By Abbey Trotsky
Events are moving fast in Oyo state, Nigeria as workers and youth have taken to the streets to oppose privatisation and demand payment of salary and pension arrears. Not deterred by the failure of May’s poorly prepared general strike working people in Oyo have come out in great numbers to press their demands.
One display of this fighting spirit was when activities at the Oyo state government secretariat were paralysed as hundreds students from many secondary schools on Monday June 6 stormed the Governor’s Office to protest against the planned privatisation of secondary schools by the APC state government. There were similar student protests in many areas of Ibadan, the capital Oyo state, the same day. The following day there was a bigger protest now involving workers, artisans and students and a new demand, backed with an indefinite strike action, for immediate payment of arrears of salaries and pensions running to 6 months. This June 7 protest march, one of the biggest recently seen in Ibadan, was led by both the National and State leaderships of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Nigeria Union of Teachers, (NUT).
However, what immediately provoked these mass protests of workers and students, as well as the strike action, was the arrest and detention of labour leaders who had a week earlier led a protest to a June 1 forum organised by the government on the sale of schools under the guise of Public Private Partnership (PPP).
Seven labour leaders, including the state chairman of the Nigeria Labour Congress Mr Waheed Olojede, were arrested on Thursday June 2 and arraigned in court the following day. They were however made to spend the weekend in Agodi Prison as the court, apparently at the instance of the state government, made perfection of their bail conditions of N200,000 each impossible on the Friday. Other affected labour leaders were NLC State Deputy Chairman Mr. Titilayo Sodo, the NLC State Secretary Mrs Kofo Ogundeji, the State Chairman of the Nigeria Civil Service Union (NCSU) Mr Oparinde Kehinde, as well as Mr Oseni Aderemi, Mrs Adegbogu and Mr. Falade Akinyele who are members of State Affiliates Council, SAC of the NLC.
Following the release of the labour leaders on Monday, June 6, workers at a Congress declared an indefinite strike action to press home their demands which are: 1. Immediate withdrawal of all trumped-up charges levelled against the labour leaders who had been incarcerated; 2. The Government to rescind its decision to sell off any public schools in the state; 3. Proper and adequate funding of the education sector including payment of living wages and other incentive for education workers, and 4. Immediate Payment of 6 months’ outstanding salaries and all pension arrears.
Mass Solidarity with labour leaders
The worker leaders were arrested and detained following their invitation to the Oyo state police command at around 10am on Thursday June 2. The next day the arrested labours, who had been detained at the State Criminal Investigation Department (SCID), Iyaganku, Ibadan, were arraigned at a Magistrate court. The entire court premises was heavily militarised by men of the Nigeria police force. All possible routes to the court premises were blocked. Movement of the ordinary people around the court premises was restricted. Despite all these coercive measures meant to scare people away from the court premises, workers who stormed the court premises in their hundreds, remained resolute and determined as they chanted one form of solidarity songs or the others in demanding the immediate and unconditional release of the arrested labour leaders.
The determined action of the workers around the court premises actually built-up a tremendous pressure on the magistrate who was forced to grant bail to the arrested labour leaders even when it is obvious that such a decision was against the interest of the APC state government whose counsel opposed the bail. In spite of this the labour leaders were still remanded in prison owing to the allegedly intervention of the state government which made every effort to perfect the condition attached to being granted bail impossible to meet on that day.
Planned Privatisation of Secondary School.
The motive behind remanding the labour leaders in prison was to punish them for staging a mass action on June 1, 2016, which disrupted a kangaroo stakeholders meeting deliberately organised by the APC-led government in the state to rubber stamp its plan to sell off some secondary schools under the pretext of PPP. The government’s aim was to prevent the labour leaders from leading another mass action against a rescheduled stakeholder meeting set for Tuesday, 7 June.
It is important to state that, the Oyo State councils of the NLC and NUT have been maintaining an opposition to the plan of the state government to sell off or return some public secondary schools in the state to private profiteers or missionaries respectively. Trying to justify this plan to sell off schools was the claim that returning schools to the “former owners” or public private partnership will reverse all ugly trends that have characterised the entire education sector in the state. In view of this, an advertorial was placed in newspaper calling on individuals or organisations willing to “partner” with the state government to pay non-refundable sum of N250, 000 to the Oyo State ministry of education.
