KAMPALA, Uganda-Labor unions initiated what local newspapers have called "an industrial action" against the Nigerian government over the removal of fuel subsidies earlier this month. Fueling public anger, President Goodluck Jonathan gave Nigerians only one week's notice that the subsidies would be lifted-resulting in a 150 percent increase in fuel prices.
Ending the subsidy, which kept fuel prices artificially low, prompted mass demonstrations across the country starting a week ago. Labor unions followed, announcing work stoppages that halted air traffic and public transportation.
"Action embarked upon by workers in Nigeria has literally shut down the country," said Emmanuel Adeniyi, a reporter for the Nigerian Tribune who made it to a World Journalism Institute (WJI) conference in Kampala-a journey of over 3,000 miles-despite the cancellation of most commercial flights. (WJI is an affiliated organization of WORLD Magazine.) Adeniyi said that the journalists also worried that government-imposed curfews to curb demonstrations could make travel difficult. But a brief window of movement opened over the weekend while the Jonathan government and labor unions negotiated ways to end the crisis.
The crisis has come at the same time that the militant Islamic group Boko Haram has stepped up attacks against Christian groups, including bombings and shootings that have killed more than 100 since Christmas Day. (See "Deadly deadline," by Jamie Dean, Jan. 6.) Jonathan has accused the militants of using the street demonstrations to foment chaos and lawlessness.
On Monday, the unions suspended their nationwide strike just hours after Jonathan partially reinstated the subsidies. Union leaders claimed victory in the dispute, as they will be able to guide the country's policy on fuel subsidies in the future.
Earlier, when it had appeared that the negotiations had stalled, demonstrators again took the streets. But this time the government responded by sending security forces in response. In Lagos, the capital, and Kano, the country's second largest city, tanks barricaded key intersections where last week thousands had demonstrated. Soldiers in Lagos fired live rounds of ammunition over a crowd of several hundred demonstrators. The journalists attending the Kampala conference believe the military's presence could lead to violent confrontations in Africa's most populous nation and its second largest economy.
Nigeria exports more than 2 million barrels of crude oil daily, most of it to the United States. Those U.S. imports amount to 10 percent of the country's petroleum consumption. But Nigeria's oil industry, Africa's largest, is riddled with broken infrastructure and corruption that has left it unable to refine its own crude: Nigeria actually imports 70 percent of the refined oil it needs for consumption. According to the government, fuel importers benefit most from subsidies, and use the subsidies to fix prices; the government also argues that money saved by ending subsidies could be used to shore up refineries, roads, and other infrastructure.
But the doubling of prices brought on by the end of subsidies fell hard on Nigerians, the majority of whom live on about $2 per day. "The removal changes everything," said Nkechi Onyedika, a reporter for The Guardian who lives in Lagos and is attending the Uganda conference. Prices of food along with many other goods and all forms of transportation rose dramatically as a result of the government action, she said.
But the journalists also arrived in a restive Uganda, where shopkeepers in Kampala were entering their third day of strikes over spiraling interest rates. Their grievances stem from a central bank decision to raise rates, leading most commercial banks in Uganda's capital to as much as double interest rates on some business loans, and retroactively.
Shops, stores, shopping malls, restaurants and some factories in Kampala and several other Ugandan cities closed starting Jan. 11. But by Monday they relented after a meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni: "We have called off the strike but we shall continue the fight," said business leader Evaristo Kayondo.
Many African nations are confronting inflation and delayed effects from the recent global recession, while at the same time there is a heightened awareness of the power of street action following the Arab Spring revolts in the Middle East and North Africa. The Nigerian journalists attending the two-week conference in Uganda-which includes 18 journalists from nine African nations-hope that business entities and governments will continue to talk to one another long enough for them to return home.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.