IT began like a whirlwind that is now sweeping through the South East states and other states with significant Igbo population. Even though there presently appears to be a temporary lull, the dust raised is yet to settle. But that is not all. The one million protest march embarked upon by members of the Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, which shut down markets in most cities in the South-East, took a heavy toll on the dwindling economy of the affected states. The affected traders have also begun to count the losses suffered while the three-day protest lasted.
In the Enyimba City of Aba, Vanguard Features, VF, gathered that with the exception of the Ehere Modern Market, located along Ikot Ekpene in Obingwa Local Government Area, the protesters ensured that other markets in the city were shut.
As early as 7.45am on Monday, members of the IPOB who formed themselves into several groups, each numbering over 5,000, had stormed Ariaria International, Ohabiam Electronics, Ekeoha , Ngwa Road and Cemetery Markets to ensure that they complied with the order.
Shop owners hurriedly close
While marching through major roads such as Azikiwe, Cemetery, Asa, Faulks, Bakassi Shoe Plaza, Aba-Owerri, including the Osisioma Ngwa area, VF observed that shop owners who had opened for business, hurriedly closed their shops to avoid the anger of the protesters.
Though the protest was peaceful, there were isolated incidents where a group of protesters was alleged to have destroyed goods of traders who failed to comply with the order. This kind of scenario may have informed the patrolling of major roads by a combined team of security agents to ensure hoodlums did not hijack the protest to loot property.
From Port Harcourt Road to Osisioma Ngwa area and Ogbor Hill, there was panic in the city as shop owners were afraid to open for business, even when the protesters had marched past the areas.
For the three days the protest lasted, vehicular movement within major roads: Azikiwe, Aba-Owerri Road, Okigwe Road, Faulks, Umule, Port Harcourt, and Osisioma Ngwa junction on the Enugu- Port Harcourt expressway, was on snail pace causing commuters to trek to their destinations.
VF gathered that with the exception of the Ehere Modern Market, located along Ikot Ekpene in Obingwa local government area, the protesters ensured that other markets in the city were shut.
Some of the group members who spoke to VF said the protest may continue beyond the week if the Federal Government failed to release their detained Leader and Director, Radio Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu. They warned residents to stock food items as there may be total shut down of all commercial activities in the Enyimba City.
Lamenting the loss he incurred on Monday, the operator of a popular restaurant at the Cemetery Market told VF that he was caught unawares by the closure of the markets as he didn’t reckon with the ‘order’.
The operator who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “The protest has taken a heavy toll on people like us. Yesterday (Monday), I lost over N40,000 because I thought the closure of the market won’t be total. What happened was that during past protests in Aba, we partially opened for business but yesterday was different. I was even calling my customers because my restaurant is usually a beehive of activities from 8am to 1pm which coincided with the period of the protest.”
Another operator of an eatery at the Ariaria International Market who gave her name as Nkechi Anameje, said she reduced the quantity of food she normally cooked and used her back door to let in customers.
Mrs Chino Nwankwo who deals on clothing materials at the Ekeoha Market said she was in a helpless situation. “What can we do since they warned us to close shop? Nobody would like to risk his or her wares because if you try it, you will regret your action because hoodlums can make use of the opportunity to loot your shop,” she said.
Lawful protests allowed
While calling on the Federal Government to pay attention to the grievances of the protesters, a security consultant, Mr. Chigozie Onyeukwu Ubani, said IPOB members are free to use any lawful means including closure of markets to press home their demand.
“The Igbos feel dissatisfied with the present structure of Nigeria and they have a right to do so. They have a right to self-determination and can only be defeated in a referendum and not by coercion. They had their leader arrested and detained without trial. This is unfair. The protests have been peaceful and I commend them. Shutting the markets is no big issue after all; the markets were created by the people for the people. Let the Federal Government pay attention to their complaints and treat the Igbos better for a healthier federation.”
Speaking on the closure of markets in the city during protests, the Chairman of the Abia State Market Development Committee, ASMDC, Chief Solomon Nwaigwe, said the continued closure of markets during protests would cause suffering to the people of the state and appealed to the protesters to allow markets to open for business.