The NLC and NUT in their opposition to this plan, argued that the government plan to sell-off or return schools to missionaries is tantamount to the privatisation of education, something which in principle and practice negates and contradicts the resolution of the UNESCO to which Nigeria is a signatory. The prevailing experiences all over the world has shown that, privatisation of education will no doubt amount to taking education far beyond the reach of children of the poor working masses.
Besides, it also violates the universal basic education (UBE) law signed into force by the Federal Government of Nigeria in 2003. According to this law every child must be accorded the right to education without any form of hindrance in whatever guise!
Labour argued that privatisation of schools will also widen the gap between the rich and poor while increasing social exclusion.
Also faulted is the government propaganda that privatisation of schools will automatically end the enormous crisis in which educational sector in the state is enmeshed. Largely responsible for the crisis in education sector is lack of proper and adequate funding and lack of democracy in the management and control of the sector. Therefore, labour insist that APC-led government in the state must begin to implement the UNESCO recommendation which state that at least 26% of yearly budgetary allocation must be voted on education instead of privatising of school which will definitely take education out of the reach of the children of the working masses.
To the Oyo State government, this kind of strong opposition expressed by both the NLC and NUT against the plan to privatise public secondary schools in the state is seen as a betrayal of its long-term collaborationist politics with the leadership of labour union in the state.
It will be recalled that Oyo State has failed to pay civil servants their meagre monthly salaries since December 2015 without any resistance from the state labour leaders. Instead, the labour leaders signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the government that gave a false impression that Oyo State is broke and lacks enough resources to pay workers their meagre salaries even when the political office holders continue to receive their bloated salaries and allowances and maintain opulent lifestyle.
Resulting from the failure of the labour leaders to defend the economic rights of rank and file civil servants in the state, who continue to groan under the pain of over 6 months of salaries’ arrears, is the mass discontent workers and the general public against the labour leaders in the state. This existing mass discontent against the labour leaders was seen as the opportunity by the APC-led Oyo State government to clamp down on the labour leaders for organising a mass action which successfully helped to stop a stakeholder meeting where they state wanted to seal up their plan to privatise public schools in the state.
Given the discontent against the labour leaders, it was the state government’s expectation that any onslaught unleashed on them will not provoke any support and sympathy among the working people. This was the basis for the arrest and incarceration of the labour leaders. Unfortunately for the Senator Ajimobi-led government, the arrest of the same labour leaders which were once described as “generals without army” provoked an immediate mass sympathy which later snowballed into a mass action and declaration of an on-going indefinite strike in state.
Protest and Strike Activities
Unlike in states like Ekiti and Ondo state where the indefinite strikes have also been currently embarked upon by workers over non-payment of salaries, the strike in Oyo is not just a mere sit at home strike. In Oyo striking workers are being directed to always converge on daily basis for a mass meeting at the state secretariat of the NLC where discussion and debate to advance the struggle is often undertaken. Thousands of copies of materials like leaflets are produced and massively circulated among the community people to further deepen the understanding of the general public on the strike and the need for them to join. There is an on-going effort to translate these leaflets into indigenous language in order to attract a wider audience.
It is very important to state that the massive street protest organised across some working people dominated areas like Gate, Oje, Bere etc. in Ibadan on Tuesday June 7 helped to sensitise the general public on the demand of the striking workers and win more public support for the struggle.
The ground for the huge turn-out and mass support recorded on the street was prepared by the spontaneous mass action embarked upon a day earlier by thousands of secondary schools students from different schools across the city of Ibadan. The students took to the street chanting different forms of anti-government songs to demand the immediate release the labour leaders who were still in the incarceration as of the time the action broke out. This mass action of the students was also used to demand the immediate stop to the anti-people plan by the Ajimobi-led government to sell-off all public schools in the state. The state government responded by shutting down the schools in order to prevent the repeat of the unprecedented embarrassment the protests had already caused it.
