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NEW: Relatives of a man killed during the protests plan to sue the police, their lawyer says
Nigeria's main unions have called on the government to restore fuel subsidies or face a strike
The government removed fuel subsidies Sunday, causing gas prices to skyrocket
Nigeria has large oil reserves but many of its citizens are impoverished
Nigeria’s main trade union groups called Wednesday for a general strike and mass rallies beginning next week if a controversial government decision to take away fuel subsidies is not reversed.
Angry protests took place Tuesday after gas prices more than doubled following the subsidies’ removal Sunday, leading to the reported death of at least one person.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and Cabinet ministers were meeting in the capital, Abuja, Wednesday to discuss their response to the crisis.
The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trades Union Congress (TUC) urged the government to immediately restore the subsidies – or see the country grind to a halt starting January 9.
“We call on all Nigerians to participate actively in this movement to rescue our country. The emphasis is on peaceful protests, rallies and strikes while refusing to be intimidated,” the unions’ statement says.
It also calls on “the police, armed forces and other security agencies to reject orders that they turn their weapons on fellow Nigerians.”
The unions accused police of using “unprecedented force” against peaceful protests held this week, leading to harassment, intimidation and arrests.
Eyewitnesses told CNN the demonstrations have been largely peaceful. However, relatives of a man killed Tuesday during protests in Ilorin, Kwara state, plan to sue the police and federal government over his death, their lawyer told CNN.
Computer student Muyideen Mustafa, 23, was visiting his hometown of Ilorin when he was shot by police during a demonstration, according to attorney Abdullahi Abdullateef.
Mustafa was not among the protesters but had just “mingled” with the crowd when he was hit by a bullet, the lawyer said. He confirmed that images circulating on social media Tuesday of a blood-soaked man lying motionless on the ground showed Mustafa.
“His friends took the picture and posted it on Facebook. They wanted everyone to see what the police had done,” Abdullateef said. Mustafa, a Muslim, was buried Wednesday in Ilorin. An investigation into his death has been ordered.
Police have not yet responded to CNN’s request for a comment.
Reports of Mustafa’s death on social media have helped stoke public anger over the removal of fuel subsidies.
NLC leader Abdulwaheed Omar warned that all sectors of the economy would be paralyzed, beginning Monday, if the government did not act to head off the strike.
“We shall shut down all petrol stations, banks, markets and every business premises to achieve our goal,” he said. “This strike will be indefinite.”
The unions’ statement urges Nigerians to stock up on basic necessities, including food and water, ahead of the industrial action.
The cost of a liter of gasoline shot up from 65 naira (40¢) to at least 141 naira (86¢) almost overnight after the subsidies were removed Sunday.
Nigerians say this is the last straw in a country rich with oil reserves but with poor infrastructure, wide corruption and huge numbers of impoverished citizens.
Union leaders say Nigerian workers are already experiencing unnecessary hardship as a result of the move, which they say is also affecting the cost of transport, food, medicine, rent and school fees.
The government says it believes the removal of fuel subsidies will have a positive impact on the country’s economy. It argues the money saved will be used to invest elsewhere, such as in refineries.
Despite being one of Africa’s largest oil producers, Nigeria – a country of 167 million people – has no functioning refineries and has to import fuel.
Freelance journalist and CNN iReporter Eromo Egbejule, 21, joined a portion of a march from Lagos to the city of Ojota Wednesday.
“People were protesting because thanks to this policy, the cost of living has skyrocketed,” he said. “Everything is now double its price. Or triple. They were saying their minds.”
He saw banners with slogans such as “We want good governance, not good luck,” a play on the president’s name, and “Tunisia will be child’s play,” an apparent reference to the ouster of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali last year amid mass street protests.
Car tires were set alight and gas stations blockaded in some places Tuesday. Video footage showed black smoke rising above crowds of marchers carrying placards or chanting, many of them young men.
CNN iReporter Alex Omamuli, a 35-year-old civil service worker from Abuja, accused the government of using force to try to stifle legitimate protest.
“Please let the world know that we have a right to demonstrate peacefully but our government shot tear gas at innocent, peaceful protesters,” he said.
“We, the youths of Nigeria, won’t stop until this insensitive and wicked act is reversed.”
Another CNN iReporter, who asked to remain anonymous, took part in protests in Lagos, the country’s economic capital.
“The aim of the protest was to disrupt vehicular movement, shut down gas stations, and ask people to go back home,” he said. “The mood was one of anger and frustration towards the government for doing this on New Year’s Day.”
Journalist Hassan John in Jos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.