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IPOB’s Lockdown Threat: Between self-determination and economic strangulation of Southeast

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Since the arrest and extradition of the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, to Nigeria in June this year to continue his trial, discussions in public places in the Southeast region have centered on the fate of the Biafra agitator and the Biafra struggle itself.

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At motor parks, drinking joints, markets and other public places, proponents of the Biafra struggle have escalated issues surrounding Kanu’s travail. These proponents had initially doubted reports that Kanu had been re-arrested and repatriated to the country. However, when it dawned on them that the reports were true and that Kanu did not willingly submit himself to security forces, they had hoped that he would unconditionally be let off the hook when foreign interventions come. Days have turned into weeks, now a month and still counting but Kanu is still in detention. And there is no idea of when the “supreme” leader could be released.

Rather, there are unpalatable reports that he has not been well cared for in detention, especially in terms of accessing medical care. One of his lawyers had disclosed not-too-cheery news about his health condition as well as the refusal of the Department of State Services (DSS) to allow him access to family members. These were compounded by the failure of the DSS to produce him in court on July 26 when he was billed to appear for the continuation of his trial. These had raised posers about the intentions of those whom IPOB alleged abducted him.

An immediate response was a statement issued by his group demanding explanation on why he was not produced in court. They had equally alleged that the Biafra agitator might have been “killed” in custody, daring the DSS to contradict their claims by producing Kanu alive. The failure to produce Kanu is fueling the anger of his followers.

To demonstrate that they were not in for games, they resolved to embark on civil disobedience. A statement on July 28 by IPOB’s Head of Directorate of State, Chika Edozien, conveyed this resolution. They threatened to order a weekly “lockdown” in the Southeast zone from August 9 should the Federal Government fail to release Kanu before August 8, unconditionally.

The statement had added that the “weekly total lockdown” would be observed every Monday “until Kanu is released.”

Spokesperson of the group, Emma Powerful, had two days later, reinforced the threat when he described the weekly exercise as “ghost Mondays”, saying it would take place from “6am to 6pm”.

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“All institutions, public and private, transport companies, schools, banks, markets, airports and sea ports in Biafra land must shut down every Monday beginning from August 9.  People are to remain indoors to register their concern over the fate of our leader and the rest of all agitators languishing in various security detentions.

“This is a call for Biafran leaders, politicians, especially those mentioned to be behind his abduction and rendition to Nigeria. If anything happens to our leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, all of them should never come back to Biafra land because it will not accommodate us together. Nobody should take our quietness as cowardice.

“Our intelligence reveals that Nnamdi Kanu is under serious torture and humiliation because he refused all offers made to him”, Powerful said.

To further illustrate their seriousness, handbills and posters communicating the “lockdown” were being mounted at strategic places in the cities in the region, warning residents on the dangers that await anyone who tries to flout the directive.

The threat now unsettles the Southeast zone. Would the residents abide by the directive? What are the implications of this on the fragile economy of the southeast region that basically thrives on buying and selling? What if Kanu is detained for a long time? Will the people be patient enough to wait? These are issues agitating the minds at the moment.

Voices For/Against IPOB’s Directive
Some voices have risen for and against the planned lockdown. Those in favour insist that Kanu deserves everything that could turn the hands of the government to free him. They said the struggle took the lives of his parents, adding that he had suffered other terrible losses while standing tall and firm for the emancipation of Ndigbo.

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Those against the directive, however, reasoned that it would not be in the interest of the zone, especially with the near bleak economic fortunes facing the people and the rising insecurity. They noted that the economy of the region had not recovered since it was forced to a close by the ravaging coronavirus disease. They stated that any policy or directive that could further impoverish the suffering masses of the zone at this time would not be acceptable, stressing that it would also increase security presence in the region.

A group, Coalition of South East Youth Leaders (COSEYL), had urged IPOB to review the lockdown directive, saying it could be counterproductive given the current harsh economic realities in the zone and the entire nation.

In a statement signed by the President and Secretary General of COSEYL, Goodluck Ibem and Kanice Igwe, the group SAID: “While COSEYL understands that the right to self-determination is a property of the late 1940s Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which every human group is entitled, and to which Nigeria is a signatory with other instruments of international law like the African Human and Peoples Rights (Banjul Declaration of 1981), the coalition does not see any economic wisdom in shutting down business and work-related activities on Mondays beginning from August 9, 2021 – which the group has labeled ‘Ghost Mondays’ – as virtually over half of the population of Southeast and by extension Ndigbo depend on daily income to feed their families and dependents.”

COSEYL added: “We urge the group to, in the interest of the Southeast region, review its latest policy directive given the current harsh economic realities biting hard on not only Ndigbo but the entire nation at such an excruciating moment. Shutting down the region and economic activities thereof does nobody or group any good and is, therefore, not a win-win case at a time like this. While COSEYL is in support of the release of Nnamdi Kanu from the DSS custody to allow him enjoy his rights and face his trial, it condemns the way Kanu, whom the Federal Government last month ‘intercepted’, was smuggled into Nigeria from Kenya against international laws and conventions. COSEYL calls on IPOB not to allow its activities to jeopardise the region in which case the goal of the group would amount to an own goal.”

Director General of Voice of Nigeria (VON), Osita Okechukwu, also cautioned against “cutting the nose of Ndigbo in the guise of punishing President Muhammadu Buhari.”

