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Nigeria Strike Expected to End Thursday

Nigerian labor leaders say they will end a four-day old general strike called to protest rising fuel prices in Africa's largest oil-producing nation. Labor and government representatives are meeting Thursday to discuss labor's grievance.

The strike, called by Nigeria's largest labor union, the Nigeria Labor Congress, entered its fourth and final day Thursday. The president of the NLC, Adams Oshiomhole, says the strike, which brought main cities to a virtual standstill, was the most successful of the three strikes the labor called in the past 18 months.

"Different days you have different levels of participation," he said. "There is no state that has not participated and this problem is between the people of Nigeria and the government. It is not just a struggle between trade unions and the government."

Mr. Oshiomhole says the strike will end Thursday in order to give the government two weeks to roll back fuel prices, which have risen by 25 percent since the government began deregulating the energy market a month ago.

Nigeria's Minister of Information Chukwuemeka Chikelu says the government and a union-led committee are meeting Thursday to discuss easing the burden of high fuel prices.

"The labor leadership and several other stakeholders are members of that committee that is trying to flesh out various measures to try to ease this burden," he said. "And we are hopeful that the work of that committee will be well received by the people and will actually address some of the problems which we should be addressing - how to ease the burden on the most vulnerable."

Nigeria, with the support of the International Monetary Fund, has stopped subsidizing gas prices as part of a plan to deregulate the energy market. Mr. Chikelu says the government is unlikely to deviate from its policy.

"The deregulation is the policy that the government has come up with because the government believes that is the best way to end the years of waste, best way to end years of corruption, the best way to get the government out of the sector that has not been properly managed and the best way to bring in the private sector to strengthen the sector and to ensure the availability and competition," he said.

Although Nigeria is Africa's largest oil-producing nation, it does not have the refining capacity to meet domestic demand for gasoline and imports much of the fuel. The majority of Nigerians see low fuel costs as a national right. But, analyst Jan Randolph of the London-based World Markets Research Center says the subsidy could be better spent.

"The argument is that countries like Nigeria need to wean themselves off this subsidy for everyone and instead use the money to focus and target on the poor themselves," he said.

Mr. Randolph says if the money targets specific areas such as health, education and road works, as promised by the Nigerian government, then the benefit will be greater for a larger percentage of the population. But Mr. Randolph acknowledges that the Nigerian government has made similar promises in the past.

"If you put yourself in the position of an average Nigerian, you're putting an awful lot of trust in the government that with the reduction of fuel subsidies you get hit on the one side and your trust in the government to use those moneys directed into improving public transport, directed into improving social education, so there is a huge amount of trust you are investing in the government to redirect those funds back to you," he said. "And the record is many of them don't have that much faith in their own government given the track record."

Nigeria's labor leaders vowed to relaunch the strike if the government fails to bring down fuel prices.