Late-night talks end as Nigeria fuel strike looms

The fuel strike began on January 09, paralysing the nation of more than 160 million people.

Abuja: Late-night negotiations on Sunday between Nigeria`s government and union officials again failed to bring an end to a crippling nationwide strike over high fuel costs, as the oil-rich nation`s President alleged provocateurs could be attempting to hijack protests to make the country unstable.

President Goodluck Jonathan and leaders left the meeting at Nigeria`s presidential palace in the capital Abuja without offering details of the talks to waiting journalists. Early Monday morning, Nigeria Labor Congress president Abdulwaheed Omar told journalists the union would halt street protests at Jonathan`s request after the leader claimed the protests could become violent.

"He appealed to labor, considering the fact there have been serious security reports which indicated there are people outside ... that will try and hijack the street protests," Omar said.

Omar did not offer specifics on what evidence Jonathan provided to convince unions of the threat. Jonathan had been scheduled to give a speech to be aired at 9 pm local time (2000 GMT) Sunday on state-run television, but the time passed without any message. The presidency later said a speech by the leader would air at 7 am (0600 GMT) on Monday.

The strike began on January 09, paralysing the nation of more than 160 million people. The root cause remains gasoline prices: Jonathan`s government abandoned subsidies that kept gasoline prices low on January 01, causing prices to spike from USD 1.70 per gallon (45 cents per litre) to at least USD 3.50 per gallon (94 cents per litre). The costs of food and transportation also largely doubled in a nation where most people live on less than USD 2 a day.

Anger over losing one of the few benefits average Nigerians see from living in an oil-rich country led to demonstrations across the nation and violence that has killed at least 10 people. Red Cross volunteers have treated more than 600 people injured in protests since the strike began, officials said.

Jonathan and other government officials have argued that removing the subsidies, which are estimated to cost USD 8 billion a year, would allow the government to spend money on badly needed public projects across a country that has cratered roads, little electricity and a lack of clean drinking water for its inhabitants. However, many remain suspicious of government as military rulers and politicians have plundered government budgets since independence from Britain in 1960.

The strike also could cut into oil production in Nigeria, a nation that produces about 2.4 million barrels of crude a day and remains a top energy supplier to the US. A major oil workers association threatened on Thursday to stop all oil production in Nigeria at midnight Saturday over the continued impasse in negotiations. However, the Nigeria Labor Congress said the association had held off on the threatened production halt.

Oil workers association president Babatunde Ogun and other union officials could not be reached for comment on Sunday.

The association`s ability to enforce a shutdown across the swamps of Nigeria`s southern delta to its massive offshore oil fields remains in question. Much of Nigeria`s land-based oil fields remain largely automated and an increasing amount of production comes from large offshore oil fields far from the country`s coasts. However, any perceived impact on production could cause oil futures to rise as trading begins in stock markets on Monday.

Fears of tightened global supplies could raise oil prices by USD 5-USD 10 per barrel on futures markets in the upcoming week. Gasoline prices would follow, rising by as much as 10 cents per gallon and forcing US drivers to spend an additional USD 36 million a day at the pump.

The Nigeria Labor Congress and the Trade Union Congress called for a brief hiatus on demonstrations this weekend, allowing Nigerians to leave their homes to stock up on gasoline, food and other supplies. However, the mood remains tense in a nation already uneasy over recent sectarian attacks by a radical Islamist sect that have killed at least 67 people since the start of the year, according to a news agency’s count.

The unions addressed that concern in a statement Sunday, saying: "We are ... not campaigning for `regime change’."

"The labor movement is wedded to democracy, therefore, anybody or group that wants a change in the political leadership of the country at whatever level should do so through the ballot box," the groups said.

However, tension could be felt at an Armed Services Remembrance Ceremony held Sunday in Abuja. The program, aired live on the state-run Nigerian Television Authority, showed a sombre Jonathan attending. An announcer also tried to relax the crowd ahead of a 21-gun salute in a nation with a history of coups against civilian governments.

"Please, it is a part of the ceremony, don`t panic," the announcer said.

Bureau Report