“I m appealing to the protesters to allow markets open for business because when you close markets, you have shut down the city. They should go about the protests without shutting the markets. Trade and commerce is the major occupation of Aba residents. So, when you shut markets, it is like trying to shut somebody out of his means of livelihood and you know what that means. There are traders and businessmen who only sustain their families from what they make from the markets daily,” he remarked.
In a telephone chat with VF, the Chairman of the Ehere Modern Market, Aba, Mr. Jeremiah Chigozie, said though the traders identified with the protest, he does not support the shutting down of markets in the city.
“The closure of markets is wrong. Once you forcefully close the market, you have caused problems for the traders and their families because their lives depend on their businesses. We are not against the protest but markets should be open for business. Any trader who wishes to join is free, but let the markets be open. When you consider that traders are recording low sales due to the state of the economy, closing markets as a result of the protest is simply an overkill. I appeal to the protesters to think about the cost of closing markets. It is not in the interest of the people.”
Obiano’s intervention averts markets closure in Onitsha
Although major markets in Onitsha were not officially closed due to Governor Willie Obiano’s stern warning that any market which closes in solidarity with the protesters would be shut down for six months by the State Government and their leaders punished accordingly. However, most of the traders voluntarily stayed at home in solidarity with the pro-Biafra group. Those who went to the market and opened their shops soon discovered that there were no customers to buy their wares. This must have prompted them to close their shops as early at 12 noon.
Reacting to the development, the Movement for the Actualisation of Sovereign State of Biafra, MASSOB, said although IPOB is a different group of Biafra agitators, they supported the protest against continued detention of Nnamdi Kanu. They noted that when the MASSOB leader, Chief Ralph Uwazuruike was detained, MASSOB embarked upon their own protest until he was released.
MASSOB’s Deputy Director for Information, Mazi Chris Mocha, who spoke to newsmen on phone, said they welcome any group that is agitating for the actualisation of Biafra because such a group is assisting MASSOB in its struggle for the actualization.
President of Anambra Markets Amalgamated Traders Association, AMATAS, Chief Okwudili Ezenwankwo said traders opened their shops because markets were not closed officially during the protests.
Mr. Okwudili Ezenwankwo who spoke for the South-East Amalgamated Market Traders Association of Nigeria, SEAMATA, in Enugu, appealed to the pro-Biafra agitators to explore peaceful means of achieving their agitation. He told VF on phone that the Association will not be part of any activity that will cripple businesses in the region.
“We will not be part of any violent protest because we were not briefed on the agenda. We are appealing to them to be peaceful and non-violent. Any activity that will paralyse business activities will be resisted by the union,“ the SEAMATA boss warned.
Efforts made by VF to get the views of leaders of transport unions, traders and artisan in Owerri, proved abortive as none wanted to be quoted.
Some of the traders simply said that they decided to close their shops for fear of the unknown. According to them: “There is the possibility that the protesters could be joined by thieves that would readily storm any open shop and loot whatever they can lay their hands on, all in the name of protest”.
A few others expressed happiness over the protest as they pointed to what they termed “the growing neglect of Igboland by successive Federal Governments”.
Describing the protest as legitimate, a legal practitioner based in Onitsha and Chairman of Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Idemili branch, Ben Okoko said the right being fought by the IPOB members is guaranteed under the Constitution of Nigeria, adding that if truth must be told, the agitation is predicated on marginalisation.
According to Okoko: “If there is justice and equity in sharing our natural resources, the struggle will cease. Resources are not shared commensurately according to revenues generated from the Southeast and Southsouth zones of the country”.
He however cautioned against poor coordination of the agitation, adding that its legitimacy should not be abused with violence and criminal tendencies.
President of Igbo Youths Forum, IYF, Anunihu Uzor, noted that traders supported the agitation to the extent that most of them closed their shops, while some of them even joined in the demonstration because there is no motorable road in the entire South East region, neither are there Federal Government presence in the zone.
Anunihu noted that if government had addressed these issues squarely instead of arresting, detaining and refusing to release Nnamdi Kanu in defiance of court order, there would have been no need to agitate for Biafra restoration, not to talk of embarking on the demonstration exercise.