Friday, January 20, 2012

Nigeria fuel strike ends with soldiers in streets

By JON GAMBRELL | Associated Press – Jan. 16, 2012

LAGOS, Nigeria — Labor unions ended a crippling nationwide strike
Monday in Nigeria after the country's president partially restored
subsidies that keep gasoline prices low, though it took soldiers deployed
in the streets to stop demonstrations in Africa's most populous nation.

Union leaders claimed a victory for labor, saying this would allow its
leaders to guide the country's policy on fuel subsidies in the future. But
the newly agreed price of about $2.27 a gallon (60 cents a liter) is still
more expensive than the previous price of $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per
liter), putting additional economic strain on those living in a nation
where most earn less than $2 a day and few see the rewards of being a
major oil exporter.

And to force the compromise and stop popular protests, President Goodluck
Jonathan ordered soldiers to take over security in the country's major
cities, something unseen since the nation abandoned military rule for an
uneasy democracy in 1999. The move raises new questions about freedom of
speech in a nation where government power still appears absolute.

"This is a clear case of intolerance and shutting of the democratic space
against the people of Nigeria which must be condemned by all
democracy-loving people around the world," read a statement from the Save
Nigeria Group, which has organized massive demonstrations in Lagos.

The six-day strike began after fuel prices more than doubled to at least
$3.50 per gallon (94 cents per liter) following a Jan. 1 decision by
Jonathan's administration to end the government-sponsored subsidies. Low
gasoline prices, something Nigeria has been accustomed to since 1973,
remain one of the only benefits the average Nigerian sees from the nation
producing 2.4 million barrels of crude oil a day. Gasoline also powers the
small generators that provide shops and homes electricity in a nation with
a failed national power grid.

Many protesters also joined the growing demonstrations to speak out
against a culture of government corruption in a nation where lawmakers
earn pay packages of $1 million a year and states have budgets larger than
neighboring countries. Under the hash-tagged slogan of "Occupy Nigeria,"
many used social media to criticize the nation's poor roads and failing
hospitals amid the excesses of the country's elite.

The government tried to persuade the nation to its side, promising the
estimated $8 billion saved a year by ending the subsidies would go toward
needed public work projects. That failed to win popular support as tens of
thousands joined in protests across the country.

In the last two days, government authorities began warning that
provocateurs wanted to exploit the rallies to cause unrest in a nation
with a long history of coups.

"It has become clear to government and all well-meaning Nigerians that
other interests beyond the implementation of the deregulation policy have
hijacked the protest. ... These same interests seek to promote discord,
anarchy and insecurity to the detriment of public peace," President
Jonathan said in a speech aired Monday morning on the state-run Nigerian
Television Authority.

Jonathan gave no further explanation to his remarks. Opposition
politicians did sometimes lead demonstrations, but they were not connected
to the violence that killed at least 10 people and wounded more than 600
others during strikes.

The Nigeria Labor Congress and the Trade Union Congress told journalists
on Monday they chose to abandon the strike "in order to save lives and in
the interest of national survival." They previously met with Jonathan late
Sunday night, who made the same claims about security concerns.

"We are sure that no government or institution will take Nigerians for
granted again," said Abdulwaheed Omar, the president of the Nigeria Labor

That did not appear the case as soldiers and armored personnel carriers
moved in overnight to occupy a park in Lagos where tens of thousands had
gathered to protest. Soldiers also took over major highways and road
junctions throughout Lagos, home to 15 million people, and in Kano,
Nigeria's second-largest city.

Labor organizers had urged workers to stay home on Monday after Jonathan's
appeal Sunday night. At the Lagos headquarters of the Nigeria Labor
Congress, some 50 protesters gathered anyway. Lawyer Bamidele Aturu led
the crowd in chants and cheers, comparing the president to military rulers
of the past who used soldiers to suppress dissent.

"It's very clear the revolution has begun!" Aturu shouted. However, those
gathered looked warily at passing pickup trucks filled with soldiers.

The protesters began to march, passing soldiers who slung their assault
rifles over their shoulders, allowing them to walk on. But as they drew
closer to the surrounded Lagos park, around 20 soldiers arrived in two
pickup trucks to cut them off, with bayonets affixed to their assault
rifles. They told the protesters to go back and some of them began to turn

Soldiers fired into the air and tear gassed the crowd to disperse it,
leaving protesters running through a stinging white cloud as gunshots
echoed down the highway.

