Nationwide strikes in Nigeria have continued for a fourth day as labour unions and government refuse to shift ground on the recently removed fuel subsidy. Commercial activities have ground to a halt as banks, shops and petrol stations closed since Monday. The strike, organised by Nigeria’s two largest trade unions federations – the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) – seeks the reversal of the fuel subsidy withdrawal which came into force on January 1. The price of fuel, transport and food have all more than doubled since the removal of the subsidy and pose the biggest test for Nigeria since its return to democracy in 1999.
Oil production has been largely unaffected thus far, but this could all change if the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) join the strike as threatened. PENGASSAN’s president, Babatunde Ogun, prepared his members for strike actions by directing “all production platforms to be on red alert in preparation for total production shutdown” while the Nigeria Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) has also threatened to shut down oil production.
If the strikes move into the oil sector the country will genuinely be facing a general strike. Oil accounts for around 40% of Nigeria’s GDP, 80% of government revenues, and 95% of foreign exchange earnings. This possibility has caused alarm on the international oil markets, especially in the context of current fears over possible retaliation by Iran against an EU embargo on its oil; prices of oil have now risen to over $100 per barrel. A genuine general strike would push the current situation into a fully-fledged crisis. Jonathan’s government would be forced to negotiate and accept some of the strikers’ demands or engage in, possibly violent, confrontation.
Airlines have also been affected as only selected international flights have been allowed to leave the country while all domestic services have been grounded. Up to 500 passengers have been left stranded in the Murtala Mohammed Airport, Lagos, as members of the NLC and TUC stormed the airport to enforce the strike order. All airport services were nonexistent as airlines such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Emirates were prevented from attending to their passengers.
Although the strikes and demonstrations across the country have so far remained largely peaceful, there have been reports of sporadic clashes between security forces and protesters in various major cities, resulting in 8 deaths. 12-hour curfews have been imposed in the Niger State Capital Minna and the Oyo State capital Ibadan due to the outbreak of riots and destruction of government property. The capital Abuja has remained mostly deserted with minor pockets of pro- and anti-subsidy removal protesters converging in parts of the city.
The labour unions are remaining resolute in their stance and have directed all union members to ensure total compliance with the strike action until further notice with Secretary-General of the NLC, Owei Lakemfa, stating “the government must reverse the fuel price increases before we end the strike”. The unions have also vowed to adopt a change of tactic should the government continue to refuse to reverse the fuel policy and have threatened to lodge a case with the International Criminal court over the deaths of protesters at the hands of the security forces.
The government has also remained steadfast in its stance with government officials defending the action through media and news publications.
Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Lamido Sanusi, for example, cited the rampant smuggling and diversion of fuel through the country’s porous borders by explaining “if you have fuel selling at N65 ($0.40) per litre in Nigeria and at N190 ($1.17) in a neighbouring country, it is simple economics anybody who knows he can take advantage of that rent will take advantage of it”. Meanwhile Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo Iwela, urged Nigerians not to judge the present government by the poor implementation of past policies, assuring Nigerians that the fuel subsidy removal would improve the lives of the people. At the same time, however, Minister of Labour and Productivity, Emeka Worgu promised after a meeting with the president that the option for dialogue was still open.
As the strikes continue, Nigeria is at economic standstill with no foreseeable end in sight. Worryingly for the government, the longer this strike continues, the broader the opposition movement becomes.
For many protestors this is not a narrow economic dispute but a revolt against a plethora of grievances. Years of corruption, financial mismanagement, underdevelopment and lack of employment have added to the feeling of resentment towards the government and there are calls for Jonathan to resign.
At time of writing, it is unknown whether and when a compromise will be reached between government and the unions, and the air of uncertainty seems to be increasing national agitation. Speaker of the Senate David Mark and Kwara Central Senator Bukola Saraki are seeking to broker negotiation between the parties. Saraki has called for the fuel subsidy to be re-introduced while these negotiations continue. It is unknown whether Jonathan would willing at this point to take such a step, which some will see as a climb down. However, without a compromise of some sort, it appears that Nigeria’s current turmoil will not only remain but intensify.
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