Nigeria: How IPOB’s Sit-At-Home Order Is Destroying Businesses in Nigeria’s South-East

Traders, transporters and hotels lament the impacts of the sit-at-home order of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) on their businesses in Nigeria’s South-east.

When the outlawed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) first declared every Monday a sit-at-home holiday in the South-east of Nigeria in August last year, Emmanuel Ndu did not take it seriously.

Mr Ndu, a businessman in Ogbete Main Market in Enugu State, thought residents of the area would ignore the order because they are predominantly business people.

“All of a sudden it started holding, even in December, which is usually our business season,” he said, shrugging his shoulders to express his surprise over the development.

Nnamdi Kanu’s trial

In August, it will be one year since IPOB introduced the order to put pressure on the Nigerian government to release its leader, Nnamdi Kanu, who is standing trial before the Federal High Court, Abuja, for treason and terrorism.

IPOB initially declared the holiday for Mondays but later extended it to every day Mr Kanu appears in court. Since then, the South-east has become a ghost region with all businesses shut down on such days and every Monday as residents stay at home, mainly out of fear of attack.

Gunmen have been attacking traders and commuters across the region who flout the order. They have killed many people and set ablaze goods worth millions of naira for being sold or transported on such days.

On April 21, a group of four masked gunmen released a video clip in which it claimed responsibility for the enforcement of the suspended Monday sit-at-home order.

“Monday sit-at-home is sacrosanct,” the spokesperson of the group said in the clip, adding, “nothing can stop it apart from the release of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu.”

The Nigerian government has blamed IPOB for the deadly attacks, but the proscribed group has repeatedly denied being involved.

The secessionist group is leading the agitation for the creation of an independent state of Biafra from the South-east and parts of the Niger Delta area of Nigeria.

Hopes of resolution of conflict dashed

There were cheers on April 2 across the region when the Anambra State Traditional Rulers Council announced that IPOB had stopped the sit-at-home holiday.

The Igwe of Onitsha, Nnaemeka Achebe, who is the chairman of the council, said IPOB took the decision after Igbo leaders, including religious leaders, declared their intention to find a lasting solution to the insecurity and other problems that agitate the minds of people in the region.

Mr Achebe said after its meeting with the group, IPOB called all its members to drop their arms and embrace dialogue.

But the joy was short-lived as the holiday continued the following Monday.

In another effort to end the lockdown, Governor Charles Soludo directed churches in Anambra State to hold prayers to mark the end of the sit-at-home holiday in the state on April 4. That was in addition to the amnesty his new administration offered to gunmen, who are alleged to be part of Biafra agitation.

“Following the unanimous agreement of our leaders across board, and the entire body of Christ, I am pleased to inform our people that today, Monday, April 4, 2022, marks the official end to the ‘Monday sit-at-home’ in Anambra State,” Mr Soludo posted on his verified Twitter handle

“I have also offered amnesty to all our brothers in the various forests around us. Give us your guns, and trust us to help you forge a meaningful living,” he posted on the micro-blogging site.

Hopes were raised again but they were soon dashed as shops, banks, and filling stations all closed for business the following Monday.

Sit-at-home destroying businesses

Businesses across the South-east are feeling the pains of the unending lockdown.

“We are dying gradually. The sit-at-home is destroying our business,” Mr Ndu, a father of three, said. “Some of us cannot eat without coming to this market.”

Mr Ndu sells electronics gadgets in the market. He said goods now stay longer in his stores unsold because the sit-at-home has forced them to do business for only five days a week.

“I lose about N200,000 every sit-at-home day,” he lamented.

Kasie Ezebinagu, a market leader at Ogbete Main Market, Enugu State, usually took bank loans to run his stockfish business. But the last time he secured a loan, he did not record enough sales to repay it.

“I used to make 80 per cent of the bank loan from sales, but today, I can’t make up to 40 per cent,” Mr Ezebinagu, who is the chief security officer in the market, told PREMIUM TIMES. “We are going down every day,” he said, shaking his head in despair.

“Businesses have collapsed. And those whose businesses have collapsed may pick up arms one day to fend for themselves. Insecurity and crime rate will double,” he predicted.

