LAGOS (Reuters) - "Nigeria is not Animal Farm!" read one placard brandished during days of furious fuel price protests by Nigerians which have combined with a violent Islamist insurgency to move Africa's top oil producer closer to what many fear may be a breaking point.
The same political vices of corrupt leadership and abuse of power which George Orwell skewered in his 1945 novella "Animal Farm" have corroded Nigeria's politics since independence from Britain in 1960. Angry popular backlash against these is fuelling the latest violence and unrest in the African continent's most populous state.
This anti-establishment fury brought Africa's second largest economy to a standstill last week. Citizens from all walks of life have taken to the streets after President Goodluck Jonathan's government announced on January 1 it would scrap a motor fuel subsidy, more than doubling fuel prices.
The volcano of public rage has erupted at the same time that a spate of bombings and shootings by a shadowy Islamist sect is threatening to fracture the country's sensitive north-south, Muslim-Christian divide. This religious faultline has caused sectarian conflict claiming thousands of lives in the past.
Some are now asking whether this dynamic but troubled country of 160 million, carved by colonial rulers out of a jigsaw of ethnic and religious groups, can still hold together or risks plunging again into all-out conflict and even break-up.
Many still remember the divisive 1967-1970 civil war over secessionist Biafra that killed over a million people and caused mass starvation, dislocation and suffering.
"As the ripples of incessant bombings and massacres resonate ... fear, anger and hatred have been woven into the very fabric of the nation's life," Soni Daniel, deputy editor of Nigerian daily Leadership wrote in an editorial on Saturday.
"Nigeria has never come as close to the brink of civil war," he added.
The nationwide fuel protests have become an outlet for thousands to vent their grievances against what they see as a venal ruling political class and incompetent government, which is struggling to tackle an insurgency by the Boko Haram Islamist sect based in the largely Muslim north.
"The bottom line is we don't trust the government to do what they say anymore," said student Remi Sonaiya, sitting on a car blaring out Afrobeat music in the heaving Nigerian metropolis of Lagos, while protesters thrashed an effigy of President Jonathan across the face with leafy branches.
Unions launched strikes against the fuel subsidy removal and these are estimated to be costing the country $600 million (392 million pound) a day. They also threatened to shut down Nigeria's 2 million barrel-per-day oil industry, rattling global energy markets.
Talks between Jonathan and labour unions at the weekend failed to reach a compromise, but the main oil union said it was not joining the walkouts for the time being.
On Monday, in an apparent gesture of conciliation, Jonathan announced petrol prices would be reduced and unions agreed to suspend mass protests to allow further negotiations.
FEARS OF CIVIL WAR
Jennifer Giroux, senior researcher for the Centre for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich University, says the fuel prices issue is "a common rallying point ... A unifying issue that has had an immediate impact on the majority of Nigerians, most of whom are making $2 a day or less."
The crisis mood is a far cry from the cautious optimism that greeted Jonathan last April, when he won Nigeria's cleanest ever election on a pledge to fight graft, fix a crumbling power sector and attract investment into its huge oil reserves.
Then, foreign analysts saw a potential take-off for the economy if the former zoology lecturer could push through key reforms and take steps towards healing the north-south rift.
One such recommended reform was ending the fuel subsidy but the president's January 1 decision to remove it convulsed a country already shaken by a wave of Christmas attacks claimed by Boko Haram, including church bombings that killed dozens and stoked sectarian tensions.
Attacks have continued during the fuel protests. Targeting of minority Christians triggered reprisals by Christians on Muslims in the south, even though the majority of the two communities have shown in the past they can live in peace.
During fuel price protests in southwestern Benin City on Tuesday, five people were killed when a mob attacked a mosque, and 3,000 Muslims of northern origin fled.
Fears that the unrest and violence could degenerate into something even bigger seem to be gaining some traction.
"The situation we have in our hands is even worse than the civil war that we fought," Jonathan said in recent comments about the Boko Haram insurgency.
"During the civil war, we knew where the enemy was coming from. (Now) you won't even know the person who will point a gun at you or plant a bomb behind your house," he said, warning that Boko Haram members were in "all levels of government."
And in a recent interview with the BBC, Nobel prize-winning Nigerian author Wole Soyinka said the comparison with the traumatic Biafra war was "not unrealistic."
"We see the nation heading towards a civil war, we know that the (Biafra) civil war was preceded by serious killings by both sides of the regional divide, we've seen reprisals," he said.
"It is going that way, we no longer can pretend it's not. When you get a situation where a bunch of people can go into a place of worship and open fire through the windows, you've reached a certain dismal watershed."
PRESIDENT - AND ARMY - UNDER SCRUTINY
Some question whether civilian Jonathan, who as vice president first took power in May 2010 when his predecessor Umaru Yar'Adua died, has the capacity to lead Nigeria out of its multi-headed crisis.
They worry that his miscalculation of the public mood over the fuel subsidy removal, and his slow reaction to the escalating Boko Haram insurgency suggest he may struggle.
"There are serious questions about how in control the president is, with some really poor decision making. Is Goodluck Jonathan really able to provide visionary leadership?" asked Alex Vines, senior fellow and Africa specialist at London think tank Chatham House.
"There seems to be just drift and indecisiveness."
A civil servant who works with Jonathan says privately that his style differs from the many military rulers that have often run Nigeria in the past. He listens, even lets people interrupt, which some in Nigeria's macho politics may see as a weakness.
