Fuel-price strike shuts down Nigeria

Children played soccer in the deserted streets of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest city and businesses and schools shuttered their doors across Nigeria on Wednesday as unions representing millions of workers launched a general strike over fuel-price hikes.

The strike, which began at midnight on Tuesday, threatened oil exports from Nigeria, Africa’s largest producer.

While union leaders claimed workers from Nigeria’s two major oil guilds had joined the strike, oil companies said there had been no immediate impact on production or exports.

“The report I have from our field offices is that our members have joined,” said Joseph Akinlaja, secretary general of the powerful blue-collar oil workers’ union. “They’ve also stopped work at the oil [export] terminals.”

Akinlaja, however, said it will take days, after already programmed, automated loadings have been completed, to stem the flow of oil.

Don Boham, a spokesperson for Royal Dutch/Shell, accounting for half the country’s production of 2,5-million barrels a day, said some workers in the commercial capital of Lagos were unable to come to work because buses and taxis were not running. However, “so far there have been no reports of disruptions to production and exports”, he said.

Deji Haastrup, Nigeria spokesperson for ChevronTexaco, said that company’s employees hadn’t joined the strike yet and that production and exports remained unhindered.

Nigeria is the world’s seventh-biggest oil exporter and the source of one-fifth of United States oil imports.

No violence was immediately reported, unlike a 2003 fuel-price strike that saw police kill at least 12 protesters.

Few vehicles plied the normally traffic-clogged roads of Lagos, sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous city.

Riot police kept watch over chanting university students and separate clusters of thugs known as “area boys”.
Children took over emptied thoroughfares as playgrounds, kicking soccer balls.

In the capital, Abuja, traffic was a bit heavier, although many shops and stores were also closed.

Police in armoured vehicles, armed with tear-gas launchers and automatic rifles, took up positions at key intersections there.

Talks called by President Olusegun Obasanjo’s government on Monday and Tuesday failed to avert the strike.

Late Tuesday, a court in Abuja ordered the government to lower fuel prices and told unions to call off the strike.

Union leaders were due to meet the labour minister and officials of the state-owned oil company to find out if the government will comply with the court order, the blue-collar Nigeria Labor Congress leader Adams Oshiomhole told reporters in Abuja.

At fuel stations on Tuesday, gasoline sold for $1,44 a gallon—up from $1,17 before the May 29 increase.

Critics argue the inflationary burden is too much for most citizens of oil-rich Nigeria, more than 70% of whom live on less than $1 daily.

The government insists the increases in the government-set price are necessary to stop shortages and prevent massive smuggling of fuel to neighbouring countries, where prices are higher.—Sapa-AP

Associated Press reporter Glenn McKenzie in Abuja, Nigeria, contributed to this report.

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