After The General Strike

June 28, 2007
7 mins read

When the Nigeria Labour Congress gave the indication of going on strike a few week ago, I had written on this page that the real mass action was on its way in Nigeria. The backdrop to my very effusive endorsement of the labour movement’s plan of action was the incompetent handling of the effort by the political opposition to meaning fully galvanize a national resistance project in the wake of the anger which trailed the massive rigging of the April elections.

The resolution of the strike brought many lessons in its wake, which we must try to unravel in the effort to help deepen the democratic process in the country, especially in respect of winning the space for the more progressive tendencies within the nation’s political system. If ever there was a doubt about the legitimacy of the labour movement as one of the most important institutions of civil society, I believe that the strike cleared the doubt. The labour movement commands the respect of the Nigerian people and its ability to ask the people to stay away form work and get their positive response contrasts sharply with the political elite. Whose huffing and puffing about “mass action” did not go beyond just that.

The NLC and the TUC have taught a lesson which must be internatlised by the political elite, that the most important thing in politics, as in life, is to be honestly committed to basic principles; the interests of the Nigerian people must be at the heart of politics. It is the same people who chose to ignore the calls for “mass action” from the politicians that responded massively and enthusiastically to the call by the labour movement.

The response was different because from one group, the politicians, the people have for long harvested lies, unfulfilled promises and trchery, while from the labour movement, there has been a far more consistent pattern of fight for and defence of the basic rights of the working people and the poor. This much we have witnessed in the four days of general strike last week.


For me, it is also instructive that the baptism of a general strike became a real school of struggle for the new leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress following the change of baton from Adams Oshiomhole to Comrade Abdulwaheed Omar. The maturity displayed by the labour movement was a very reassuring indicator for the future of resistance: resistance to neo-liberal capitalism, to petty tyranny and to the tendency towards irresponsibility by the political elite. By a measure of coincidence, the strike eas also a major test of the ability of the new regime of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, whose controversial origin was going to be brough to the fore again by major development that a general strike represent.

Unfortunately, the initial statements credited to the SGF, Ambassador Babagana Kingibe, about an alleged political agenda being masked as an industrial one, tended to inflame passions more than helping to douse them even though the government was eventually forced to a more sober and business-like attitude, which eventually became the trend as the strike wore on. The reality about fifty billion naira per day as the strike lasted.

In any case, it was in the interest of a government that still has a legitimacy challenge to begin to show some modicum of resolve and competence at a time that there was still the lingering suspicion that the new president continued to receive instruction from former President Olusegun Obasanjo. Daily Sun newspaper of Friday, June 22, 2007, had quoted the Nigeria Labour Congress that the posture of President Umaru Yar’Adua over the fuel price increase indicated that he was to instructions from Obasanjo, which left the impression this current regime is merely an extension of the old regime.

The government side was also attempting to hide behind sand bags of legalese to shoot down the strike action when exhumed a court ruling which it purported had constrained the labour movement from going on strike. The riposte from the NLC president was very sharply administered “instead of facing the re-issue”, Comarade Omar had retorted, “and the problem created by the Federal Government, it has resorted legalese…This is not a legal one. It requires political with and statemandship. This what we expect of the president. It would not do to give credit to government to and exhume discredited black market injunctions or ruling procured by a discredited government”

In response to the above worn tactic of government to separate poltical from industiralisssues, the NLC president was similarly unambiguous in his assessment. “Above all, the NLC has consistently maintained”, said Omar, “Omar, “that it has the right to campaigns, canvass, agitate or embark on strike over all matters affecting its member, working families and the Nigerian sociery at large, whether those issues are industrial or not. We reamin firsm inour belief that as citizens, the range of inssues we can canvass, including through strike, is unlimited. The ILO, in its recent pronouncement, affirmed the right of the NLC to embark on protest strikes over socio-economic issues. This would not change. Finally, this strike is being undertaken by organised labour and its civil society partners. It is not a matter for the NLC alone, but a popular struggle that concerns the general poulace”. This platform was underscored for government by the solidity of the backing for the strike across the country and that backing did not waiver till agreement was reached at the weekend.

