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LABOUR-NIGERIA: Trade Unions Threaten to Resume Strike

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Oct 24 2003 (IPS) - Nigeria’s trade unions have announced that they would call for mass action to protest government’s refusal to revert to the old price of fuel.

They said they would resume the suspended mass protests scheduled to have started on Oct. 9, but which were called off after governors of Nigeria’s 36 states hammered a deal with the trade union leaders.

"The agreement reached was that the marketers would revert to the pre-Oct. 1 price of 34 Naira (34 U.S. cents) per litre of petrol. It was also agreed that a stakeholders’ meeting would take place on Oct. 16 to iron out a long-term solution to the fuel crisis. Unfortunately, while the Nigerian people, led by labour and civil society coalition, kept their own side of the bargain, the oil marketers have refused to revert to the agreed price," Labour and Civil Society Coalition (LASCO) said at a news conference in Lagos this week.

The pump price of fuel was raised from 34 U.S. cents a litre in June this year to 39 U.S. dollars on Wednesday following the lifting of subsidies by the state-run Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC). Prior to the June price hike, fuel was selling for 22 U.S. cents a litre.

Following Wednesday’s announcement by Gaius Obaseki, the Group Managing Director of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation, marketers adjusted their metres to between 39.5 U.S. cents and 41 U.S. cents in Lagos. In other parts of the country, pump prices jumped to between 45 and 47 U.S. cents per litre.

Filling stations have also engaged the services of security agents to ensure that the new prices are complied with.

Nigeria, a member of the Organisation of Oil Producing Countries (OPEC) and the sixth largest producer of crude (producing two million barrels of crude per day) currently imports refined fuel to compliment local production.

Union leaders say the new fuel price will hit the poor the hardest.

Around 70 percent of Nigerians live below the poverty line of one U.S. dollar a day, according to the World Bank.

By hiking the price, the government hopes to stop the smuggling of fuel to neighbouring countries. But few believe that such an increment will ever see the end of smuggling. "The usual reasons of smuggling Nigerian fuel to neighbouring countries which the administration uses for increasing fuel price are not tenable. Even if you sell fuel in Nigeria for 100 Naira (one U.S. dollar) a litre, it will still be smuggled because the neighbouring countries depend on Nigerian oil. If you increase the price, their own prices will also go up and smugglers will continue their business," says John Okorocha, a lawyer in Lagos.

"The problems with Nigeria and the oil crisis – in spite of the country being a major producer – are bad leadership, corruption and mismanagement," says Okorocha.

Oil accounts for more than 90 percent of Nigeria’s foreign exchange earnings.

Nigerians are used to cheap fuel and would like to keep it that way. Says Taju Atitebi, an economist in Lagos: "The deregulation has brought increases in the prices of food items, transportation, rent and other products". In a telephone interview with IPS this week, the Assistant Secretary General of the Nigerian Labour Congress, Owei Lakemfa, accused Obasanjo’s administration of trying to frustrate the efforts of the 36 state governors at resolving the fuel crisis.

"The Obasanjo administration has been opposed to dialogue. What it is doing now is to thwart the efforts of the governors who brokered peace between labour and the marketers that led to the suspension of our planned strike. Part of the parochialism of this government is to ensure that the governors are not seen to be resolving the crisis, which the president has been unable to resolve for four years," Lakemfa told IPS.

"The entire policy of deregulation is being planned hand-in-hand with the IMF (International Monetary Fund). That is why every administration in Nigeria has continued to bring in the phantom of subsidy, smuggling and all other things, as reasons for deregulation of the oil sector," he said.

But some Nigerians interviewed by IPS on the streets of Lagos are not totally opposed to deregulation. "Government should have told the truth about deregulation and given Nigerians enough time to adjust to the new prices. They should have told us the advantages of deregulation before carrying it out," says Julius Adebiyi, who runs a transport company in Lagos.

Adebiyi believes the ordinary Nigerian will be ready to sacrifice if promises made are kept. "If the government says it will use the money realised from the increases to provide good roads and other infrastructure, and people see the government doing just that, they will not object. But it is regrettable that in Nigeria promises are never kept. Instead, such funds go into private pockets," he claims.

 
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