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Wednesday, 16 January, 2002, 16:35 GMT
Nigeria paralysed by general strike
Nigerians fill up with black-market fuel
Many motorists rely on black market fuel
A general strike in Nigeria has paralysed most of the country's main cities and brought commercial life to a standstill.

Offices and banks have shut down, petrol stations have closed and streets normally crammed with traffic were empty as workers protested at a rise in fuel prices.

Earlier, Nigerian police detained the country's main union leader in the capital, Abuja, as police used tear gas to break up a demonstration outside government offices.

Nigerian Labour Congress leader Adams Oshiomhole and about a dozen of his supporters have been charged with "unlawful assembly and inciting the general public against the government".

The strike was declared illegal by a court in Abuja.

Lagos crippled

There were outbreaks of violence in parts of the commercial capital, Lagos, with clashes between police and protesters trying to prevent civil servants going to work.

Youths burn tyres in Lagos, June, 2000
Fuel price rises caused widespread riots in June, 2000

In the district of Ikorodu, youths burned tyres and tried to block roads, French news agency AFP reported.

Calm had been restored by midday Wednesday, according to the Associated Press news agency.

In Lagos, the streets were deserted and shops were closed.

The BBC's Nigeria correspondent Dan Issacs says for what is usually one of Africa's most congested cities it was an extraordinary sight.

He says in place of a seething mass of people in the markets there is just rubbish blowing in the wind.

The stoppage has also effectively shut down most provincial cities, including Ibadan, Kaduna, Kano, Makurdi and the oil city of Port Harcourt.

Price rise

The price of petrol and diesel has long been one of Nigeria's hottest political issues.

The country has large oil reserves and its production costs are low, so Nigerians have come to see very cheap petrol as their right.

Nigerian women with paraffin
Nigerians depend on fuel for cooking and heating

Nigeria's collective trade union body called the strike after failing to reach a compromise in a dispute with the government over a recent 18% rise in the price of fuel.

The government declared the protest illegal, saying the NLC had not given the required 21 days' advance written notice of the strike action.

The NLC rejected this charge and said the strike would continue until the government backed down and cancelled the fuel price hike.

"Just like our wage level is also about the lowest in the world, so Nigerians have consistently made the point that they don't earn international salaries....the government cannot talk about our having to buy our God-given product at international prices," John Odah, NLC general secretary told the BBC's World Business Report.

"As it is the price of petroleum products affect every single thing in this country because the economy revolves around it," John Odah added. "The ball is in the court of the government."

Power competition

Union leaders will be hoping that they can keep up the pressure by maintaining a united front.

The government will be aiming to drive a wedge between those unions fully behind the strike - generally representing the lowest paid workers - and the white-collar, more affluent unions whose members may be less concerned about the recent fuel price rises.

Mindful of the last general strike in Nigeria in mid-2000, when the government backed down over fuel prices, there is talk of a stronger determination on the part of President Olusegun Obasanjo's administration not to be seen to be weak this time.

The government tightened security throughout the country ahead of the strike, the Governor of Kaduna State, Ahmed Makarfi, told reporters on Tuesday.

"Definite steps have been taken and will be reinforced to ensure the safety of lives and property," he said, speaking after an emergency meeting attended by the national police chief, the vice president and most of Nigeria's 36 state governors.

Federal government secretary Ufot Ekaette warned that security forces had been ordered to deal "appropriately" with potential lawbreakers.

The BBC's Dan Isaacs in Lagos
"The streets of Nigeria's capital are deserted"
Uche Ajaegbu, Employer's Consultative Association
"I feel the strike is politically motivated"
John Odah, Nigeria Labour Congress
"The ball is in the court of the government"
See also:

08 Jun 00 | Africa
Oil: Nigeria's blessing and curse
02 Jan 02 | Africa
Nigeria petrol hikes condemned
28 Dec 01 | Business
Nigeria's oil wealth shuns the needy
20 Mar 01 | Africa
Nigeria fuel showdown
14 Mar 01 | Africa
Nigeria fuel crackdown
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