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Nigeria lawmakers oppose president ahead of strike

Monday, January 9, 2012

LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigerian lawmakers yesterday turned against the president’s decision to end government fuel subsidies that kept gasoline prices low, just ahead of a planned labour strike that could paralyze Africa’s most populous nation. Meeting in an emergency session, Nigeria’s House of Representatives shouted down supporters of President Goodluck Jonathan as they voted for a resolution calling on him to restore subsidies that cost the country about $8 billion a year. But their moves failed to mollify unions organising the strike set to start today. “There exists a 1 per cent cabal. It is upon this plank and premise the executive seeks to remove the subsidy,” said Rep Femi Gbajabiamila, a member of the opposition party Action Congress of Nigeria.

“This cabal and their associates represent perhaps the biggest economic and financial crime in the history of Nigeria.” Gas prices have risen from $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter) to at least $3.50 per gallon (94 cents per litre) since the subsidy ended Jan 1 at Jonathan’s order. That spurred a spike in prices for food and transportation across a nation of more than 160 million people where most live on less than $2 a day. In response, two major unions have said they will carry out a strike Monday, despite a court order restraining them from it. That sets up a situation similar to one faced by the OPEC member nation in 2003, when strikers over eight days attacked shops that remained open, took over air traffic control towers and cut into oil production in a country vital to US energy supplies.

Already, activists have begun a loose-knit group of protests called “Occupy Nigeria,” inspired by those near Wall Street in New York. Their anger extends beyond just the fuel subsidy to the government’s weak response to ongoing violence in Nigeria by a radical Muslim sect that killed at least 510 people last year, according to an Associated Press count. Protesters also remain angered by decades of corruption that has seen billions of oil dollars stolen by politicians as electricity and clean drinking water remain scarce. During Sunday’s session, televised live from the capital Abuja across the country, even members of Jonathan’s ruling People’s Democratic Party spoke out against him. Others said the fuel subsidy removal came without their knowledge, signaling Jonathan’s administration moved unilaterally on an issue now dividing the country. Some lawmakers also said the fuel subsidy removal could lead to a revolution like those that swept across some Middle Eastern countries last year.

“We are sitting near a keg of gunpowder and we are playing with fire,” said Rep Pally Isumafe Obokhuaime Iriase of the Action Congress of Nigeria. “This will be the last straw that will break the camel's back if we do not act.” Traffic snarled around gas stations in the country as motorists and generator users tried to buy gasoline before the strike. Some stations ran dry and closed early, while those waiting to buy fuel argued with attendants about filling extra gas cans. Gabriel Gbaa, 34, said he remained angry about Jonathan’s decision to raise prices as he filled his sedan with a jerrycan of gasoline.

“A lot of people are stuck in the village (because) they had gone to visit their parents” for Christmas, Gbaa said. “You should not decide something and force a vote on us. There should be dialogue.” Isaac Gbenga, a 27-year-old who works as a driver, said he supported the end of the fuel subsidies because it might tamp down on the country’s notorious government corruption. The government’s effort to calm popular anger has failed so far.




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