Monday, January 16, 2012

National strike called off by Nigerian unions

Union leaders in Nigeria have called off a week-long nationwide strike that has been paralysing the country's economy, following a decision by Goodluck Jonathan, the Nigerian president, to roll back fuel-price increases.

Jonathan announced on Monday that he would reduce fuel prices, while soldiers moved to shut down demonstrations in the country's major cities. 

His government will reduce the prices by 30 per cent, to around $2.75 per gallon, by restoring some subsidies that it removed at the beginning of January. Prices will still be considerably higher than they were before the subsidies were removed. 

The removal of subsidies sparked street protests and, as of last week, the national strike. Unions announced early on Monday morning that they would halt protests after being warned by Jonathan that "people outside organised labour may try to hijack" the demonstrations, Abdulwahed Omar, the head of Nigeria Labour Congress, said.

Earlier security forces opend fire into the air and used tear gas to disperse protesters in the country's commercial capital, Lagos, and other parts of the country.

An AFP news agency correspondent said soldiers first shot into the air to disperse the protesters before police fired tear gas, forcing them to flee. No injuries were reported.

'Protests hijacked'

In an address on national television, Jonathan said provocateurs had hijacked the protests and demonstrations, which had seen tens of thousands march in cities across the nation.

"It has become clear to government and all well-meaning Nigerians that other interests beyond the implementation of the deregulation policy have hijacked the protest,'' he said.

"This has prevented an objective assessment and consideration of all the contending issues for which dialogue was initiatefd by government. These same interests seek to promote discord, anarchy, and insecurity to the detriment of public peace.''

The nationwide strike and protests since January 9 have brought much of Africa's most populous country to a standstill.

While the strike was suspended for the weekend, labour leaders warned it would resume on Monday if a deal had not been reached. An earlier threat to shut down oil production however has been put on hold.

Roots of crisis

Unions launched the strike after the government deregulated the downstream petroleum sector and ended fuel subsidies on January 1, which more than doubled petrol prices overnight, angering many who saw the subsidies as one of the few public benefits of the country's oil wealth.

The costs of food and transportation also largely doubled in a nation where most people live on less than $2 a day.

At least 10 people have died as a result of the violence, while Red Cross volunteers have treated more than 600 people injured, officials said.

Jonathan and other government officials had argued that removing the subsidies, which were estimated to cost $8bn a year, would allow the government to spend money on badly needed public projects across a country that has pot-holed roads, little electricity and a lack of clean drinking water in many areas.

However, many remain suspicious of government as military rulers and politicians have plundered government budgets since independence from Britain in 1960.


Related stories:  Video - Three shot dead in fuel subsidy protests 

 United Nations supports President Goodluck Jonathan on subsidy removal

President Goodluck Jonathan's address to the Nation on fuel subsidy removal 


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