Nigeria's president announced Monday the government would subsidize gasoline prices to immediately reduce the price to about $2.75 a gallon amid a crippling nationwide strike over rising fuel prices in Africa's most populous country. The military set up roadblocks in this tense megacity.
Despite the government's measure, gasoline would still be more than a dollar higher than it was just 16 days ago. It was not immediately clear if the concession would soothe outrage of the government's stripping of fuel subsidies on Jan. 1 that kept gas prices low in this oil-rich but impoverished nation.
For the first time in Lagos since the strike began, military personnel erected roadblocks to control access, including to Ikoyi Island, where some of Nigeria's wealthy and some foreign diplomats live. An Associated Press reporter saw more than a dozen Nigerian air force personnel, who were carrying assault rifles and wearing green fatigue uniforms, questioning occupants of cars 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. They asked the drivers to identify themselves and say where they were going.
Local media reported soldiers were also in other areas in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial center of 15 million people, including at a park in Lagos' Ojota neighborhood where more than 20,000 people had gathered Friday for an anti-government demonstration.
President Goodluck Jonathan claimed provocateurs have hijacked the protests and demonstrations, which have seen tens of thousands march in cities across the nation. Jonathan offered no other details on his claim, but his address on the state-run Nigerian Television Authority showed how worried his government had become by the demonstrations now shaking the country's young democracy.
"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 in a nation where most people live on less than $2 a day.
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. A major 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 contributed to this report.