LAGOS: A national strike paralyzed much of Nigeria on Monday, with more than 10,000 demonstrators swarming its commercial capital to protest soaring fuel prices and decades of government corruption in the oil-rich country.
Some protesters pulled metal barriers into the street, while others took gasoline from motorbikes to set tires ablaze. Others waved placards bearing an effigy of President Goodluck Jonathan with devil horns and fanged teeth, and showing him pumping fuel at a gas station.
"Our leaders are not concerned about Nigerians. They are concerned about themselves," said protester Joseph Adekolu, a 42-year-old accountant.
Police carrying Kalashnikov rifles and gas masks largely stood by as the demonstrators marched on the first day of an indefinite strike called by labor unions. Protesters also took to the streets in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja.
Gas prices have risen from $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter) to at least $3.50 per gallon (94 cents per liter) since a government fuel subsidy ended on Jan. 1 at the orders of Jonathan’s administration. That spurred a spike in prices for food and transportation across a nation of more than 160 million people, most of whom live on less than $2 a day.
While lawmakers on Sunday rebuked the president’s decision, the unions said they would continue their strike.
Bola Adejobi, 53, said she’s protesting against more than just fuel costs.
For her and many others in Africa’s most populous country, the strike represents anger that much of the nation remains without electricity and clean drinking water after more than 50 years of oil production.
"It is high time to take Nigeria into our hands," Adejobi said. "It happened in Egypt. It happened in Libya."
Nigeria’s finance minister said the country has been using borrowed funds to maintain the subsidy.
"Greece got where it is now because for years, they didn’t do the right thing. They kept borrowing and borrowing to finance development,"
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told local television station Channels TV on Monday. "We can’t keep borrowing to finance our development."
Two major unions have said they will maintain the strike despite a court restraining order. A similar situation occurred in 2003, when strikers over eight days attacked shops that remained open, took over air traffic control towers and caused a drop in oil production in a country vital to US energy supplies.
Organizers have called for peaceful protests, but gang members already began stoning vehicles and harassing motorists in Lagos. Some riot police stood on hand at the demonstration site Monday. They quickly became outnumbered by protesters.
The strikes comes as activists have begun a loose-knit group of protests called "Occupy Nigeria," inspired by those near Wall Street in New York.
Their anger extends to the government’s weak response to ongoing violence in Nigeria by a radical Muslim sect that, according to an Associated Press count, killed at least 510 people last year.
Famous Nigerian authors, including Chinua Achebe, issued a statement Monday saying they support the strike, and warning that if left unattended the violence by the extremist group could sweep the country.
"The country’s leadership should not view the incessant attacks as mere temporary misfortune with which the citizenry must learn to live; they are precursors to events that could destabilize the entire country," their statement read.
The government has so fair failed to calm public anger over the spiraling gasoline costs. The government has promised that the $8 billion in estimated savings a year from the end of the fuel subsidies would go toward badly needed road and public projects.
One protester in Lagos held his protest sign upside down.
"Our life is already turned upside down," he told a reporter. "It is not how it’s supposed to be."
Demonstrators burned a patrol car and a private car parked next to it in the northern city of Kano, filling the sky with billows of smoke as thousands protested below. Some in Nigeria’s second-largest city are asking for the government to restore the subsidy. Others want Jonathan to resign. "He cannot rule this country," a placard read.
Some protesters also brought down a fence to the seat of the state of government in Kano where security officers used tear gas and fired at the crowd to keep them from entering the premises.
Eighteen people were wounded in the shootings and stampede that followed, said Dr. Kabiru Abdulsalam, spokesman for the Nigerian Medical Association of Kano.
Associated Press writers Ibrahim Garba in Kano, Lekan Oyekanmi in Abuja and Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.