week's salary let alone two months the trade union leaders said they could accept as an immediate compromise.
At the same time the Ajimobi-led state government is trying to mobilise support for its position. On June 20 it held a "Stand with Ajimobi" rally in Ibadan, but the general public support for the workers’ struggle was reflected in the way and manner some of the sponsored and rented crowd who attended that event were booed and stoned by market women and children.
Labour must to mobilise support throughout Oyo and beyond
It is noteworthy that majority of this rented crowd were mobilised from outside Ibadan and its metropolis where 3.5 million, around half Oyo’s population, live. These are areas where the trade unions are yet to organise a single rally like the many it has organised within Ibadan recently. There is an urgent need for the leadership of NLC to start taking seriously the possibility of organising rallies in as many as possible of the strategic towns across the state.
The struggle in Oyo, especially the mass mobilisations and active involvement of workers, can be an example both for workers already on strike in Ondo and those in other states suffering salary arrears.
At the moment the Oyo strike is setting an example in how a serious struggle can be built and sustained. It can inspire struggles in other states which, at the same time, would strengthen the battle in Oyo by ensuring that the workers there are not isolated.
This is why the DSM continue to insist that Labour leaders in Oyo should consciously seek to reach out to workers in other states while, at the same time, maintaining and stepping up their own struggle to win their demands.
In this situation it is vital that activists organise to build support for the demand that the national trade union leaders in the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC) undertake serious action to:
- Demand that all workers and pensioners being owed monies should be paid without any further delay.
- To organise sustained national mass action in response to the unpaid salaries crisis starting with a one-day warning national public sector strike.
- Begin a struggle for an across the board increase in workers' salary to enable workers meet the challenges posed by the rising cost of living. The current N18,000 ($60) minimum wage is not only a poverty wage, it is an insult. The main part of the NLC is calling for it to be raised to N56,000 ($187). The trade unions must ensure that the minimum wage is a living one and must be increased in line with inflation.