The son of a canoe carver in the oil-rich Niger Delta, Jonathan studied zoology, in which he earned a doctorate, and worked as an education inspector, lecturer and environmental protection officer before going into politics in 1998.
He was northerner Yar'Adua's running mate in a shambolic election in 2007, but his campaign to run himself after Yar'Adua's death was controversial because of an informal pact within the ruling PDP party that the presidency should rotate between the north and the south.
As a southeast Christian, by running for the leadership he upset that rotation deal in the eyes of many northerners.
The early signs that Jonathan's first elected term as president would not be smooth came hours after he was sworn in on May 30. A series of bombings killed at least 14 people in a drinking spot inside a barracks in the northern city of Bauchi.
Most observers see a political element to the recurrent violence in the north, which analysts say is also rooted in anger - as with the fuel price protests - against the lack of economic opportunities caused by decades of poor governance.
Boko Haram's heartland in the remote, semi-arid northeast is one of the country's poorest regions, where a failed education system and youth unemployment have conspired to provide easy recruits for extremists.
Last year, Boko Haram attacks spread and even hit the capital Abuja, yet Jonathan's reaction has often appeared low-key. Some critics have faulted him for initially treating the insurgency as a purely security issue, rather than as something requiring a political settlement.
"He's eerily calm considering we could be weeks away from a major confrontation," said Africa Confidential editor Patrick Smith. "The absolute failure ... to wheel on southerners and northerners at the same time to say this is a national crisis and we have to pull together, is striking."
The biggest fear, Smith said, is that the army - whose upper ranks are all southern Christians, while junior officers and lower ranks are a mix of both from many geographical locations - could fracture if a section of it launches a mutiny.
There are already rumblings in the military, he said.
"The next big faultline is the army, and how well they stay together ... If it splits, that is this country's nightmare."
In addition, that fact that Jonathan is an Ijaw from the southern Niger Delta means that any attempt to unseat him by force - especially by a northerner - could trigger a backlash in the Delta by militants who have fought the government before.
A former Niger Delta warlords Mujahid Dokubo-Asari said this month that his people taking up arms to defend Jonathan against Boko Haram was "minutes away.
ROOTS IN CORRUPTION, INEQUALITY
Despite the serious strains, many point out that Nigeria has often lurched from crisis to crisis but, at least since the Biafra war, has managed to avoid a total breakdown.
An armed uprising in the Niger Delta last decade - similarly driven by anger at the failure of politicians to deliver local services - lasted years and shut down almost half of Nigeria's oil and gas output at one stage. Nevertheless, Delta militants signed a peace deal with the government in 2009.
"The president can survive the dual crisis if he manages to keep the support of key political actors from the Parliament, the state governors and some sectors of the civil society," Gilles Yabi, West Africa Project Director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank, told Reuters.
"I don't think that the level of radicalization and polarization that preceded the Biafra war can be easily reached today," he added.
Others feel however the country may have come to a crossroads. "Do things have to get either better or worse very quickly or can it just muddle along as it always has?" said Antony Goldman, who heads London-based PM Consulting.
Yabi said it was encouraging that the unions promoting the strikes had agreed to go into negotiations with the president.
Goldman noted that Boko Haram's leader Abubakar Shekau did not specifically rule out talks in an otherwise defiant online video in which he defended recent killings of Christians as justifiable revenge attacks and said Jonathan had no power to stop the group's insurgency.
In his video, Shekau appears to echo popular complaints against dysfunctional established politics when he says "injustice is unbelief, democracy is unbelief and the constitution is unbelief."
Stephen Ellis, a historian at the Africa Studies Centre at Leiden University in the Netherlands, sees Jonathan as a wily politician who has already shown he has the skills to operate in Nigeria's challenging politics, which he calls "a very rough business ... like a poker game ... or juggling chain saws."
Ellis makes the point that all the country's power brokers, including those in the restive North who may be pursuing their own agendas by using the Boko Haram insurgency to pressure southerner Jonathan, are dependent on the national oil income.
"If you are a member of the Nigerian elite, including those in the north, you need the Nigerian state to be in business," he says, a factor which could lead, as in the past since the Biafra war, to a fresh political accommodation that restores calm.
But tackling the deeply and widely embedded corruption that lubricates all levels of Nigeria's political system is a much tougher challenge in the long term.
"A really determined effort to stamp out corruption would itself be massively destabilising. It can only be done gradually," Ellis said.
But until this happens, outbreaks of angry protests and violence are likely to recur in an energy-rich country that pumps 2 million barrels of oil a day with the help of oil majors like Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil, while its citizens face crumbling roads, abysmal public hospitals, chronic power shortages and an economy rigged in favour of powerful import oligarchs.
"Nigeria ... has been ruled by the same cult of mediocrity - a deeply corrupt cabal - for at least forty years, recycling themselves in different guises and incarnations," said famed Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in a recent interview with the Christian Science Monitor.
Achebe's acclaimed 1958 novel "Things Fall Apart" tells of social dislocation stemming from colonial rule and can be seen as a prescient foretelling of Nigeria's post-independence pains.
So any political deal may only buy some time before the next explosion of anger in a deeply fractured and unequal society.
"For ordinary people, it's become about everything that's wrong in Nigeria ... about tens of millions of people paying for the champagne lifestyle of dozens of people," Goldman said.
(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Johannesburg; Editing by Pascal Fletcher/Janet McBride)