Nigeria's oil workers threaten to down tools

Nigerian oil workers threatened on Thursday to halt production as a strike over fuel prices in Africa’s top crude exporter entered its fourth day and sectarian tensions simmered after deadly attacks.

The strike and protests in Africa’s largest crude producer have put the government under mounting pressure as it also seeks to stop spiralling attacks blamed on Islamist group Boko Haram.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay warned on Thursday that members of Boko Haram could be guilty of crimes against humanity if their attacks have systematically targeted civilians.

Boko Haram’s killing of Christians and retaliatory violence targeting Muslims in the country’s south have sparked fears of a wider conflict—with some evoking the possibility of civil war in Africa’s most populous nation.

Hundreds of thousands have gathered across cities in the country for protests against the January 1 removal of fuel subsidies that doubled the price of petrol overnight.

Nigeria’s oil workers’ unions have upped the ante by threatening to shut down crude production. One of the unions said “we hereby direct all production platforms to be on red alert in preparation for total production shutdown”.

Nigeria exports around two million barrels per day and is a key supplier of crude to the United States and the European Union.

Negotiations
An official with one of Nigeria’s main trade unions said they would not negotiate with President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration until it reinstated fuel subsidies, which many Nigerians view as their only benefit from the nation’s oil wealth.

“For us to negotiate, the price of fuel must revert to 65 naira,” said Denja Yaqub, secretary general of the Nigerian Labour Congress.

Members of Nigeria’s senate and house of representatives have sought to broker a way out of the crisis, but no progress has been reported so far. Another meeting was set for later on Thursday.

In northern Nigeria’s largest city of Kano, several hundreds of thousands gathered at an expansive open air ground for what organisers labelled a “sit-in” rally.

In Lagos, a city of 15-million, a crowd of over 10 000 packed a park which has become the main protest site in the economic capital.

Some watched from atop a bridge, as a truck of protesters drove by the crowd chanting “Ole! Ole!” (thief in the local Yoruba language).

“We have gathered here for a sit-in strike and will not leave until the fuel subsidy is restored,” Isa Yunusa Danguguwa, a union leader in Kano said.

Two police officers were killed on Wednesday when a mob rampaged in the central city of Minna, burning political offices and prompting an all-day curfew, while gunmen attacked a police station in the northeastern city of Yola.

The northeast was also affected, with four Christians gunned down on the outskirts of the city of Potiskum by suspected Boko Haram members.

“Members of Boko Haram and other groups and entities, if judged to have committed widespread or systematic attacks against a civilian population—including on grounds such as religion or ethnicity—could be found guilty of crimes against humanity,” the UN rights chief said.

In some of the country’s flashpoints, it was often difficult to tell whether violence was a result of the strike or religiously motivated but in Lagos on Thursday, the protest was peaceful.

Dele Olaniyi, a 54-year-old taxi driver Dele, vowed to stay put until the government backs down.

“I have been taking part in the protests since Monday and will continue until the government goes back to 65 naira ($0.40, 0.30 euros) a litre,” he said.

“The majority of our people are too poor to afford the new price.”

Government officials and economists say removing subsidies was essential and will allow the $8-billion per year in savings to be plowed into projects to improve the country’s woefully inadequate infrastructure.—AFP

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