Africa, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Labour

LABOUR-NIGERIA: Union Leaders Call for Strike Over Fuel Tax

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Jan 10 2004 (IPS) - A showdown is looming between Nigeria’s labour unions and government over a controversial fuel tax, which consumers want the authorities to scrap.

The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) has given a two-week ultimatum, ending on Jan. 20, to the government to reverse the 1.50 Naira (around two U.S. cents) tax.

If not, the Congress warns it will launch a mass mobilisation next week to prepare workers for a nationwide protest. It plans to hold its first rally in Abeokuta, capital of the western state of Ogun, where President Olusegun Obasanjo comes from. From there, the rally will move to Lagos and other state capitals.

Adams Oshiomhole, President of the NLC, said the Jan. 20 deadline was to give members of National Assembly, who would resume sitting on Jan. 13, time to "deliberate on the matter and take position by declaring the tax as illegal".

"Congress calls on the National Assembly to reject the implementation of this new petroleum tax as it has not been legalised by the lawmakers. This is an acid test for the National Assembly to demonstrate that they are representatives of the people," Oshiomhole said.

Whether Nigerians would go along with the planned strike action remains to be seen. A similar strike in Oct. 2003 was cancelled when union leaders realised the call was unpopular.

The only strike Nigerians heeded last year was the one organised in July to protest an increase in fuel price. But the strike, which lasted eight days, was called off when it became apparent Nigerians were becoming restless over the loss of their businesses.

"The July 2003 strike did not achieve anything as government went ahead with the price increase. What does the NLC want to achieve by next week’s strike when citizens are already paying the fuel tax?" asked Bukola Adeniji, a senior civil servant.

Instead he urged the labour movement to negotiate a better package for workers.

Wary of the impending strike, the government has embarked on moves to break the ranks of the labour movement. President Olusegun Obasanjo on Friday held a meeting with the Petroleum Tanker Drivers in the capital, Abuja.

"The government intends to find a way of dissuading the tanker drivers from participating in the protest," a senior government official told IPS by telephone from Abuja on Friday.

The Congress is also demanding that the government take control of Nigeria’s oil industry to avoid unnecessary price increases. Last year the price of petrol climbed to 50 cents from 34 cents a litre, after the government privatised the oil industry.

The latest threat to go on strike by the labour movement followed President Obasanjo’s Dec. 18 announcement to introduce tax on fuel from Jan. 1, while canceling payments at toll plazas. The tax, the government said, would be used for the maintenance of highways. Nigeria has 31 toll plazas where cars pay 10 cents, buses 20 cents and heavy trucks one dollar each time they pass through a toll plaza.

The Lagos State government, which last week threatened to take the federal government to court over the fuel tax, says it is waiting for the national assembly to convene on Monday and take a decision on the matter.

Dele Alake, Lagos State Commissioner for Information, said: "We are waiting for the official decision of the National Assembly which is the only body authorised to approve or endorse any form of taxation on the citizens of this country".

Civil society groups Friday began meeting with labour unions and opposition parties in Lagos to plan strategies for the planned strike action.

"This tax is an affront and represents a war against the people of Nigeria. We are ready to go to war against the (ruling) People’s Democratic Party. We are ready to give Nigerians hope until our last breath," said Femi Aborishade of the National Conscience Party (NCP).

Caroline Ibanga, a teacher in Lagos, is worried that revenue from the fuel tax may be diverted to other projects.

"I know it will go into private pockets and enrich certain people. After all, a top government official collected billions of Naira for road maintenance, which did not take place. And this administration did nothing to bring him to books. This fuel tax will go the same way," she told IPS.

But President Obasanjo Thursday doused fears that the revenue expected from the tax would be diverted to other projects. "Not one kobo (cent) out of that revenue will be diverted to other projects. The money will be devoted to road maintenance," he said.

 
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