Protesters matched through streets in Enugu announcing they would no longer sit at home on Mondays. Photo: Others  

By Charles Mgbolu

It is 8.30am, Monday, at Ogbete main market, in Enugu State of South East Nigeria. Chinonso (not his real name) stands in front of the double doors of his boutique along a row of storefronts, seemingly contemplating what the day might bring.

He takes his time opening the locks, turning around to look intently at anything that catches his attention. You can see his eyes trail every passer-by, as if to fathom who they are or what they might be up to.

It takes a while to figure out what Chinonso is doing — he wants to be sure it's safe to open his boutique.

This is now the ritual every Monday of the week for Chinonso and scores of other traders at this market. They have been running their businesses with an eye behind their backs the past few weeks, defying a ritualistic sit-at-home diktat every Monday.

The forced closure at the start of each week had been introduced in August 2021 by the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) as part of a campaign against the detention and trial of their leader, Nnamdi Kanu.

IPOB supporters have protested the detention and trail of their leader Nnamdi Kanu. Photo: AFP

While IPOB officially suspended the protest after pleas from residents that it was affecting their livelihood, a section of armed elements from the separatist movement — alluded to as "unknown gunmen" — continue to enforce the sit-at-home order with an iron fist.

Their modus operandi involves sporadic shootings, abductions, arson, jailbreaks, and extrajudicial killings. The targets include common citizens, owners of businesses, politicians, government institutions and anybody else who falls foul of them, both in the urban and rural areas.

They are responsible for hundreds of casualties among civilians as well as security personnel, driving fear into the hearts of people across the region.

For almost two years, large swathes of the south-east region of Nigeria had remained silent on Mondays for fear of attacks from these gunmen prowling the streets. The dam broke on June 28, in Enugu State, when hundreds of residents took to the streets in a peaceful protest with a slogan in Nigeria's popular pidgin English, "Our mumu don do (our eyes are now open)".

It was, in many ways, a symbolic liberation from the chains of the unknown gunmen that kept them locked indoors every Monday for about two years.

Many businesses have been adversely impacted by the sit-at-home order. Photo: AFP

Chinonso, who also took part in the rally, said he was tired of the disruption in his life and business. "July 3 was the first day I opened my shop on a Monday without fear since 2021," he tells TRT Afrika. "How long could we continue like this?"

Climbing death toll

In December 2021, the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy (CISLAC) said over 150 people were killed in the first five months since the sit-at-home diktat was issued across the five states of the region.

Ebonyi State led with 101 fatalities, followed by Imo State with 60 casualties. Anambra State recorded 37 losses, while Abia State had 33 deaths. Enugu reported aa casualty figure of 22, according to statistics released by CISLAC.

Nigerian security forces have periodically launched operations against the group, killing and arresting scores of members. But it has been like trying to plug a hole to trap a squirrel, which always manages to bob its head out another one.

The impact has also been felt in the economies of the south-eastern states. Prof Charles Soludu, the governor of Anambra State and a former governor of Nigeria's Central Bank, says the province had lost 19.6 billion naira (US $25.3 million) till December 2022 after more than a year of businesses being forced to shut at the start of each week.

IPOB initially introduced the order to protest the trial of their leader Nnamdi Kanu. Photo: Reuters 

While the cycle seems to be reversing, Chinonso says many people are still afraid.

"It is the fear of reprisal that is the problem. Business on Mondays remains poor because not many people come out to the markets. Those who step out do not venture far. They only get essential things that they need. It is rare for people to leave their homes on Monday, for example, to buy clothes," he explains.

Collective courage

Security analysts are all praise for those standing up to the separatists' sit-at-home diktat at risk to their lives.

"I really fear there could be a backlash from these gunmen," says Dr Kabiru Adamu, a security and intelligence expert. "That's a probability, and this is where the government must step in to ensure that this does not happen. They should provide the highest level of security for these people who have shown such courage so that their effort does not come to nothing."

Sections of the south east now open up on Mondays, although the people remain afraid. Photo: AFP

The governors of the South Eastern states have promised to provide security and urged residents to go out on Mondays and carry on with their normal activities. This has now spiralled into a challenge for owners of businesses that do not open on Mondays. They are seen as obeying the illegal sit-at-home order, risking a government crackdown. In Enugu State, there is already a standing order to permanently seal such business premises.

‘"I do not think this is the right decision. This has led to clashes between traders and security agents in this market, and I do not think this is what the government should be focusing on. The government should work to win the confidence of the people back by offering foolproof security," says Chinonso.

"Once people see that they are being adequately protected, they will naturally resume their businesses on Mondays."

Adamu couldn't agree more. "The government needs to take a step back and have a rethink. They cannot punish people for being afraid of gunmen, who are known to publicly attack and kill those who defy their sit-at-home orders," he tells TRT Afrika.

"Now that the people are no longer afraid, it is the golden moment the government must seize to finally flush out the gunmen."

TRT Afrika