LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Angry mobs of protesters stopped gas station owners from selling fuel Tuesday while others lit a bonfire on a major highway in an attempt to thwart the government's removal of a cherished consumer subsidy that had kept gas affordable for more than two decades.
A rapidly growing group of protesters were going from gas station to station, telling owners not to sell gas at the spiked prices of about $3.50 a gallon. That is more than double what consumers paid only days ago for the fuel desperately needed to power the generators that keep many businesses running.
And on one major highway in the megacity of Lagos, protesters yelled: Occupy the express!" The bonfire that was lit forced scores of drivers to turn around.
The government's quiet announcement over the long holiday weekend that the subsidy was being ended has led to organizing in major cities across the country. Previous attempts to tamper with the subsidy over the last two decades have been met with nationwide protests.
Nigeria's government maintains the country will save some $8 billion — money that can be invested in much-needed infrastructure projects. President Goodluck Jonathan announced Monday evening that he has set up a committee to ensure that the savings will be invested effectively to improve the quality of life of Nigerians.
Few, though, have seen any benefit from the country's vast oil wealth over decades of production, and a culture of distrust of government permeates Nigerian society.
"This New Year 'gift' by the presidency is callous, insensitive and is intended to cause anarchy in the country," said a joint statement by two unions who said they were planning general strikes and protests in the coming days. "We shall neither surrender nor retreat."
The unrest over rising gas prices is only further adding to Nigeria's security woes: Jonathan already declared a state of emergency over the weekend in parts of the country hit by a growing Islamic insurgency that is fueled in part by widespread poverty.
And the fuel price hike is likely to result in even higher prices in the landlocked and violence-plagued north, as Nigeria's refined oil is mainly imported through ports in the country's south.
On Monday afternoon, police officers dispersed a protest in the capital of Abuja using tear gas and arrested five people including a former lawmaker. And at one bus stop in Lagos, a conductor pushed a policeman trying to board his bus for free, saying that the hike meant that even uniformed officers would henceforth have to pay.
Already the price of gas has risen to at least $3.50 per gallon (94 cents per liter) — just over double Sunday's morning price of about $1.70 per gallon (45 cents per liter).
While that's cheap by American standards, most Nigerians subsist on just $2 a day and the rising gas prices are expected to force food prices to spiral as well.
"I don't want to lose customers by doubling my rates, so I'll have to bear some of this cost myself," said Yomi Esan, 31, a driver for a taxi chain. "My biggest worry is losing my customers because this is how I feed my family."
Nigeria, an OPEC member nation producing about 2.4 million barrels of crude oil a day, is a top supplier to the United States, but virtually all of its petroleum products are imported after years of graft, mismanagement and violence at its refineries.
The Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency announced Sunday it was stopping to pay the subsidy on fuel to petroleum importers effective immediately.
An executive with a top gas station owner, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the move would push companies to be more efficient so they can cut costs and sell at more competitive prices.
But for Nigerians, the subsidy was a rare government perk and one they don't want to lose.
Esan, the taxi driver who is afraid to raise his prices, is despondent about his financial future if he stays in Nigeria. He's already started immigration procedures for three other countries.
"I had been saving to buy my own car, but with this, I just want to leave this country," he said.
Associated Press writer Bashir Adigun in Abuja, Nigeria contributed to this report.