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Nigerian workers plan strike to shut down oil-rich nation

27 September 2011, 11:13

LAGOS, July 19, 2011 (AFP) -Nigerian workers are planning a strike this week that could grind Africa's largest oil producer to a halt over politicians' refusal to implement a new minimum wage equal to less than $120 a month.

The dispute has highlighted the huge gap between the rich and poor in Nigeria, the continent's most populous nation and one of the world's most corrupt, where the rich drive past teeming slums in sleek Bentleys and hulking Land Rovers.

Barring a last-minute deal, the three-day strike will begin Wednesday.

It comes after governors of some of Nigeria's 36 states resisted paying out the new minimum wage signed into law months ago, raising it from 7,500 naira to 18,000 naira ($118) monthly.

State governors have regularly been accused of large-scale misuse of public funds, drawing criticism for their stance, though some argue that their governments are truly cash-strapped and will have trouble meeting the new wage.

"The ostentatious lifestyles of most governors do not offer logical persuasion to the citizens they govern that they indeed cannot pay the new minimum wage," ThisDay newspaper said in an editorial on Monday.

Facing increasing pressure, governors in recent days pledged to pay the new wage, but labour leaders have refused to call off the strike, saying they will not be fooled by empty promises. Further negotiations took place Monday night.

The new wage was agreed to a year ago following protracted negotiations. Workers had initially demanded 52,500 naira ($342) from 7,500 naira, which has been paid for over a decade, but eventually settled for 18,000 naira.

President Goodluck Jonathan only signed the law a few weeks before April elections, which he won on pledges to transform the country and better the lives of its millions who live in poverty -- many on less than $2 per day.

"There is no backing down on our demands. The governors must pay the new wage or there will be no industrial peace in the country," Nigeria Labour Congress acting general secretary Owei Lakemfa told AFP.

"We will cripple the oil industry. Workers manning export terminals will be withdrawn and this will halt export of crude."

Elijah Okougbo, secretary general of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, said Monday night that "as at now, there is no agreement and the strike will go on as planned. It will hit the oil industry."

Although a law is now in place, some governors have said their revenue cannot support the new wage.

"Some of these states will need to go borrowing to be able to pay the new wage," said Rotimi Amaechi, governor of Rivers state in the oil-producing Niger Delta region.

The governors have sought a review of the formula by which the federal government distributes oil revenue to allow state authorities to get a larger share so they can pay the wages.

Governors have also controversially suggested scrapping subsidies on fuel prices to free up more funds. Nigeria last year spent around $8 billion on fuel subsidies, slightly under a quarter of the entire annual budget.

The subsidies are in place to hold petrol pump prices at 65 naira (43 US cents, 30 euro cents) per litre, though widespread abuse of the system has been alleged.

"The argument on subsidy removal is slapping logic on the face. We will not allow any policy that will further impoverish the masses of this country," said Dele Dada, a senior official with the white-collar Trade Union Congress.

Activists argue there is enough money to go around in Nigeria, and the country's incoming finance minister, World Bank managing director Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has said the country can manage the new wage. She is expected to take up her post in August.

Some also pointed out the huge amounts of money federal lawmakers are paid in bloated salaries and "allowances" estimated at more than $1 million per year.

"Nigeria is running the most expensive democracy in the world," said Debo Adeniran, head of the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders pressure group.


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