News24

Anger at military crackdown in Nigeria

2012-01-17 14:02

Lagos - A military crackdown on protests in Nigeria drew harsh criticism on Tuesday after the country's unions ended a week-long strike over fuel costs following the president's decision to reduce petrol prices.

The governor of Lagos state, which includes Nigeria's economic capital and largest city by the same name, strongly criticised the deployment of troops who shot into the air and chased away protesters with armoured vehicles on Monday.

Local media also reported a statement said to be from Nobel literature prize winner Wole Soyinka that demanded "the immediate and unconditional removal of these soldiers".

He could not be immediately reached to confirm the statement.

On Tuesday, some 50 troops still occupied the main protest site in Lagos, but military checkpoints set up the previous day on major roads appeared to have been removed. Nigerians rushed to petrol stations to refuel and traffic returned to roads.

Newspapers also slammed the deployments which came as President Goodluck Jonathan appeared on television early Monday to announce a 30% decrease in the price of petrol.

"To some Lagosians, the sight of heavily armed soldiers on all of the city’s biggest expressways could only mean one thing: a coup," an analysis in Punch newspaper said.

"... It wasn’t a military coup. What Lagos experienced was a military occupation ordered by President Goodluck Jonathan."

Negotiations

The strike over fuel prices that had begun on January 09 had shut down Africa's most populous nation and largest oil producer while also bringing tens of thousands out into the streets in protest.

But early on Monday, with the strike and protests set to press ahead for a sixth day after a weekend pause for both actions, armed soldiers occupied main protest sites in both Lagos and the capital Abuja.

In Lagos, troops drove armoured vehicles toward groups of protesters to disperse them, while later firing in the air. Police shot tear gas at hundreds of protesters gathered on a major road.

The country's unions met in the morning after negotiations with Jonathan late Sunday night, having already announced the cancellation of street protests over security concerns expressed to them by the president.

However, a number of civil society and political groups have been organising the protests and a number of them vowed to push ahead. Pockets of demonstrators began trying to gather on Monday morning despite the heavy military presence.

The main union leader, Nigeria Labour Congress chief Abdulwahed Omar, appeared at a press conference in the afternoon and announced the strike was being called off "in order to save lives and in the interest of national survival."

Union officials said they remained in disagreement with the petrol price even after the decrease, but were ready to engage in further negotiations with government representatives.

Police later in the day warned that those who continued to participate in street protests would face arrest, while anyone calling for regime change would be charged with treason.

Corruption

No one was reported wounded or killed in the military crackdown on Monday, but the deployments were a grim reminder for many in Nigeria, which has seen six military coups since independence in 1960.

"Until they are removed, Nigerians as a whole should understand that the present civic action is not over and prepare to mobilise and defend their liberty," the statement attributed to Soyinka said.

Lagos state governor Babatunde Fashola, whose party controls the economic capital but is in the opposition nationally, also called for soldiers to be withdrawn immediately.

"Every one of us, or at least the majority of us who hold public office, danced and sang before these same people when we were seeking their votes," Fashola said in a statement.

"Why should we feel irritated when they sing and dance in protest against what we have done?"

The government had ended fuel subsidies on January 01, causing petrol prices to more than double from 65 naira per litre to 140 naira or more.

Most in the country of some 160 million people live on less than two dollars a day, and Nigerians weary after years of blatant corruption view the subsidies as their only benefit from the nation's oil wealth.