The retirees, who are now owed over 24 months of pension arrears, also staged a street protest on Thursday June 9 to demand immediate payment of all their pension arrears as well as to lend a principle support to all the demands of the striking workers.
A public symposium was also organised on Friday June 10 to further deepen the struggle. One thousand copies of a leaflet issued by the Socialist Party of Nigeria (SPN) were circulated. This symposium provided an opportunity for a member of Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) who was one of the lead speakers to offer suggestions as to how to move this struggle forward. These suggestions include immediate constitution of action committee of workers at local government level to ensure adequate compliance with the strike directive especially at workplaces outside Ibadan and organise activities like public meeting and mass protests at local level.
The need for more mass street protest to continue to mobilise mass support for the demands was also suggested. In agreement with this suggestion, another mass street protest has been fixed for Monday June 13, 2016
Going by this background, it is very clear that the sharp radical turn and the clear departure from the old “sit at home” approach that the on-going workers struggle in Oyo State is taking is a reflection of a growing radicalising mood among workers, students and members of the general public. Suffice to state that the basis for this radicalising mood was strengthened by the successful mass protest action in Oyo during the strike declared in May by the NLC against the APC-led federal government’s pump price hike, something that unfortunately did not take place in all states.
While there is no dispute over the ineffectiveness of May’s strike and protest to force the reversal of the hiked pump price to N85, the on-going workers’ struggle in Oyo has clearly showed that the previous mass protest helped raise the political consciousness of the working people in the state. For instance, some of the songs the protesting secondary school students chanted were actually borrowed from the ones composed in the course of the last anti-hike in pump price struggle.
Again it must also be stated that this the same ruinous and neo-liberal policy of privatisation of schools which Oyo State working people are currently fighting against has been introduced successfully in a number of states, controlled by APC, PDP and APGA, with lame or no resistance in the past. The fact that this same policy provokes mass action in Oyo state shows the changing mood of working people. Those who may be prepared to give a little time to the APC are now drawing the conclusion that they have to struggle to win anything. This change has meant that the same labour leaders who were giving excuses on behalf of state government over non-payment of salaries and pension arrears a few months ago before the anti-fuel price hike struggle broke-out are now leading struggles for full payment of salaries and pension arrears. This is despite that it is obvious that nothing has changed in terms of available funds at the disposal of the state. This shows a huge effect of the radicalising popular mood on the consciousness of the labour leaders themselves.
So far the on-going Oyo State workers’ struggle had shown that a determined struggle of the people with a courageous leadership and appropriate tactics and strategies can bring to its knee any anti-people government. For instance, Oyo state government has not only apologised to Oyo State workers, but has also agreed to have made some mistakes while denying its planning to sell-off the public schools in the state.
What this shows is that it is possible for the on-going struggle to win a bigger concession provided the leadership accepts democracy to reign in terms of participation and involvement of the rank and file workers in crucial decisions that pertains to the struggle. This will encourage the further growth and development of rank and file activists, make it possible to measure and gauge at every stage the courage and determination of the mass of workers while strengthening those in the leadership who are prepared to struggle.
The need to ensure that the leadership is prevailed upon to continue to allow democratic control of the struggle remains one of the important roles members of DSM have played in this struggle. We have been also playing crucial role in terms of discussing strategy and ways to deepen the struggle.
The struggle in Oyo, especially the mass mobilisations and active involvement of workers, can be an example both for workers already on strike in Ekiti and Ondo and those in other states suffering salary arrears. Already the Ondo striking workers has borrowed from the Oyo example by organising a mass protest on Thursday June 9 during which the state Governor was prevented from entering the government house. But this protest must not be one-off but sustained. This is why members of DSM continue to insist that Labour leaders in Oyo should consciously seek to reach out to workers in other states while, at the same time, maintaining and stepping up their own struggle to win their demands.
So far, about 20 copies of DSM publications have been sold; previously over 400 copies of the current edition of the DSM’s paper, Socialist Democracy, were sold in Ibadan during last month’s general strike. 36 persons have signed the register opened for workers who are interested to join the Socialist Party of Nigeria while a stall with DSM publications and the SPN banner is staged daily at the entrance of the NLC secretariat.