Meanwhile, authorities also targeted some foreign media outlets in Lagos.
Officers of the State Security Service, Nigeria's secret police, raided an
office compound Monday used by the BBC and CNN, witnesses said. Marilyn
Ogar, a secret police spokeswoman, said she had no information about the

Though an oil workers association threatened to cut Nigeria's crude oil
production, they held off. Such a shutdown could have shaken oil futures,
as Nigeria is the fifth-largest crude supplier to the U.S.

Meanwhile, an offshore rig being run for a Chevron Corp. subsidiary near
Nigeria's oil-rich southern delta caught fire and officials tried to
account for all the workers there, the oil company said. Chevron spokesman
Scott Walker said the fire started early Monday morning. Government
officials blamed the fire on an industrial accident.


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

Nigerian unions call off national strike

Decision comes after President Jonathan said he would bring down fuel
price hikes that have sparked protests.

Last Modified: 16 Jan 2012 Al Jazeera

Union leaders in Nigeria have called off a week-long nationwide strike
that has been paralysing the country's economy, following a decision by
President Goodluck Jonathan to roll back fuel-price increases.

Jonathan announced on Monday that he would reduce fuel prices in response
to protests and strikes that sprang up after his government withdrew fuel
subsidies at the beginning of January.

But his announcement failed to quell all of the protests, and soldiers
reportedly used force to shut down demonstrations in Lagos, the country's
commercial capital.

Under Goodluck's new plan, the Nigerian government will reduce fuel prices
by 30 per cent, to around $2.75 per gallon, by restoring some of the
subsidies. That price is still considerably higher than the roughly $1.70
per gallon Nigerians paid before the subsidies were removed.

Tear gas in Lagos

The strike cancellation came after an announcement by the unions, early on
Monday morning, that they would halt street protests.

The unions feared that "people outside organised labour may try to hijack"
the demonstrations, said Abdulwahed Omar, the head of Nigeria Labour

Still, security forces opened fire into the air and used tear gas on
Monday to disperse protesters who came out in Lagos.

An AFP news agency correspondent said soldiers first shot into the air to
disperse the protesters before police fired tear gas, forcing them to
flee. No injuries were reported.

'Protests hijacked'

Though the subsidy reductions prompted immediate public anger, the
government's supporters argue the move was necessary.

Jide Olateju, a former adviser to the Nigerian finance minister, told Al
Jazeera that the problem was poor communication between the government and
the people, not the policy.

"The policy is inherently good for the economy and the people," he said.
"Nigeria imports more than 90 per cent of its refined product and this
happens because there was a crippling of its refineries."

The subsidy system encourages corruption, since importers earn 70 cents
per litre and inflate the amount they are importing, Olateju said.

"Once you remove subsidies, there's an incentive for investors to come in
... and refine oil on Nigerian soil," he said.

Jonathan warns of "anarchy"

In an address on national television on Sunday, Jonathan said provocateurs
had hijacked the protests and demonstrations, in which tens of thousands
of people marched in cities across the nation.

"It has become clear to government and all well-meaning Nigerians that
other interests beyond the implementation of the deregulation policy have
hijacked the protest,'' he said.

"This has prevented an objective assessment and consideration of all the
contending issues for which dialogue was initiated by government. These
same interests seek to promote discord, anarchy, and insecurity to the
detriment of public peace.''

The nationwide unrest had brought much of Nigeria, Africa's most populous
country, to a standstill.

While the strike had been suspended for the weekend, labour leaders warned
it would resume on Monday if a deal had not been reached. An earlier
threat to shut down oil production was shelved.

Roots of crisis

Unions launched the strike after the government deregulated the downstream
petroleum sector and ended fuel subsidies on January 1, which more than
doubled petrol prices overnight, angering many who saw the subsidies as
one of the few public benefits of the country's oil wealth.

The costs of food and transportation also largely doubled in a nation
where most people live on less than $2 a day.

At least 10 people have died as a result of the violence, while Red Cross
volunteers have treated more than 600 people injured, officials said.

Jonathan and other government officials had argued that removing the
subsidies, which were estimated to cost $8bn a year, would allow the
government to spend money on badly needed public projects across a country
that has pot-holed roads, little electricity and a lack of clean drinking
water in many areas.

However, many remain suspicious of government as military rulers and
politicians have plundered government budgets since independence from
Britain in 1960.

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