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Nationwide General Strike Looms In Nigeria - 2004-01-19

Nigerian union leaders say they will begin a nationwide general strike Tuesday against a new tax on gasoline and diesel fuel. The government is making a fresh attempt to challenge the strike in court, even though a judge ruled last week that the strike can go on.

The leader of the country's largest labor union says the strike will begin Tuesday at midnight.

The leader of the National Labor Congress, Adams Oshiomhole, says the strike will be firm and total.

He called for Nigerians to stockpile food and cash.

The strike was called after a tax of about one U-S cent, was imposed at the beginning of this year on every liter of gasoline and diesel fuel. This follows government efforts last year to reform the oil sector, which included an end to fuel subsidies.

Gasoline prices have risen from 20-cents a liter to more than 35-cents in the past six months, despite a government pledge following a previous strike in July to cap prices at a lower level.

The union representing oil industry managers (PENGASSAN) says it will join the protest action because of what it calls the horrible tax and unjustified rise in fuel prices.

The union of petroleum and natural gas workers NUPENG also plans to take part. Its acting secretary-general, Elijah Okougbo, says the process of reforming the oil industry is being implemented without consultation.

"The reform has been punctuated with dictatorship, dictatorial tendencies, dialogue not passing through due process, actions taken without due consultations, even without carrying the national assembly along, who are the lawmakers. We are no more in the military government and if the western world is asking us to practice democracy I think we should be prepared to learn from the western world the rudiments of democracy."

The Nigerian government is challenging a court decision made on Friday which allowed the strike to go ahead. Government lawyers argue the strike is illegal because it has nothing to do with working conditions.

The government also accuses union leaders of opposing anything it does, and as a result, keeping Nigeria down while it is trying to make progress. The government says the new tax will help pay for highway maintenance. It also says higher fuel prices are needed to curb oil smuggling from Nigeria to neighboring countries, where gasoline is more expensive.

But union leaders say previous reforms have done nothing to improve the plight of Nigerians, most of whom live on less than one dollar a day, even though their country is one of the world's top-10 oil producers.