Nigeria’s two largest oil workers’ unions have threatened to shut down all production as part of the four-day national strike. Pengassan, the biggest oil union, said it was ready to join the mass action in Africa’s biggest crude producer, which exports more than 2m barrels a day.
The indefinite nationwide strike which paralyzed the country’s banks, transport and transit, began Monday after the Nigerian government cancelled a fuel subsidy program on January 1, which caused a more than doubling of the petrol price from 65 naira ($0.40).
Nigeria is an OPEC member and 80% of its budget comes from oil exports.
Though workers are unlikely to be able to stop output completely , since many processes are automated, the move will have a severe impact on an economy driven by oil revenue.
“Now that the federal government has decided to be callous-minded, we hereby direct all production platforms to be on red alert in preparation for total production shutdown,” Babatunde Ogun, Pengassan’s president, said.
On Thursday the second-biggest oil union, Nupeng, which represents mostly blue collar workers, said its members had pulled out of the oilfields. “We have withdrawn our members because we support the strike and we’re an affiliate of the Nigeria Labour Congress [which called the stay-away],” Elijah Okougboh, Nupeng general secretary told Bloomberg.
Demonstrations had been expected, but the level of rage has surprised the government. Tens of thousands of people have joined nationwide protests that have grown each day and tapped into wider disaffection over decades of poor governance and corruption.
The strike has forced the closure of schools, shops, businesses and banks. Road transport has been curtailed and air travel has been badly hit.
Until Wednesday, neither side appeared willing to give any ground, with the government insisting that the $8bn annual subsidy was unaffordable.
But the Pengassan statement may change that. The union said it had not made a final decision to stop output but that it was no longer sending oil production reports to the government – “one of the very first steps to shut down process”.
The biggest recipients of Nigeria’s oil are the US, India, Brazil and the Netherlands.
The administration of President Goodluck Jonathan urged union leaders to enter into talks.
“The government is worried about the threat to shut down oil production because … if they go ahead to carry out their threat that action will worsen our economic problem, which the government is trying to solve,” Labaran Maku, minister of information, told Reuters news agency.
While the removal of the subsidy makes economic sense, shifting the entire burden to the population without first improving services or infrastructure, or tackling corruption, has united the poor and middle classes in anger.
A protest in Ojota, Lagos, drew more than 10,000 people on Wednesday. Demonstrators carried placards with slogans such as “Stop corruption, not the subsidy”.
“This is not just about 65-naira petrol,” said Kehinde Osibote, 47, an electrical engineer. “It’s about the state of roads and power, and the fact that there’s no cushion for the poor. We are not backing down – we must suffer to get results.”
Elsewhere in the commercial capital, youths carrying sticks and bricks blocked some of the main roads, preventing cars passing. There were reports of motorists being robbed. In Kaduna state, the local government imposed a 24-hour curfew to stop the protests.