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Troops appear on streets as Nigeria president acts to cut fuel prices

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Soldiers have barricaded key roads in Nigeria's commercial capital of Lagos as the president offered a concession to halt fuel price protests that he said were being stoked by provocateurs seeking anarchy.

Troops and police also blocked entrances to protest venues in Nigeria's second-largest city of Kano on Monday, including a park near a university and a square in the city center.

Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP - Getty Images

Soldiers barricade the road to stop protesters at Ojota district in Lagos on Monday.

 


The deployment of troops is a sensitive issue in a nation with a young democracy and a history of military coups. President Goodluck Jonathan said in his televised speech early Monday that agitators have hijacked the demonstrations.

Jonathan announced the government would subsidize gasoline prices to immediately reduce the price to about $2.27 a gallon. The concession might not be enough to stem outrage over the government's stripping of fuel subsidies on Jan. 1 that kept gas prices low in this oil-rich but impoverished nation. Even with the measure announced Monday, gasoline would still be more than a dollar higher than it was just 16 days ago, and anger in Africa's most populous nation is also now aimed at government corruption and inefficiency.

Tens of thousands have marched in cities across the nation of more than 160 million people, while a strike by Nigeria's biggest union began Jan. 9, paralyzing the country.

Reuters reported that the protests have "become an outlet for thousands to vent their grievances against what they see as a venal ruling political class and incompetent government, which is struggling to tackle an insurgency by the Boko Haram Islamist sect based in the largely Muslim north."

Remi Sonaiya, a student, told Reuters: "The bottom line is we don't trust the government to do what they say anymore."

Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP - Getty Images

Protesters gather to protest against the scrapping of oil subsidies at Gani Fawehinmi Park in Lagos, Nigeria on Wednesday.

Strike suspended
Unions on Monday suspended their strike following the government's concessions, but it was not immediately clear if wider anger would be calmed by the measure.

In Lagos, a city of 15 million, army soldiers set up a checkpoint Monday morning on the main highway that feeds traffic from the mainland into its islands.

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.

Sunday Alamba / AP

Nigeria's government and labor unions have failed to end a paralyzing nationwide strike over the high costs of gasoline, and potentially sparking a national oil production shutdown.

At a park in Lagos' Ojota neighborhood on the mainland, where more than 20,000 people had gathered Friday for an anti-government demonstration, two military armored personnel carriers were parked near an empty stage. About 50 soldiers and 50 other security personnel surrounded the area carrying Kalashnikov rifles, waving away those who tried to enter to resume demonstrations. A crowd of several hundred people gathered a few hundreds yards away.

"They are here because they don't want us to protest," said Remi Odutayo, 25, referring to the soldiers in the park. "They are using the power given to them to do something illegal" by stopping demonstrators from gathering.

Jonathan's speech Monday came after his attempt to negotiate with labor unions failed late Sunday night to avert nationwide strikes entering a sixth day. Nigeria Labor Congress President Abdulwaheed Omar said early Monday morning he had ordered workers to stay at home overnight, but that might not keep people away from mass demonstrations.

A report on Nigerian news website This Day said the president told his audience: "There was near-breakdown of law and order in certain parts of the country as a result of the activities of some persons or groups of persons who took advantage of the situation to further their narrow interests by engaging in acts of intimidation, harassment and outright subversion of the Nigerian state. I express my sympathy to those who were adversely affected by the protests."

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.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.