- Nigeria's powerful trade unions yesterday called off a general strike planned for the next day after the government, in an eleventh-hour move, offered an almost 10 percent cut in the price of domestic fuels. Unions had planned a resumption of a nation-wide strike today, protesting a price hike in petroleum products.
- The government has reduced the price of petrol, John Odah, Secretary-General of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), told IRIN by phone from Abuja. "We therefore decided to suspend the strike."
Senator Ibrahim Mantu announced the cuts in the prices of kerosene, gasoline and diesel, "in the name of domestic peace," as the trade unions were preparing to issue President Olusegun Obasanjo their strongest challenge to date.
NLC leader Odah said the trade union would now rejoin the panel headed by Senator Mantu that was set up to address demands for lower prices following a wave of protests over a 23-percent increase for domestic fuels ordered by the government in September.
The blue-collar NLC had called an unlimited strike from Tuesday on the grounds that the hikes are hurting a majority of the 126 million people of Africa's biggest oil exporter. In a four-day warning strike last month, trade union protesters shut down banks, business, shops and public services in the country's economic capital. This time they had threatened to target crude oil production and exports in the world's seventh largest producer.
At the heart of the protest was NLC leader Adams Oshiomhole, a charismatic, outspoken trade unionist increasingly perceived as President Obasanjo's most vocal opponent. His drive to bring down prices for the 70 percent of people who live on less than one US dollar a day in oil-rich Nigeria has won the support of the white-collar Trade Union Congress as well as a coalition of civic groups.
- We must go beyond the issue of price to include problems, including the growing state of hopelessness and the political regime that has made dialogue completely impossible, Mr Oshiomhole told reporters last month.
The trade union leader entertained cordial relations with President Obasanjo after the latter took office in 1999, and endorsed his candidacy for re-election in 2003. But relations grew frosty as the government decided to cut fuel price subsidies in attempts to deregulate the oil industry. In President Obasanjo's five years in office, the NLC has called six general strikes, each time in response to increases in fuel prices.
President Obasanjo says fuel subsidies of over US$2 billion a year are draining funds that could be spent on health and education, and that artificially low fuel prices have a negative impact on Nigeria’s refineries, which need private investment.
Mr Oshiomhole however believes the knock-on effect of fuel price increases are just added punishment for Nigeria's poor. "We have to get over the vicious circle of every time the price of crude goes up, petrol prices increase," Mr Odah told IRIN. "We need a lasting solution. That is why we are returning on the panel."
The Nigerian government set up the panel of officials, parliamentarians and trade union representatives following the four-day October stoppage. But President Obasanjo rejected its call for price reductions, saying increases were the logical result of the government's market reforms and were irreversible.
Mr Oshiomhole and other critics of President Obasanjo say he is not listening to the people and that the battle to reverse September's 23 percent hikes are part of the struggle to safeguard democracy. "In a democracy the government should govern according to the aspirations of the citizens, not the selfish interests of the leadership," he told IRIN. "The fact that more than 100 million Nigerians participated in the last strike should have been enough for the government to do what the citizens expect of it," he added.
Mr Oshiomhole's working career began as a factory hand in a textile firm in the northern city of Kaduna after finishing secondary school. At the time, he recalled, supervisors punished even slight errors by days of work without pay. Trade unions were unable to help. "We had absolutely no rights," he said.
After joining a trade union, he went to study at Ruskin College, Oxford, and on his return in 1979, became a full-time unionist with the National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria. Three years later he became its Secreatry-General.
His first public brush with the market reform policies of the IMF and World Bank was in 1985 as NLC Deputy President, during the reign of Nigerian military ruler General Ibrahim Babangida. In television debates he sharply criticised the policies, especially a plan to end subsidies.
Under successive military governments, both Mr Oshiombole and the NLC faced repeated bans and harassment. But in 1998, General Abdulsalami Abubakar repealed the last such ban, paving the way for Mr Oshiomhole to become NLC leader a year later.
So while President Obasanjo, whose 1999 election ended more than 15 years of unbroken military rule, sees the NLC as strictly concerned with union issues such as wages and labour disputes, Mr Oshiomhole believes it should take on the battle to improve the social and political condition of the Nigerian worker.
Following the NLC protests, President Obasanjo has sent a bill to parliament to "deregister" it. But a wide range of groups back the labour umbrella: at a recent pro-strike rally in Nigeria's biggest city, Lagos, members of the Hare Krishna sect mingled with representatives of the Justice and Peace Development Commission of the Catholic church, human rights groups, the motorcycle taxi riders' association and militants from the Niger Delta.
Mr Oshiomhole rode into the venue in an open-roofed jeep, acknowledging cheers from thousands of people who lined the streets in support. "Oshiomhole is the only one fighting for the common people," said Binta Amusa, a street trader. "He should really be our President."
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