Armed officers reportedly opened fire in a poor suburb of Lagos, the commercial capital, as crowds refused to break up their protests, which accompanied a nationwide strike.
Up to 50 others were injured in similar incidents in major cities as Africa’s most populous country was brought to a standstill with millions of trade union members downing tools.
The demonstrations were held to show popular outrage at the scrapping of a government-funded subsidy that artificially kept petrol, diesel and kerosene prices as low as 26p a litre.
Overnight, prices had risen to more than 56p a litre.
Millions of Nigeria’s poorest people, who survive on less than £1.50 a day each, will be hardest hit by the price increase.
“This government is supposed to be there to protect us, to allow us to make business, to feed and clothe and educate our children, and now they are here shooting us,” said David Amosu, a civil servant who joined one rally in Lagos.
He described how riot police repeatedly hit people with batons before firing into the air as the crowd, angered by the beatings, surged forward.
“They fired up, then they fired down, that’s when people were hurt badly.”
Elsewhere across the West African nation roadblocks with burning tyres were set up and hundreds of people marched through the streets with placards.
One read: “Soon the poor will have nothing left to eat but the rich”. T-shirts were emblazoned with “Kill corruption not Nigerians”.
President Goodluck Jonathan had made cancelling the fuel subsidy a keystone of his economic reform programme.
It costs as much as £5 billion a year—estimated to be a quarter of government expenditure—and there have recently been rafts of allegations that large tranches of the money were pocketed by corrupt cartel bosses.
Despite being one of Africa’s largest crude oil exporters, the country of 160 million people still has to import costly petrol and diesel due to a lack of refineries.
“Subsidies should be subsidies for production and not for consumption,” said Lamido Sanusi, governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria.
“If we are going to borrow, it is better to invest that borrowing in infrastructure, in power, in production or in subsidising productive capacity like refineries.”
The Nigerian government’s main defence for the move was to eradicate powerful groups that benefited from the subsidy, said Hannah Waddilove, sub-Saharan analyst for AKE Group in London, which analyses political risk.
“Money spent on Nigeria’s fuel subsidy is unlikely to be the real cost of importing fuel,” she said.
“It has long been understood that a cartel within the petroleum sector has burdened the government’s subsidy programme, siphoning off large amounts of money and intensifying the deficits of successive budgets.”
The Foreign Office in London warned of possible disruptions to flights to and from Nigeria, and warned Britons in the country that they “may wish to consider stocking up on food, water, fuel and cash”.
President Goodluck is unlikely to backtrack and reinstate the subsidy for fear of showing inconsistency and weakness that could scare off international lenders and investors, analysts in Nigeria said.
But he faces a tricky month ahead as he tries also to hunt down Islamist militants who have launched a campaign apparently designed to rid Nigeria’s north of its Christian minority.
Boko Haram, the shadowy Muslim group claiming responsibility for a raft of recent attacks, is understood to have no connection to the strike or the fuel-price protests.
Authorities said meanwhile on Monday that Boko Haram killed a secret police officer in Biu, a town in the northeast. The Borno state police commissioner said gunmen from the sect attacked after the officer left a mosque.