Nigeria: Has Biafra’s lockdown spun out of control?

By Dele Yusuf
Posted on Tuesday, 21 September 2021 16:55

Members of the Biafran separatist movement gather during an event in Umuahia, Nigeria, on 28 May 2017 (AP Photo/Lekan Oyekanmi, File)

A series of lockdowns in Nigeria's southeast caused by the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra (IBOB) sit-at-home directives are causing unprecedented hardship and losses never seen since the time of the civil war. There is even a bigger challenge: the situation seems to be out of control, for both the IPOB and governors across the five states in the region.

Nigeria’s southeast, one of the most economically disadvantaged geopolitical zones in the country, is bleeding as a result of self-immolation blamed on the IPOB, which is championing the cause for the creation of a Biafran nation made up of the Igbos, Nigeria’s third-largest ethnic group.

Across southeast Nigeria and other parts of the West African country where the Igbos reside, there is a common joke that only on his wedding day will an Igbo man not open his shop for business. Even on such special days, he might stop over at his shop on his way home from the wedding to attend to customers, the first set of people after his heart and pocket.

However, that was under normal circumstances. Nowadays, things have gone from bad to worse, with businesses closing more often than not because of frequent directives by the IPOB asking people to stay home.

The sit-at-home order

On 30 July, IPOB announced a sit-at-home order that would require residents in the five states that make up the southeast, not to go anywhere every Monday. This was in protest of the detention of Nnamdi Kanu (the IPOB leader), who was recently extradited to Nigeria to face trial for alleged treason.

“Our people must understand that it was designed to show the world how serious we are towards this fight for Biafra freedom and independence. Everybody must adhere to this clarion call put in place by the leadership of IPOB,” Emma Powerful, the group’s publicity secretary, had said.

Although the order was suspended two weeks later, it continues to resonate and is still in full effect across the five states. Ohanaeze Ndigbo, the highest socio political group representing the Igbos in Nigeria, likened the situation unfolding in the region to “playing yourself into the hands of your enemies where they begin to rejoice over you.”

“We are very worried about what is going on because while other regions are doing well with their economies, the southeast is locked down,” Alex Ogbonnia, a spokesperson for Ohanaeze, tells The Africa Report. “The sit-at-home is not helping […] the economy, our business [or] our people. The southeast is the commercial nerve centre of Nigeria, but when the state actors fail in their responsibilities, non-state actors overtake them.”

Sitting at home under the weight of secession

IPOB was founded about a decade ago on the back of agitations for a sovereign state of Biafra in Nigeria. Drawing from the massive support it enjoys at the grassroots, the separatist group has over the years adopted sit-at-home directives as an infamous strategy to push for its demands. They range from asking residents to boycott elections, to remembering Igbos who died during the Biafra civil war and making public its grievance on any issue.

We are in a very bad situation, and it is not because of IPOB; IPOB is just the consequence of the situation.

People comply with the directives to show that “the Igbos can be united and do what they want to do together,” says Nathaniel Aniekwu, one of the long-time leaders of the Alaigbo Development Foundation, an elite group of professionals established to advance the interest of the Igbos.

Aniekwu adds that unlike in previous cases, however, the order to sit at home every Monday was aimed at “getting the attention of our elites and governors who seem to be living on another planet.”

“The southeast governors are not doing anything at all and are there for themselves and not for the people,” he tells The Africa Report, adding to other voices – including of IPOB – who have argued that the governors are not united in addressing the situation. “We are in a very bad situation, and it is not because of IPOB; IPOB is just the consequence of the situation.”

Raging out of control

Residents and observers from the southeast say that even with the separatist group withdrawing its directive for people to remain indoors every Monday, it is no longer in control of the situation. In every community, youths and other supporters of the separatist leader Kanu are more than happy to enforce compliance.

It has gotten to the point that threats by state governments to sack workers who fail to show up at their offices on Mondays do not help. States like Anambra and Imo often have had their lockdown extended until Wednesday, even with school children caught up in the crisis.

When the state actors fail in their responsibilities, the non-state actors overtake them and that is the very dangerous situation we are in.

On Monday 13 September, some secondary students in Imo State had to flee after gunmen invaded the school, shooting sporadically in an attempt to chase them away from the premises, for daring to flout the sit-at-home directive, which IPOB claims is no longer in place.

Over the past month, there have been reports of people being violently attacked for leaving their home on Mondays, with IPOB members – who the police blame for violence in the southeast and the presidency says has amassed weapons  – often being mentioned as the suspects. According to Ohanaeze, those behind such attacks are “faceless groups who come from all corners … enforcing their own compliance.”

“Right now, a lot of scrupulous elements and non-state actors are in control. When the state actors fail in their responsibilities, the non-state actors overtake them and that is the very dangerous situation we are in,” Ohanaeze tells The Africa Report.

“You will only find the law enforcement officers in the city centres but in the peripheries, you will see the hoodlums enforcing their own compliance. So, it is a complicated paradox that has become a problem,” the group says.

