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Nigerians feel pinch as fuel strikes take a toll

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has drawn praise from economists for cutting a costly fuel national subsidy, but citizens have responded with rolling strikes that have shut down cities around the country.

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The protests turned many of the roads in Africa’s most populous country into ghost towns, as no one showed up for work. Shops were shuttered, schools were closed, businesses were locked up tight. Meanwhile, near the center of Lagos, thousands joined in morning protests and three people were killed. The protests dissipated after police showed up in riot gear and cautioned people not to destroy property.

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The fuel subsidy strike has no end in sight but not all Nigerians are in favor of it, especially small businessmen.

Chukwu Ebka, owns a small auto body parts shop in Lagos but on Monday he was sitting in a chair with his workers reading the newspaper, listening to the radio and watching the roads as no cars went by. He said the government should have removed the subsidy gradually instead of all at once. Then they should have made more people aware; because they didn’t, the protests were called.

“Protesting….I would like them to stop it,” Mr. Ebka said. “It’s not helping matters. It’s not helping. It affects us. I can’t open my shop, I can’t sell anything, no one has been by and it affects my business.”

Samuel, who declined to give his last name, was among a small group of men standing at a deserted bus stop. He said the removal of the fuel subsidy was a good decision. But he questions if it will benefit all Nigerians.

“What Nigerians are calling for is good government,” he said. “We are actually not against the idea of removing the fuel subsidy for the proper reallocation of such funds. But we have heard this story before. They deregulated diesel and I paid more. We’ve had promises from past governments yet we still have a poor educational system, no roads, and no electricity and so on and so forth…these are the issues that should be addressed but they haven’t.”

Does he trust that the extra funds the government will get from eliminating the fuel subsidy will be diverted properly?

“That’s the 1 million Naira question,” he said laughing, “Who do we hold accountable for these new funds? We need transparency. We need to know where this money is going.”

The fuel subsidy protests, organized mostly by Nigeria’s socialist and labor movements, are just the latest hurdle for President’s Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. Over the weekend fresh new attacks by the Islamists group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria has him facing increasing criticism from local Christian leaders who are tired of random acts of terror occurring mostly in northern and central Nigeria.

More than 50 people, most of them Christians, have been killed since Jan. 5. That’s shortly after Boko Haram gave Christians in northern Nigeria a three-day ultimatum to leave or face attacks.

After taking what many consider to be a stance of inevitability about the attacks, President Jonathan has publicly condemned the attacks. Still, northern Nigerians feel he is not doing enough. Many are fleeing the north but domestic travel has been made difficult by the fuel strike.

“What have they done to curtail these activities of these extremists?” said a church leader, who declined to be identified, on his way to church on Jan. 8.  “They are trying to get us to leave, but we were born here, bred here, where else would we go? Nigeria is supposed to be a democratic nation, we should have the freedom to practice our faith with no hindrance, but these attacks keep on unabated. Christians are being attacked and killed innocently without doing any crime just because they are Christians, attacked anytime.”

Despite the recent spate of attacks, church-goers at one church in Jos seemed joyous and unafraid on Sunday. The only inclination that something was different was the metal detector wands that greeted them at the entrance to the church grounds.

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