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Nigerian oil strike in 5th day after failed talks

Nigeria witnesses mass strike, protests against fuel price hikes, oil workers give Sunday deadline

AFP and AP, Friday 13 Jan 2012
Nigeria
A protester waves a flag on an empty road during a protest against a fuel subsidy removal in Lagos January 9, (Photo: Reuters).
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Market stalls and food sellers can only return to the streets at dusk to do business or else risk the wrath of angry demonstrators for breaking the nationwide strike. ATMs are starting to run out of money, and gangs of young men have taken over some highways and overpasses.

As Nigeria's indefinite nationwide strike over spiraling fuel prices enters its fifth day Friday, there are growing signs of strain in Lagos, one of the world's largest cities where most subsist on less than $2 a day.

At makeshift checkpoints, angry youths bring their hands to their mouths in a pantomime of eating, while others simply beat the sides of cars or break out windows to get what they want. Others continue to make do with what they can find as their meager savings begin to be tapped out.

"I've been fasting," wailed one youth sitting on top of an overturned police traffic post on an occupied highway. "I'm not Jesus Christ — I'm suffering."

Talks between the president and labour leaders failed to reach a deal.

The main oil workers union has threatened to shut down crude production by the weekend if the government did not reverse the decision, a move that more than doubled fuel prices in Africa's top crude exporter.

Oil prices move higher in Asian trade Friday over concerns that Nigerian supplies could be hit.

New York's main contract, West Texas Intermediate crude for delivery in February gained 87 cents to $99.97 in afternoon trade. Brent North Sea crude for February was up $1.08 at $112.34.

Labour leaders on Thursday held their first meeting with President Goodluck Jonathan since the start of the strike. They reported progress, but failed reach a deal.

The two sides were due to meet again on Saturday afternoon, just hours before the oil workers' deadline to shut production at midnight, if no resolution is reached.

Popular anger over losing one of the few benefits average Nigerians see from being an oil-rich nation, as well as disgust over government corruption, has led to demonstrations nationwide and related violence that has killed at least 10 people.

Tens of thousands have marched across the country, with one mass demonstration in Lagos growing every day. There, organizers have begun handing out water and bread to those who gather there to sustain the protest.

Oil workers have so far not joined strikers and moved to halt output of crude, the country's economic lifeline.

Babatunde Ogun, president of the 20,000-strong PENGASSAN oil workers union warned that "from Sunday, we are shutting down". The blue-collar union NUPENG members had already joined the strike since Monday.

Nigeria, an OPEC member produces more than two million barrels per day and is a key supplier of crude to the United States and European Union.

"A shutdown of oil production in Nigeria means a potential loss of at least three percent of global oil production," said Kayode Tinouye, an analyst with Lagos-based Afrinvest.

The strike started Monday amid protests against the government's January 1 scrapping of fuel subsidies, which caused petrol prices to more than double, sparking widespread anger.

Meantime the strike would continue across the country.

Thousands gathered in Lagos for rallies on Friday -- including Christians who offered prayers early monring at the expansive park that has become the main protest ground. Muslims were also preparing to hold special Friday prayers there.

Several dozens of Christian pastors dressed in white and red gowns paced up and down praying at the Lagos rally Friday.

"(President) Jonathan has been rejected by God as president of Nigeria like king Ahab in the bible was rejected to reign over Israel," said one of them who labelled himself as prophet Kehinde Ogunrinu.

The strike and protests have put the government under mounting pressure as it also seeks to stop spiralling attacks blamed on Islamist group Boko Haram, which have raised tensions and led to warnings of civil war.

More than 80 Christians have been killed in bomb and gun attacks in recent weeks mostly in northern Nigeria, most of them attributed to Boko Haram.

Unions are demanding that the government return petrol prices to 65 naira per litre ($0.40, 0.30 euros) -- the level before January 1, when fuel subsidies were abruptly halted. They are now at 140 or more.

A labour source said the government had offered to reduce petrol prices to 120 naira per litre, but unions have not yet accepted it.

Yinka Odumakin, one of the protest leaders told the nearly 10,000-strong crowd in Lagos on Friday "we hear they are tinkering with 120 naira, 95 naira. (But) we shall tell them it is 65 naira or nothing."

Union officials and analysts say shutting down production would be a desperate step and last resort, given the damage it would cause to a country that derives some two-thirds of government revenue and more than 90 percent of export earnings from the industry.

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