Protests, bonfires as strike starts in Nigeria

Protests, bonfires as strike starts in Nigeria

LAGOS - Agence France-Presse
Protests, bonfires as strike starts in Nigeria

Motorists line up at a gas station on the eve of a strike launched by the labour and civil society to force the government to revert to old fuel pump price, on January 8, 2012 in Lagos. AFP photo

Protesters threw stones and bottles at police as Nigerians held a national strike on Monday over soaring fuel prices in Africa's largest oil producer, already on edge over a spate of Islamist attacks.

Several thousand people took to the streets of the economic capital Lagos amid fears tensions could escalate after authorities were accused of using excessive force and killing a demonstrator during protests last week.

Protesters marched past bonfires set with tyres on a major road and some threw stones after they believed police were seeking to turn them back. Police later pulled back and calm returned.

The main group of protesters were peaceful, though youths on the margins of the march set bonfires and threw bottles. Some yelled "Bad Luck Jonathan," in reference to President Goodluck Jonathan.

"All we want is for our voices to be heard," said John Kolawole, the secretary general for the Trade Union Congress who was among those gathering in Lagos, the largest city in Africa's most populous nation.

Several thousand protesters also gathered in the capital Abuja despite massive security and were marching toward the city centre. Authorities have vowed to prevent them from going to Abuja's city centre and planned to seek to direct them to another area. Police in Abuja fired tear gas last week to disperse a protest.

Pockets of protests including hundreds of people broke out in Kano, the largest city in the north, while security agencies were also out in force there.

The strike seemed to have been widely observed in many areas of the country, particularly in Lagos, where the usually chaotic streets were empty apart from protesters.

It comes after the government's deeply controversial move to end fuel subsidies on January 1, which caused petrol prices to more than double in a country where most of the 160 million population lives on less than $2 per day.

Transport costs have followed suit, sharply increasing the price of commuting, and further effects were feared, especially on the cost of food.

Much of the country has been united in anger against the move despite a strong push from Jonathan and his respected economic team to make their case for abandoning the fuel subsidies.

A court ruling had sought to block Monday's strike, but it seemed to have had no effect.

The country's House of Representatives held an emergency session on Sunday and approved a measure calling on the government to reinstate fuel subsidies to allow for further consultations on the issue.

There was however no sign the government would back down.

Jonathan sought to win support for the government's move in an address on national television on Saturday night, but unions rejected it.

Jonathan vowed to reduce salaries for political office holders in the executive branch by 25 percent as well as to improve public transport, including rail lines, among other areas.

"To save Nigeria, we must all be prepared to make sacrifices," he stressed.

Economists say removing fuel subsidies is vital for the country to improve its woefully inadequate infrastructure and ease pressure on its foreign reserves.

The government says it spent more than $8 billion (6.3 billion euros) on subsidies in 2011.

But Nigerians view the subsidies as their only benefit from the nation's oil wealth and lack any real trust in government after years of deeply rooted corruption.

The strike comes with the security forces already under heavy pressure over spiralling violence blamed on Islamist group Boko Haram. Recent deadly attacks on Christians have sparked fears of a wider religious conflict in a country whose population is roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south.

On December 31 Jonathan declared a state of emergency in hard hit areas, but the violence, including gun and bomb attacks, has only continued and spread to other locations.