Nigeria strike a flashback to the military era

AP News
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Posted: Jan 17, 2012 12:04 PM
Nigeria strike a flashback to the military era

The music blared through Nigeria's streets, calling for a revolution of the people against a heavy-handed government fueled by oil money and blinded by greed. It called for change for a people being suppressed by soldiers in the streets.

It also came out 25 years ago.

"Dem-o-cr-azy be the deal," late Afrobeat legend Fela Anikulapo-Kuti sang then.

Older Nigerians may have experienced a flashback this week as soldiers took to the streets again to stop protests over a hike in fuel prices as nationwide strikes paralyzed Africa's most populous nation. Back then, the military ruled country. Today, a civilian president does, but he now faces criticism for turning his back on the same impoverished class he came from, and for using troops to suppress dissent.

Gasoline stations opened for business on Tuesday throughout Nigeria, posting a newly compromised price at the pump of about $2.27 a gallon (60 cents a liter). Fuel prices sparked the six-day strike by labor unions who were angered by an increase in gas price from the previous subsidized price of $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter).

Car owners, shopkeepers and residents who need small generators to power light bulbs in a nation with a failed electrical grid relied on the subsidized gas price, as most Nigerians make only $2 a day. The subsidy was removed on Jan. 1.

Other protesters joined growing demonstrations across the country, upset over institutionalized corruption in a nation where kleptocratic military rulers were replaced in 1999 with greedy politicians who control state budgets larger than neighboring nations. Opaque budgets allow billions of dollars to be stolen while roads remain riddled with potholes in some areas and cement-block hospitals in President Goodluck Jonathan's Niger Delta homeland lack lifesaving malaria medications.

The government tried to persuade the nation to its side, promising that the estimated $8 billion saved a year by ending the fuel subsidies would go toward needed public work projects. That failed to win popular support with many Nigerians suspecting that much of the savings would instead be pocketed by corrupt politicians. Tens of thousands joined the demonstrations _ including Fela's musician sons Femi and Seun.

Jonathan campaigned on a promise of providing Nigeria a leader who could relate to daily struggles, who grew up in poverty, and who didn't come from a military background. But his administration ultimately borrowed from the playbook of military rulers by deploying soldiers into the streets of major cities in a show of force to stop protests unseen since the country became a democracy.

The administration also warned anyone continuing to protest they would be committing a treasonable offense, another threat used by the late military dictator Sani Abacha against dissidents during his rule.

Labor unions ultimately said they abandoned the strike on Monday "in order to save lives and in the interest of national survival," but the demonstrations surrounding the work stoppage had been largely peaceful. Soldiers fired assault rifles and used tear gas to disperse one peaceful crowd in Lagos just before the strike was called off.

For the most part, even Nigerians protesting the high gas prices acknowledged the flaws of the subsidy program that kept the price low. The payments allowed fuel marketers to earn huge markups by importing already refined gasoline back into a country that has seen its own refineries sabotaged and mismanaged into largely derelict operations.

Officers from the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission searched the offices of the Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency on Monday, looking for records to show collusion with marketers to commit what many believe to be widespread fraud. Anti-graft agency spokesman Wilson Uwujaren said agents made no arrests.

"Why should Nigerians trust you and your government to reduce infant and maternal mortality rates and improve the country's infrastructure when you can't handle the simple task of identifying a handful of leeches who've been stealing from fuel subsidy funds?" wrote columnist Okey Ndibe in Tuesday's edition of The Daily Sun newspaper. "Why should the rest of us endure inhuman, serf-worthy privation while you and your inept team live like emperors and unconscionable conquerors?"

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Associated Press writer Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.

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