Nigerians march to protest fuel prices
More than 20 000 Nigerians marched through their bustling economic capital, Lagos, on Wednesday in a noisy but trouble-free protest against rising fuel prices and President Olusegun Obasanjo’s increasingly unpopular economic policies.
Traffic halted in the heart of Africa’s biggest city as the column, at one point 3km long, made its way to the headquarters of the Lagos state government accompanied by drumming, singing and shouts of support from bystanders.
While the immediate trigger for the protest was last month’s sudden increase in petrol and diesel prices, the march brought to the surface dissatisfaction with Obasanjo’s rule, six years after the start of what many still call “Nigeria’s democratic experiment”.
Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka and veteran pro-democracy activist Beko Ransome-Kuti were among well-known figures leading the march alongside Nigeria’s chief trade union leader, Adams Oshiomhole, and several opposition politicians.
“We have to fight for our rights. I commend your support and doggedness. We have to sustain the momentum and overturn a system that has glaringly proved inhuman, insincere, wicked and corrupt,” Soyinka told a cheering throng gathered outside Lagos state government headquarters.
Some of the demonstrators wore Obasanjo masks and others brandished banners reading “Stop implementing World Bank policies now” and “Obasanjo must go”.
There was a heavy police presence around the march, but the mostly cheerful demonstrators obeyed Oshiomhole’s request for a peaceful protest.
“Today is a historic day of struggle. The mammoth turnout is a demonstration of the desire of the people for a change in the way things are going on in this country. It is to demonstrate their discontentment with this decadent leadership,” the firebrand union leader told the crowd.
“We demand a total reversal of the price of petrol to the old price levels as an immediate step. We will then continue with the mass action to compel the government to change its IMF [International Monetary Fund] and World Bank-induced polices that have enslaved our people,” he said.
“These policies have turned our youths into armed robbers and the girls into prostitutes because of joblessness,” he said.
Last month, Obasanjo’s government increased pump prices from about 50 naira (R2,41) to 65 naira (R3,11) per litre, a 23% hike.
The price is low by world standards—newspapers noted that the march coincided with similar protests in Britain over petrol prices of £1 (R11,60)—but fuel is a major expense in a country where three-quarters of the population live on less than $1 per day.
Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer, with exports of about 2,5-million barrels of per day, and with prices this year hovering around record highs the West African giant is earning huge sums.
But decades of corruption and under-investment have left Nigeria’s domestic refineries in a dilapidated state and the country relies on imported fuel, paid for at world prices, to serve the needs of its 130-million citizens.
Last month, Obasanjo’s government warned that price subsidies will soon come to an end as part of an ambitious series of steps to deregulate the economy, encourage private-sector and foreign investment and please international creditors.
Obasanjo insists Nigeria can only ensure fuel supplies by removing subsidies and allowing private marketers to set their own prices, import fuel and buy out and refurbish the refineries. He has pledged to spend the sums saved on schools and hospitals.
The government’s reform agenda has been welcomed by foreign governments, the IMF and the World Bank, but Obasanjo has met bitter opposition at home.
“The government should know that petrol has a multiplier effect on prices of goods and services. The price of everything has gone up almost beyond the reach of ordinary Nigerians,” 24-year-old Lagos housewife Mojisola Ayoola said.
Wednesday’s rally will be followed by similar marches in cities across the country until October 3, when the unions will meet and decide whether to launch their sixth general strike in as many years.—Sapa-AFP