- The Washington Times - Monday, June 30, 2003

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Police fired warning shots and tear gas yesterday to break up crowds of demonstrators as a paralyzing general strike over fuel prices took hold across oil-producing Nigeria.

World oil prices moved higher on fears the strike would disrupt Nigeria’s exports.

Stores and offices in Lagos, the sprawling commercial capital of sub-Saharan Africa’s most-populous nation, were barricaded for fear of looting. International and domestic airline flights ran hours late, or not at all, after air-traffic controllers joined the protest.

Government offices and businesses in the capital, Abuja, the northern cities of Kano and Kaduna and the southeastern oil city of Port Harcourt also closed.

In pamphlets, the striking Nigeria Labor Congress urged the public to ransack businesses that opened during the strike.

“Fast-food joints, all markets, shops and stores … are offering their commodities free. Enter and pick your choice,” the leaflets declared.

Labor Congress leader Adams Oshiomole insisted the strike would continue indefinitely despite a ruling by a Lagos court Friday declaring the action illegal.

Ufot Ekaette, the government secretary, warned civil servants who participated in the protest might face dismissal.

Riot police fired tear gas at hundreds of civil servants blocking the entrance to a federal government office block in Abuja.

In the working-class Lagos neighborhoods of Yaba, Ikeja and Surulere, police lobbed tear gas and fired into the air to disperse chanting union members and gangs of thugs who burned tires and other debris on rubbish-strewn streets. The gangs wielded nail-studded clubs and machetes, and extorted money from motorists.

The protest comes after the government raised prices on gasoline, kerosene and diesel by more than 50 percent on June 20. Officials said the increases were necessary to end shortages and curb smuggling of cheaper Nigerian fuel to neighboring countries.

With the increase, gasoline is $1.18 a gallon.

Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil exporter and the fifth-largest source of U.S. imports. Union leaders argue that low fuel prices have been among the only benefits for the impoverished majority.

“We don’t want a Nigeria where only the rich can survive. That’s why we will fight this battle to the bitter end,” Mr. Oshiomole told cheering supporters in a speech cut short by police tear gas.

Labor officials held talks yesterday with President Olusegun Obasanjo at the presidential villa in Abuja.

Before the talks, Mr. Obasanjo defended the price increases, noting his government spent $1.9 billion annually on consumer-fuel subsidies in a nation where corruption is rife and refineries are in disrepair, making costly imports necessary.

“Nigeria must make the necessary sacrifices now in the interest of future generations,” Mr. Obasanjo said.

Multinational oil companies closed their offices in Lagos after Nigeria’s largest blue-collar oil union joined the strike. The white-collar union said some of its members were also participating.

Prices for benchmark Brent crude rose by 31 cents to $27.61 a barrel yesterday, in part because of the Nigeria strike.

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