Letter from Nigeria

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Baba Aye reports on the millions who took to the streets in the largest and most intense strikes that Nigeria has ever seen

Eight days of a general strike and street protests in January awakened a new belief across Nigeria that ordinary people could bring about change in society.

The strike paralysed Nigeria for eight days. Across the country workers downed tools in the public and private sectors as well as in the informal economy.

It was not just the strike that was a resounding success. Millions of people took over the streets in at least 47 cities and towns.

Such mass protests and solidarity across ethno-regional and religious divides that went with it had not been witnessed before. Non-Muslims surrounded Muslim protesters to defend them when they held their prayers, and in several cities in the North, Muslims organised themselves to protect Christian churches.

There were some novel forms to the protests that have gained the movement the description of "Occupy Nigeria". These included the mass occupation of city centres and parks which became designated as "Liberation Square" (in Kano) and "Freedom Square" (in Lagos), for example.

The main demand of this massive movement was for the reversal of a 120 percent hike in petrol prices on 1 January. But the demands soon spread to include opposition to the high costs of governance, an end to corruption and for President Jonathan to go.

In response, Nigeria's federal government was forced to slash the new price it had announced by just under 58 percent.

But the general mood among Nigerians was that "we want more". Even the trade union leaders, who took the unpopular step of suspending the strike, had to echo the popular position that they did not accept the new price, despite the partial victory it represented.

The government rolled out tanks in Lagos, Abuja, Kano and other major cities. Attempts by some activists and politicians in Lagos to continue the protests after the strike had been called off were quelled with tear gas.

There is, however, a palpable feeling in the air that this is just the end of the beginning. These were the largest and most intense mass strikes and protests ever organised in the country.

Tell, a leading liberal weekly magazine, described the situation as "A Revolution Postponed".

It has taken a while in coming. The past 13 years of bourgeois democracy have taught working people that there is little difference between capitalists in civilian garb and those in military khaki.

In 1999, after a six-year democratic revolution, the ruling class had reached a resolution which included the murders of General Sani Abacha, the former military despot, and Chief MKO Abiola, the victor of the 1993 elections.

The three civilian governments since then have been mired in the most obscene corruption, leaving some 70 percent of people below the poverty line in a country awash with petro-dollars.

It could be foreseen that the ignition for resistance would be a hike in fuel pump prices. There have been no fewer than 22 such hikes since 1988, virtually all of which were resisted by massive spontaneous protests.

Since 2000 it has been general strikes that have provided these mass protests with leadership and generalisation.

In December a former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, who himself had hiked prices of fuel eight times, pleaded with President Jonathan to put off raising prices to avoid setting off a revolution from below.

The revolution might have been postponed, but pressure from below showed working people the power we have and could bring to bear. The general strike lasted as long as it did because the trade union bureaucracy could feel the mass anger of rank and file workers.

In several neighbourhoods in the major cities and towns action committees were established independently. Networks, alliances, coalitions and new organisations of activists have emerged. These can play key roles in the future.

The unfolding Nigerian revolution is in recess. But many more workers and youths are being won to the idea of struggle for revolution from below.

Baba Aye is the deputy national ssecretary of the Labour Party (Nigeria) and national chairperson of the Socialist Workers League in Nigeria