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Nigerians strike to protest reduced fuel subsidies, 2003
Nigeria, the most populous African country, is filled with oil reserves, particularly in the Niger River Delta. Oil was the main national export, comprising 98% of Nigeria’s export earnings and 83% of government revenue in 2002. Starting in the mid-1980s, the Nigerian government subsidized fuel, letting Nigerians buy oil and gasoline at prices significantly below market levels. For years, economists questioned the sustainability of the fuel subsidy, and on 20 June 2003 President Olusegun Obasanjo decided that the federal government would reduce the subsidy, effectively resulting in more than a 50% increase in fuel prices from 26 naira per liter to 40 naira per liter. He argued that the money saved from reducing the subsidy would be put towards improving national health and education services.
Nigerians valued the fuel subsidy as one of the few benefits of living in an oil rich nation that exported most of this commodity to developed nations. The subsidy greatly assisted their day-to-day living, since most Nigerians lived on one dollar or less each day. On 25 June, the Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC), led by Adams Oshiomole, threatened to go on strike and protest the new fuel prices if the government did not reverse the increases by midnight on 29 June. The NLC and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) met with the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA) to demand that they return prices to their original reduced amount, but the government officials reiterated their intention to maintain the price increase and warned that any strike would be illegal.
By 30 June, high prices remained, so the NLC, with the support of the TUC, declared a “total and indefinite” general strike. Among those on strike included public transportation service workers, storeowners, bank employees, oil workers and union members, food service workers, and air traffic controllers. The strike by public transportation service workers prevented many other workers from arriving to their respective workplaces. Many airlines canceled or delayed flights, while government offices in the capital of Abuja and the cities of Kano, Kaduna, and Port Harcourt closed. The government continued to declare the strike illegal because it violated the court order that strikers must provide the government 14-day notice of strike action.
During the first day of the strike on 30 June, NLC members distributed pamphlets criticizing President Obasanjo, and as peaceful demonstrators displayed banners that demanded that the government return the subsidy to its previous level, police fired tear gas and stray bullets into the crowds. Some demonstrators blocked the entrance to government offices in Abuja. The Associated Press reported some citizens burned tires and debris in working-class areas of Lagos and extorted money from motorists, while The Guardian newspaper reported that some protesters set barricades on fire. These incidents were outliers, though, and Human Rights Watch reports that “many of the protests were completely peaceful.” Still on this first day of the strike, the police shot and killed four people in Mararaba, Karu and injured many others. One victim was a 37-year-old man named Patrick Daniel Danjaba, who was passing by on his way home from work and was not participating in the protest, when police shot and killed him. Some of the police were members of the government’s paramilitary force called the Mobile Police, known to locals as the “Kill-and-Go,” who previously committed human rights abuses against civilians. .
On 1 July, over 1,000 demonstrators held a peaceful rally in Abuja, and NLC president Adams Oshiomhole addressed the crowd. Earlier in 2003 Oshiomhole declared, “I want to appeal to all of us as workers, we must defend our country. We must work on the side of peace,” suggesting that the NLC leadership supported peaceful methods in order to achieve change. During the rally, police fired tear gas and severely beat people with whips and rifle butts and arrested 88, including four journalists. Labor Unions reported that police shot and killed four additional protesters in villages surrounding Abuja, but police denied knowledge of the incident. Meanwhile, students in Port Harcourt organized two peaceful marches, and police killed at least two people, including Chisa Nwoko and Izuchukwu Nzenwefe. Also on 1 July, the governor of the Lagos state, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, criticized the federal government’s decision to raise oil prices and supported the strike as a justified action. Trade union leaders and a coalition of over 20 human rights organizations, called United Action for Democracy, marched to Mr. Tinubu’s office and delivered a letter to be sent to President Obasanjo about their discontent with the fuel prices. The federal government and the NLC began to meet on 1 July to negotiate the fuel prices.
Strikers gathered on 3 July in Abuja and petitioned merchants in a local marketplace to join the strike. Police shot tear gas and warning shots into the crowd, prompting a stampede of over 1,000 protesters. The same day, over 2,000 university students held a rally in Port Harcourt, but police also used tear gas and gunshots to disperse the unarmed crowd. The Associated Press reported some protesters barricaded streets and smashed car windshields. Meanwhile, oil workers who had not previously been on strike joined the action on 3 July and threatened to completely stall all oil operations the following day if the government did not reverse the price increase.
Ultimately, the oil workers decided not to walkout on 4 July because NLC leaders announced that substantial progress had been made in their discussions with government officials, who appeared to be taking their demands more seriously. The strike continued through 5 and 6 July. Then, on 7 July, the Trade Union Congress, which was made up of the administrative workers in the oil sector and was a branch of the NLC, decided to withdraw from the strike upon reaching an agreement with the government to reduce prices to $1.03 per gallon. The entire NLC, however, continued to strike and demanded that the government reduce the price to 95 cents per gallon.
On Monday, 7 July, strikers gathered in various cities. Although news agencies reported that people began to set road barricades on fire and attacked vehicles carrying strike-breakers, some reports indicated that gangs and thugs known as “area boys” carried out this violence, not the strikers themselves. In one of the demonstrations, the police fired gunshots and killed at least 10 people, even though the NLC leaders and eyewitnesses who spoke with Human Rights Watch maintained that the demonstration was peaceful. A group of 20 vigilantes approached strikers and threatened them with machetes and gunshots, but this group was not composed of the strikers themselves; thus, although the media issued reports of rioting, the perpetrators were not the strikers, but gangs and other civilians. Throughout the night of 7 July, the NLC National Executive Council met to determine next steps.
On the morning of 8 July, the NLC announced that it would accept the government’s new proposal to set the price of oil at 34 naira per liter (about $1 per gal, $0.03 less than the price proposed on 7 July) and called off the general strike. They decided to end the strike out of consideration of the Nigerian people who made many sacrifices during the eight-day strike. This decision came days before President Bush visited Nigeria on 11 July.