Youths blockade streets as general strike paralyzes Nigerian cities

Wednesday, January 16th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) _ Defying a government ban, labor unions held a general strike Wednesday to protest higher fuel prices, paralyzing morning traffic in Nigeria's commercial capital and slowing economic activity in other major cities.

In Lagos, a port city of some 15 million people, mobs of young men chanted and waved palm fronds as they marched through otherwise abandoned streets. Other youths blockaded roads with piles of burning tires, as clusters of stranded commuters looked on.

Markets, fuel stations and banks _ which labor unions had warned must close or ``give out free cash'' _ were barred shut.

There was less traffic than usual in the capital, Abuja, where most shops and filling stations were closed. Schools, however, remained open.

The strike also appeared to affect commercial activity in several other major cities, including Port Harcourt and Kano.

Police and soldiers maintained a low-key presence in Lagos, despite a government warning Tuesday that security forces would use force if necessary to keep the country's economy moving.

The government said the strike was illegal, although union leaders argued they have a right to protest.

Police arrested seven officials of the Nigeria Labor Congress, including its leader Adams Oshiomole, during a Wednesday morning rally of about 500 workers outside union headquarters in Abuja.

Police scuffled with union members, firing tear gas and bullets into the air, after Oshiomole refused to leave with the officers.

``How many people the police go kill?'' Oshiomole chanted as he was dragged away. ``They will kill us until they (get) tired.''

President Olusegun Obasanjo planned to meet with his Cabinet later in the day to discuss the strike, a spokesman said on condition of anonymity.

The labor action came after the government raised consumer gasoline and diesel prices _ among the world's lowest _ by 18 percent on Jan. 2. Kerosene prices went up by 40 percent.

The government said the price hikes were necessary to stabilize supplies in a country where consumer shortages are common despite massive exports. The move was also intended to stem oil industry corruption and smuggling of Nigeria's cheap fuel to neighboring countries, authorities say.

However, the Labor Congress argues that low fuel prices are among the only government benefits enjoyed by the majority of Nigerians, who remain desperately poor _ despite the country's status as the world's sixth-largest oil exporter.

Two unions representing workers in Nigeria's vital oil industry _ which represents some 80 percent of the nation's foreign currency earnings _ agreed Monday to join the strike, although a third union said it would not.

In 2000, a five-day general strike forced the government to partially back down on a 50 percent fuel hike. The strike resulted in rioting across Nigeria, in which at least two people were killed.