He expressed worry that the economy of the Southeast region had continued to shrink in the last couple of years, resulting in loss of jobs and unemployment, predicting that the development would have a long-term effect on Ndigbo and their businesses.

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A Professor of International law and Politics, Jehu Onyekwere, observed that while it is within the confines of Nigerian laws for the citizens to carry out peaceful protest or rally to express their displeasure in the face of any perceived misgivings resulting from government policies or actions viewed as anti-people, the declaration by IPOB to observe sit-at-home every Monday will come with several difficulties.

“This sit-at-home order is coming at a time the resident doctors are calling for strike owing to poor remunerations and condition of service. The effect will be so hard on the people since it is a known fact that during such periods like sit-at-home, one cannot obviate the fact that there will be casualties and injuries sustained as a result of frailties of certain persons who may be involved in the protest directly or indirectly. The absence of many health workers such as doctors may translate to witnessing lots of collateral damage.

“The world and indeed Nigeria have suffered from several lockdowns from COVID-19 pandemic. Nigeria has had a fair share of this hardship, which was further heightened by the #EndSARS crisis which left most Nigerians reeling from the pain even till this moment.

“There will be fear that some unknown persons might hijack this sit-at-home order and exploit the situation to carry out nefarious activities in the sight of relative societal numbness. The situation may see rival forces, pro and against the sit-at-home order trying to fight for supremacy and may lead to collateral damage and carnage,” he said.

Why Directive May Receive Total Compliance
The near loss of confidence in the governments and leadership of the southeast zone, inability of the police to handle the security situation of the zone effectively, believe that the Buhari-led administration is against Ndigbo and the confidence that through the Biafra struggle, liberation would come the way of the people of the region could make them to effectively comply with the IPOB’s sit-at-home directive.

Another factor that could cause compliance with the directive is the widely held notion that the agitators have subdued the police and made them to be seen as incapable of protecting life and property of ordinary citizens.

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On July 26 when Kanu was billed to appear in court at Abuja, several businesses closed in Nnewi, Onitsha and Owerri in solidarity. The development came when there was no order on anyone to close shop.

Mr. Vincent Ezea, a trader who deals in educational accessories at the Ogbete Main Market, Enugu, told The Guardian: “If people on their own could close their shops because the court was going to sit over Kanu’s case, it means they will be prepared to close as long as the case lasts, especially when there is a directive to do so.

“Although I use Mondays to prepare for other days ahead in my business, I will sit down in my house with my family on that day. This is because even if I try to come out, I would not be able to find anybody in the market. The government cannot protect me.”

Asked why he had always complied with IPOB’s sit-at-home order, Ezea added: “In all the sit-at-home that IPOB has called so far, how many government or security officials have you seen challenging it? Those who try to flout the order get killed, injured or tortured. Has anybody been prosecuted?  Has anyone come to their rescue?  That is the problem. I am not happy that this thing is going this far, but do we have a government? The only thing that can change this order is the IPOB leadership, not any other group or person.”

On how the order will affect his business, he said: “I have been thinking. It is not going to be easy. I usually receive my supplies on Mondays. That is why I told you earlier that I plan for the week on Mondays. What it means now is that we will be doing our business only three times a week; that is Tuesday to Thursday because most Fridays and Saturdays are used for burial, among other activities. It is really going to be tough because I know that the Federal Government will not be moved. They will even be happy that we have decided to punish and impoverish ourselves.”

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A business centre operator, John Ugwueze, said that residents had defied police order asking them to ignore IPOB’s sit-at-home directive. “This is because there is this fear that one may get injured or even be killed in the event of being found on the street by the police in the guise of an IPOB member or even by the IPOB in the guise of disobeying their directive. The truth is that not everybody in Igboland supports the level of radicalism being shown by IPOB members; the way they trample on other peoples’ rights and force their order on you. But what can you do when there is no authority to protect and speak for you? That is the way it is.”

According to Ugwueze, recent developments have “favoured’ arguments by the IPOB that it has taken charge of affairs in the Southeast region.

Police Not Ready
It does not appear that the police would be able to persuade residents to disregard the order. That is simply because previous attempts to stop compliance did not achieve positive results. Presently, the police are struggling to regain confidence of the people and reclaim the public space created by the activities of gunmen in the zone. The gunmen attacked and burnt police stations, killed officers and, in some cases, took away their gun and other arms.

The police have not uttered a word since the directive was issued. But a senior officer told The Guardian on the condition of anonymity: “We will continue to protect the people in the discharge of our responsibilities.

“We are watching the situation and believe that the people have rights to do their businesses in accordance with the law. It is only when their rights are being trampled upon that we can act.”

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More Stress On Southeast Economy
A finance analyst, Dr. Jude Igwe, projected that the Southeast would lose over N1 billion on the average any single day businesses shut down in the zone. He said that the forced closure would bring pressure on institutions and government establishments, and it would affect development negatively.

“Since the restriction posed by the COVID-19 that affected night life in the Southeast zone, billions of naira have been lost. Jobs have been lost and programmes that ordinarily should boost development and growth have also been affected. There are genuine businesses that thrive in the night. Those who should do them are not there anymore. Now, reducing the hours people should ordinarily do their trade will put pressure on the remaining hours. This is not a good strategy at all because the economy of the Southeast is bleeding and no longer strong enough.

If the zone put together cannot generate revenue beyond a state like Lagos, then something must be done to shore up its economic base. You cannot do so by locking everybody up as long as you want,” Igwe said.

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