Can the Labour Movement Rescue Nigeria?
By Andy Wynne
Originally published under the title “Mass Strikes in Nigeria: Is Austerity Taking Its Toll?”, this piece provides an incisive reportage of the labour movement in a season of crisis. Editing to reduce the length didn’t succeed much as only a few paragraphs could be taken off.. The author has been well introduced at the end of the piece by Pambazuka online, the Afrocentric platform from where this material has been reproduced – editor.
The Nigerian labour movement is fragmented and ideologically incoherent. Most people suffer poverty under capitalism but socialism does not appear as an immediate realistic alternative. As a result, especially in the southern half of the country, churches, both traditional and revivalist, have a huge following, providing hope for many in the next life, if not in this.
The richest person in Africa, Aliko Dangote, is Nigerian, but the World Bank estimates that around 60 per cent of the population exists on $1.25 or less a day. Poverty is higher in the rural areas and in the north of the country (which provides the basic motivation for Boko Haram – the militant Islamic group that has been fighting the government since 2009).
Inequality is made worse by the huge levels of corruption. These are two sides of the same coin – inequality breeds corruption as the rich are able to buy so many of the poor. In turn, corruption enables the rich to grow richer and the poor are denied basic services. As a result, the rich elite have grabbed most of the oil wealth for themselves. Social spending and the statistics for health and education outcomes are worse than the averages for sub-Saharan Africa.
In mid-2015, Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator, took office – the first time an opposition party had taken power through democratic elections since independence in 1960. Buhari was elected by promising to tackle corruption and use the money to significantly increase social spending. He promised a five-fold increase in health budgets and to devote 20 per cent of his budget to education (a significant increase). He specifically promised to provide one meal a day for all primary school pupils. He also promised to provide a social wage of at least $25 a month to the 25 million poorest Nigerians. These promises raised great expectations. But eighteen months into the new government, these hopes and aspirations are not being met. This is feeding the anger and frustrations of the mass of poor Nigerians.
The trade union movement generally supports the policies of the new government, but is demanding an increase in the minimum wage which should have been increased in 2015. A general strike organised in mid-May 2016 against the end of the fuel subsidy and price increases fizzled out after only three days. Since then, the leadership of the trade unions do not appear to have been able to address the lack of payment of salaries by many state governments. This failure appears to mark the end of more than a decade of strikes including at least nine general strikes since the end of military rule in 1999.
Trade union movement
Like many countries in Africa, especially South Africa, there has been a mass strike wave in Nigeria for the last decade or so. There are perhaps seven million trade union members in Nigeria out of a total population of around 180 million, but when they take action they are actively supported by the majority of poor Nigerians. Thus the trade union movement carries significant political weight although attempts to build a Labour Party to directly represent this movement have yet to be successful.
The working class and the trade union movement in Nigeria played an active role in the campaign against military governments and for the return of democracy. As a result, the Abacha military government, for example, banned the two oil unions and the university staff union, and put the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) under a sole administrator in 1994.
Despite the trade union role in the fight against military governments and the fact that Section 40 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria guarantees “the right of every person to form or belong to any trade union or any other association for the protection of his interest”, recent governments have not been sympathetic to the trade union movement. The Trade Unions Amendment Act (2005) (1) provides workers with the ‘freedom’ to join (or not to join) any trade union, but denies them the right to strike over socio-economic and political policies. In addition, strikes can be banned in ‘essential services’ and the law requires a secret ballot to be held by trade union representatives before a strike is held. This law attempts to emasculate the trade unions in the same way that Thatcher managed in Britain in the 1980s. However, the militancy and the vibrancy of the trade union movement in has meant that these reforms have not been successful in Nigeria. In addition, Nigerian presidents and governors of states regularly display their respect for the trade union movement by addressing the May Day rallies of the trade union movement.
General strikes and fuel subsidy
The trade unions have led an active struggle against government attempts to end fuel subsidies and for an increase in the minimum wage. As a result, there have been at least nine general strikes, including the most dramatic one in January 2012, since 1999:
- 2000, June – against a proposed 50% increase in the price of petrol;
- 2002, January – labour leaders end a two-day general strike after they were arrested;
- 2003, July – eight days, the longest general strike since 1964;
- 2004, June – three-day general strike;
- 2004, October – four-day ‘warning strike’ over fuel price increases;
- 2007, June – four-day strike wins most of its demands, including stopping a 15% fuel price increase, doubling the rate of Value Added Tax (VAT) to 10% and privatising two oil refineries and honouring a 15% pay increase for civil servants
- 2010, November – one-day strike to increase the minimum wage from 7,500 Naira to the current 18,000 Naira a month
- 2012, January – eight-day general strike over a threat to increase the fuel price by nearly 120%, resulted in fuel price increase of less than 50%
- 2016, May – three-day general strike over increasing the price of fuel after a huge surge in prices of kerosene, electricity and food.
