Protests against the fuel subsidy cut became volatile last week, with police firing tear gas at demonstrators [Reuters]

Protesters and police have clashed briefly in the city of Lagos, as Nigerians held a national strike over soaring fuel prices in Africa's largest oil producer.

Security forces, already under pressure over spiralling violence blamed on a radical Islamist group, were on high alert on Monday as several thousand people took to the streets of the economic capital.

The strike comes after the government's controversial move to end fuel subsidies on January 1, which caused petrol prices to more than double in the continent's most populous nation.

Transport costs have followed suit, sharply increasing the price of commuting in a country where most of the 160 million population lives on less than $2 per day despite its oil wealth.

Al Jazeera's Haru Mutasa, reporting from Abuja, the capital, said that a few hundred people there had tried marching into the city centre.

"Most of the protesters are saying that they plan to be peaceful - but they are very angry, saying that the price of bread has doubled," she said.

Several thousand protesters gathered in the capital despite massive security and were marching toward the city centre.

Authorities vowed to prevent them from going to Abuja's city centre and tried to direct them to another area. Police in Abuja fired tear gas last week to disperse a protest.

Police violence

Much of the country has been united in anger against the move despite a strong push from President Goodluck Jonathan and his economic team to make their case for why fuel subsidies had to be abandoned.

Protests against the decision to end fuel subsidies last week became increasingly volatile, with police firing tear gas and accused of using excessive force to disperse demonstrators.

A union also accused police of shooting dead a demonstrator last week, but authorities denied the charge, saying he was killed by a mob.

Nigeria's finance minister speaks to Al Jazeera 

The country's House of Representatives held an emergency session on Sunday and approved a measure calling on the government to reinstate fuel subsidies to allow for further consultations on the issue.

There was however no sign the government would back down.

Jonathan sought to win support for the government's move in an address on national television on Saturday night, but unions rejected it.

The president pledged to reduce salaries for political office holders in the executive branch by 25 per cent as well as to improve public transport, including rail lines, among other areas.

"To save Nigeria, we must all be prepared to make sacrifices," he said.

Economists say removing fuel subsidies is vital for the country to improve its woefully inadequate infrastructure and ease pressure on its foreign reserves.

The government says it spent more than $8bn on subsidies in 2011.

Many Nigerians view the subsidies as their only benefit from the nation's oil wealth, and lack any real trust in government after years of deeply rooted corruption.

Boko Haram

The strike comes with security forces already under heavy pressure over spiralling violence blamed on the radical Islamist group Boko Haram.

Recent deadly attacks on Christians have sparked fears of a wider religious conflict in a country whose population is roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south.

Al Jazeera's Haru Mutasa said that both Christians and Muslims were very upset with the attacks.

"People are saying that the fact that Boko Haram are able to commit these attacks, means they have some political support," Mutasa said.

"A Muslim woman told me that this was a political issue, and its not right that people are being divided - Muslims have always lived peacefully with Christians."

Jonathan, speaking at a church service in Abuja on Sunday, said the violence was worse than the country's civil war.

"The situation we have in our hands is even worse than the civil war that we fought," Jonathan said, referring to Nigeria's 1967 to 1970 civil war that killed more than a million people.

The death toll linked to recent violence blamed on Boko Haram has not reached anywhere near that level, but Jonathan cited the unpredictability and pervasiveness of the threat.

"During the civil war, we knew and we could even predict where the enemy was coming from ... But the challenge we have today is more complicated," he said.

On December 31, Jonathan declared a state of emergency in hard hit areas, but the violence, including gun and bomb attacks, has only continued and spread to other locations.

Source: Agencies