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Last-ditch talks to avert Nigerian oil production shut down

LAGOS, Jan 14 – Nigeria’s government and unions prepared for last-ditch talks Saturday to end a week-old nationwide strike over fuel prices and avert an oil production shutdown in Africa’s largest crude exporter.

The talks set for Saturday evening come after the country’s unions called for a weekend suspension of the strike and protests that had shut down the country since Monday, prompting Nigerians to rush to markets to stock up on food.

The government enters the talks under intense pressure after the country’s main oil workers union threatened to begin halting crude production at midnight by withdrawing its workers from platforms if a deal is not reached.

The two main labour confederations were to hold meetings of their executive councils on Saturday to reach a common position before they head to negotiations at the presidency, tentatively set for 6:00 pm (1700 GMT).

An official with one of the confederations said he could not yet say whether a deal was possible or if labour leaders were prepared to compromise on their previous demand to return petrol prices to their pre-January 1 level.

Meetings of the unions would decide the way forward, he said.

“I cannot answer any of those questions until people are able to take their positions,” said John Kolawole, secretary general of the Trade Union Congress.

The TUC’s meeting was set to begin at around noon, while the Nigeria Labour Congress was to meet at about 2:00 pm.

A move by Nigeria’s government to abruptly and without warning end fuel subsidies on January 1 sparked the strike and brought tens of thousands of people out into the streets in protest over the past week.

The move caused petrol prices to more than double overnight, from 65 naira per litre ($0.40, 0.30 euros) to 140 naira or more.

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Nigerians rushed to markets on Saturday to take advantage of the break in the strike to stock up on food, but they found prices had often tripled — a mix of sellers taking advantage of high demand and the result of increased transport costs.

“All the same, we still have to buy because we have to eat,” said Olabisi Adekoya, a 36-year-old mother of four at a Lagos market.

Government officials and economists say removing subsidies was essential and will allow much of the $8 billion 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 removal 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.

The main protests in major cities in Africa’s most populous nation have been largely peaceful, though at least 15 people are believed to have been killed in various incidents.

Police have been accused of shooting dead at least two people, including one in the economic capital Lagos, while at least two others were shot dead as authorities and protesters clashed in the northern city of Kano on Monday.

A riot broke out in the central city of Minna on Wednesday, leaving an officer killed and several political offices burnt, but the cause of the violence was not clear.

In Benin city in the south, a mob burnt part of a mosque complex on Tuesday while at least five people were killed and some 10,000 displaced as Muslims neighbourhoods were targeted.

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.

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More than 80 Christians have been killed in bomb and gun attacks in recent weeks, most of them attributed to Boko Haram, in a country roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south.

Late Friday, gunmen attacked a pub in the northeastern city of Yola, killing two people and wounding a police officer.

Scores of such attacks have been attributed to Boko Haram, but Adamawa state, where Yola is located, also holds governorship elections on January 21, and election periods in Nigeria often provoke violence.

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