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LABOUR-NIGERIA: Unions Call Off Strike

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Oct 9 2003 (IPS) - If the strike had gone ahead as planned, it would have paralysed Nigeria.

By Monday, Nigerians were already bracing themselves for a long industrial action. Panic-stricken customers were forming long queues in the banks to withdraw cash and stockpile food.

Then on Wednesday the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), which was protesting last week’s hike in the price of fuel by about 12 percent, called off the strike.

If all had gone according to plan, the strike would have begun Thursday.

"Thank God the parties in the dispute have resolved the crisis and averted the strike. It would have dented Nigeria’s image internationally," said Tunde Samuels, a school teacher in Lagos.

"Nigeria would have been in serious trouble internationally if it had disrupted the 8th All African Games," he told IPS Thursday.

The All-Africa Games, the continent’s equivalent of the Olympics, is costing Nigeria an estimated 700 million U.S. dollars to host.

Around 50 African countries are taking part in the games which kicked off Oct. 4, after the labour unions threatened to go on strike.

Though the strike was called off, policemen were still manning strategic places in Lagos. Vehicular and human traffic was unusually very light Thursday. This is because the NLC statement, calling off the strike, was made late: at about 10.30 p.m. Wednesday.

As a result of the late announcement, coupled with power outages in most part of Lagos, most shops remained closed early Thursday. Traders, who did not hear the news, remained at home for fear of hoodlums hijacking the strike to loot.

In some areas visited by IPS, youths were, as is usually the case during strikes, turning the streets into football pitches before being forced off by the few vehicles plying the roads.

"I heard of the call off at seven o’clock this morning and had to rush to take bath. I was not prepared for work today as we have been told in the office yesterday (Wednesday) to stay at home," one official told IPS.

NLC leader Adams Oshiomhole said an agreement had been reached between the NLC, oil operators and the governors of Nigeria’s 36 states at a meeting in the capital Abuja on Wednesday to revert the price of petrol to 34 Naira (34 U.S. cents) per litre.

"If they agree to revert to the old rates, the nationwide industrial action is no longer necessary and it is therefore suspended," Oshiomhole said.

But, in a nationwide broadcast late Wednesday, President Olusegun Obasanjo described plans by the NLC to embark on strike as a coup attempt to destabilise his government.

"No government would tolerate lawlessness or the attempt by any group of people under any guise to use illegal means to take over government or make the country ungovernable as the labour leader has promised. I will be failing in my constitutional duties to the people of Nigeria to allow that to happen," he said.

Some opposition political parties, including the All Nigerian Peoples Party and All Progressive Grand Alliance Party, supported the proposed strike.

"This alliance appears designed to attain power through undemocratic means. The leadership of the NLC has engaged in series of subversive activities, deliberately misrepresenting government policies to the public and its members and using every opportunity to blackmail the government and others who hold contrary opinions or views," Obasanjo said.

"Of more serious concern is the fact that the NLC leadership is conducting itself as a parallel government in Nigeria. And (it) brazenly breaks the law of Nigeria regarding the conduct of the strike, which stipulates a mandatory 15-day notice before embarking on any legitimate strike in the interest of the conditions of service of workers," he said.

Members of the federal House of Representatives last week adjourned sitting to protest the increase, which they argued will worsen the plight of Nigerians. Around 70 percent of Nigerians live below the poverty line of one U.S. dollar a day, according to the World Bank.

The NLC insisted that the increment in the prices of fuel negated the last agreement between the congress and government in June. That agreement fixed the price of petrol at 34 Naira (34 U.S. cents) per litre, while that of diesel and kerosene at 32 Naira (32 U.S. cents) per litre. Before the last increases, petrol was selling for 22 Naira (22 U.S. cents) a litre, while diesel and Kerosene were going for 19 Naira (19 U.S. cents) a litre.

Since last week’s increases, some fuel operators have been shutting down their filling stations in order to create artificial scarcity and force new prices. As a result, a litre of petrol now costs up to 45 Naira (45 U.S. cents) in Lagos, while the same amount of the product is sold for 100 Naira (one U.S. dollar) in the northern state of Bauchi.

Nigeria, the sixth largest producer of crude oil in the world, supplies about two million barrels a day to the world market.

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