LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — A human wave of more than 20,000 surrounded the Muslim faithful as they prayed toward Mecca Friday, as anti-government demonstrations over spiraling fuel prices and corruption showed unity among protesters despite growing sectarian tensions in Africa's most populous nation.
While violence sparked by religious and ethnic divisions left about 1,500 people dead last year alone in Nigeria, some hope the ongoing protests gripping the oil-rich nation will bring together a country that already suffered through a bloody civil war.
"It shows that Nigeria is now coming together as one family," said Abdullahi Idowu, 27, as he prepared to wash himself before Friday prayers.
Labor unions, meanwhile, announced Friday they would halt their five-day strike for the weekend, allowing families stuck largely inside their homes to go to markets and rest. Union leaders also plan to meet President Goodluck Jonathan and government officials on Saturday for new negotiations, just ahead of a promised labor shutdown of Nigeria's oil industry.
Nigeria, which produces about 2.4 million barrels of crude a day, is the fifth-largest oil exporter to the U.S. While the country has a several-week stock of oil ready for export, the threatened shutdown Sunday could shake oil futures as traders remained concerns about worldwide supply.
The strike began Monday, paralyzing the nation of more than 160 million people. The root cause remains gasoline prices: President Goodluck Jonathan's government abandoned subsidies that kept gasoline prices low Jan. 1, causing prices to spike from $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter) to at least $3.50 per gallon (94 cents per liter). The costs of food and transportation also largely doubled in a nation where most people live on less than $2 a day.
Anger over losing one of the few benefits average Nigerians see from being an oil-rich country, as well as disgust over government corruption, have led to demonstrations across this nation and violence that has killed at least 10 people.
Protesters say they will not accept anything other than a full restoration of the estimated $8 billion in subsidies the government spends to keep gas prices low. On Friday, the president of the Nigeria Labor Congress said the government offered a slight subsidy to lower prices during negotiations on Thursday night. However, Abdulwaheed Omar said labor organizers rejected it, saying they wanted a full return of the subsidy.
At the mass demonstration in Lagos, Pastor Tunde Bakare called in Nigeria to reject a government that "is working hard to remove the crumbs the poor people survive on," while not providing adequate clean drinking water and electricity.
"We have become a generator republic," said Bakare, a one-time vice presidential candidate for the opposition party Congress for Progressive Change.
Bakare also urged those gathered in Nigeria's predominantly Christian south not to retaliate against Muslims living in their neighborhoods over recent attacks by a radical Islamist group known as Boko Haram. The group, which wants to implement strict Shariah law across Nigeria, is blamed for killing at least 67 people so far this year alone, according to an Associated Press count.
Boko Haram also has begun specifically targeting Christians in Nigeria's Muslim north in their attacks, causing some to flee while exploiting deep-seated ethnic suspicions in the country. Jonathan himself described the situation as worse than the nation's 1960s civil war, which saw 1 million people killed after Nigeria's southeast declared itself the Republic of Biafra.
"In every family in the south, there are Muslims and Christians. They are not violent people. The sect can be identified and dealt with," Bakare told the AP.
In a show of solidarity, the protests Friday included prayers for Muslims. Several thousand gathered in the grass near an expressway off-ramp. Sheik Abdulrahman Ahmad preached to the crowd about the evils of terrorism, calling on them to shun possible reprisal attacks over the ongoing unrest.
"Because we forget ourselves, oil has become our curse," Ahmad told the crowd. He later added: "Our problem is oppression; our problem is bad governance."
Though Christians gathered around praying Muslims to protect them during their prayers, violence still lurks around the edges of the protest in a country where people are beginning to become hungry. A crowd suddenly ran after a suspected thief at one point, stoning him and beating him with sticks until he fell into a trash and feces-filled ditch.
The crowd continued to throw things at him, cursing.
"This is the life of a Nigerian," a man in the crowd called out. "This is how we live."
Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell can be reached at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.