LAGOS: Nigeria has entered one of the most crucial phases in its recent history with attacks on Christians sparking fears of religious conflict and nationwide strikes set to begin on Monday over soaring fuel prices.
The killing of dozens of Christians in recent days claimed by Islamist group Boko Haram has raised fears of a wider religious conflict and ignited anger among Christian leaders, who have compared the attacks to the run-up to the country’s 1960s civil war.
Meanwhile, a deeply controversial policy that removed fuel subsidies on January 1, causing petrol prices to instantly more than double, has united much of the country in opposition to the move.
Protests have grown increasingly volatile, while police have fired tear gas and been accused of using excessive force to disperse demonstrators.
A union accused police of shooting dead a demonstrator last week, but authorities denied it and said he was killed by a mob.
A nationwide strike is set for Monday in a bid to force the government to back down, raising the risk of further clashes in Africa’s most populous nation and largest oil producer, while putting the security agencies under heavy pressure.
The situation in Nigeria is "quite precarious and worrisome. There’s lots of uncertainty," said Onah Ekhomu, a Lagos-based independent security expert.
"We have a potential sectarian crisis looming, and now to cut the subsidies — almost the entire country is boiling."
With the escalation of attacks targeting Christians mostly in the predominantly Muslim northern regions, President Goodluck Jonathan on December 31 imposed a state of emergency in parts of the country hard hit by the violence.
Christian leaders have warned they will defend themselves, raising particular concern in a country roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south.
The mounting crises have posed major risks for Jonathan’s administration, which has come under intense pressure over both the violence and the fuel subsidies.
"I think what is going on is not just a question of fuel subsidies, but a whole question of how the country is being run," said Clement Nwankwo, head of Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre, a local NGO.
"Lots of people are not satisfied with the way the country is being run. They think there are huge levels of incapacity, incompetence, coupled with huge corruption."
The irony of the fuel subsidy removal policy is that economists and government officials see it as a vital move that could allow the country to improve its woefully inadequate infrastructure and ease pressure on its foreign reserves.
The government says it spent more than $8 billion (6.3 billion euros) on subsidies in 2011.
But Nigerians view the subsidies as their only benefit from the nation’s oil wealth and lack any real trust in government after years of deep-rooted corruption.
The move saw petrol prices more than double in a country most of whose 160 million people scrape by on less than $2 a day.
Elizabeth Donnelly of London-based think tank Chatham House sees Nigeria as undergoing "pains of an evolving political situation."
What is happening in Nigeria is a "combination of things — a legacy of declining governance over a number of decades … greater corruption and lack of investment in basic infrastructure like health care, education."
"It’s part of an evolving democracy. This is a huge and diverse country and it’s still trying to build a model of democracy that is appropriate and works for Nigeria," Donnelly said.