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Nigerian Gasoline Protests Begin Peacefully

Nigerian union-led protests against higher gasoline prices and the general impoverishment of the population have started peacefully in the main city Lagos. Thousands took part in what organizers hope will be the beginning of a new grassroots movement to challenge the government.

Led by demonstrators chanting protests against government policy in the Yoruba language, thousands took to the streets of Lagos Wednesday.

One of them was journalist Paul Okolo.

"We are on the main corridor road -- which has eight lanes and the right side of it moving toward Ikeja, and southern Lagos, that is where the airport is located -- is completely taken over," he explained. "There is plenty of singing and drumming, people expressing themselves."

One protester told VOA he was angry with the direction Nigeria has taken under elected President Olusegun Obasanjo.

"Our message is that Obasanjo has misgoverned the country he has impoverished the country," he said. "Nigerians find it difficult to understand why they should be paying more for fuel and we are also wondering why it is impossible to recruit more economists in Nigeria."

He said he was happy unions were organizing rallies rather than staging debilitating and ineffective strikes, as they have in the past.

"Yes it's a better idea among the civil society groups in Nigeria as a means of [making conscious] our people and making them understand the issues," he said.

Later in the day, protesters gathered around the Lagos state governor's office, demanding their grievances be heard at the federal level.

Journalist Paul Okolo says the new buzz word is "governance," and that it isn't just about phasing out subsidies and higher gasoline prices anymore.

"Bad governance, that's what they are talking about, now this is not just about the fuel price hike, but about policies that impoverish the people, rather than enhance the welfare," he explained.

Union leaders said they would organize the next protest in Benin City on Friday.

The government has allowed these protests to take place, and Wednesday in Lagos, there was a heavy but calm police presence. Government officials insist subsidies must be ended and that savings will eventually help build new roads, hospitals and schools.

At 50 cents a liter, they say gasoline is still much cheaper in Nigeria than many other parts of the world. Still protesters say, they should get some benefits from living in Africa's biggest oil producer, and that they have yet to see the new roads, schools and hospitals the government has been promising.