The oil fuel subsidy – which some people argued had ceased to exist until the recent devaluation of the Naira – is one of the few benefits that the common people gain from Nigeria’s oil reserves. Most people, at least in the urban areas, benefit from the reduced price of cooking and transport costs. The subsidy is the only visible form of state support for the poor in Nigeria.
Historically high levels of strikes
Nigeria “experienced an explosive growth in [work] stoppages during the mid-1990s (7). This included significant pay increases, for example, of 45% for public sector workers in August 1992 and 35% for textile workers in May 1993 although inflation was high as a result of the March 1992 devaluation and by 1993, “Nigerian workers typically took home 20 per cent of their 1983 wages in real terms”.
In June 1993, the military government of General Ibrahim Babangida annulled the first elections for a decade (10). These were expected to have transferred power to an elected, civilian government. MKO Abiola of the Social Democratic Party was assumed to have won the elections and later died in prison. By August, Babangida had been swept away by protests and strikes led by the working class. He was replaced by an interim government.
The Nigerian Labour Congress after issuing a 72 hour ultimatum (Guardian Saturday 13 November 1993:1) commenced a general strike that could perhaps be best described as a two-edged sword; for while it led to the collapse of that government, it ushered in the most dictatorial and corrupt military regime in the history of Nigeria, the seventh military administration since the country’s independence from Britain in 1960, the Abacha regime .
Two days into the general strike, in November 1993, General Sani Abacha, promising an eventual return to democracy, seized power from the previous military administration. The general strike was called off after fuel increases were reduced from 700% to 400%.
In early July of the following year, the Nigerian Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) and Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) “began one of the most bitter and economically painful strikes in Nigerian history” to protest the annulled presidential elections. The following month, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) called a general strike in solidarity with the oil workers. Two weeks later, the crackdown finally began: the Abacha government responded to the workers’ strike by sacking the Executive Council of NUPENG and PENGASSAN, and NLC, and appointed military administrators to run the unions. The military seized the unions’ offices, bank accounts and dues-collection facilities. Eventually in early September 1994, the oil workers called off their strike.
Primarily as a result of these strikes, 1994 saw by far the highest number of strike days for any year since 1970, at 230 million days. 1982 was another exceptional year with nearly 10 million strike days. However, since the end of military rule in 1999 there has been the highest sustained strike wave in the last 45 years with an average of well over five million strike days and the lowest annual figure of 2.7 million as indicated by the following table.
|Years||Average number of strike days – thousands|
One major problem workers face is that governments regularly do not honour the agreements they make with trade unions to end strikes. As a result, workers have to go on strike again and again for the same set of demands to be implemented. This is particularly the case in the health and education sectors. Each time their demands are agreed on by the government, but then months later, they are not implemented.
A five-month strike by lecturers in public universities was called off in mid-December 2013 after their union, the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), had received proof that the government had deposited a significant amount of the $800 million into a fund at the central bank. This strike was considered necessary as the government had only implemented two of the nine issues agreed with the union since 2009. According to the National President of the ASUU, Nasir Issa-Fagee, an earlier strike had been suspended in early February 2012, “on the understanding that the Memorandum of Understanding that we signed with the government would be fully implemented within the shortest possible time”.
Early last year, ASUU again raised the alarm over the Federal Government’s failure to release the promised funds. Chair of the University of Ibadan chapter of the union, Prof. Segun Ajiboye, said that only the first tranche of N200 billion was released in 2013 before the last national strike was suspended. Since then, “no money was released in 2014 while a quarter of 2015 has passed with nothing from the government.” He added that the lack of integrity on the part of the government and its officials led to the 19 strikes which the union had embarked upon between 1992 and 2013. In mid-November 2016, the lecturers’ union ASUU again took action, organising a one-week warning strike, calling on the Federal Government to fulfil its agreements with the union.
Non-payment of wages and salaries
More generally, a major source of worker complaint, particularly since mid-2014, is the late, partial or non-payment of wages and salaries – in April 2016, the Sunday Vanguard claimed that only 10 of the 36 states were paying salaries on time. The major excuse given by all levels of government is the collapse in the global price of crude oil. In addition to the non-payment of salaries, deductions for pension, cooperative societies and trade union dues were not being remitted to the appropriate organisations.
In the second week of March 2015, workers and pensioners in Osun, Ogun and Oyo states went to the streets to protest non-payment of salaries for between two and five months. At the end of July, Oyo state workers suspended their 7-week strike in what was one of the sharpest theatres of class struggle in the country’s recent history. This was the second strike since May when, after 11 days, workers returned to work with promises that outstanding salaries would be paid. These were active strikes – workers held a series of rallies, processions and other demonstrations in Ibadan one of the major Nigerian cities.
In May 2015, just before the current government took power, the NLC announced strikes in 18 of the 36 states over non-payment of salaries. Most of these disputes were settled within a couple of months as the Federal Government provided additional funds and arranged to back loans to the states concerned to enable them to pay the arrears of their workers’ salaries.
