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Uncertainty troubles Nigeria after fuel subsidy strike is halted

From Nima Elbagir, CNN
January 18, 2012 -- Updated 1121 GMT (1921 HKT)
Soldiers march toward protesters after the government deployed troops to stop protests against rising oil prices in Nigeria.
Soldiers march toward protesters after the government deployed troops to stop protests against rising oil prices in Nigeria.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: A heavy military presence is still visible on the streets of Lagos
  • The Nigeria Labor Congress suspended strikes and protests Monday, citing progress
  • The Nigerian Joint Action Front has called for continued strikes over a fuel subsidy
  • President Goodluck Jonathan announced a reduction in fuel prices on Monday

Lagos, Nigeria (CNN) -- An uneasy calm returned to Nigeria's cities Tuesday, a day after two Nigerian labor groups suspended their nationwide strike over the elimination of the country's fuel subsidy.

In suspending the strikes, the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress cited successes gained by demonstrators, including an announcement Monday by President Goodluck Jonathan slashing fuel prices.

In Lagos, the country's commercial center, vehicles filled the streets Tuesday but traffic was still at lower-than-normal levels.

A heavy military presence was still evident in the city's streets in the evening, with armed checkpoints set up at most key bridges and along major roads in the city.

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Many gas stations displayed a price of 97 naira (60 cents) per liter, the new price announced by the government Monday. The protests began earlier this month after fuel that had cost about 65 naira (40 cents) shot up to 141 naira (86 cents) when the subsidy was removed.

Announcing the revised price Monday, Jonathan cited "the hardships being suffered by Nigerians."

And in a signal that the government has listened to public complaints about widespread corruption, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission was also tasked Tuesday with investigating fraud over fuel imports and sales.

But while the NLC and TUC urged demonstrators to go home as they suspended their industrial action, it remained unclear whether they will accept the fuel-price cut and call for a permanent end to the strikes and protests.

A third organization, the Joint Action Front, issued a statement deploring the suspension and urging continued strikes and protests until the government agrees to restore gas prices to what they were before the subsidy ended.

In another statement Tuesday, the JAF criticized the inspector general of police, Hafiz Ringim, over his warning that any Nigerians taking part in protests would be arrested and charged, and that anyone calling for a change of government would be prosecuted for treason.

JAF Secretary Abiodun Aremu condemned Ringim's statement as "uncivilized and provocative" and accused him of seeking to "repress the legitimate expression and freedom of assembly of Nigerians."

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The union said it would consult with the public over continuing the strike action.

But there were no protesters to be seen on the streets of Lagos Tuesday, following the warning from Ringim.

Police continued to stop and shine lights into vehicles passing through the city, while soldiers equipped with armed personnel carriers were stationed by the so-called "freedom parks" where protesters had congregated.

Lagos state Gov. Babatunde Fashola called Monday for the immediate withdrawal of soldiers from the streets of Lagos, a sign of dissent among the authorities over the handling of the protests.

In a written statement, Fashola said there was no development in the state that warranted such a large military deployment and the protests had been largely peaceful and lawful.

"For me this is not a matter for the military. The sooner we rethink and rescind this decision the better and stronger our democracy will be," he said, saying public discourse on political matters should be encouraged.

"If anything, this is a most welcome transformation of our democracy in the sense that it provokes a discussion of economic policies and ... may result in political debate," he added.

Eyewitnesses told CNN that police and the army were not allowing protesters into demonstration zones Monday, but there were no confirmed reports of violence.

Scattered demonstrations began in Nigeria after Jonathan announced on January 1 that the government would end the popular fuel subsidy, which was widely seen by citizens as one of the few perks of living in the oil-rich but largely impoverished nation of more than 160 million people.

The government has said the removal of subsidies would free up billions of dollars to boost the economy and improve the country's infrastructure. But there is a widespread lack of trust that the government would provide the infrastructure.

The subsidy's removal caused the price of fuel and other goods to spike and became a rallying point for Nigerians angry over corruption and the alleged misuse of oil revenues in a country where most citizens battle grinding poverty.

Nigeria, the world's eighth-largest crude oil exporter, is regularly ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world.

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