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Nigeria's General Strike Called Off After Agreement Reached - 2003-04-01

A general strike that had been scheduled to begin Tuesday in Nigeria has been called off. Labor leaders and government officials announced Tuesday they have reached a tentative agreement to avert a stoppage that had threatened oil production in the West African country.

Plans to hold the strike had caused worries in the oil markets and among political analysts, who said its timing could not have been worse.

Later this month, Nigeria is due to hold key general elections April 12, followed by presidential elections, April 19. Many analysts consider the elections a major test of the strength of Nigeria's four-year-old democracy.

Leaders of the country's largest labor grouping, the Nigeria Labor Congress, had called the strike in a dispute over a 12.5 percent salary hike that they said the government had promised but never delivered.

The two sides met late Monday and early Tuesday before reaching an interim agreement. The government said it is putting in place a committee to begin work on implementing the pay raise.

The decision to put off the strike has brought some relief to the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, who has been dealing with ethnic clashes recently that have prompted foreign oil companies to cut operations in the Niger River delta.

The cuts have slashed Nigeria's daily oil production by around 40 percent, causing a further spike in world oil prices - already high due to the war in Iraq.

Mr. Obasanjo, whose election in 1999 marked the end of a long string of military governments, will face a slate of more than a dozen challengers on April 19.

That is, if the elections are not postponed. On Monday, a group of political leaders in the opposition-held north of Nigeria said they were concerned that recent ethnic fighting might force officials to push back the elections.

The federal government has thus far given no indication that it is considering delaying the poll.