Strike over fuel prices paralyzes oil-rich Nigeria

AP News
|
Posted: Jan 09, 2012 12:30 PM
Strike over fuel prices paralyzes oil-rich Nigeria

A national strike fueled by widespread dissent over spiraling gas prices paralyzed Nigeria on Monday, as tens of thousands of protesters took over the empty streets to criticize government corruption in one voice.

Protests remained largely peaceful across the country on the strike's first day, though a police shooting in Lagos left one dead and four wounded, while another in the northern city of Kano killed two more.

Still, the widespread anger could be felt just like the heat pouring off burning tires and debris left scattered by some protesters, upset by the ingrained graft and failures of Nigeria's young democracy.

"It is high time to take Nigeria into our hands," said Bola Adejobi, 53, who works as an educational consultant and an interior designer said. "It happened in Egypt. It happened in Libya."

Labor unions called the strike after President Goodluck Jonathan's administration announced Jan. 1 it unilaterally removed subsidies that kept gasoline prices low in the nation of 160 million people. The decision saw gas prices rise from $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter) to at least $3.50 per gallon (94 cents per liter). That spurred a spike in prices for food and transportation across a country where most live on less than $2 a day

Cheap gasoline remains the only noticeable benefit for Nigeria's public after 50 years of oil production that has seen military leaders and politicians embezzle billions in government funds. Gasoline also remains vital in a nation where electricity remains scarce.

"People have to understand that in the West, petrol is for your car. In Africa, in Nigeria especially, petrol is your life," said musician Seun Anikulapo-Kuti, son to the late Afrobeat legend Fela. "There's no light without petrol. Everybody runs a generator."

The scope of the strike Monday became clear at first light in Lagos. The typically snarled streets of the commercial capital stood empty. Trade unions set up informal roadblocks, aided by local gang members who attacked cars of those driving in spite of the strike.

More than 10,000 people later gathered at a public park in Lagos, with nearly everyone shouting their criticisms of Jonathan and Nigeria's federal government. Placards and banners bore an effigy of Jonathan with devil horns and fanged teeth, working as an attendant at a gas station. In Nigeria's capital Abuja, thousands also demonstrated in the streets.

While most businesses remained closed Monday, some flights left Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport. Oil production also apparently continued in Nigeria, which produces about 2.4 million barrels of oil a day and remains a top crude supplier to the U.S. However, the unions representing oil workers had promised to go along with the national strike.

Activists also wore shirts bearing symbols for a loose-knit group of protests called "Occupy Nigeria," inspired by those near Wall Street in New York. The anger of those gathered also extended to the government's weak response to ongoing violence in Nigeria by a radical Muslim sect that, according to an Associated Press count, killed at least 510 people last year.

Famous Nigerian authors, including Chinua Achebe, issued a statement Monday saying they supported the strike, and warning that if left unattended the violence by the sect known as Boko Haram could sweep the country.

"The country's leadership should not view the incessant attacks as mere temporary misfortune with which the citizenry must learn to live; they are precursors to events that could destabilize the entire country," their statement read.

Police largely stood by as some protesters lit bonfires and pulled metal barriers into a Lagos highway. As officers picked up the barriers, some demonstrators moved to help them.

In the Ogba neighborhood, however, witnesses and a doctor said a police officer opened fire on a group of protesting youths, killing one and wounding four others. An angry crowd later pushed the corpse through the neighborhood in a wheelbarrow, shouting promises of revenge, setting fires and knocking over police traffic posts.

The police officer accused of killing the protester has been arrested, Lagos state police spokesman Samuel Jinadu said.

In Nigeria's second-largest city of Kano, protest organizer Ashiru Sharif said two young men were shot dead by security officers who opened fire on a crowd of chanting protesters.

"We were not attacking anybody," said Sharif, adding that 24 other peaceful protesters were wounded.

Meanwhile, angry protesters attacked the seat of Kano's state government, setting offices and cars ablaze, local police commissioner Ibrahim Idris said. Security officers there shot at the mob, resulting in a stampede that left seven wounded, Sharif said. Authorities later set a dusk-to-dawn curfew to tamp down on the violence.

Violence also cut across religious lines in Nigeria, which is divided into a largely Christian south and Muslim north. In Edo state, state police commissioner David Omojola said that a mob attacked a Muslim neighborhood in the southwestern city of Benin, leaving people injured. Rioters also attempted to torch a mosque, but were stopped by the police, Omojola said.

It remains to be seen how long the strike will last. The unions have said described it as indefinite, saying they'll only stop if the government restores the fuel subsidies. Jonathan has remained adamant the subsidies must remain in place to save the country about $8 billion a year, money he says will go toward badly needed road and public projects.

But Monday's demonstrations show Nigerians as a whole appear unwilling to let the government in a nation where corruption runs rampant have any more money.

"Corruption is the bane of this nation," said Udoka Iloba, a 40-year-old accountant. "Nigerians are tired."

___

Associated Press writers Ibrahim Garba in Kano, Nigeria; Lekan Oyekanmi in Abuja, Nigeria and Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.

___

Jon Gambrell can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.