Nigeria's general strike to be resolved within days

A resolution to Nigeria's general strike was possible within days.

"We came together. We assessed the progress and planned ahead," said Abulwahed Omar, head of the blue-collar Nigerian Labor Congress. "We expect that before Monday that this issue will be resolved, otherwise the strike continues."

The strike began Wednesday after the government offered to halve an earlier fuel-price hike, but refused to roll it back entirely as demanded by the labor unions. Talks that ended before dawn on Friday registered no progress, but union officials said informal meetings had gone on during the day.

They didn't spell out exactly what progress had been made, but after days of strong rhetoric from the unions, Omar's comments were the first indication that a resolution was even possible.

However, another top union official said formal talks with the government would have to occur before the unions would call off the strike.

"There are informal talks, (but) there are no formal talks at the moment. Probably when there is a breakthrough in the informal talks, then we may now have a formal talk," said Peter Esele, head of the white-collar umbrella bloc. "But if we still have a logjam, the action continues."

Earlier Friday, the government ratcheted up its rhetoric, saying it would no longer stand for public disruption by union members, who have been enforcing the strike in major cities by forcibly shutting filling stations and banks.

"This kind of act is clearly against the law, It will no longer be tolerated," said Babagana Kingibe, a top government official leading the negotiations, which stretched nearly to dawn on Friday without resolution.

"Government will put every measure in place to ensure citizens who want to exercise their fundamental right to go to work do so without molestation and that the petrol stations and depots are secured," he said.

Kingibe said labor had declined the government's offer to arrange a joint committee to look broadly at fuel-price controls to see if current arrangements are sustainable.

The unions said they were firm on their demand that the government roll back a recent price hike on fuel, which is deeply subsidized by the federal government. They said the hours of meetings had not unblocked the impasse.

"I don't know which word is stronger: deadlock or stalemate," he told reporters after the meeting in the capital, Abuja. He said the strike would continue Friday.

Unions also said they aimed to cut production in one of the world's leading producers of crude oil. There was no word, though, on any oil production or export cuts.

While major economic activity has been crippled by the strike that began Wednesday, most Nigerians work in the informal economy and essential items are still obtainable, although prices were rising.

Virtually all of Nigeria's gasoline is now imported after years of graft, mismanagement and violence rendered refineries inoperable.

Heavy government subsidies keep reimported petroleum products cheap in a country whose citizens complain they get little else in the way of services from a notoriously corrupt government. Unions launched their strike in hopes of forcing the government to roll back a 15-percent increase on automobile fuel, among other demands that the government has already conceded.

Only three weeks in office, President Umaru Yar'Adua is facing perhaps his biggest challenge so far - one handed to him by his predecessor, who announced the price hike and related tax increases in the waning days of his administration.

Oil receipts account for some 80 percent of Nigeria's total government revenue. Nigeria's energy industry is the biggest in Africa and the eighth-largest worldwide, and the threats to shut off the taps sent crude prices toward nine-month highs on international markets.

Ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo increased the price of fuel only days before handing over power on May 29 to Yar'Adua, the candidate of Obasanjo's party who prevailed in elections rejected as rigged by the opposition and deemed not credible by international observers.

Yar'Adua's new administration, its legitimacy undermined by the flawed election, engaged the unions and offered to roll back the 15 percent fuel price increase by about half - despite the drain on government coffers that the subsidy represents. The government is trying to liberalize the economy and abolish anticompetitive tactics.