At Uzoakoli Market in Bende Local Government Area of Abia State Caleb Johnson, a provision seller, does not open his shop on Mondays and other sit-at-home days.

Traders always scamper for safety at alarm that IPOB militants were coming for traders who opened for business on sit-at-home days, Mr Johnson said.

“We do not sell anything during sit-at-home days. There is usually fear (of attacks) among traders,” he said. “You won’t even see people to sell to. The roads are usually dry.”

‘Why South-east? Why not Abuja?’

Mr Johnson does not understand the reason for the holiday in the South-east when Mr Kanu’s court proceedings are in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.

“We are maltreating ourselves with it. South East is now a danger zone. And it is also affecting the economy of the South East,” he said angrily.

Sunday Onyike, a GSM phone dealer at the Oriendu Market, Abia State, shared his sentiments.

“Businesses are going down,” Mr Onyike told PREMIUM TIMES.

Faced with biting hardship, traders occasionally opened for business in the evening of sit-at-home days to palliate their economic woes. But Mr Onyike dare not join in the “risky venture.”

Neither does Grace Emeka too. She said she would not “walk past” her gate or contemplate opening for business on sit-at-home days. The shop owner at the popular Ariaria International Market, Aba, Abia State, would rather incur losses than risk being shot.

Since some gunmen attacked traders in the market on a sit-at-home day, she had not entertained such a “dangerous” idea.

“It seriously affects our business. How much can we make from the few days we have left in a week?” said Mrs Emeka, who sells ceramic plates in the market.

Collins Uche, a businessman at International Market, Orlu, Imo State, said the forced holidays have stifled businesses in the South-east. He said those who secure loans to grow their businesses face the risk of repayment default and liquidation.

“How can we repay loans? The capital will even be disappearing,” Mr Uche, who deals in tailoring materials, said.

At Douglas Market, Owerri, Imo State, shop owners usually shun the market on sit-at-home days.

“On such days, it looks as if there is no market at all,” said Anthony Opara, who sells computers in the market. “I lose between N100,000 and N150,000 on every such day,” he said.

To make up for their losses, some traders in the market now open on Sundays, despite the area being dominated by Christians. But Mr Opara would not join them. He said the practice offends his faith as a Christian.

Attacks rare in Ebonyi but fears persist

At Margaret Umahi International Market, Abakiliki, the Ebonyi State capital, Peter Oba, the acting chairman of the market, told PREMIUM TIMES that the state government stopped the holiday in the state, which allows traders to do their businesses on Mondays.

But, Daniel Nwibo, a phone accessories dealer in the market, said although the market leadership usually opens the market for business on Mondays, many residents avoid the market.

“To be frank, the sit-at-home is affecting us too in the market,” he said.

Mr Nwibo said though gunmen attacks are rare in Abakiliki, the frequency in other states in the region scares buyers and traders away from doing business, especially those from outside the state.

“We can’t go to the market, so we can’t sell,” Ifeanyi Nwigwe, another businessman at the market, said. “The rainy season will even worsen the situation because the few days we have to do business (within a week) could be ruined by rainfall, ” Mr Nwigwe, who sells Agrochemicals, said.

The businessman, who said he loses N400,000 on any sit-at-home day, maintained that the state government’s insistence to open markets on such days has not yielded results because people are scared to open for business.

Ekene Ufondu sells power banks and other electronic devices at the popular Onitsha Main Market, Anambra State. He used to have customers coming from Northern and South-southern parts of the country.

Customers heading to ‘safer zones’

But Mr Ufondu said patronage has dropped drastically. He lamented that his customers have found safer zones for business in other regions.

“They (my customers) are now diverting to Asaba (Delta State) and some are even going to Lagos to buy goods,” he lamented.

Delta and Lagos are in the South-south and South-west parts of Nigeria respectively.

Mr Ufondu said business owners suffer more in the region whenever Mr Kanu appeared in court on the days following Monday.

Death threats

Kenneth Onyeka, the chairman of Onitsha Market Traders Union, Anambra State, said unknown elements frustrated his efforts to end the Monday sit-at-home holiday.

