Mass strikes are costing the country about $600m a day, the government says [Reuters]

Nigerian unions are meeting with President Goodluck Jonathan to try to defuse a dispute over the removal of fuel subsidies that has paralysed the economy and raised fears of a shutdown of its oil industry, officials have said.

Strikes and protests brought the country to a standstill last week and workers in the vital oil industry have threatened to halt production from Sunday.

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets and staged strikes for five straight days in protest against the removal of a fuel subsidy on January 1, which more than doubled the pump price to $0.93 per litre.

The two main labour confederations, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC), held meetings of their executive councils in Abuja, the capital, on Saturday and decided to stick to their demand that petrol prices return to pre-January 1 levels.

"We are continuing with the national strike until the prices are reverted to 65 naira ($0.40) per litre," Denja Yaqub, NLC assistant secretary general, told the AFP news agency.

"If there's any negotiation at all to be done, the negotiation will only start when the price has gone back to 65 naira.

"We are going to convey the same position to him [Jonathan] tonight." A source from the TUC said it had decided on the same position.

Central Bank Governor Lamido Sanusi told the Reuters news agency on Thursday that the strikes were costing Africa's second biggest economy about $600m each day.

Strike on hold

Unions have suspended strike action for the weekend, pending the talks in which they and the government are expected to reach some kind of agreement. If they do not, general strikes will continue next week.

The oil workers' unions had said it will cut production in Africa's biggest exporter, starting from Sunday.

"The government's expectation is that today's meeting will bring an end to the whole crisis so that the nation can move forward," a senior source at the presidential villa told Reuters.

The confrontation is a serious setback for Jonathan, already under fire for failing to quell violence instigated by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram in the north.

Most fuel price demonstrations have been peaceful, but at least three protesters have been shot dead by police. A police officer has been arrested for fatally shooting a man in Lagos.

Nigeria is a key supplier to the US, Europe and Asia. Crude oil exports account for more than 90 per cent of foreign exchange earnings and 80 per cent of government revenues.

Source: Agencies