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05 Oct 2003 10:30
Nigerian labour leaders called on Saturday for workers to protest a large hike in petrol prices by mounting their second nationwide general strike of the year.
Union chiefs, including the heads of Nigeria’s two powerful oil workers’ unions, voted to launch their action on Thursday in reaction to a bid by President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government to deregulate fuel sales.
“We expect the strike will last at least two weeks,” Adams Oshiomhole, the president of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), told reporters in the south-western city of Ibadan.
“Nigerians should use the next four days to procure enough foodstuff and cash from their banks to last them through this period. We foresee a long struggle,” he warned.
If the strike proves effective it could disrupt oil production and exports in the world’s fifth largest source of crude, which could have a knock-on effect on international oil prices.
Peter Akpatasan, president of the blue-collar Nupeng oil union, said his members supported the strike, but would “phase in” their participation if government refused to budge.
“After one or two days, if no reversal ... is carried out, then the strike will extend to the rigs and the terminals,” he said.
The protest is a blow to Obasanjo’s renewed attempts to reform Nigeria’s stagnant economy, threatening the very first step in a programme of deregulation designed to slim down the country’s bloated public sector.
But it is expected to garner widespread support in a country where cheap fuel is seen as a birthright, and government calls for austerity measures are treated with deep suspicion by the long-suffering poor.
The latest dispute erupted after Nigeria’s fuel pricing agency on Tuesday issued an opaque statement that appeared to abolish a price cap on petrol and diesel, and throw fuel sales into the free market.
Almost immediately pump prices in Lagos, Abuja and other cities—which had been capped at 34 naira per litre—jumped to 39,95 (R2,15).
Obasanjo’s federal government has maintained almost total silence on the increase. The president’s oil adviser, the finance minister and the head of the state oil firm have all refused to give a statement on the policy.
An attempt on Friday by Labour Minister Adamu Akwanga to dissociate the government from the hike has not been successful, and the press, the unions and public opinion as a whole have put the blame squarely on Obasanjo.
In June the president attempted to increase the price cap to 40 naira per litre, but was forced to back down after a 10-day general strike and street protests in which police killed at least a dozen people.
The government believes a deregulated market would distribute fuel more effectively, and free up money currently spent subsidising sales to be spent on vital public services.
Labour leaders counter that it would be better to refurbish Nigeria’s four decrepit refineries, and keep fuel prices down for the country’s 126-million people, 90% of whom live on less than $2 per day.
“Since the last strike ... the government has closed its doors against labour for any negotiations,” Oshiomhole said.
“We call on all Nigerians to support the strike, otherwise they will only have themselves to blame,” he said.
The unions also called on all Nigerians to boycott the eighth All-Africa Games—dubbed the “African Olympics”—which are due to open in a glittering ceremony in the National Stadium in Abuja.
Oshiomhole called on workers not to disrupt the games—denying reports of a plan to sabotage the event—but called on his supporters not to allow Obasanjo to use it as a stage to pretend all is well in Nigeria.—Sapa-AFP
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