Nigeria cuts petrol prices, soldiers seize protest site

AFP , Monday 16 Jan 2012

Goodluck Jonathan announcement that fuel prices will be slashed by around 30 percent comes after talks with unions had failed to resolve the dispute

People crowd Gani Fawehinmi freedom square on the fifth day of a protest against a fuel subsidies removal in Lagos January 13, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan announced Monday a petrol price cut in a bid to end a nationwide strike now in its second week, as soldiers seized a main protest site and deployed to key spots.

Jonathan broke the news in a televised national address after a week that saw him remain largely silent in public as the strike and mass protests shut down Africa's most populous nation and largest oil producer.

He charged that the protests had been "hijacked" by those seeking to promote "discord, anarchy and insecurity".

Unions have vowed to press ahead with the strike, although they said they were calling off street protests due to the security concerns voiced by Jonathan. However, a range of civil society and political groups have been organising demonstrations.

"Government will continue to pursue full deregulation of the downstream petroleum sector," Jonathan said in his address.

"However, given the hardships being suffered by Nigerians, and after due consideration and consultations with state governors and the leadership of the National Assembly, government has approved the reduction of the pump price of petrol to 97 naira (about 60 US cents) per litre."

He added: "I urge our labour leaders to call off their strike and go back to work."

The government had ended fuel subsidies on January 1, causing petrol prices to more than double from 65 naira per litre to 140 naira or more, sparking the strike and protests that began on January 9.

Most in the country of some 160 million people live on less than two dollars a day, and most Nigerians have viewed the subsidies as their only benefit from the nation's oil wealth.

Soldiers on Monday set up roadblocks at key points in the economic capital Lagos for the first time since the protests began, stopping cars and searching them.

Demonstrators could not enter the park in Lagos where they have been gathering for the past week as troops and police took it over. Three armoured vehicles with machine guns were stationed in the area.

One senior police officer at the site made no pretense of the aim of the deployment.

"It is total surrender to the might of the federal government," he said. "They cannot come here again today in view of this situation."

Protesters who began arriving on Monday morning were being told to leave the area.

One protest organiser said musical instruments were destroyed at the site, where Seun Kuti, son of late legendary musician and harsh government critic Fela Kuti, had been playing regularly.

"Soldiers have destroyed our instruments in Ojota and brought down our stage," said rights activist Jo Okei-Odumakin.

He added: "I have been receiving strange calls threatening me with death. They send these texts to me with unknown numbers."

Jonathan had late Sunday sought a deal with labour leaders aimed at ending the strike. Unions did not call off the strike after the talks, but said they were cancelling street protests after Jonathan expressed security concerns.

Nigeria Labour Congress chief Abdulwahed Omar said: "We came to a conclusion that we will stay at home, that is stay off the streets, in order to make sure that we don't in the first instance endanger innocent lives because of the security situation in the country."

Nigeria has faced spiralling violence, most of it in the country's north and blamed on Islamist group Boko Haram, prompting warnings of a wider religious conflict and even the possibility of civil war.

But the main fuel protests have been largely peaceful, although at least 15 people are believed to have been killed in various incidents.

Labour leaders have been demanding a return to pre-January 1 petrol prices before further negotiations can take place.

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

Government officials and economists have said removing subsidies would allow much of the $8 billion a year in savings to be ploughed into projects to improve the country's woefully inadequate infrastructure.

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