A Summer of African Strikes?

In recent months, there’s been a lot of talk about whether the “Arab spring” would spread to sub-Saharan Africa. In some ways, it did – there were serious protests in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Uganda, and elsewhere, and the Arab spring inspired a number of activists to question the legitimacy of incumbents. In some ways, it did not – no leaders have (yet) fallen, and no pan-African, anti-incumbent wave has (yet) reshaped the politics of the whole continent.

Now it’s summer, and I’m wondering whether it’s time to start talking about a wave of strikes, rather than a wave of protests. Although many African economies are experiencing rapid growth, problems like rising food and fuel costs, economic inequality, and dissatisfaction with government taxes and other policies are driving workers to shut down businesses and take to the streets.

Last week, I wrote about strikes in Uganda by traders and taxi drivers (teachers have since threatened to strike as well). This week, Nigerian workers are preparing a national strike from Wednesday to Friday over a non-implemented minimum wage increase – though a last-minute promise by governors to pay the wage may avert the strike.

South Africa (where it is winter, of course), is also facing major strikes:

Tens of thousands of workers ended a two-week pay strike in the South African steel and engineering sector on Sunday while petroleum workers plan to widen a week-long walkout that left hundreds of the nation’s fuel pumps dry, union leaders said.

Steel workers accepted a 10 percent wage rise from the employers’ body, the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa. The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa had initially demanded a 13 percent increase while SEIFSA’s original offer was a 7 percent rise.


Meanwhile, the pay strike in the domestic petroleum sector is expected to widen from Monday after trade union Solidarity said on Sunday its mostly skilled members at petrochemical group Sasol will join the industrial action that left hundreds of fuel pumps dry.

The causes and the intensity of the strikes taking place in Africa vary, but I think there is something of a trend, and I think it’s worth watching. With many African economies under pressure, especially from inflation, we may see more strikes soon. And the next few days will be an important moment for Nigeria in particular, as that country’s unions decide whether the governors’ promise is sufficient or not.

11 thoughts on “A Summer of African Strikes?

    • I didn’t even say it was guaranteed to happen.

      But I do think the minimum wage controversy is significant.

      • I don’t share that view.

        The minimum wage controversy is really limited to Civil Service and relatively few Nigerians are employed by the Civil Service.

        Most Nigerians are employed by the Private Sector and earn less than 18,000 naira per month. Additionally, there is no mechanism to enforce the minimum wage in vast swathes of the Private Sector.

        With better financial management (there is a massive amount of waste in Government), the minimum wage provisions for government workers can be met. The wider issues of mass unemployment and poor pay in the Private Sector will still remain untouched.

        Unemployed youth resorting to kidnapping in the South East and joining Boko Haram in the North East keep Goodluck Jonathan awake at night, I doubt the minimum wage debate does.

      • I agree about the private sector. But the controversy touches on core issues – fuel subsidies, oil revenue allocation, and the broader relationship between the states and the FG. Those are issues that affect many people.

        Last word is yours if you want it.

      • Obasanjo’s first term was dominated by terms such as “resource control” , “Continental Shelf” and “13 percent derivation”. There were numerous and far reaching discussions on fuel subsidies, oil revenue allocation and the broader relationship between the states and the FG.

        Why do you think Niger Delta governors are now so powerful?

        In fact, Obasanjo’s first provides a template for dealing with these issues – and they will be dealt with.

        I still believe insecurity and unemployment are far greater issues.

    • I forgot to add that strikes by trade unions and academic staff unions in Nigeria tend to happen at least once a year. So this is a different situation from the Uganda “walk to work” protests.

      Secondly, there is a trust and emotional disconnect between the governed and the rulers in Nigeria. This situation began during the 1982 “austerity” measures and has rapidly deteriorated since then.

      There is absolutely no faith in government as a force for good and the goal of strikes are usually narrowly defined objectives (like raising the minimum wage, pump price of a gallon of petrol etc), nothing more. Anything more normally degenerates into an inter-ethnic shouting match.

      I suspect the same applies to many other African countries.

      • These are fair points, but I think there is more to the minimum wage controversy than just run-of-the-mill politics. That doesn’t mean it’s totally unique, but a political fight that involves the FG, all of the governors, and the major trade unions, and takes place just three months after Jonathan’s election, is significant.

        The strikes in different countries are different, I agree with you and I said that in the post. But there are commonalities too – strikes and protests that take place within a few months of elections (Burkina, Nigeria, Uganda, and SA if you count the local elections there). Plus the Arab spring has if nothing else increased anti-incumbent sentiments in many African countries. So to point out the history of these strikes is good, and I’m glad you’ve done so – there have been strikes in Uganda and in SA before too, of course – but the fact that there’s a history doesn’t mean the present is insignificant.

      • Alex,

        You are forgetting that there was a minimum wage debate 10 years ago. You may also recollect that Obasanjo had to deal with an even more serious constitutional crisis early in his first term – the imposition of Sharia criminal code in 12 out of the 36 states of the Federation.

        I suffered personally during a very serious set of strikes called by the major trade unions in 2003 to protest the increase in the pump price of petrol.

        Elections result in new expectations, so increased agitation after elections is to be expected.

        Frankly speaking, I’m not seeing any impact of the Arab spring from my house at Ketu, Lagos. I am seeing the same apathy, the same tribalism and the same lack of confidence in government. People are more worried about the fall in value of the naira against the dollar, the menace of flooding and the rise of Boko Haram than what happened in the Arab World.

        Arab countries are more homogeneous than Sub-Saharan African nations, so it is relatively easier to mount a popular protest over there than down here. You cannot get Nigerians from the North and the South to agree on anything without degenerating into tribal name-calling. In fact, popular sentiment in Lagos is that Boko Haram should be allowed to form their Islamic Emirate and secede from the rest of Nigeria if they so wish.

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