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Nigeria Union Leaders Demand Rollback of Fuel Prices

Nigerian union leaders have issued an ultimatum to the government to roll back the prices of fuel, and started mobilizing workers for a possible strike later this month.

Leaders of the Nigerian Labor Congress gather daily in front of their headquarters in the commercial capital Lagos to sing, raise placards and distribute pamphlets.

Nigeria's largest union has given the government until January 20 to reverse its tax of one-and-a-half naira, or about one U.S. cent, on each liter of fuel sold at the pump. The tax has been levied since January 1, even though it has yet to be passed into law.

National lawmakers will consider the measure when they reconvene January 13.

Union leader Adams Oshiomole says the proposed strike is not just against the new tax, but against the overall rise in fuel prices in Nigeria. Since last year gasoline prices went up from 26 naira, or about 20 cents per liter; to more than 45 naira, or about 33 cents.

The government has also gradually ended subsidies, which had been in place to keep fuel prices low.

A previous strike ended in July last year, when the government agreed to cap the price for a liter of fuel at about 25 cents. But that agreement, said Mr. Oshiomole, has not been respected.

"We must learn from every past struggle, and the lesson from the past struggle shows that this government is not the kind of government you can make proper negotiations with," Mr. Oshiomole told the crowd. "I think we do need to have this matter resolved once and for all. Because, comrades, we cannot escape from Nigeria. There is no neighboring country that is big enough to absorb our numbers. And, therefore the only option open to us is to struggle, and struggle and continue to struggle until Nigeria becomes the kind of country that we all desire it should be."

The government itself says union leaders and human rights activists are trying to oppose reform policies at all costs. It pledges proceeds from the new tax will go toward repairing highways.

Some union leaders consider cheap fuel as a birthright for the 130 million people of Nigeria, one of the world's top 10 ten oil producers.

Union supporter, human rights activist Gani Fawehinmi, says the strike could have a huge following. "The fuel increase is totally illega,l and the government has given a bill to the national assembly, the parliament," he says. "The parliament has not passed the bill, and the government is giving effect to a non-law so this is the position. I think the NLC, the Nigerian Labor Congress, has perfect control of the situation and has support of all the members of the civil society. I believe Nigerians are fully prepared to support the general strike that is being planned by the national Nigerian Labor Congress."

Mr. Fawehinmi says the government has been promising progress on infrastructure projects, health and education ever since it started raising the price of fuel several years ago, but, instead, the condition of roads, hospitals and schools has deteriorated.

He alleges new oil revenue will go to a rich elite, as has always been the case in Nigeria's history.

The government, in a move calculated to convince truck drivers not to join the strike, has abolished tolls on highways.

It also points out that, since the prices of gas started going up, long lines at gas pumps have mostly disappeared. Raising prices, the government says, is also helping to stop smuggling of fuel across Nigerian borders.