But the issue of arrears of unpaid salaries and pensions returned last year in many states. By September 2016, at least four states, Imo, Nasarawa, Benue and Bayelsa were only paying their workers half of their due salaries. In addition, many states are not paying workers deductions, for example, the health workers’ union was only receiving its check of dues from five of the 36 states in late 2016. In August 2016, protests were held in several states over the killing of two workers at a rally in Nasarawa State and the cut in salaries in several states. The President of the NLC also called for workers not to work where they had not been paid for three months or more.
Disunity in union movement
Another challenge for many trade unions is the fragmentation of their organisations. At least in the public sector there are two unions, one for ‘senior’ officials and another for other workers. This is clearly reflected with the main two union centres, the NLC and the TUC for more senior staff. In addition, with casualisation, the creation of public agencies and youth employment schemes, many public sector workers are not allowed to join existing unions as these are restricted to official (permanent) civil servants.
Disunity is also clear at the national leadership level of the NLC where a formal split occurred for a year or so from March 2015. Ayuba Wabba, the National President of the Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria (MHWUN), was elected national president of NLC in mid-March 2015 after the earlier congress dissolved in uproar. However, his opponent was ‘elected’ president of NLC in further elections in Lagos the following week. The TUC and the splinter group of the NLC, led by Joe Ajaero, did not support the general strike called by the NLC in May 2016. This weakened the strike, both in terms of numbers and ideologically.
The government encourages this disunity by attempting to decentralise collective bargaining with the trade unions. For example, in 2008, the government insisted that ASUU should negotiate with the state governments over their members in state universities. More recently there have been moves in the national assembly for the national minimum wage to be devolved to the state governments (and so encourage the possibility of different rates for the minimum wage in each state). However, in November 2016, the NLC said it was negotiating with the government to triple the minimum wage from the current figure of $36 a month that was introduced in 2011.
Despite the magnificent trade union struggles over the last 15 years or so, the left in Nigeria is currently rather weak and for most people it effectively does not exist. This is in sharp contrast to the position in 1987 when the Political Bureau set up by the Babangida military regime reported that the majority of Nigerians declared a preference for socialism.
“The impact of the collapse of revolutionary and radical forces’ presence and influence within the trade unions, on the campuses and in partisan politics, has been quite dire across the country.”
Socialism does not appear as an immediate realistic alternative for most of the people of Nigeria. As a result, especially in the southern half of the country, churches, both traditional and revivalist, have a huge following, providing hope for many in the next life, if not in this.
Similarly, in the north, Islam remains very strong and Boko Haram insurgents claim their goal is to Islamise Nigeria. Boko Haram showed a capacity to defeat the national army and controlled several medium sized towns for several months in late 2014 and early 2015. The sectarian attitude of Boko Haram and their widespread killings of both Christians and Muslims mean that many who would support a radical alternative are repelled by Boko Haram. Especially with the support of the Chadian army, most of these towns have been re-captured. However, the millions of displaced people now face the prospect of starvation with the United Nations expecting 200 children to die each month over the next year. This tragedy comes after these people had suffered sustained violence at the hands of both Boko Haram and the national army. Several international human rights organisations have indicated that the security forces may have killed as many people in the North East of Nigeria in recent years.
Especially across the middle belt of Nigeria, the widespread poverty and the weakness of the socialist response means that significant numbers of people are turning to ethnicity and other disputes. Christians may be pitted against Muslims, pastoralist against cultivators, or so-called indigenes against newcomers.
All this shows the alternative barbaric forms that capitalism can provide and the fate of the mass of miserably poor people when socialists are not able to provide a credible alternative leadership. The current crop of trade union leaders have failed to provide adequate leadership in the fight against austerity, except in rare and isolated cases like in Imo State where mass picketing and demonstrations organised by the NLC stopped attempts by the state government to sack thousands of its workers early this year. Trade union leaders have generally accepted that belt tightening by their members is necessary as a result of the fall in the global price of oil, and so the level of government income in Nigeria. They have not developed an alternative view to business as usual where the key role of trade union leaders is to negotiate on behalf of their members rather than leading collective action. As a result, the trade union leaders have not developed an effective strategy to fight the government’s austerity measures or to ensure that the government actually delivers on its agreements with the trade unions.
Despite these failings, the trade union movement has not suffered any major defeats, has maintained the fuel subsidy (although much reduced) and has defeated a general move to introduce the principle of ‘no-work, no-pay’. As a result, in most cases, Nigerian workers (like many other workers across sub-Saharan Africa) are still paid even when they are on strike. The trade union movement may not have clearly won many of its recent battles, but regularly mobilises its troops and the war is still very much ongoing.
*Andy Wynne has extensive experience of public sector governance in Britain, Nigeria and internationally. He has worked on various projects in Nigeria since 1999 covering a quarter of the states of Nigeria. He has written on the economic history of sub-Saharan Africa since 1960.