LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — For the first time since protests erupted over spiraling fuel prices, soldiers barricaded key roads Monday in Nigeria's two biggest cities as the president offered a concession to stem demonstrations that he said were being stoked by provocateurs seeking anarchy.
The deployment of troops is a sensitive issue in a nation with a young democracy and a history of military coups. President Goodluck Jonathan said in his speech that was televised early Monday that agitators have hijacked the demonstrations, which were initially focused on his removal of a fuel subsidy but more recently focused on government corruption and inefficiency.
At a park in Lagos' Ojota neighborhood where more than 20,000 people had demonstrated Friday, two military armored personnel carriers were parked near an empty stage. About 50 soldiers and 50 other security personnel surrounded the area carrying Kalashnikov rifles, waving away those who tried to enter to resume demonstrations. A crowd of several hundred people gathered a few hundreds yards (meters) away.
"They are here because they don't want us to protest," said Remi Odutayo, 25, referring to the soldiers in the park. "They are using the power given to them to do something illegal" by stopping demonstrators from gathering.
A few miles (kilometers) away, about 300 protesters marched on a highway toward Ojota. One waved a white puppy above his head like a protest placard. When they approached a military checkpoint, soldiers slung their Kalasnikov rifles to their sides and let the demonstrators pass unhindered. But then around 20 soldiers arrived in two pickup trucks, bayonets affixed to their assault rifles. They told the protesters to go back. The situation remained tense.
In Nigeria's second-largest city of Kano, soldiers and police barricaded entrances to protest venues, including a park near a university and a square in the city center.
Jonathan announced the government would subsidize gasoline prices to immediately reduce the price to about $2.27 a gallon. The concession might not be enough to stem outrage over the government's stripping of fuel subsidies on Jan. 1 that kept gas prices low in this oil-rich but impoverished nation. Even with the measure announced Monday, gasoline would still be more than 50 cents a gallon higher than it was just 16 days ago. Most people live on less than $2 a day in Africa's most populous nation. Tens of thousands have marched in cities across the nation.
In Lagos, a city of 15 million, army soldiers set up a checkpoint Monday morning on the main highway that feeds traffic from the mainland into its islands. An AP reporter saw more than 10 soldiers carrying assault rifles and wearing camouflage uniforms. On Ikoyi Island, where some of Nigeria's wealthy live, air force personnel erected roadblocks of metal barricades and debris at a roundabout where more 1,000 protesters had regularly gathered last week. The airmen asked drivers who they were and where they were headed before letting them pass.
At the Lagos headquarters of the Nigeria Labor Congress, some 50 protesters gathered Monday despite requests from union leaders to stay home. 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.
Wearing a traditional black kaftan, Jonathan was alone on camera as he read from a printed speech on state TV.
"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," Jonathan 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."
Jonathan's speech comes after his attempt to negotiate with labor unions failed late Sunday night to avert the strike entering a sixth day. Nigeria Labor Congress President Abdulwaheed Omar said early Monday morning he had ordered workers to stay at home over Jonathan's fears about security.
The strike began Jan. 9, paralyzing the nation of more than 160 million people. The root cause remains gasoline prices: Jonathan's government abandoned subsidies that kept gasoline prices low on Jan. 1, causing prices to spike 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 largely doubled.
Anger over losing one of the few benefits average Nigerians see from living in an oil-rich country led to demonstrations across the nation and violence that has killed at least 10 people. Red Cross volunteers have treated more than 600 people injured in protests since the strike began, officials said.
Jonathan and other government officials have argued that removing the subsidies, which are estimated to cost $8 billion a year, would allow the government to spend money on badly needed public projects across a country that has cratered roads, little electricity and a lack of clean drinking water for its inhabitants. However, many remain suspicious of government as military rulers and politicians have plundered government budgets since this African nation won independence from Britain in 1960.
The strike also could cut into oil production in Nigeria, which produces about 2.4 million barrels of crude a day and remains a top energy supplier to the U.S. A major oil workers association threatened Thursday to stop all oil production in Nigeria at midnight Saturday over the continued impasse in negotiations. However, the Nigeria Labor Congress said the association had held off on the threatened production halt.
Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria, and Ibrahim Garba in Kano contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.