Lagos, Nigeria – During the last three months, Newman Nwankwo has heard friends, relatives and others across southeastern Nigeria complain about a general disruption to life every Monday, and at least one other day some weeks, from a sit-at-home order 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, arguably Nigeria’s biggest commercial nerve centre outside Lagos.
Everyone, himself included, is feeling the sting of the stay-at-home order, he said. “Onitsha is heavily dependent on its market activities [so] everybody 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 swath of the southeast that is home to the Igbo ethnic group, has issued sit-at-home directives to people across the region. The restrictions were imposed following the repatriation from Kenya of the group’s charismatic leader Nnamdi Kanu, to face trial on seven federal charges, including terrorism and treason.
Like Nwankwo, many residents of the region say the lockdowns are now having a severe economic impact on them. A survey carried out in the region by Lagos-based geopolitical advisory firm SBM Intelligence found that two-thirds of respondents felt their productivity was extremely affected by the restrictions. Of the respondents who said their productivity remained the same, half were students and teachers who were already at home for the school holidays.
That was in August. By the end of October, outgoing Anambra Governor Willie Obiano announced that schools would remain open on Saturdays to make up for the halt to business-as-usual on Mondays. Charles Soludo, the state’s governor-elect and a former head of Nigeria’s central bank, has said the state loses an estimated 19.6 billion Nigerian naira ($47.70m) every day of lockdowns. In Ebonyi, the governor was more conservative, putting the figure at 10 billion Nigerian naira ($24.34m) in losses.
I don’t know how sustainable this is
In August, IPOB claimed to have called off the sit-at-home orders, even as shops were forcibly shut down and goods burned or confiscated. Nevertheless, many still comply, fearing retribution from the group, which has repeatedly denied its members engage in violence.
For weeks, streets were deserted and on Sunday evenings, there were traffic gridlocks on major routes leading to Kogi and Delta, two states bordering the region. In a financial climate marked by high inflation, the fortunes of many have only worsened.
On September 6, unknown gunmen, believed to be IPOB members, killed a businessman and his apprentices in Ebonyi State. That same day, a trailer with motorcycle spare parts was razed just outside the university town of Nsukka in Enugu state.
While the group cancelled a one-week sit-at-home order given last month, the reprieve was designed to force a boycott of the governorship elections. Only a 10th of the 2.5 million registered voters in Anambra state showed up to vote.
Bubbling under the surface
Onitsha is home to one of two markets in the region that rank among the largest outdoor markets in West Africa. It is also a direct outlet for a booming manufacturing cluster in the nearby town of Nnewi.
Together, Onitsha and Abiriba markets account for two-thirds of what was for decades undisputedly the biggest distribution network for Nollywood films and Nigerian pop music. Abiriba is also responsible for the export of leather goods across West Africa and to other places like Equatorial Guinea.
Residents have said that relative entrepreneurial success has happened not because of federal government policy, but in spite of it.
That sentiment, along with claims that the people have been politically and economically marginalised have fed Kanu’s rhetoric as he spearheads IPOB’s campaign for the region to secede as the breakaway state of Biafra.
The idea of Biafra first sprouted 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, pulled the predominantly Igbo region out of the country. It survived all of 30 months, and by the time the war ended in 1970, more than a million people had died.
For years, talk of secession bubbled under the surface until the return of democracy to Nigeria in 1999. It has since peaked after Kanu’s entrance on the national stage about 10 years ago and the region is once again in the throes of increasingly violent agitation.
Kanu’s antics and rhetoric have 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 under trial after being extradited from Kenya in June. In 2017, the group was proscribed as a “terrorist organisation” by a Nigerian federal court order.
Cheta Nwanze, lead partner at SBM Intelligence, told Al Jazeera that IPOB is increasingly “losing support on the back of a self-immolating sit-at-home order.” He said fear of the group’s paramilitary wing – rather than secessionist fervour – appears to be ensuring compliance with the stay-at-home order, and that residents of the region have said the group was unwittingly inflicting the type of economic damage it has been complaining against.
One small business owner in Enugu, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said the stay-at-home order may stem from valid grievances with Nigeria’s federal government, but is ultimately harming the wrong people.
“It’s all self-inflicted pain”, he said. “I don’t know how sustainable this is because it has led to a lot of uncertainty. A lot of the compliance is because of the uncertainty. There are legitimate grievances that we all have in Nigeria today but this [action] does not affect people [in government] that you have grievances with.”