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Nigeria Sells Shares In Refineries - 2003-10-16

The government of Nigeria has decided to sell shares in the national oil refineries. The move is intended to end the country's chronic fuel shortages. Sarah Simpson reports from the V-O-A West Africa bureau in Abidjan, the government's effort to modernize the oil sector is meeting with opposition from the labor unions.

Despite six years of substantial investment by the government to repair and develop national oil refineries, only one of the four is currently working and that at only 40 percent of its capacity.

The government hopes that private industry can succeed where it has failed, and get the refineries up and running.

Potential investors have been invited to place bids for a minimum 51 percent stake in the refineries. Investors will thereby gain control over management.

Though among the world's top 10 oil producing countries, Nigeria has to import fuel to meet domestic demand because it does not have the capacity to refine its own crude. This has lead to fuel shortages in recent years.

The privatization program comes a week after a threatened general strike over fuel price rises. President Olusegun Obasanjo's decision to end price subsidies earlier this month saw fuel prices jump by 15 percent.

The strike was suspended after the federal government and fuel marketers agreed to cap the fuel price rise. However, the agreement failed to have any effect at the pumps where prices have remained high.

Six trade union activists, including a leading member of the Nigeria Labor Congress, the N-L-C, were arrested this week for demonstrating against the continued high fuel prices. They say the government has not kept its word. President Obasanjo has responded with a scathing attack on the N-L-C, accusing it of seeking to set up a parallel government.

In a bid to resolve the issue, state governors, fuel marketers, oil companies and labor officials, among others, met Thursday to discuss how oil rich Nigeria can, as one unionist put it, "strike a balance between the promotion of national economic interest, the interests of Nigerian citizens and the interests of all those involved in the entire oil industry."

In an unprecedented move, finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Thursday announced a plan to carry out an audit of oil revenues going back three years. Oil revenues account for 95 percent of Nigerian foreign exchange earnings, but the sector has been subject to abuse by a series of corrupt military governments.