Nigeria fuel subsidy strike: Protests suspended

Successive governments have failed to transform Nigeria's oil wealth into prosperity, with over half the country living in poverty

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Nigeria's trade unions have suspended protests and some strikes for two days to allow more talks with officials.

The announcement comes on the fifth day of a general strike over the removal of a fuel subsidy, which has caused fuel prices and transport fares to double.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets, while several people have died in clashes with police.

A union official told the BBC the government had offered to reintroduce a small subsidy at talks on Thursday.

Nigeria Labour Congress chairman Abdul Waheed Omar said this would mean petrol would now cost 120 naira ($0.74; £0.49) a litre, down from the new price of 140 naira but still far higher than the former price of 65 naira.

He said this offer would now be put to NLC members.

Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the government had "put an offer on the table" during "very encouraging" talks.

Start Quote

Monday... is going to be the mother of all crowds”

End Quote Abdulwahed Omar NLC

NLC official Isa Aremu told Reuters news agency that protests on Friday would be "minimal".

"We are conscious of the security situation given it is Friday and Friday is a day of prayer" for Muslims, he said.

The mass action over the fuel subsidy comes as President Goodluck Jonathan also tries to tackle a new wave of sectarian violence.

'Energised'

The main unions jointly announced there would be no mass rallies or protests over the weekend and flights would resume, enabling delegates to travel to the capital, Abuja, for talks.

The oil workers' unions had said they would cut oil production in Africa's biggest exporter, starting from Sunday.

Analysis

As a new wave of sectarian violence hits Nigeria, the government has been unable to solve the deep historical rifts between the mainly Muslim north and the Christian-dominated south. But it seems to have unintentionally brought people together in their anger about the removal of the fuel subsidy - an unexpectedly positive consequence.

Over the last few days in Kaduna - normally one of the most volatile regions - thousands of Muslims and Christians came together wearing T-shirts and holding placards with slogans such as "Stop Fighting" and "Nigerians Unite".

When Muslims prayed, Christians formed a human chain to protect them and vice versa. Hundreds acted out a similar scene in the northern city of Kano on Monday and two days later in the capital, Abuja.

On Friday, a special prayer session is being held in Lagos with Christians and Muslims coming together.

Of course Nigeria's deep-seated divisions are not going to disappear forever, but for now at least Nigerians appear to be speaking with one voice and forging unusually strong bonds.

Lamido Sanusi, governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who has backed the subsidy removal, told Reuters the strike was costing the economy more than $600m (£391m) a day.

"We want to make sure that [on] Saturday and Sunday people - we - relax and get energised," the NLC head told a rally in Abuja.

If the government does not reverse its decision to the cut the subsidy over the weekend, the strike would resume, he warned.

"We are going to come out on Monday very strong. It is going to be the mother of all crowds."

Oil accounts for some 80% of Nigeria's state revenues but after years of corruption and mismanagement, it has hardly any capacity to refine crude oil into fuel, which has to be imported.

The government has promised to use the $8bn it spends each year on the subsidy to improve schools, health care and electricity supply.

But many poor Nigerians fear it will just end up in officials' pockets, while they see cheap fuel as the only benefit they get from their country's oil wealth.

Last month, the government released a list of the biggest beneficiaries of the subsidy, who included some of Nigeria's richest people - the owners of fuel-importing firms.

Nigeria's fuel prices

  • Previous price in petrol stations: $0.40/ litre
  • New price in petrol stations: $0.86
  • Previous black market price: $0.62
  • New black market price: $1.23
  • Annual cost to government of subsidy: $8bn

The industrial unrest in Nigeria - along with the increasing threat of an embargo on Iranian fuel exports - has led to a rise in international oil prices.

While the strike this week has paralysed the country and brought tens of thousands onto the streets, oil workers had not yet moved to halt output of crude.

Some analysts have suggested the unions would not be able to halt production, but the authorities have expressed concern about the prospect.

Presidency sources told Reuters that both sides in the negotiations may have to agree on a temporary fixed price for petrol.

Nigerians are heavy users of fuel, not just for cars but to power generators that many households and businesses use to cope with the country's erratic electricity supply.

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