Protests in Nigeria over the removal of the fuel subsidy have spread throughout the country with labour unions starting to make a strong presence on the streets.
The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) represents over 8 million workers and launched an indefinite general strike on Monday 9 January. An articulate movement has started to evolve on the streets of the main cities of Nigeria, yet police violence is already making the development of the movement very difficult. It is also yet to be seen whether traditional forms of workers’ organisation can complement the Federation of Informal Workers of Nigeria (FIWON), which represents a large number of workers in the informal sector.
The NLC has a checkered past, often acting in collusion with elites, but is also joined on the streets by the Joint Action Group (JAG), the umbrella body of pro-labour civil society movements who have a much more militant streak than the NLC. The NLC’s claim that “our people are prepared for a revolution.” seems rather overstated at the present moment.
The call to national identity and cohesion seen in Tunisia and Egypt is less likely to be a mobilising force in Nigeria due to the deep religious and ethnic divides, but organised (and unorganised) labour is a thread running from North to sub-Saharan Africa.
The NLC is threatening to shut ports and disrupt output from Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Chevron Corp.
Owei Lakemfa, (NLC secretary-general) has said: “The objective is that the government must reverse the fuel price increases before we end the strike”.
Strikes have shut down Lagos, Ibadan and Kano, and in Abuja, and most gas stations have also been shut down. The removal of the subsidy does not only mean the tripling of the price of fuel, but also the increase of the price of food due to the increased cost of distributing food. It is for this reason that protests have been relatively widely supported.
The protests come at the same time as attacks from Islamist group Boko Haram, yet the sectarian divisions within Nigeria have not magnified.
In fact in Kano, which is in the predominately Muslim North, the protests have forged a unity between Christians and Muslims. Christians have been seen protecting Muslim protestors whilst they prayed, with Muslims returning the act of solidarity. It will thus be interesting to see how a protest movement could work to quell these historic hostilities.
How will the government of president Goodluck Jonathan respond? The police repression seen in the Ogba suburb of Lagos shows that the threat of Boko Haram to security, coupled with a growing protest movement, means the Jonathan government is backed into a corner and is retaliating in force. The rest of the Nigerian political elite are now turning on the government; the House of Representatives voted for a resolution calling for the restoration of the subsidy.
Yet repression of protestors is increasing and shows that the Jonathan government is intent on crushing the movement in its tracks, as issues beyond the fuel subsidy are being sewn into the subsidy dispute and are accumulating into a direct confrontation with the Nigerian state.