Powerful, who is the face of IPOB in Nigeria, admits that indeed, some of Kanu’s supporters may be acting contrary to the group’s instructions. When asked by The Africa Report how the group is keeping things under control, the IPOB leader says: “Anybody enforcing sit-at-home orders on Mondays or disturbing people on other days is doing so at his own detriment and if we get that person, he will be a dead man.”

And very soon, anybody that talks against IPOB and Nnamdi Kanu in the region will be lynched to death.

He is also adamant that those complying with the sit-at-home order are doing so not out of fear for their lives, but out of love for Kanu, who now symbolises Biafra activism for aggrieved Igbos in the southeast.

“We are not enforcing it (the order) and people are doing it out of love for Nnamdi Kanu and support for our project and struggle. People in the region love Biafra and Nnamdi Kanu (and) the support is growing gradually in the mind of everyone,” he says. “And very soon, anybody that talks against IPOB and Nnamdi Kanu in the region will be lynched to death.”

Shattering an economy already bleeding

During his visit to the southeast in early September, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari declared that “the Igbo are in charge of Nigeria’s economy”, but much of that is now being threatened.

The Africa Report could not get an exact figure for how much the southeast was losing each day people stayed home over separatist agitations, although Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi recently said the southeast loses N10bn ($24m). However, that figure is likely exaggerated, says Chris Chigoziri, an Enugu-based economic expert.

Ebonyi governor’s office did not respond to enquiries on the source of this data, but findings from the research by SBM Intelligence firm (Nigeria’s geopolitical intelligence platform) shows that jobs worst hit are those considered to be the engine driving the southeast economy.

They include:

  • Self-employed persons (with 74% of them saying they are affected)
  • Transporters (73%)
  • The hospitality industry (71%)
  • Blue-collar formal sector workers (65%)
  • Artisans (62%)

As many as 84% of respondents interviewed in Ebonyi say they were affected economically as a result of the sit-at-home directives, while the least percentage of those affected was 42% in Abia, where IPOB leader Kanu is from.

Doing more harm and no good?

Information obtained from Nigeria’s statistics agency shows that the entire five states in the southeast did not generate up to N100bn as revenue in 2020, but rather N97bn ($236m).

One thing, however, is clear from the analysis of the revenue figures from the National Bureau of Statistics: all the states were largely dependent on federal allocations, which make up a large chunk of the total revenues they got in 2020. In fact, it was only Anambra, which made up to N28bn as internally generated revenue (IGR), that was able to make up to half of its federal allocation (N51bn) last year.

  • Even as the region’s best in terms of IGR, the N28bn was only 35% of its total revenue in 2020, with an allocation from Abuja adding N65bn.
  • Enugu, which has the second-highest revenue, could only generate N24bn IGR, which is just 32% of its total earnings last year.
  • With N17bn as IGR, Imo only managed to generate 23% of its total revenue, while Abia and Ebonyi raised N14.3bn and N13.5bn respectively.

To put this into perspective, it will take the whole of the southeast four years to generate N419bn (approximately $1bn) – what Lagos generated in 2020 – as internal revenue.

With N97bn as its total IGR in 2020, southeast also comes a distant fifth among Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones. This amount is only N41bn above that of the northeast where a 12-year insurgency and its aftermath have crippled lives and livelihood. Expectedly, southwest tops the list with N559bn, 75% of which came from Lagos.

Driven mainly by small, medium and large-scale enterprises, the economy of Nigeria’s southeast is also in a bad place in terms of the unemployment rate in the region. While Nigeria’s national unemployment rate stood at 33% at the end of 2020, the average rate in the southeast was 44%.

All five states except one – Enugu – also had an individual unemployment rate that was higher than that the national rate, while the other four have a spot in the list of top 13 states with the highest unemployment rate in Nigeria. Sitting atop that list is Imo state, where IPOB’s activities are often concentrated: as high as 56.6% of residents in that state are unemployed, according to government data.

“Protests should be directed towards authorities and not at yourself,” says Ohanaeze, with regards to the separatist lockdown of the southeast. “The point (about marginalisation) has been made, but to inflict injuries on ourselves is self-immolation.”

Will it ever end?

Aniekwu says resolving the economic crisis is not within the power of residents in the southeast or the masses, but the responsibility of the Nigerian government. The unfolding situation is just “a metaphor for the marginalisation and exclusion [of the Igbos] from governance,” he says. “People just want a fair chance to survive and to have an equal playing ground.”

For Ohanaeze, the focus is to try and get Kanu out of prison. “We have volunteered legal services to see how Nnamdi Kanu will [be released]. Our position is to make sure that Nnamdi Kanu [is free],” Ogbonnia says, admitting that the only difference between them and IPOB is that “whereas IPOB is talking about referendum and Biafra, Ohanaeze is saying we can achieve all we want within the context of one Nigeria and even achieve better.”

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