Nigeria's leader sparks change, but not the kind he hoped

LAGOS, Nigeria - Nigeria's easygoing president made a rare display of emotion when he addressed a private meeting on an arcane-sounding policy that would become one of the most consequential in his nation's recent history.

"The impression that he gave was that he'd rather die than not do it," said Clement Nwankwo, the head of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre who was among civil society leaders President Goodluck Jonathan spoke to at the meeting.

A short time later, on January 1, Jonathan would abruptly and without warning launch the policy ending fuel subsidies in Africa's largest oil producer and most populous nation, causing petrol prices to double overnight.

The move led many long-suffering Nigerians, most of whom live on less than US$2 a day, to accuse the government of trying to kill them economically.

It also brought tens of thousands onto the streets in protest, particularly in the giant economic capital Lagos, and caused a strike that shut down the country for more than a week, costing Nigeria an estimated US$1.3 billion (S$1.6 billion).

But perhaps most importantly, many say it was the birth of a newfound realisation for those long fed-up with corruption in a country rich with oil but unable to supply even basic services, including adequate electricity.

A new generation of Nigerians have now seen that they can ask questions and force change, analysts said, in a country long accustomed to expecting little from their leaders, who included a series of military rulers prior to 1999.

"People have realised that they have the power now," said Thompson Ayodele of the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis think tank.

Jonathan was forced to compromise on his policy after more than a week of protests and strikes by reducing petrol prices by about 30 per cent.

It was by no means an outright victory for protesters, but it managed to put the government on notice.

"People are going to stand their ground and they will demand more from the government," said Sola Oluwadare of the African Institute for Applied Economics.

There have been mass protests before in Nigeria, particularly major demonstrations over the cancellation of 1993 presidential elections.

But a number of factors have led some to describe the recent protests as unprecedented, including the manner in which they united a country so often divided along ethnic and religious lines.

They were also better organised than previous protests, with social media like Twitter assisting, and recent uprisings in Arab nations served as inspiration, many analysts have said.

The main protests were largely peaceful, with organisers keen not to provoke security forces, and many demonstrators gathered under the Occupy Nigeria label, in reference to the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States.

Beyond that, Jonathan took a significant hit to his credibility.

Many agree that he was well-intentioned in seeking to end the subsidy programme, long viewed as riddled with corruption, and use much of the US$8 billion a year in savings on sorely needed infrastructure.

But the move was widely seen as clumsily handled and badly timed, with the government already under intense pressure over its inability to stop spiralling attacks blamed on Islamist group Boko Haram.

The result was that a president whose career has often been described as accidental, having advanced through a series of unexpected circumstances, including the death of his predecessor, set off change he in no way planned.

Protests were nominally about subsidies, but built into something larger, allowing Nigerians to vent pent-up anger over corruption.

Demonstrators asked why lawmakers are granted allowances believed to take their pay to more than US$1 million a year and why the corrupt were not being arrested.

"We will not back down," Julius Godstime, a 36-year-old civil engineer, said at the main protest site in Lagos where some 10,000 gathered daily last week. "People are dying. People are suffering."

The strike and protests that began January 9 - attracting some of Nigeria's most famous names, including children of the late legendary musician Fela Kuti - were set to resume on January 16 after a weekend pause.

But Lagos residents awoke that day to the president's early morning announcement of the price reduction - and to military lockdown.

Troops occupied the main protest ground in Lagos and set up checkpoints at key spots. Soldiers shot into the air and chased protesters away with armoured vehicles, while police fired tear gas in at least one location.

The deployment sparked anger, including from Nobel literature prize winner Wole Soyinka. Unions announced in the afternoon of January 16 that they were calling off the strike.

Civil society groups however vowed to press on with protests. One including about 200 people on Thursday in Lagos prompted police to fire tear gas.

"I think, for all the Nigerian people, the victory is in knowing that they can organise, that they can protest," Nwankwo said.

"They can bring about changes through people power, and I think that the government had better listen to these issues."