23 January 2012

Nigeria: Fuel Price Hike Protest - Matters Arising


The 8-day national strike called by both the NLC and TUC (against the prohibitive hike in the price of fuel on the eve of the new year) reinforced by mass protests by trade union allies in civil society has ebbed, following its suspension.

However the national strike/mass protests raise a number of issues, which are of profound economic, political and social importance for the country. For a nation traumatized by challenges of physical security as witnessed by last Friday serial carnage and human wastages in Kano, academic analysis proves a luxury. Yours truly is also an active participant in the subsidy debate/strike saga.

Participant-observation analysis certainly tasks objectivity. But as one who has written on the Crisis of Pricing Petroleum Products in Nigeria (2001) with case studies of resistance against similar products price increases in 1988 and 2000, a fall back on written memory proves handy. First is the significance of the national strike, which fits into the 'overt modes of resistance' category. Just like the strikes of 1988 and 2000, 2011 strike and protests were visible, truly national and global with the participation of Nigerians in Diaspora.

The dimension of the strike was also officially acknowledged to be significant and remarkable with yet to be estimated human-days losses. The visibility of this singular strike, its popularity puts paid to the official argument that compares the pricing of petroleum product with telecom or aviation service. If the price of any telecom product service had risen even with higher percentages, it would not have provoked a national strike of such dimension. No product pricing could have elicited two national broadcasts by the President in quick successions if not petroleum product. Indeed, with regards to petroleum pricing, we are yet to witness the 'withering away' of national strikes. On the contrary, we may be having a 'new beginning' of collective actions against arbitrary fuel price increasing, a fact that must task the creativity of policy makers beyond the dogma of deregulation.

Another important issue in the strikes is their all-inclusive nature. Nigeria is a multi ethnic and multi cultural society, in which all-inclusive issues are proving difficult to realise. No thanks to both the military and civilian ruling elite that have promoted 'prependial system in which the pre-occupation of the political actors is ethically and regionally based competition for the spoils of office.' Exclusive ethnic and religious issues are being played up and legitimized to obscure primary inclusive issues such as accountability, good governance and transparency. Often the masses of Nigerian have been turned against each other on account of divisive issues of religion and ethnicity, while they are urged to line up behind their respective regional/ethnic elite that promote these divisions but are nonetheless united in the pursuit of self-aggrandizement and sheer looting of national resources.

The recent protests just like the previous ones introduced unifying issues among the citizenry regardless of their background and persuasions. For once in recent times, the ruling elite were forced to face up to the challenges of governance of the most populous country in the continent. For once, ministers were on duty almost twenty four hours while the President walked his talk to minimize overseas trips not necessarily on account of cost but in deference to protests by angry populace at home. The President could not even attend the 100 years anniversary of the oldest tested political party in Africa; Africa National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. The NLC action, for once, made politicians face up to the issue of governance as opposed to their dismal indulgence in resource sharing of allowances and self-appropriation.

Another matter that arose deals with the outcome of the strike/protests. This strike, just like the previous ones, did not lead to reversal of price increase. However, the strike made the government return to 'power bargaining'; with the people which it had hitherto rejected and paid lip service. Of course labour has rightly insisted that 97 Naira was unilateral and not negotiated, the price reduction nonetheless reflected the gains of the strike.

Beyond this qualitative achievement, is the qualitative fallout of the holistic cleansing of the rot in the oil sector clause at the insistence of the NLC. The recent renewed activism of both the Executive and the legislature with respect to PIB and subsidy management is one wise outcome of the strike. The decision of the trade unions to call off the strikes when government had not reversed the prices to the old price of N65 has rightly elicited mixed feelings just as it did in 1988 and 2000, when equally old rates on all products were not reversed except kerosene.

While some hailed the outcome of the strike and protests as mature, focused and manifestation of capacity of labour and democratic dispensation to resolve conflict, there are those who saw the two outcomes as "sell-outs". This controversy underscores the ambiguous role of trade unions in the struggle for social change. Conflict and accommodation are two contradictory but inseparable aspects of industrial relations. This point is often not appreciated by both the governments and critics of unions alike.

On the one hand government sees labour strikes as 'subversive' and even at a point "sell-outs" to "subsidy cabals". On the other hand critics and "emergency" activists and comrades alike who hold instrumentalist notion of trade unions hoping that every strike offers opportunity to "upturn" the system are quick to smear labour. The truth is that unions are neither "subversive" or "sell outs" or willing to "upturn" the system but only striving to protect the working and living conditions of their members within the system. Rather unions are labour market parties" trying to defend their members within the system and are likely to continue to do so. The strike just like that of 1988 and 2000 clearly brought out the 'conflicting' and 'accommodating' aspects of trade union movement.

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