Sunday, January 8, 2012

Violence-hit Nigeria braces for fuel strikes

Nigeria on Sunday braced for nationwide strikes over fuel prices while also seeking to stop a wave of attacks on Christians claimed by Islamists as anger mounted in Africa's most populous nation.
The open-ended strikes set to kick off on Monday are aimed at forcing the government to restore a fuel subsidy it lifted on January 1 causing petrol prices to soar in Africa's largest oil producer.
The looming strikes forced the country's parliament into an emergency session Sunday where it decided to oppose the removal of the subsidy and urged unions to hold off their work stoppage plans.
Unions hailed parliament's decision, but said the strikes would go ahead.
The planned strikes led to a massive security deployment as well as queues at some petrol stations, with several running dry, and warnings from unions that residents should stock up on food.
Protests over the issue last week became increasingly volatile, with police firing tear gas and accused of using excessive force to disperse demonstrators.
A union also accused police of shooting dead a demonstrator last week, but authorities denied it and said he was killed by a mob.
Nigeria's House of Representatives on Sunday approved a measure calling on the government to restore the subsidies, whose abolition on New Year's Day caused petrol prices to instantly more than double and ignited widespread anger.
Unions vowed to push ahead with the strike despite a last-minute appeal by President Goodluck Jonathan, who sought to win support for the government's move in an address on national television on Saturday night.
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," Jonathan said.
The country's two main labour unions dismissed Jonathan's bid to convince his opponents, with most of the country's 160 million population living on less than $2 per day.
"The labour movement and its allies on behalf of the Nigerian populace reiterate that the broadcast has changed nothing and that the indefinite strikes, rallies and mass protests scheduled to commence nationwide on Monday 9th January, 2012 will go on," a statement said.
"The will of the Nigerian people must prevail over that of any government in power."
Economists say removing fuel subsidies was vital to allow 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.
Some fuel stations were starting to run out of petrol in the economic capital Lagos, with some even closing in the capital Abuja.
A massive security deployment was planned for Monday, with the security forces already under heavy pressure over spiralling violence blamed on Islamist group Boko Haram.
On Saturday, the head of Nigeria's Christians warned that Islamist attacks on the faithful suggest "religious cleansing" and compared it to the run-up to the the 1960s civil war, while vowing they would defend themselves.
A Muslim leader reacted angrily to the comments, considering them a threat.
Jonathan, speaking at a church service in Abuja, seemed to suggest elements of the violence had more to do with politics than religion.
He said the violence blamed on Boko Haram was worse than the country's civil war, with sympathisers spread throughout the government and security agencies.
"The situation we have in our hands is even worse than the civil war that we fought," Jonathan said, referring to Nigeria's 1967-70 civil war that killed more than a million people.
The death toll linked to violence blamed on the Islamist group has not reached anywhere near that level, but Jonathan cited the unpredictability and pervasiveness of the threat.
"During the civil war, we knew and we could even predict where the enemy was coming from ... But the challenge we have today is more complicated."
The violence blamed on Boko Haram has 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 expanded into other locations.

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