A similar experience was unfolding in South Africa where the trade union movement had also called a strike over cetain pay demans during my visit there three weeks ago. Just as in Nigeria, COSATU had called the working people out on strike to protest decisions of government in respect of the dispute. There were also underlining political issues of a build-up to the struggle for leadership within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the implementation of neo-liberal policies by President Thabo Mbeki. The striking workers did not only abandon their workplaces, they also staged peaceful street processions, which witnessed speeches by labour leaders, dances and sloganeering. It was quite educative to see the police watching these demonstrations from a safe distance without attempting to break them while the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) was reporting all the sides to the story.

The roles of the South African police and the SABC differed from those of their Nigerian counterparts. As has become the habit, the media reported the Nigeria Police as announcing its preparedness to deal ruthlessly with labour leaders if there was an attempt to “force” workers on “essential services” to joint he general strike. The problem with the police is that its leadership always betrays the colonial origins of the force and the authoritarian relfxes acquired from the days of military enemy it must deal with and the leadership is instinctively reactionary and anti-people. So an absurd situation emerged whereby the government that acting IGP Okiro was trying to impress with a tough posture and language against the strike was engaged in negotiations with the same labour leadership that Okiro was vowing to “deal with”.

The same thing can be said of the less than professional attitude of NTA. If it reported the strike at all, it was to look for those who did not join the strike, especially from the first day, or to present a picture of “normalcy” which the strike could not affect. In the world of NTA’s journalism, the frame that was fit for reportage was a string of appeals to the NLC to reduce the suffering of people by returning to work. There was no space on NTA for a multipronged analysis of the causes of the strike and there was no effort to provide a rounded picture of the entire process leading to the strike action. The fact that the strike was in response to policy decisions of governemtn was lost in the NTA school’s “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” journalism. It seemed nathema in this school to report conflict, especially if a rounded picture might provide the adversaries of the government a look-in for their viewpoint contrary to those coming from the spokesperson of government.

This subservient (or sycophantic) journalism does not earn the NTA the credibility due to a great national institution that a public service broadcaster often becomes over the years. Intimes of national crisis, it is the ability to provide a platform for contending visions of a crisis, as of contending perspectives of societal advancement that solidified the reputations of great public service broadcasters like the BBC, CBC or SABC. It is this height that our dear NTA has unfortunately failed to rise up to. This failure was again highlighted in its reportage of the last general strike. It is the general attitude that makes people suspicious of the institution as a credible news source. The fixation with the view that only what pleases officialdom must be presented in the wake of crisi insults the intelligence of the Nigerian people, while it does not respect our rights to a variety of views that assist us to make decisions in the process of being citiaens in a complex and democratizing world.

But it was not all doom and gloom, and I think that there were positive lessons as well. As a friend noted, President Umaru Yar’Adua did not come to abuse ht labor leadership as the former president would almost certainly have done. The two sides got to know themselves better in the cours of struggle and during the negotiation. It has become clear now that Nigeria’s struggle for democratic modernization will continue to be a contested terrain, one that cannot be mastered without factoring in the aspirations of the working people and the poor.

One of the more enduring elements of the sale points canvassed for candidate Umaru Yar’Adua in the run-up to April’s election was that he had  a left-wing antecedent, as a disciple of Dr. Bala Usman and as a member of the PRP during the Second Republic. Although he has moved on and he is now a man of the establishment, he will however do well in his new positions if he builds a relationship of trust with the labour movement in the effort to genuinely work for the interest of Nigeria. It is a far more reliable and patriotic detachment than the political elite, especially (unfortunately) those who populate the party that he belongs to. If he learns this political lesson, then the last general strike would have benefited hime and Nigeria far more than we can weigh, at least for now.

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