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Nigerian Activists Say Fuel Fraud Protests 'Last Resort'

A man buys fuel at a petrol station in Lagos, Nigeria, April 24, 2012.
A man buys fuel at a petrol station in Lagos, Nigeria, April 24, 2012.

ABUJA, Nigeria - Two weeks ago, activist leaders in Nigeria issued an ultimatum to the government: Either take concrete steps to punish officials responsible for stealing billions of dollars from the public’s fuel subsidy or face massive protests. Activists now say they will hold off on protests, but complain the steps that have been taken are more "sandy" than "concrete."

Activists say they are not happy with the progress that has been made so far in investigating high-level officials accused of stealing $6.8 billion in public funds. The stolen money was part of a $16-billion fuel subsidy. Some of it was meant pay fuel importers so they could sell fuel to the public at a discounted rate. Some of those funds, though, were dispersed to companies that imported no fuel at all.

Pastor Tunde Bakare leads the Save Nigeria Group, one of the organizers of mass protests that erupted across Nigeria early this year when the federal government cut the fuel subsidy altogether. Prices doubled and President Goodluck Jonathan was eventually forced to partly reinstate the subsidy.

Bakare said they now are backing off on their ultimatum, giving Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission more time to investigate.

"All we’ve heard hitherto has been mere rhetoric with no concrete actions from constituted authorities. Yet, we are ready to extend the rope to see what comes of the EFCC’s promise within a reasonable time," he said.

Bakare said protests remain a possibility, but only as a last resort. Since January, the group has called for life sentences for persons found guilty of stealing public funds.

Three weeks ago, lawmakers presented a report revealing that Nigeria spent more than half the federal budget in 2011 on the fuel subsidy, calling the program "fraught with endemic corruption." The report pointed the finger at several areas of the government, including fuel regulators, the petroleum ministry, the state oil company and government financial institutions.

Almustapha Liman heads a security company in Abuja. He said the fact that a small group of people could steal so much is "madness," and says he is prepared to join protests if action is not taken.

He said in the post-Arab Spring world, governments can no longer ignore the will of the people.

"We have seen a lot of countries whereby a lot of people are willing, are ready to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the citizens. We’ve seen it, a lot of countries, a lot and it works," said Liman.

Liman said he has less hope in the judicial system prosecuting offenders than he does in people standing publicly for their rights. Authorities may produce reports, but between connections, corruption and endless delays, he doubts anyone will go to jail any time soon.