From every indication, the lockdown adventure by separatist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) has gone utterly rogue, true to the saying that it takes just a tip to start a snowball. It not only seems a tough call for government centres in the Southeast to rein it in, it has apparently gone out of IPOB’s own control.
Sit-at-homes had always been a handy tack by the outlawed group in pressing its secessionist cause. The current ‘ghost Monday’ campaign was flagged off 9th August by IPOB avowedly to protest the incarceration of its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, and force government’s hand on his trial and desired release. Recall that Kanu, who fled this country in September 2017 amidst prosecution for offences including alleged terrorism, arms running and insurrection against the Nigerian state, was rearrested abroad last June and dragged back in the dock in Abuja, following which IPOB launched the latest campaign to compel his being freed. Although the lockdown notice met with robust reassurances by governments of the Southeast states and security agencies that people should ignore IPOB and go about their lawful chores unhindered, rest assured of their safety, the sit-at-home kicked off anyway with substantial degree of compliance – and that, perhaps more out of fear of violent enforcement by IPOB’s foot soldiers than from willing solidarity with the group. But faced with harsh evidence of extensive haemorrhage in personal and corporate Igbo economies resulting from the campaign, IPOB returned on 13th August to call off the lockdown and modify its directive to whenever Kanu is to appear in court. Early signs that the campaign had gone unhinged, however, was when Southeast residents persisted in observing the lockdown despite its suspension by IPOB that initiated it.
The sit-at-home was problematic from the outset in that governments of the Southeast states, working with security agencies, could not get a handle on it. The campaign entailed the region’s economies being shut down every Monday, leaving commerce and other businesses including transportation, banks and other corporates, fuel stations and schools paralysed. Government offices were not spared and remained largely shut despite threats by respective state government that employees must report unfailingly at their duty posts every work day or face sanctions; many of those employees said they couldn’t get transportation to work when they tried. And it wasn’t that both corporates and individuals within the region who observed the lockdown, apparently under duress, weren’t gravely impacted. Ebonyi State Governor Dave Umahi lamented that the Southeast loses some N10billion in every sit-at-home. Other stakeholders raised the alarm that the region’s economy was in meltdown, with this latest campaign having robbed the zone in excess of N50billion. A chieftain of Nnewi Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (NCCIMA), Chief Moses Ezukwo, was reported saying private sector loss was more than 60 per cent of the total sum; estimates indicated that the transport sector alone lost at least N3billion any day there was lockdown in the region because an average of one million people moved around each day within the region at an average cost of N3,000 per traveller.
Distressed by this reality, the governors of Southeast states read the riot act against residents who observed the sit-at-home. Anambra State Governor Willie Obiano led a street action early last week to banks, markets and motor parks to compel immediate return to normalcy. He had earlier threatened to seal up banks and punish leaders of markets or motor parks that fail to open on Mondays or any other day IPOB declares a lockdown. His Imo State counterpart, Governor Hope Uzodinma, asked residents to ignore the sit-at-home order and go about their normal businesses, saying those behind the campaign had been identified and would soon be arrested and arraigned. In like manner, governments of Abia, Enugu and Ebonyi states pressed residents within their respective domain to shun the lockdown campaign and go back to their businesses, threatening hardline measures in the event of their failure to oblige. But despite the intense executive suasion, threats and assurances of safety, residents of all the Southeast states remained largely indoors last Monday and on Tuesday, 14th September, which IPOB declared as ad hoc sit-at-home to commemorate alleged military invasion of Kanu’s Afaraukwu country residence in Umuahia, Abia State, in 2017.
And you really couldn’t blame those residents for staying home, because there were sufficient indications neither government nor indeed IPOB any longer had a handle on how the campaign progressed. Some residents who ventured outdoors met with vicious lockdown enforcers that government had not been able to protect them from, and to make matters worse, who the separatist group disowned as not acting in its behalf. If IPOB is to be believed, they were ‘fifth columnists’ of some sort – an ultimate indication that the cause had gone totally off-hinge. Some of the encounters with these enforcers were fatal tipping points in the lockdown campaign. Last Monday, gunmen stormed Comprehensive Secondary School in Nkume, Njaba council area of Imo State, chasing away pupils who were sitting for English Language paper in the West African School Certificate (WASC) examination and setting ablaze school buildings as well as motorcycles of some teachers and invigilators. Many stakeholders described it as an attack, not just on the future of the Southeast but the entirety of Nigeria. Former Anambra State Governor Peter Obi said it was a ‘sacred’ duty to promote the education of children because they are the leaders of tomorrow, and he wondered why the sit-at-home was still being enforced despite repeated announcements by IPOB that it had been suspended. On the heels of the Nkume incident, IPOB itself appeared scandalized, describing perpetrators as sheer saboteurs only pretending to be its agents; it declared war on anybody found enforcing a ‘non-existent sit-at-home’ order on Mondays.
On the following day, Tuesday, that the separatist group called an ad hoc lockdown to commemorate the 2017 raid of Kanu’s Afaraukwu home, gunmen struck at an Anglican parsonage in Ihitteukwa, Orsu council area of Imo State, killing a priest, Rev. Emeka Merenu, and burning his car. Reports cited members of the community saying the priest was gunned down on an unfounded allegation that he enlisted military men to secure his church and a secondary school within the premises, of which the church is proprietor, to enable the pupils to write their examinations. Again, IPOB was near-hysterical in repudiating the incident, which it said was being linked to its agents only to demonise the group. It described the killing as reprehensible and barbaric, and strenuously proclaimed its dissociation from it. Against speculations that another sit-at-home was being planned at its instance for last Friday, the group reiterated that lockdowns had been firmly shelved and rescheduled only for days that Kanu is due in court.
The emergent scenario was that some freelance agents were violently enforcing a sit-at-home that IPOB, which made the initial call, had suspended but which residents persisted in observing because neither government nor IPOB seemed up to the task of protecting them from those enforcers. Meanwhile, the region’s economy badly haemorrhaged and directly hazarded same residents compelled by circumstances to observe the lockdown; if they had their way, many wanted out and fast. So, there’s a common enemy here, namely rogue enforcers of a lockdown generally viewed as undesirable and already revoked by its promoter. It was apparently to break the tangle that Southeast legislators were last week reported seeking an audience with President Muhammadu Buhari to discuss Kanu’s fate. While it remains to be seen how far this initiative goes, the bitter pill in my view is for government and IPOB (proscribed as it is) to momentarily shelve hostilities and collaborate on tackling down the rogue lockdown enforcers, so to restore the confidence of Southeast residents in communal security. It is by all accounts a bitter pill, but one that must be swallowed for collective survival.