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Cablegate: Nlc Gasoline Strike Ultimatim -- Gon Over a Barrel?

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 ABUJA 001666

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV ELAB EPET PINS NI OIL
SUBJECT: NLC GASOLINE STRIKE ULTIMATIM -- GON OVER A BARREL?

REF: A. LAGOS 1969
B. LAGOS 1978
C. ABUJA 1656 and 1486
D. ABUJA 1597

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED, NOT FOR POSTING ON THE INTRANET OR
INTERNET.

1. (SBU) Summary: The Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) issued an
ultimatum September 27 that GON had two weeks to roll back
gasoline price increases, and if this were not done, the NLC
would organize a nationwide "sit at home" work stoppage. Retail
gasoline prices have gone up over 20 percent since the GON tried
again to stop its subsidy on imported gasoline September 24 (Ref
A), a somewhat regular GON effort every few months for more than
a year. Each time, the NLC has pushed back (sometimes with help
from opposition politicians) and the price increase was somewhat
lowered, not reaching the original level each time but did not
end the subsidy either. The NLC may have the GON over a barrel
this time, distracted by fighting in the Niger Delta oilfields
(Refs B and C) and much of its economic team in Washington for
meetings (Ref D), but that may instead provoke a harsher GON
response. End Summary.

2. (U) After the GON raised gasoline prices on September 23, the
NLC on September 27 gave the GON a two-week ultimatum to revert
to the previous price of gasoline or face a sit-at-home protest.
NLC President Oshiomhole announced that the NLC would ask workers
to stay at home, and claimed that this did not contravene a
September 21 Federal High Court ruling in Abuja that the NLC had
no constitutional right to go on strike to protest re-imposition
of a gasoline tax. The Judge had ruled that the tax was not a
trade dispute over which NLC could call workers to strike,
although she said the NLC and its affiliates could go on strike
over issues relating to employer-employee relationships. She
said the tax issues "before the court did not relate to such."

WHAT IS THE LEGAL COVER FOR THE NLC?

3. (SBU) Benson Ukpa, a top official at the NLC Headquarters told
us that the court ruling had handed over a blank check to
President Obasanjo "to punish Nigerians with his deregulation
agenda that has no human face." He contended that the court
ruling thus does not affect the proposed sit-at-home protest.
According to him, Justice Ukeje delivered her judgment on the
gasoline tax strike but did not bar the NLC from taking actions
"that border on labor issues like the unilateral price increase
by the Government." Ukpa maintained that the recent price hike
has "seriously affected wages and purchasing power of the
Nigerian workers."

4. (SBU) Ukpa argued that if the Government had revised the wages
of the workers while simultaneously raising the prices of
petroleum products, there would have been no reaction from the
labor unions. When asked if the GON might file a contempt charge
on the labor leaders, Ukpa thundered: "the same court was aware
of how the Nigerian Government disobeyed many court rulings in
the country and the same Government was not charged for
contempt." He said the GON continued to collect the gasoline tax
after the NLC and Government were told by the court in February
to stop its re-imposition.

SUPPORT FOR THE NLC

5. (SBU) Ukpa was confident that the sit-at-home strategy would
work. He confided that influential Nigerians, including
religious and community leaders as well as the common people,
have been expressing their support for the NLC declaration.
"Eminent citizens like the Sultan of Sokoto have expressed
support for our action." (Note: the Sultan called for speedier
benefits for the people from economic reform, which the
newspapers interpreted as criticism of the price increase.)

WITHDRAWAL OF SUBSIDY OR IMPOSITION OF FUEL TAX?

6. (SBU) Two Ministry of Finance officials, including a top aide
to the Minister, told us that the GON is "withdrawing its subsidy
in line with the deregulation policy" and as such the price rise
could not be called a fuel tax. She said the GON had gradually
withdrawn participation in the down stream sector by allowing the
market to dictate the prices for petroleum products. Nigerian
National Petroleum Company (NNPC) head Funsho Kupolokun said much
the same thing in public, adding that the increase in gasoline
prices is needed to cover the cost of production and meet current
trends in the international market.

7. (SBU) The latest increase in price nearly, and perhaps in the
near future entirely, does away with the subsidy on gasoline.
The GON figures a retail price based on costs plus some markup
for each stage of the transaction from landing the imported
gasoline through transmission to the gas station pump. The
retail price band the GON has set is 52-55 Naira per liter
(roughly 1.56 to 1.65 usdols per gallon) in areas close to
ports, with higher prices further afield. This system is not, of
course, a free market but it is far closer than ever before.

COMMENT

8. (SBU) Past the argument over gasoline prices and economics,
the politics are fairly clear. The NLC is taking on the
government with public opinion on its side and the GON stretched
thin. The GON started the recent round of this fight by putting
forward a labor bill in the National Assembly that would divide
the NLC and take away some of its tools for political action.
That present GON vulnerability could instead, perhaps, lead the
government to concede even less to the NLC than it has in
previous strikes or threatened strikes on the price issue. Key
labor officials might be picked up by security services to weaken
any likely mass protest.
CAMPBELL

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