Swelling Inequality and the Need to Rethink Progressive Struggles, By Iduh Onah
After the victory of Muhammadu Buhari in the 2015 presidential election, a broad spectrum of Nigerians had hoped that 2016 would be a departure from the past years of seemingly interminable social and economic stress.But like the Greek myth of Sisyphus, post 2015 Nigeria turned out to be filled with excruciating hardship, frustration and nightmares, particularly for working class families.
While workers, the army of the unemployed, pensioners and millions of Nigerian masseshad anticipated that President Buhari was going to lead the country in a manner that will finally position it for development as symbolised by his change sloganon which the APC anchored its campaign that effectively truncated the dream of the PDP to ‘rule Nigeria forever,’ it however did not occur to many of us that we were heading for a very hard ground under which the 18 thousand naira national minimum wage will become worthless as the economy slipped into recession mode. This reality, coupled with the depressing situation in about 27 states of the federation where workers had gone without a dime for several months combined to expand the gulf of inequality between the haves and the have-nots.
Of course many have conceded that the recession and the generally poor shape of the economy directly result from the inept and profligate character of the Jonathan Presidency, they however contended that President Buhari was not only slow in responding to the economic challenges, his economic policies were inherently in similar neo-liberal trajectory as those of past administrations and therefore wrong recipes to the myriad of challenges that he inherited.
Those who share the above notion point to the fact that Buhari’s current posture and actions are diametrically at variance with his expressed views in the course of the period from 2003 to 2015 when he had contested for the presidency three times.
In the course of his campaigns under the “change” slogan, Buhari had stated on several campaign rallies that he will never devalue the naira. In less than two years, he had devalued the naira far worse than anyone hadever imagined. The naira inexorably gets weaker by the day such that it may take the wisdom of an economic wizard to restore it to the pre-Buhari value.
He had pledged that within months of his becoming President, he will sanitise the oil industry and that our refineries will produce at their full capacities. The turn-around maintenance of our refineries is still on the same routine as they have been since the Abacha years.
Buhari told us that when he becomes President, price of refined petroleum products will come down with proper administration of the fuel subsidy regime, as he had argued that he was yet to be convinced against the logic of petroleum subsidy. In less than one year in office,Buhari brutally removed subsidy thereby sparking off an inflationary trend never witnessed in the country.
With the exception of Abuja, Lagos and a few state capitals, petrol sellsabove the official rate of N145 even by the so-called major marketers – (between N147 to N180 per litre); kerosene fluctuates between N300 to N400 per litre anywhere it is available, aviation fuel is scarce forcing prices of domestic and international flights through the roof; diesel sells between N250-N300 per litre. As I pen this opinion, many petrol stations are refusing to sell as rumours are rife that prices are likely to go up with the foreign exchange crisis being faced by importers of fuel.
The morale of particularly those devout supporters and campaigners of the expected positive change they thought Buhari symbolised and would bring is very low. The mood of the Nigerian working class,who constitute the majority of these supporters, is anger, frustration and dejection combined. This rising wave of popular angst is only waiting to be tapped soon as we again enter into electioneering mode.It is therefore imperative for organised labour to be strategically futuristic and not to fling that opportunity to our ideologically barren politicians but should endeavour to find its footing.
Many workers and trade union activists that I have recently had discussions with lamented the lack of rigorous interrogation of the trajectory of the Buhari leadership from the progressive community, which had up till about a decade ago been socharismatically led by the NLC, but whose efficiency and dynamism the inept leadership of Abdulwahed Ibrahim Omar impaired in a number of conflicts he stoked had since 2011.
While thecurrent leadership of NLC under Comrade AyubaWabba as President seems to correctly read the mood of workerson many issues it had articulated since it assumed the mantle of leadership in 2015, it is still bogged downby the conflict’s created by Omar’s leadership inadequacies.These conflicts continue to deepenand has therefore naturally incapacitated the building ofthe requiredconsensus among progressive forces to move beyond mere articulation of issues to redeem NLC’s image that the Buhari government dented when the NLC as a platform and vanguard for progressive struggles failed for the first time to extract a reduction in the price of petrol when the government in May 2016 unilaterally withdrew subsidy on petrol.
