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/UPDATE/ECONOMY-NIGERIA: Emergency Stockpiling as Fuel Strike Looms | Inter Press Service

/UPDATE/ECONOMY-NIGERIA: Emergency Stockpiling as Fuel Strike Looms

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Jan 20 2004 (IPS) - A court of appeal in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, has ordered the Nigeria Labour Congress to suspend a proposed strike that had been scheduled to start on Wednesday. It has also ordered authorities to reverse the one cent petrol tax that is at the heart of the labour dispute.

This followed government’s appeal of a previous ruling that the stay away should be allowed to proceed. Last week, Justice Lawan Gumi held that the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) “and indeed all Nigerians have a right to protest against unpopular policies of government”.

However, union officials say the strike will go ahead as planned until government obeys the court instructions about the fuel tax. This is despite the fact that President Olusegun Obasanjo’s administration has issued a statement saying it will comply with the latest ruling.

“Our position is that the federal government should first of all abolish the fuel tax before we call off the proposed action. Once the fuel tax is abolished and we can buy fuel without paying the tax, we will call off the strike,” said a statement issued by Owei Lakemfa, NLC head of information, and several other activists.

“For now, the strike action and mass protest planned by labour and the civil society coalition will commence tomorrow (Wednesday),” it added.

Earlier on Tuesday, thousands of residents in the Nigerian commercial centre of Lagos besieged markets, banks and petrol stations to stock up on food and fuel ahead of the nationwide stay away.

The NLC had organised the strike to protest against a further increase in the price of fuel that occurred when government imposed the fuel tax of about one cent (1.5 naira) as part of its 2004 budget. This levy, which has been in effect since the beginning of the year, raised the cost of petrol to 30 cents a litre. Officials claimed that it formed part of efforts to liberalise Nigeria’s fuel sector.

Union representatives demanded that the petrol price be lowered to 24 cents a litre. According to the United Nations Development Report for 2003, just over 70 percent of Nigerians live below the poverty line of a dollar a day.

The last strike over fuel price increases, which took place in July 2003, went on for eight days – catching many families unawares.

“I know what I suffered with members of my family the last time the NLC called a strike…After the initial three days, the little foodstuff we had at home got finished and I could not find anyone to (lend) me money,” said Samuel Akintunde, a civil servant who spoke to IPS at a Lagos bank.

“My wife had to borrow foodstuff from one trader on our street, it was so bad. I want to prevent that (happening again), because we do not know for how long this will last,” he added.

Johnson Ojo, the owner of a private printing press, said “I filled my tank yesterday (Jan. 19) and siphoned the fuel into a jerry can. I am here again today to buy…since I cannot afford to lose customers because of a strike: I have to be at work if movement is allowed.”

Whilst many people in Lagos might have sympathised with the NLC’s frustrations over fuel hikes, others were angered by the timing of the proposed stay away. “The NLC should have shifted the strike to when (all) of us would have been paid salaries, to make it more effective,” said Dele Bodunde – another civil servant.

“People will have money to spend for as long as the strike lasts if they are paid salaries before the action.”

Although the strike was intended to focus attention on the rising cost of fuel, NLC President Adams Oshiomhole also hoped it would highlight government’s alleged failure to address broader concerns about poverty.

“We expect all Nigerians to appreciate the issue at stake: that it (is) not about the 1.5 naira fuel tax alone, but the particular approach to governance and policy formulation which (is) targeted at attacking the masses, especially the poor,” he said.

Oshiomhole added, “All Nigerians seem to be helpless as the executive arm of government dismissed the National Assembly as having no say in the matter,” – a reference to the fact that officials have been collecting the fuel levy even though parliament voted against it last week.

“We are back at the era of immediate effect of wrong policies before thinking (about) the adverse effect of those policies. Nigeria has been under many dictators in the past and none (have) imposed international prices on Nigerians,” Oshiomhole said.

The NLC had appealed to Nigerians to maintain peace during the strike. But, authorities said 292,000 policemen would also be deployed throughout the country to arrest those who might want to take advantage of the situation.


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