ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) — An industrial court in Nigeria ordered unions Friday to stop a planned nationwide strike over spiraling gasoline prices, giving authorities legal power to break up any work stoppages by labor groups.
The order by the National Industrial Court came as protests continued in other Nigerian cities over the removal of government-sponsored fuel subsidies. The nation's House of Representatives said it would meet Sunday to address the concerns of the people, but Nigeria's president appears unwilling to pull back from eliminating the subsidy.
Gas prices have risen from $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter) to at least $3.50 per gallon (94 cents per liter) since the subsidy ended Sunday. That's caused prices to inflate for food and transportation across Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people where most live on less than $2 a day.
The court order by Justice Babatunde Adejuwon came after a filing by the federal government to stop the Nigeria Labor Congress and the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria from holding a planned strike Monday. Only government lawyers attended the hastily called court hearing in Nigeria's capital Abuja.
"Economic activities within the country will be adversely affected, as will the health and safety of the citizenry, if the impending strike is allowed to hold," Adejuwon wrote in his order.
Peter Esele, the president of the Trade Union Congress, said Friday night he hasn't seen the court's ruling. "We will respond after we study what's happening," Esele said.
The order does not specify any punitive actions or fines the groups could face if they hold a strike Monday. It does allow authorities to interfere with any strike action — though others can still protest.
Meanwhile, Nigeria's federal police promised on Friday to protect peaceful protesters ahead of the planned strike, but security forces blocked others from demonstrating near the oil-rich country's seat of power.
Inspector Gen. Hafiz Ringim said he met with other leaders of Nigeria's security agencies over the protests that began after the government ended the subsidy Sunday. While promising to protect the peaceful, Ringim gave a strong warning that security agencies would use force if necessary.
"I want to urge the organizers and participating groups in the strike to be conscious, take charge of their members and refrain (from) any acts of violence or any conduct likely to cause breach of the peace as government will deal decisively with acts of" violence, he said.
However, Ringim's promise to allow peaceful demonstration clashed with what occurred only a short distance away from police headquarters in Abuja. A heavy presence of police, soldiers and other security agents — some carrying gas masks — blocked protesters from demonstrating in the national parade ground near federal offices.
An Associated Press reporter saw about 100 protesters at one point.
"The president of Nigeria is asking us to make sacrifices, but our question is: 'What sacrifices has he shown he's ready to make?'" asked protester Henry Okelue.
Few have seen any benefit from the country's vast oil wealth over decades of production that have seen Nigeria become a top crude oil supplier to the U.S. While the government has promised to invest part of an estimated $8 billion in savings from the elimination of the subsidy back into needed projects, many remain convinced kleptocrat leaders will embezzle the money.
Nigeria, an OPEC member nation, produces about 2.4 million barrels of crude oil a day. However, virtually all of its petroleum products are imported after years of graft and mismanagement at its refineries.
Speaking in Abuja on Friday, President Goodluck Jonathan again defended eliminating the subsidy, saying the majority of Nigeria's capital budget last year came from borrowed money.
"No meaningful infrastructural development is possible in such an environment," Jonathan said, according to a statement from the presidency.
Whether the strike goes forward or a settlement will be reached remains unknown, though the public largely remains angry about the subsidies being suddenly removed. Hackers upset with the government targeted the website of the country's Ministry of Transportation on Friday, replacing its home page with a defiant message that said officials "sabotaged this country into a monolithic tyranny."
"Nigerians are stirring and with it, revolution is brewing," the message read.
Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.