Nigeria lawmakers turn against Jonathan

2012-01-09 07:36

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Lagos - Nigerian lawmakers on Sunday 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 paralyse 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 $8bn a year. But their moves failed to mollify unions organising the strike set to start Monday.

"There exists a 1% cabal. It is upon this plank and premise the executive seeks to remove the subsidy," said Representative 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 (45c per litre) to at least $3.50 per gallon (94c per litre) since the subsidy ended January 01 at Jonathan's order. That spurred a spike in prices for food and transportation across a nation of more than 160 million people, most of whom live on less than $2 a day.

In response, two major unions have said they will carry out a strike on 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.

Keg of gunpowder

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 was undertaken without their knowledge, signalling 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 Arab countries last year.

"We are sitting near a keg of gunpowder and we are playing with fire," said Representative 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 people 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.

As a threatened midnight labour deadline neared, tempers flared at Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport. A crowd of about 20 travellers trying to board one of the last flights out punched and pushed their way past airport security.

"Lot of wrong information"

 Immigration officers and others forced them out after a 10-minute screaming standoff. Others resigned to not getting out simply slept on the airport's hard tile floor.

The government's effort to calm popular anger before the strike has failed so far.

The state-run Nigerian Television Authority cut away from shouting lawmakers at one point Sunday to show Jonathan attending an unannounced launching ceremony for a proposed mass transit program for the country. Speaking to a largely empty parade ground, Jonathan said some politicians could not attend as they were preparing for the coming Monday strike by "some societies".

The president also appeared personally stung by rampant criticism of him and his government on social media, making a point to mention how some erroneously said he had left the country to attend the 100th anniversary of the African National Congress in South Africa on Sunday.

"There are a lot of mischief makers that are going around misinforming Nigerians, especially using the social networks, the Twitter, [BlackBerry messenger], the Facebook and others," Jonathan said.

"But that is Nigeria for you: there's a lot of wrong information that is being put into the system to confuse Nigerians."

- AP
Read more on:    goodluck jonathan  |  nigeria  |  west africa
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