Nigeria’s government was Monday meeting union leaders to try to prevent a planned national strike over a 67 percent hike in the price of petrol, the labour ministry said.
Ministry spokesman Samuel Olowookere told AFP the talks would take place in Abuja and involve government officials, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and its affiliates.
The NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) have called for an indefinite strike from Wednesday unless petrol prices were slashed from 145 naira ($0.73, 0.64 euros) to 86.50 naira per litre.
Government offices, airports, sea ports and businesses, including banks, shops and markets, would be shut if talks failed, the unions warned, calling on people to stockpile food.
Any industrial action would exacerbate economic pressures in Africa’s largest economy caused by the global slump in crude prices, which has drastically cut revenue from oil sales.
On Monday, Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics said inflation had risen for the sixth consecutive month to 13.7 percent in April, up from 12.8 percent in March.
– Subsidy system –
The government last week increased the price of petrol and deregulated the fuel import market to try to end shortages caused by a foreign exchange crisis.
The global oil shock has weakened the naira against the dollar but despite black market forex rates of about 350, the government has refused to devalue the currency, keeping the official rate at 197-199.
Fuel importers have not been bringing in supplies because of their inability to source forex at the official market rate, causing lengthy queues at filling stations.
Wranglings over subsidy payments between importers and the government have previously led suppliers to withhold fuel deliveries in a system widely criticised as open to abuse.
OPEC-member Nigeria, which has also seen production cut by militant attacks on facilities in recent weeks, depends on fuel imports because of a lack of domestic refining capacity.
The government has kept prices at the pump low and paid the difference to fuel importers but with overall oil revenue squeezed it can no longer afford to subsidise at 86.50 naira per litre.
Because of the lack of fuel, motorists have been paying upwards of 145 naira per litre for months.
– Economic ‘tailspin’ –
A previous attempt to end fuel subsidies in January 2012 saw petrol prices more than double but the government was forced to partially reinstate them after widespread protests.
But there were indications the unions may have misjudged the public mood this time around.
“(The NLC) should realise that Nigeria is already in a tailspin and cannot afford any strike that will worsen the nation’s economic woes at this time,” said Lagos stockbroker Sola Oni.
“Besides, the new price (of petrol) will end the fraudulent subsidy regime that has only enriched a few Nigerians,” added Oni, from Sofunix Investments and Communications.
Public affairs commentator Quincy Durodola also questioned the timing of the union threat.
“NLC was quiet when their members in IPMAN (Independent Petroleum Marketers Association of Nigeria) collected subsidies and still sold above the subsidised rates,” he said.
“It never saw anything wrong with that.”
The unions should support government efforts to make the oil sector more transarent and efficient, rather than create “unnecessary” labour unrest, he added.