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28 February 2024

Nigeria braces for more strikes, demos canceled


Nigeria braced for more strikes on Monday after last-minute talks failed to resolve a dispute over fuel prices, though the country's unions sought to call off street protests due to security concerns.

It was unclear how much of an effect the call by unions to end protests would have, with a number of civil society and political groups having also organised demonstrations over the past week.

President Goodluck Jonathan had late Sunday sought a deal with labour leaders aimed at ending a nationwide strike and mass protests that have shut down Africa's most populous nation and largest oil producer.

Unions did not call off the strike after the talks, but said they were canceling street protests after Jonathan expressed security concerns.

Nigeria Labour Congress chief Abdulwahed Omar said Jonathan spoke of "serious security reports" indicating those from outside organised labour may try to hijack protests.

"We came to a conclusion that we will stay at home, that is stay off the streets, in order to make sure that we don't in the first instance endanger innocent lives because of the security situation in the country," Omar told Channels television.

Asked if the strike would continue, he said, "yes, but we have suspended the street protests."

Jonathan was to address the nation at 7:00 am Monday (0600 GMT). He had also met his security chiefs on Sunday, but no details of the talks were released.

Nigeria has faced spiralling violence, most of it in the country's north and blamed on Islamist group Boko Haram, prompting warnings of a wider religious conflict, including from some who have evoked the possibility of civil war.

The main fuel protests in major cities have been largely peaceful, though at least 15 people are believed to have been killed in various incidents.

Last week, a riot broke out in the central city of Minna, leaving one officer dead and political offices burned, while part of a mosque complex was set ablaze in the southern city of Benin and five killed as Muslims were targeted.

At least two people were shot dead as police and protesters clashed in the northern city of Kano on the first day of the strike.

On fuel prices themselves, Omar indicated that the president had decided to alter his policy deregulating the downstream petroleum sector and ending fuel subsidies, though not enough to prompt unions to call off the strike.

He said Jonathan "told us that he has decided to put on hold the issue of full deregulation pending the provision of certain things, especially in the areas of palliatives and so on ..."

Labour leaders have been demanding a return to pre-January 1 petrol prices before further negotiations can occur.

A nationwide strike and protests that began January 9 have brought tens of thousands into the streets.

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

Unions launched the strike after the government ended fuel subsidies on January 1, which more than doubled petrol prices overnight.

Talks between the government and labour leaders on Thursday and Saturday at the presidency also failed to end the strike.

Meanwhile, queues at petrol stations stretching for several blocks in some areas formed on Sunday, with drivers facing a four-hour wait as they tried to take advantage of the break in the strike to refuel.

The country's main oil workers union had earlier threatened to begin shutting down crude production on Sunday if a deal was not reached.

But a spokesman for the oil union, PENGASSAN, said that while that threat remained, it would only be implemented "if the negotiation process breaks down".

The decision by Nigeria's government to end fuel subsidies without warning caused petrol prices to jump overnight from 65 naira per litre ($0.40, 0.30 euros) to 140 naira or more.

Government officials and economists say removing subsidies was essential and will allow much of the $8 billion (Dh29.38) per year in savings to be ploughed into projects to improve the country's woefully inadequate infrastructure.

But Nigerians are united in anger against the scrapping of subsidies, which they view as their only benefit from the nation's oil wealth. There is also deep mistrust of government after years of blatant corruption.