Nigeria President Offers Concession on Fuel Prices

For the first time since protests erupted
over spiraling fuel prices, soldiers on Monday barricaded key roads in
Nigeria’s commercial capital of Lagos as the president offered a
concession to stem demonstrations that he said were being stoked by
provocateurs seeking anarchy.

Soldiers and police
also barricaded entrances to protest venues in Nigeria’s second-largest
city of Kano on Monday, including a park near a university and a square
in the city center. 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 televised speech early Monday that
agitators have hijacked the demonstrations.

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, and
anger in Africa’s most populous nation where most people live on less
than $2 a day is also now aimed at government corruption and
inefficiency.

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. Another convoy of soldiers
patrolled in a pickup truck.

At a park in
Lagos’ Ojota neighborhood on the mainland, where more than 20,000 people
had gathered Friday for an anti-government demonstration, 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.

On
Lagos’ Ikoyi Island, where some of Nigeria’s wealthy and some foreign
diplomats live, more than a dozen Nigerian air force personnel carrying
assault rifles questioned drivers at a roundabout where more 1,000
protesters had regularly gathered last week. Drivers had to slow down
because the airmen had put metal barricades and debris in the street.

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, but that might not
keep people away from mass demonstrations like one that has seen more
than 20,000 people show up in the country’s commercial capital of Lagos.

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
independence from Britain in 1960.

The strike
also could cut into oil production in Nigeria, a nation that produces
about 2.4 million barrels of crude a day and remains a top energy
supplier to the U.S. Amajor 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 http://www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP

SOURCE: