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NEW: Talks are to resume Saturday
An oil industry union gave the government an ultimatum to restore oil subsidies
The government's decision to end a subsidy has more than doubled fuel prices
Sectarian violence also plagues the oil-rich but largely impoverished nation
Negotiations between labor unions and the Nigerian government ended late Thursday without an agreement to restore fuel subsidies, and a union official expressed resolve, in the absence of an accord, to halt oil production in the eighth-largest petroleum-exporting nation.
The talks, which are to resume Saturday, got under way after the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria threatened to stop production if the government did not reverse its decision to scrap fuel subsidies and lower the cost of fuel to its previous level, union official Folorunso Oginni told CNN.
“Now that the federal government has decided to be callous-minded, we hereby direct all production platforms to be on red alert in preparation for total production shutdown,” the union said Thursday.
The union’s threat was issued in solidarity with protesters who have taken to the streets in the wake of the government’s decision to end fuel subsidies. The protests expanded into an outcry against the government as throngs of Nigerians of all classes took to the streets for a fourth day Thursday.
Businesses were shuttered in downtown Lagos, as tires burned in otherwise empty streets. In some areas, angry youths manned checkpoints and shut down major highways.
“People of all walks are coming out to protest,” said Olumide Adeleye, a Lagos entrepreneur. “There are young people and old people. People parking their Mercedes-Benzes and Land Rovers. People walking barefoot.”
The government ended the fuel subsidies January 1, which doubled gas prices and led to higher transportation costs and soaring prices of food and other goods.
As prices at the pump skyrocketed overnight, Nigerians accused their leaders of corruption and of having squandered oil revenues in a country where most citizens battle grinding poverty.
“Our leaders don’t do most of the things a responsible government should do,” Adeleye said. “Frankly, we would pay for that high oil price, if the roads were better, if our infrastructure was better. But we can’t trust the government … removing the fuel subsidy is just one of the many ways they have failed us.”
Lagos businessman Tunji Lardner said people were angry because the fuel subsidy was the one advantage Nigerians derived from living in an oil-producing state.
Two Nigerian trade unions have accused President Goodluck Jonathan of using armed thugs to attack protesters, which the government denied Thursday.
“If these claims are properly investigated, you will find out that failed and bitter politicians have not only hijacked this protest, but have diverted it from a protest against deregulation policy,” said Reuben Abati, the government spokesman.
The protests – dubbed “Occupy Nigeria” – have galvanized the continent’s most populous nation. Citizens have harnessed social media to plan rallies and warn demonstrators of dangers at particular protest sites. Others posted private cell phone numbers of government officials and urged fellow Nigerians to call and demand the return of the fuel subsidy.
“In a country with hundreds of distinct ethnic groups and little sense of national identity, citizens rarely rally around a common cause,” said Gordon Bottomley, an associate at Ergo, a global intelligence and advisory firm. “The sudden inability to procure fuel for basic needs such as transportation, however, has inspired Nigerians of all stripes to take to the streets en masse.”
Most of the demands have been centered around calls for government accountability and reinstatement of the fuel subsidy, though a few have called for the president’s ouster.
Many Nigerians view the subsidy as the only benefit of living in an oil-producing country that has little infrastructure, poor roads, high unemployment and intermittent electricity. The government has said the removal will free funds to improve the infrastructure.
But there is a widespread lack of trust in the government to provide the infrastructure – Nigeria is regularly ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world.
At the same time, the government also faces another crisis – a wave of religious attacks that has heightened fears of sectarian violence in parts of the country.
CNN iReporter Akindeji Falaki, a Christian pastor in Abuja, said he believed God would stand on the side of the poor and oppressed.
“I believe a peaceful protest is also a fundamental right and a civil responsibility, to hold the ruling class accountable,” he said. “My protest is not because of me. I can afford to buy fuel at the new price, but my poor folks that I work with cannot survive it.”
Continued anti-Christian violence in the north and a long-simmering separatist movement are also increasing tensions on the streets.
Clashes have left at least 16 people dead and 205 injured, the Nigerian Red Cross said this week.
More than 30 Christians died in recent violence in Adamawa, prompting a 24-hour curfew in that northwestern Nigerian state to guard against reprisals, a government chaplain said Saturday.
Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group that is said to favor strict Sharia law, is frequently blamed for the sectarian violence.
A video statement issued by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau Wednesday sought to justify its attacks on Christians as revenge for wrongdoing to Muslims, saying “everyone knows the evil our people suffered” and that “everyone knows what they (Christians) have done to us.”
In the video, which was entitled Message to Jonathan and posted to YouTube, Shekau addresses the president directly, saying he has humiliated Islam.
Boko Haram will kill non-Muslims, Shekau says, “just as when we are found we are also killed.”
The group claimed responsibility for a series of Christmas Day attacks on churches and issued an ultimatum this month for the country’s minority Christians to leave the mainly Muslim north within days.
Rumors have swirled in recent days that Muslims in the largely Christian and animist south may also become the targets of attacks, the Red Cross said.
Red Cross official Dan Enowoghomwenma in southern Edo state told CNN Tuesday that one mosque had been burned and another vandalized during clashes in Benin City.
The rising tide of violence led the president to declare a partial state of emergency in four northern states two weeks ago.
Corruption, poverty and a lack of government services have helped Boko Haram gain support, especially among young unemployed Muslims. So has a perception that the Muslim north has been marginalized by a political establishment drawn largely from the south, the president among them.
CNN’s Vladimir Duthiers contributed to this report from Lagos and journalist Hassan John from Jos. Faith Karimi and Umaro Djau contributed from Atlanta.