Lagos, Nigeria – For the past three months, Newman Nwankwo has heard friends, relatives and others across southeastern Nigeria complain about a general disruption of life every Monday, and at least one other day some weeks, from a sit-at-home order which was announced and enforced by separatists. in the region.
“The sit-at-home is a pain in the a **,” Nwankwo told Al Jazeera.
The 34-year-old businessman runs a small chain of Point of Sale (POS) terminal operator shops that act as informal banks across Onitsha, probably Nigeria’s largest commercial nerve center outside Lagos.
Everyone, including himself, feels the sting of the stay-at-home order, he said. “Onitsha is very dependent on its market activities [so] “Everyone loses money every Monday, from the government to even tomato sellers.”
Since July, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), which is agitating for the secession of a part of the southeast that is home to the Igbo ethnic group, has been issuing sit-at-home prescriptions to people across the region. The restrictions were imposed following the repatriation from Kenya of the group’s charismatic leader Nnamdi Kanu, to face seven federal charges, including terrorism and high treason.
Like Nwankwo, many residents of the region say the restrictions are now having a serious economic impact on them. A survey conducted in the region by the Lagos-based geopolitical advisory firm SBM Intelligence found that two-thirds of respondents feel that their productivity is extremely affected by the restrictions. Of the respondents who said their productivity remained the same, half were students and teachers who were already home for the school holidays.
That was in August. By the end of October, the outgoing governor of Anambra, Willie Obiano, announced that schools would remain open on Saturdays to make up for the stoppage of business-as-usual on Mondays. Charles Soludo, the state’s elected governor and a former head of Nigeria’s central bank, said the state loses an estimated 19.6 billion Nigerian naira ($ 47.70 million) every day from restrictions. In Ebonyi, the governor was more conservative, putting the figure at 10 billion Nigerian naira ($ 24.34 million) losses.
I do not know how sustainable it is
In August, IPOB claimed to have scrapped the sit-at-home orders, even though stores were forcibly closed and goods burned or confiscated. Nevertheless, many still obey, for fear of retaliation from the group, which has repeatedly denied that its members participate in violence.
For weeks streets were deserted and on Sunday evenings there were traffic jams on major routes leading to Kogi and Delta, two states bordering the region. In a financial climate characterized by high inflation, the fortunes of many have only deteriorated.
On September 6, unknown gunmen, presumably IPOB members, killed a businessman and his apprentices in Ebonyi State. The same day, a trailer with motorcycle parts was destroyed just outside the university town of Nsukka in the state of Enugu.
While the group canceled a one-week-sit-at-home order issued last month, the postponement was designed to enforce a boycott of the gubernatorial elections. Only a 10th of the 2.5 million registered voters in the state of Anambra turned out to vote.
Bubble below the surface
Onitsha is home to one of two markets in the region that ranks among the largest outdoor markets in West Africa. It is also a direct outlet for a thriving manufacturing cluster in the nearby town of Nnewi.
Together, Onitsha and Abiriba markets make up two-thirds of what has arguably been the largest distribution network for Nollywood films and Nigerian pop music for decades. Abiriba is also responsible for exporting leather goods across West Africa and to other places such as Equatorial Guinea.
Residents said relative entrepreneurial success did not happen as a result of federal government policy, but in spite of it.
That sentiment, coupled with claims that the people were politically and economically marginalized, fed Kanu’s rhetoric while leading IPOB’s campaign for the region to secede as the breakaway state of Biafra.
The idea of Biafra first came into being almost six decades ago. After a pogrom unleashed against people of Igbo descent in northern Nigeria, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, the military governor of eastern Nigeria, withdrew the mainly Igbo region from the country. It had been surviving for 30 months, and by the time the war ended in 1970, more than a million people had died.
For years, there has been talk of secession beneath the surface until the return of democracy to Nigeria in 1999. It has since peaked after Kanu’s entry into the national stage some 10 years ago and the region is once again in the grip of increasing violence. turmoil.
Kanu’s antics and rhetoric led to frequent clashes with the government and repeated arrests of his followers. He also spent two years in detention before disappearing while on bail and is currently on trial after being extradited from Kenya in June. In 2017, the group was banned by a Nigerian federal court order as a “terrorist organization”.
Cheta Nwanze, chief partner at SBM Intelligence, told Al Jazeera that IPOB was increasingly “losing support on the back of a self-immolating sit-at-home order.” He said it appeared that fear of the group’s paramilitary wing – rather than secessionism – ensured compliance with the stay-at-home order, and that residents of the region said the group was unknowingly inflicting the type of economic damage they were complaining about. against.
One small business owner in Enugu, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said the stay-at-home order could stem from valid grievances with Nigeria’s federal government, but ultimately hurt the wrong people.
“It’s all self-inflicted pain,” he said. “I do not know how sustainable it is, because it has led to a lot of uncertainty. Much of the compliance is due to the uncertainty. There are legal grievances that we all have in Nigeria today, but it [action] people do not touch [in government] with which you have grievances. ”