Organised labour under the leadership of NLC therefore should as matter of historical necessity reactivate activism by building the momentum of popular discontent around the glaring insensibilities of the current economic policies of the Buhari leadership.This can be achieved either by forcing engagements with government or by street struggles, if the government, as the case clearly is,is reluctant to engage with labour on issues that are germane to the survival of workers and their families, pensioners and the legion of the jobless. Nigerian workers had in the past depended solely on street strugglesand negotiating capacities to achieve this.
The NLC is therefore on the right track on those issues it itemised in its New Year message as focal points for 2017 struggles on which it intends to hold the Buhari government to account. These include, among other things, the struggle for a living wage, the struggle to pay arrears of salaries of workers and pensions, the struggle for jobs creation, the struggle for improved power supply (which is at the heart of de-industrialisation and unemployment crisis), the anti-corruption crusade and the need to combat outsourcing/offshoring of jobs.
In as much as these struggles are desirable,organised labour, however, needs to undertake a comprehensive review of past struggles and campaigns, especially those that were conducted between 1999 and 2009, in order todesign a template for incorporating and operationalizing emerging issues since they are entirely not fresh contestations(but at the heart of past struggles).
For instance, there are fresh challenges around the issue of poor power supply whichlabourmayhave to pursuebeyond NLC’s call for the political will to revive or make the sector workable – is it mobilisation for street campaigns for total revocation of the privatisation of PHCN or re-evaluating the process to cleanse the clogged and opaque administrative and operative system, etc.?
Similar rethinking can be done in the areas of the unemployment challenge, casualization and outsourcing/offshoring of jobs. Massive campaigns on these issues can go along with Comrade Wabba’s strong view in his New Year Message to “work with the relevant committees of the National Assembly, ministries and agencies to protect our national interest, by leading national campaigns against these practices in the Telecom and Oil and Gas sectors.”
While there is the popular view that the struggle against deregulation and removal of subsidy had finally been lost in May 2016 when the Buhari government increased fuel price from N86 to N145 per litre, an initiative for a popular struggle can still be built around campaigns for local refining of petroleum products upon which lies any hope for reduction of prices of petroleum products, and invariably, the reduction in the cost of production and services, which depend largely on power generators by corporate entities.
In the area of the current anti-corruption crusade; andsince it can be argued that NLC’s anti-corruption posture predates the Buhari administration,it can only reinforce that position by a campaign to popularise its past position for the establishment of special anti-corruption courts and mandatory asset declaration by all elected public officers and political appointees.
But as profoundly desirable as it is for a labour cum progressive reinforcement, it will amount to self-delusion to presume there can be any sustained success under the prevailing stagnant setting which has deflated the aura of comradeship and suffocated the momentum of solidarity that naturally yielded positive results in past struggles.This critical element must be corrected and clearly, rejuvenating that momentum cannot, and must not, be left only on the shoulders of the Comrade Wabba leadership of NLC.
Instead, veterans of the NLC and the key actors of the civil society and progressive movement that forged the struggle which for decades fought military dictatorship, neo-liberalism; and ultimately enthroned democratic governance, must again join forces to midwife a progressive renaissance that can properly reposition the labour movement tonot only confront the current oppressive ruling elite but even more importantly lay the foundation for political engagement in the build-up to 2019, and beyond.
This is not only necessary; it is an obligation for all true patriotic and progressive citizens of our country. And this is in the context of shifting global political dynamics and socio-political trajectories that of late tend to incline toward populism and nationalism as against interdependence and internationalism.
Iduh, a former Head of Information of the NLC between 2009 and 2011, lives in Abuja, and could be reached at email@example.com.