Nigeria strike unites classes in populist anger

AP News
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Posted: Jan 11, 2012 12:06 PM
Nigeria strike unites classes in populist anger

The protest first drew Nigerians who live hand-to-trash, scavenging through mountains of garbage to make a living. Now, long lines of cars and expensive motorcycles are parking near demonstration that is drawing more than 10,000 people angry about life in Africa's most populous nation.

The nationwide strike first began over gasoline prices more than doubling, but now it encompasses criticism of all Nigeria's failings. People shout to anyone that will listen about the country's cratered roads, dilapidated schools and the government corruption that leaves politicians wealthy and the people largely poor in the oil-rich nation.

And protesters say they want a permanent change in Nigeria, a move away from leaders who send their families abroad for schooling and medical checkups while the rest subsist on less than $2 a day.

"They want to cut us off," said Anthony Abang, a 32-year-old unemployed man who helped close down a Lagos highway. "They want to kill our future."

President Goodluck Jonathan removed subsidies on Jan. 1 that had kept gasoline prices low for more than two decades. Overnight, prices at the pump more than doubled, from $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter) to at least $3.50 per gallon (94 cents per liter). The costs of food and transportation also doubled.

Jonathan insists the move was necessary to save the country an estimated $8 billion a year, which he promises will go toward badly needed road and public projects. But to the Nigerians marching through the streets in all parts of the country, government promises only enrich politicians who routinely swindle budget money from promised public works as electricity and clean drinking water remain out of reach for many.

That anger has seen some protesters confront police, set burning roadblocks and attack government offices, violence that has left at least 10 people dead so far. On Wednesday in Minna, the capital of the central Niger state, youths attacked the governor's house, forcing him to flee by helicopter. A mob killed one police officer.

Attorney General Mohammed Bello Adoke has warned the government "will not hesitate to bring to bear the full weight of the law" against violent protesters. He also described the strike by major labor unions as illegally violating a court injuction.

"Continuing disregard of that order is (dangerous) to the public interest as it constitutes an open invitation to anarchy," Adoke said in a statement issued late Tuesday.

Adoke also warned public workers that the government would implement a "no work, no pay" policy for those who join the strike. However, public workers sometimes go weeks without pay in Nigeria, where corruption and mismanagement has plagued government for decades.

In Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital of 15 million, several hundred protesters on Wednesday took over a major highway leading to the islands where the wealthy live. One protester carried a signed that read: "We are ready for the civil war."

Fears about violence were heightened as the leader of a radical Islamist sect challenged the authority of Nigeria's president in an online video. The video by Imam Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the sect known as Boko Haram, will only aggravate existing religious and ethnic tensions in Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million.

Unrest could affect oil production in Nigeria, which pumps about 2.4 million barrels of oil a day and is a top crude supplier to the U.S. However, most fields remain unmanned and offshore oil fields provide a share of its capacity.

Babatunde Ogun, president of one major union representing oil workers, said Wednesday his group planned to escalate their strike.

"It means in the short term, there will be no export of (natural) gas, there will be no power," Ogun said. "Everything will be at a standstill."

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

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