Mr Onyeka worked in collaboration with Uchenna Okafor, a former Commissioner for Trade and Commerce in the state, to end the Monday sit-at-home order.

After IPOB suspended the Monday sit-at-home holiday, the market leader ordered the market to be opened on Mondays and attempted to mobilise the frightened traders to return to their businesses. But he said “death threats” from unknown persons forced him to abandon the move.

“People I don’t know would call me with strange numbers to threaten my life. I had to rescind the decision,” he said.

The market leader also decried the impact of the holiday on the economy.

“I may not be able to be exact, but I can tell you we are losing millions of naira. Many customers I know have started going to Asaba (in Delta State) to buy goods and even sell,” Mr Onyeka stated.

Hotels not spared

Hotels have also recorded a sharp drop in patronage.

“The IPOB’s sit-at-home has seriously affected our business in the South-east,” Paschal Ifeanyi, manager of The Bull Hotel, Enugu, told this newspaper.

“This sit-at-home restricts movements and reduces the number of people that come to patronise us. Because of the fear of being killed or harmed, people stay in their homes, rather than going to hotels,” the hotelier explained.

On a normal working day, the hotel rakes in about one million naira. But on sit-at-home days, making N100,000 is difficult, he said.

“That’s about an 80 per cent loss,” Mr Ifeanyi said.

In Owerri, the Imo State capital, the situation is even worse for hoteliers.

“Customers do not check in at all during sit-at-home days. So, it is a big threat to the hotel industry,” Esther Iwuanyanwu, the manager of a hotel in the state, told PREMIUM TIMES.

Ms Iwuanyanwu, who pleaded with PREMIUM TIMES to conceal the hotel’s identity in this report, said the industry suffers because inter-state travels are usually halted during the forced holiday.

“Our record has it that we don’t have anybody checking in on such days. Most of our guests come from outside the state,” she explained, adding that the loss is usually 100 per cent.

Transport sector also hit

The transport sector in the region is also feeling the sting.

Ifeanyi Enete, the General Manager of Peace Mass Transit Limited, one of Nigeria’s leading transport companies, told PREMIUM TIMES that the losses incurred in the sector are “unquantifiable.” He said transport companies shut down on sit-at-home days to save passengers and vehicles from possible attacks by gunmen.

“Transporters are the worst hit by the situation,” Mr Enete said. “We are recording huge losses and it is threatening the business already.”

Also, statistics which could not be verified said the transport sector loses at least N3 billion any day there is sit-at-home in the region.

The real danger

Humphrey Ngonadi, the president of the South-east Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (SECCIMA), said the situation has forced many buyers and investors into neighbouring regions.

“The customers that are coming to South-east (to do business) are moving to other regions. And at the end of this sit-at-home, they may not return to the South-east,” the SECCIMA boss said.

“(This is) because the sit-at-home order has made them discover other areas of business which they did not know before now,” Mr Ngonadi explained.

“For instance, Onitsha is very close to Asaba. A lot of people are relocating to Asaba. We lose billions every sit-at-home. It is doing a lot of harm to the South-east,” he added.

More troubling statistics

1n September 2021, Dave Umahi, the chairman of South-east Governors Forum and Governor of Ebonyi State, said the region loses over N10 billion each time it observes the sit-at-home order.

About six months later, Mr Soludo, Anambra State Governor, said poor masses lose an estimated N19.6 billion in Anambra alone during sit-at-home days.

“Due to the protracted breakdown of law and order, businesses are relocating outside Igboland, with growing unemployment, and traders who used to come to shop in Onitsha, Aba, etc are going elsewhere,” Mr Soludo said in his inaugural address on March 17.

Experts react

“People are losing businesses, (and) it has a very big impact on the economy of the South-east and even Nigeria,” Chike Agu, a professor of economics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, said.

“It is increasing the poverty rate,” he added.

On her part, Justina Nnabuko, a professor of marketing at the Enugu Campus of the Enugu State University, linked the holiday to the rising cost of commodities and unemployment.

“We can see it – high cost of things all over,” she said. “People are being laid off, businesses are closing down because they can no longer make sales,” Mrs Nnabuko said.

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