Nigeria unions to resume strike after failed negotiations over fuel subsidies

A major oil workers union had promised to stop production at midnight Saturday in solidarity with the demonstrations, jeopardising the country's production of 2.4 million barrels of oil a day.

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LAGOS, NIGERIA // A nationwide strike in Nigeria over spiraling fuel prices will continue, two major unions said yesterday after negotiations with the government failed.

The statement from the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress came as confusion remained over whether a threatened shutdown of oil production will occur in Africa's top oil exporter. A major oil workers union had promised to stop production at midnight Saturday in solidarity with the demonstrations, jeopardising the country's production of 2.4 million barrels of oil a day.

During negotiations on Saturday between the unions and government, organisers asked the government to restore an estimated US$8 billion (Dh29.3b) a year in fuel subsidies that keep gasoline prices low in Africa's most populous nation, the statement said. The government countered by promising to lower prices slightly, the unions said.

The talks broke down just before midnight, and the unions said that demonstrations against the government's decision would resume today.

President Goodluck Jonathan did not show up for a meeting with union representatives held at the presidential villa in Nigeria's capital Abuja, nor did Vice President Namadi Sambo. Instead, the nation's Senate president and its House speaker represented the government along with other officials.

It was unclear whether any additional negotiations between the government and the unions would be held yesterday.

The strike began January 9, paralysing the nation of more than 160 million people. The root cause remains gasoline prices: President Jonathan's government abandoned subsidies that kept gasoline prices low on January 1, causing prices to spike from 45 cents per litre to at least 94 cents per litre. The costs of food and transportation also largely doubled in a nation where most people live on less than $2 a day.

Anger over losing one of the few benefits average Nigerians see from living in an oil-rich country, as well as disgust over government corruption, led to demonstrations across this 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, the International Committee of the Red Cross said Friday.

The Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria threatened Thursday to stop all oil production in Nigeria at midnight Saturday over the continued impasse in negotiations. The association said Thursday it had supported the strike in solidarity, but wanted to hold off until midnight Saturday to pull its workers from the fields over the financial damage that could be done by production shutting down.

Though the president of the Nigeria Labour Congress said the production shutdown would not take place late Saturday, oil workers' association president Babatunde Ogun and other union officials have been unavailable for comment.

The association's ability to enforce a shutdown across the swamps of Nigeria's southern delta to its massive offshore oilfields remains in question. Much of Nigeria's land-based oilfields remain largely automated and an increasing amount of production comes from large offshore oilfields far from the country's coasts.

But the threat of a strike caused jitters on global oil markets Friday. Even if strikers are only partially successful, fears of tightened global supplies could raise oil prices by $5 to $10 per barrel on futures markets next week. Gasoline prices would follow.

The Nigeria Labour 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 a wave of sectarian attacks by a radical Islamist sect that have killed at least 67 people since the start of the year, according to an Associated Press count.

The unions addressed that concern in their statement, saying: "We are ... not campaigning for 'regime change."'

"The labour 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 Nigeria's capital Abuja. The programme, aired live on the state-run Nigerian Television Authority, showed a sombre Mr Jonathan attending. An announcer also tried to relax the crowd ahead of a 21-gun salute.

"Please, it is a part of the ceremony, don't panic," the announcer said.