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Nigerians Protest End of Subsidies and Fuel Price

Source: Reuters 1/4/2012, Location: Africa

Protesters shut petrol stations, formed human barriers along motorways and hijacked buses in Nigeria's biggest city Lagos in anger at the shock doubling of fuel prices, and one demonstrator was reported shot dead in the country's west. The fuel regulator announced the end of fuel subsidies under sweeping economic reforms meant to improve fiscal discipline in Africa's biggest oil-producing state, but a hugely unpopular act that could cause social unrest in the short term.

More than 1,000 people in the main market area of central Lagos sang, chanted and waved placards reading "no to fuel price hikes" and "we demand living wages". Protests also occurred in other parts of Nigeria, including Kano in the north, the Niger Delta in the southeast and in Ilorin, Kwara State, in the west, where the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) said one man was shot to death.

"The victim was shot dead around the Post Office... The perpetrators of this crime were armed policemen," a statement said. "We hold the Jonathan administration liable for murder." Police spokesman Yemi Ajayi said he had received no report of a protester being shot.

In Lagos, a group of demonstrators set up a roadblock of burning tyres on a major highway. Police in riot gear kept watch but the protest was largely peaceful apart from a brief scuffle between a protestor and a soldier, a Reuters witness said. Protesters in President Goodluck Jonathan's Niger Delta home region in the southeast, including former militants who wreaked havoc until a series of peace deals ending in 2010, blocked the Warri-Port Harcourt highway, until three vanloads of soldiers turned up to chase them away.

In the city of Kano, in the far north, police arrested nine demonstrators but later released them, local police spokesman Magaji Majiaya said by telephone.

STRIKES, PROTESTS

Economists say the subsidy filled the fuel tanks of middle-class motorists at the expense of the poor, encouraged massive corruption and waste, and handed over billions of dollars of government cash to a cartel of wealthy fuel importers. Removing it pushed pump prices to 150 naira per litre from 65 naira overnight. The subsidy removal is part of an effort to cut Nigeria's exorbitant cost of government, a flagship policy of Jonathan and his economic management team, alongside fixing the broken power sector and reducing waiting times for goods at ports.

Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iwealahas said scrapping the subsidy would save more than 1 trillion naira in 2012. Central Bank governor Lamido Sanusi supports the move. But with the majority of Nigerians living on less than $2 per day, slashing subsidies is politically explosive.

"The prices of everything will increase - transport, housing, school fees, food, etc. The common man will not be able to survive," said Ganiat Fawehinmi, widow of a human rights lawyer. The Trades Union Congress and NLC called for mass action to repeat strikes and street protests that thwarted previous attempts to do away with subsidies.

"Jonathan has shown that he can't be trusted," Issa Aremu, NLC vice president, told demonstrators. "He said he was engaging in dialogue and all of a sudden he ... increased the price." Jonathan released a statement saying he had appointed a committee to ensure the money saved in subsidies was well spent. Many Nigerians fear any savings made from the subsidy removal will be consumed by corrupt politicians.

The committee would produce monthly savings estimates and make sure the funds are transferred to a special account in the central bank which would finance programmes to alleviate poverty, Jonathan's statement said. Lawmakers have been divided on the subsidy removal, leaving the future of the measure potentially in doubt. If they decide to block it, they can add a subsidy to the 2012 budget which they have still to vote on. But they would need to find a way to pay for it, probably by cutting spending elsewhere.

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