'Occupy Nigeria' emerges ahead of mass strike

Talking of '1 percent cabals,' opponents of Nigeria's government are angry about its removal of a fuel subsidy and its weak response to ongoing attacks by a radical Islamist sect.

Sunday Alamba/AP
People protest over fuel prices in Abeokuta , Nigeria, Thursday. Police fired tear gas to break up a sleep-in protest at a traffic roundabout in northern Nigeria as tensions mounted over spiraling gasoline prices in this oil-rich nation.

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 labor strike that could paralyze 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 $8 billion a year. But their moves went unnoticed by unions preparing for a nationwide strike scheduled to begin Monday.

"There exists a 1 percent cabal. It is upon this plank and premise the executive seeks to remove the subsidy," said Rep. 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 to at least $3.50 per gallon since the subsidy ended Jan. 1 at Jonathan's order. That spurred a spike in prices for food and transportation across a nation of more than 160 million people where most live on less than $2 a day.

In response, two major unions have said they will carry out a strike 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. 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 came without their knowledge, signaling 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 Middle Eastern countries last year.

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

The state-run Nigerian Television Authority cut away from angry lawmakers 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 Nigeriafor you: there's a lot of wrong information that is being put into the system to confuse Nigerians."

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