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Nigerian Unions to Hold Rally Instead of Strike

Nigerian unions have backed off their threats to declare a general strike to protest high gasoline prices, and instead said they will hold mass rallies accross the country, starting next Wednesday in Lagos. Prices of gasoline, although still low compared to other countries, have risen as a result of the government's decision to phase out price subsidies.

The head of the union umbrella group, the Nigerian Labor Congress, Adams Oshiomhole, has been trying to whip up support for the rallies scheduled to begin Wednesday in the biggest city, Lagos.

"That is what we have to do to get the federal government to begin to learn not to take the Nigerian citizens for granted," he explained. " It is not a matter of choice, it is whether we can afford not to protest in the face of this pain and agony to which our people are subjected."

The price at the pump is about 50 cents per liter. Many poor Nigerians believe they should get cheaper gasoline since they live in Africa's biggest producer, exporting about two-point-five million barrels of crude oil every day. But Nigeria does not have the refining capacity and imports more than half of the gas it consumes.

The government says ending subsidies to make gasoline cheaper allows it to build roads, hospitals and schools, but unions and the opposition say they have yet to see any of these improvements.

A spokesman for the main opposition All Nigeria People's Party, Ibrahim Modibbo, says his party will support the protest action.

"We're 100 percent supportive, we are going to support it," he said. "Nigerians should be rest assured that the ANPP is solidly behind and that whatever action that has been fit to make sure that Nigerians do not fall back, suffer from this kind of travesty of justice, we will be behind it."

In addition to the protest in Lagos, the unions are planning to hold rallies in major cities across Nigeria.

The unions had organized several strikes in the past to protest rising gasoline prices, but they proved largely ineffectual. Nevertheless, the government has moved to restrict the right to organize strikes on non work-related issues.

Abuja-based journalist Gilbert da Costa says unions, rather than the opposition parties, have become a key player in Nigeria's politics.

"The opposition parties have been severely weakened over the years and the trade unions have taken it upon themselves to be the vanguard of the opposition to the government," he explained. "So the unions, especially under the Nigerian Labor Congress, have assured the role of the official opposition in Nigeria and often they've led attempts to oppose unpopular government decisions."

A presidential aide on public affairs, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, says the government welcomes the unions' decision not to strike.

"I think there was no basis for a strike," he said. "We should certainly all say there is an element of relief that people are not prepared to go that far. In terms of mass protest, whatever that might mean, that is entirely within their prerogative in a democratic society to protest against what they consider something that is not in their interest or in the interest of their workers."

The government remains steadfast in opposing gas price subsidies, insisting cheap gasoline is not a consumer right.