In January a six day general strike in Nigeria was one of the most extensive social movements ever to hit the country. Only 7 million are in unions but up to 10 million took part in the strike, right across Nigeria, with demonstrations in every major city involving tens of thousands overall. The strike was part of a protest against the abolition of fuel subsidies which overnight doubled the cost of not only petrol but also had a similarly massive impact on food, heating and transportation costs. In a country with high unemployment (40% of under forties) and high poverty levels (70% existing on less than $2 a day) the outburst of anger was to be expected.
The major news outlets’ coverage of Nigeria recently has concentrated on the continuing terrorist campaign of Boko Haram, an Islamic fundamentalist group. Over the last two years they have killed more than a thousand people, and have stated their intention to continue the campaign, letting off bombs in crowded public places as well as attacking police stations. There has been a certain amount of sympathy with the latter actions as the Nigerian state rules with a very heavy hand. During the course of the strike, for example, the brutal intervention of the police and armed forces, often firing live ammunition at demonstrators, resulted in the deaths of more than 20, with more than 600 injured. Strictly enforced curfews are still in place in many parts of the country. In Kano, in the North, police helicopter gunships patrol during the day partly to monitor and partly to intimidate the population. Meanwhile in the last week of January nearly 200 people have died in a wave of bombings carried out by Boko Haram. It says that schools could be the next targets.
Despite its brutal nature – a spokesman recently announced that all those who do not follow its sharia law would be killed - Boko Haram has a certain amount of support in the Islamic and poorer North of Nigeria. In the North average annual income is about $718 whereas in the South the figure is $2010. However the violence of Boko Haram has to be seen in context. The general strike involved huge numbers of people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. In a country with hundreds of languages/ethnic groups, breaking through the divisions to unite in a struggle is important. The fact that the unions called off demonstrations and then the strike so rapidly does not diminish the significance of what happened.
The general strike had been preceded by large scale protests in most of the country and showed the strength of solidarity that exists amongst workers. Nevertheless by focusing the struggle within the framework set out and led by the unions the workers were falling into a familiar trap. While the general strike was running the oil workers union did not participate, allowing Nigeria’s biggest industry to continue. The union leadership negotiated a deal with the government which they presented as a ‘victory’ for the workers when in reality the dampening of the movement was a victory for the bourgeoisie. The response to the deal was one of suspicion amongst large numbers of Nigerians. Many comments in the following days talked about the corruption of the trade union leaders and their collusion with the government.
The problem though lies at a deeper level than the corruption of the leadership. The fundamental requirement for the working class is to control its own struggles and develop its own political programme. This means that it has to organise outside the structures of the trade unions. It needs assemblies and elected committees to co-ordinate its struggle. Then there exists the possibility to extend struggles beyond sector, race and nationality.
The weight of democratic illusions
We come then to another problem: the democratic fantasy that dominates many of the movements that have appeared in the last few years, such as the Occupy Nigeria movement that sprang up after the fuel subsidy was cut.
The democratic capitalist state exists to make sure that capitalism is working in the national interest. This means in reality the general interest of the national bourgeoisie. Despite the ideal of free market capitalism the economy is incapable of functioning without this state as can be seen by the intervention following the crisis in 2008, and previously in the many laws, agreements and structures put in place nationally and internationally. The job of the state is also to defend the nation against its rivals and also to defend itself against the working class. To defend itself against the working class it absorbs all the traditional organisations of the working class, the unions and the traditional leftist parties that absorb the discontent of the working class and direct it into harmless activity.
The fantasy that exists is one where this state can be taken and moulded to the needs of all, rich and poor. One of the illusions is that because everyone can vote in the democratic system then, in theory, we all have an equal power in society. This is impossible because capitalism is based on an unequal social relationship. While we can vote for whichever candidate we like we cannot vote away capitalism. If capitalism is threatened the bourgeoisie is able to break with the niceties of elections and freedom of speech and use the full force of the state to violently repress the working class. History offers many examples
The unions are an integral part of the democratic apparatus used to keep the working class under control. In Nigeria it was clear what role the unions had played against the development of workers’ struggles. When radical ideas were increasingly being aired union leaders issued a statement which made a point of saying that the “objective is the reversal of the petrol prices to their pre-January 1, 2012 level. We are therefore not campaigning for ‘Regime Change’.” The Financial Times (16/1/12) spotted that the situation had changed in the aftermath of the strike as“the protests have emboldened ordinary Nigerians and raised new awareness of wasteful expenditure. In addition, many feel let down by the unions for agreeing to call off the strike without the subsidy being fully restored.” Disappointment in the unions, alongside an experience of repression from the state and a keen understanding of how little capitalism has to offer, are all factors that could contribute to the development of future workers’ struggles.