Nigeria: General strike forces retreat on fuel prices, tax

June 28, 2007

Nigeria's combative working-class movement has shown its strength and militancy. An overwhelmingly observed four-day nationwide general strike, which began on June 20, succeeded in rapidly forcing the country's new president to back down on an announced doubling of value-added tax and increased fuel prices. The degree of popular support for the strike revealed that the 23-day-old regime of President Umaru Yar'Adua is already thoroughly discredited and despised.

Two days before Olusegun Obasanjo retired from the presidency on May 29, following the massively rigged April election that inserted his handpicked successor in office, he announced that the value-added tax (VAT, an indirect tax similar to the GST in Australia) would be doubled from 5% to 10% and the prices of petrol, diesel and kerosene would increase from 65 naira per litre to N75 (A$0.61 to $0.70). All these measures would impact most heavily on the living standards of Nigeria's workers and poor, in the form of increased food prices, public transport fares and the cost of cooking with kerosene. Obasanjo also cancelled a 15% pay rise for public servants and decreed that two oil refineries — Port Harcourt in the south and Kaduna in the north — would be privatised and sold to prominent business cronies of the ruling People's Democratic Party.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have long been demanding that the regime speed up the process of privatisation and removing subsidies for fuel. Every attempt by the regime to achieve this has been met with resistance; there have been at least seven general strikes in as many years. The Nigerian people see low fuel prices as the only benefit they gain from the corrupt ruling elite's plundering and mismanagement of the country's booming oil industry, which is Africa's largest.

In response, Nigeria's two major trade union federations — the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) — and community organisations, grouped under the banner of the Labour and Civil Society Coalition, gave the new government two weeks, until June 20, to reverse Obasanjo's attacks or face an "indefinite" general strike.

On June 19, Yar'Adua blinked and reversed the VAT increase, halved the petrol price increase (to N70) and completely withdrew the increases to diesel and kerosene prices. Yar'Adua said that the sale of the refineries would be "reviewed". The government also restored the 15% pay increase for government workers, backdated to January 1. However, the NLC-TUC were unmoved and demanded that the petrol price be reduced to N65.

True to their word, the NLC-TUC-led strike paralysed the country's transport services, ports and airports, banks, schools, government departments and major industries. Workers in the vital oil industry — which provides the regime with 80% of its revenues — joined the strike, but this did not have an immediate effect as it takes several days for oil export terminals to cease flowing. The government deployed troops at the oil terminals, where senior oil company managers attempted to keep the oil pumping.

The strike was near unanimously observed across the country's 36 states and in the Federal Capital Territory. The streets of the major cities of Lagos, Abuja and Ibadan — where the overwhelming majority of Nigeria's commercial activity takes place — were deserted and millions of workers heeded the call to stay home. In the south-west of the country, from where Obasanjo hails, the shutdown was total. There was a mass protest in the capital of Ogun state, Abeokuta. The restive Niger delta region was also strongly supportive of the strike.

There were isolated attacks by police, including the arrest of 50 union officials in Enugu state. It was reported in the June 22 Lagos Daily Champion that a senior Enugu police officer ordered a subordinate to shoot the state secretary of the printing workers' union at a picket line. The constable refused the order.

On June 23, as the strike reached its fourth crippling day, Yar'Adua personally wrote to the unions promising no further fuel price increases for 12 months, although he refused to scrap the outstanding N5 petrol price increase. A number of joint government-union committees will be formed to examine fuel prices and the ownership of the energy industry. The NLC-TUC decided to accept the package, which was an almost total retreat by the government, and urge workers to return to work by June 25.

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