Anger Emerges In Nigeria Strike As Unrest Possible


Salon Staff
January 10, 2012 10:36PM (UTC)

LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Thick black smoke and flames rose Tuesday from the burning roadblock that cut off a highway linking Nigeria's mainland to the islands where the oil-rich nation's wealthy live. The bare-chested young men who live under the bridge said they had had enough.

"This is oligarchy, this is not a democracy!" shouted Danjuma Mohammed, as he stood before the fire holding rocks in his hands. "We are no longer afraid of you! We are ready for war!"

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As the paralyzing nationwide strike called by labor unions Nigeria entered its second day Tuesday, protests by those angered by government corruption and inaction drew tens of thousands to the streets and remain largely peaceful. However, worrying signs of possible unrest have begun emerging in a multiethnic nation of more than 160 million people often violently divided by those who have and those who have not.

In Benin City in Nigeria's southwest, an angry mob killed five people and wounded at least six others Tuesday afternoon as they attacked the city's central mosque and a Quranic school, Nigerian Red Cross spokesman Nwakpa O. Nwakpa said. Monday, a mob tried and failed to set a mosque ablaze.

Authorities have tried to control violence in Nigeria, a nation divided into a mostly Christian south and Muslim north. However, a radical Islamist sect called Boko Haram has begun specifically killing Christians in the nation's northeast, leading to a call by a prominent Christian leader for worshippers to begin defending themselves.

The Benin City attack appeared to be a response to those killings.

"It looks like a reprisal from attacks in the north," Nwakpa said. "They took advantage of protests."

The national strike, which began Monday in Africa's most populous nation, came after President Goodluck Jonathan's administration removed subsidies Jan. 1 that keep gasoline prices low. Overnight, prices at the pump rose from $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter) to at least $3.50 per gallon (94 cents per liter). The costs of food and transportation also doubled in a nation where most live on less than $2 a day.

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Jonathan insists that removing the subsidy was the right idea for Nigeria, saving the country an estimated $8 billion a year that he promises will go toward badly needed road and public projects. However, protesters who have joined the strike under the slogan of "Occupy Nigeria" say the time has come to end government corruption in a nation where military rulers and politicians have stolen billions.

More than 10,000 people again gathered peacefully at a park in Lagos. Elsewhere in the city of 15 million people, crowds remained more tense.

Dr. Tayo Konolafe, a gynecologist, led a group of young protesters, shouting that he would be ready to abandon his career and "hold a gun" to bring change in the country.

"Everybody is angry. A hungry man is an angry man," Konolafe said. "What we are passing through in Nigeria is not poverty — it is penury."

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Whether the government can hold back nationwide unrest remains unclear. Soldiers are deployed now in the country's restive central region over fears of ethnic and religious violence, in its northeast to fight Boko Haram and in its oil-rich southern delta to stop militancy. Those operations have had mixed success, while critics say the country's police force is more focused on collecting bribes from civilians than protecting them.

"I will not say it is easy, but we are trying to contain it," said Moses Onireti, a police spokesman in Oyo state, where demonstrations have been large. "These protesters are everywhere, everywhere."

Oyo state, as well as several others, have instated dusk-to-dawn curfews to try and control violent demonstrations.

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Unrest could affect oil production in Nigeria, which produces about 2.4 million barrels of oil a day and is a top crude supplier to the U.S. However, most fields remain unmanned and offshore oil fields provide much of its capacity. Unions representing some oil workers have promised to also strike, but it is unclear what effect on production that has had.

The strike has closed Lagos' busy Apapa Port, cutting off important cargo shipments for the nation. Businesses remained shut, while more air carriers canceled more international flights to the country. Organizers say the strike will continue until the government restores the subsidies.

Meanwhile, anger in the street continues unabated. At the Ikoyi Island roadblock, a convoy of police escorting a member of the country's elite arrived, with officers loudly loading their Kalashnikov rifles in an attempt to drive the protesters away. Officers put out part of the flaming blockade with an extinguisher, but drove off, leaving the protesters behind.

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Another convoy of unarmed officers arrived. They pleaded with protesters for calm but instead they threw stones as the officers put out the flames.

Throughout, the protesters shouted: "They will kill us and we will kill them!"

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Associated Press writer Yinka Ibukun contributed to this report.

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Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.


Salon Staff

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