Monday, January 16, 2012

President Goodluck Jonathan slashes price of petrol by 30 percent in response to protests

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Monday announced a 30% cut in petrol prices as soldiers moved to disperse activists in a bid to end more than a week of nationwide strikes called by unions to protest against the end of fuel subsidies.

Nigerian soldiers seized protest sites and used armoured vehicles to disperse demonstrators after the president watered down a hike in petrol prices Monday in a bid to end an eight-day nationwide strike.

About 1,000 protesters in the economic capital Lagos had gathered on a road near the main protest site, which armed soldiers seized early on Monday. None of the protesters appeared to have been wounded.

Some 10,000 protesters had been gathering daily at the main site last week.

Troops began by driving trucks toward the protesters, but later used armoured vehicles, an AFP correspondent reported. Around 200 demonstrators were seeking to regroup nearby, but soldiers were moving in their direction.

Soldiers also Monday seized the main protest site in the capital Abuja where hundreds of people had been gathering daily, an AFP journalist reported.

President Goodluck Jonathan announced Monday that petrol prices would be cut by about a third in a bid to end the strike triggered after the government removed fuel subsidies. 

Unions vowed to press ahead with the strike which is now in its second week but called off street protests in response to security concerns voiced by Jonathan. However demonstrations have been organised by a range of civil society and political groups.

A number of groups vowed to continue protests.

Jonathan announced the price cut 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.

The president's announcement came after talks with unions had failed to resolve the dispute, with labour leaders demanding a return to pre-January 1 petrol prices.

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

"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 Nigerians weary after years of blatant corruption view the subsidies as their only benefit from the nation's oil wealth.

Besides seizing main protest sites, soldiers on Monday also set up roadblocks at key points in the economic capital Lagos for the first time since the protests began, stopping cars and searching them.

One senior police officer at the main Lagos protest 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."

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. 

She 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.

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.


Related stories: National strike called off by Nigerian unions

Video - Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaks on fuel subsidy crisis

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