The working-class occupies a central place in the struggle for social transformation. This is largely because “labour creates wealth”; workers are the producers of the wealth upon which the capitalist economy is built. They demonstrate this power clearly when they withdraw their labour i.e., embark on strike action.
Workers combine in trade unions to use this their combined power to fight for better wages and working conditions. Policies and legislation that shape the context of what happens in the workplace are formulated in the broader political sphere. Trade unions have thus learned that they cannot limit their struggle to simply industrial or workplace concerns.
As trade unions grow bigger, their leaderships have evolved into a bureaucracy which often compromises the fighting spirit of rank-and-file workers. We have seen this reality of the bureaucracy as brake on worker power. From minimum wage struggles to opposition to fuel hikes, electricity tariff increases, and struggle against several other neoliberal anti-people policies trade union leaders have time and again made a lot of noise only to leave working-class people high and dry when it gets to fighting until victory.
In January 2012, it took mass pressure from below for the trade union bureaucracy to embark on a general strike against the sharp increase in fuel pump price. Rank-and-file workers made it clear to union leaders that they would not tolerate business as usual, as poor working-class people and youth in the communities and informal economy took to the streets, from 2 January. Eventually, the trade unions called off the general strike, at its peak when it needed to push forward for full reversal of the wicked price hike.
The situation of trade union compromise has become worse since 2015. First, with a divided house, they could not successfully wage a general strike in 2016. For the first time, not even a partial victory was won after the government increased fuel pump price once again. The APC government of Buhari thus became the first government since the reinstatement of civil rule in 2000 that was not made to cut down on its price increment.
Ever since that embarrassing defeat that Nigerian workers suffered in the hands of the Maj Gen Muhammadu Buhari-led regime in May, 2016, the trade union bureaucracy has consistently failed to hearken to the yearnings of the poor working-class people who have groaning very loudly under the whips of unemployment, massive job losses, increased cost of food item, electricity tariff hikes, insecurity, terrorism, non-implementation of minimum wage, non-payment of salaries, multiple hikes in fuel, unprecedented rate of inflation, free fall of Naira against the dollar, poverty like never before, commercialization and complete abandonment of public education, total neglect of healthcare, utter neglect for the rule of law, stifling of free speech, violent attacks on freedom of the press, repression of the independence of the judiciary, lack of respect of their constitutionally enshrined freedoms, complete desecration of all democratic institutions, and the imposition of a scary dawn of anarchy, doom, death and destruction.
When it could no longer absorb the pressures from the rank and file of the Nigerian people who continue to call them out into fulfilling the mandate of the offices they occupy, the bureaucracy, again reluctantly called for a strike over increment in fuel and electricity tariff, last year. Rank-and-file workers and the poor masses were told to prepare for a nationwide strike slated to begin on 28 September 2020. But by midnight of 28 September, the bureaucracy suspended a strike that was yet to begin. It did this without democratic consultation with the workers it had mobilized in preparation for the would-have-been strike.
The strike was suspended without gaining even the slightest concession for workers, and the poor masses. It should be noted that this strike was called at a time of mass discontent against the Buhari regime. It was a period Nigerians were battle ready having suffered great economic losses consequent on the inability of the regime to cushion the economic effect of Covid-19 lockdown.
The regime saw this mood. The government understood the mood. But the Buhari regime also understood the trade union bureaucracy. Which is why the government apparently spoke to the leaders of the trade unions in the language they understand. Consequently, the union bureaucracy yet again, sacrificed the people for the price of peace with the regime.
But as Comrade Owei Lakemka said in November 2020, during the graduation ceremony of the new graduands of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung’s second edition of the Young Workers Training; ‘’When the trade union bureaucracy felt that it had the monopoly of shutting down the country, their children and grandchildren began organizing.”
Comrade Owei, a former acting General Secretary of the Nigeria Labor Congress, was referring to the EndSARS Rebellion; the biggest and the most organic global movement in recent history. The movement held the Nigerian state to ransome for two weeks. Within these two weeks, it was able to strike a big blow at profit and the economy of the Nigerian state.
Its organic character made it difficult for the Nigerian government to penetrate the movement or buy it over. The movement was uncontrollable. It was owned by no one and at the same time by everyone. The movement advanced proudly and boldly that it had no leaders. This mantra proved to be one of its greatest assets as the government couldn’t buy it over as it had always done to labor and most organized movements. But this great strength of the movement proved to be its major Achilles heel. And this was shown by how the movement couldn’t respond adequately when it was confronted with the deadly violence of a more organized Nigerian state on 20 October 2020.
EndSARS is not the only social movement that has posed severe challenge to the Nigerian state in recent times. The Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB has organised a series of sit-at-home actions over the past few months, using this as a method of confronting the Nigerian state on its demands of secession of the Igbo people from the state of Nigeria. And with the recent abduction and incarceration of the IPOB leader, Nnamdi Kanu by the Buhari junta, the secessionist movement had so far held numerous successful sit-at-home actions which have grounded the Southeastern region.
Across the Southeast, the streets, markets, offices were completely deserted, and workplaces boycotted. The impact of the IPOB actions has led the Governors of the Southeast and their security aides to organise rallies sit-at-homes, threatening fire and brimstone against companies who fail to open for business, workers who refuse to show up for work and market women who dare to close their shops. But alas, neither threats nor intimidation was able to deter the “strikes” that have continued to hold the economy of the Southeast to ransome.
One of the most important lessons to be drawn from the above is the understanding that nature abhors vacuum. The inability of the trade union movement to rise to the task of defending the people of Nigeria against an increasingly fascistic regime paved the way for social forces outside the traditional fighting organizations of the oppressed people of Nigeria.
While the EndSARS protests and, particularly the IPOB sit-at-homes proved it was possible to organize effectively and beyond the borders of an increasingly redundant trade union bureaucracy, they also carry a reactionary baggage of setting up narratives that divide oppressed people along the lines of ageism, ethnicity, and religion.
There are important lessons to learn from this current situation. One of the most important of these is the need for working-class people to organize them from below in the communities and workplaces, and for radical and revolutionary students to organize in the campuses and build strong relations with local branches of unions in a collective struggle against the regime’s authoritarianism and complete incompetence. We must learn how to creatively organize from the grassroots, breaking the compromising constraints of the bureaucracy of the trade unions and students’ movement. But in doing this, we must also learn to do away with the reactionary baggage of anything that divides or distracts us from standing in unison against our common oppressors and for our freedom and the revolutionary transformation of society.
by Sanyaolu JUWON