Slowly picking the beans he wants to sell, Evaristus Nduka gazes sadly at the nearly empty marketplace in Enugu, south-eastern Nigeria.
Mondays are no longer “business because there’s a lockdown,” Nduka says, referring to widespread weekly protests that have shut down significant commercial activity in the area.
A separatist group, the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra, have ordered residents to stay home every Monday as they continue to call for Nigeria’s southeast to become an independent country.
For at least eight months, the group and its members have been imposing the sit-at-home, which is also said to be urging the release of Nnamdi Kanu, whose leader faces charges of treason and terrorism.
“It shut down all Monday,” Nduka said of the protest. Many residents who dared to go out on Mondays were attacked and dozens were killed, local media have reported over the months, although authorities have not provided any estimates. The lockdown “affects everything,” Nduka says.
The separatist group’s campaign reminds many of the short-lived Republic of Biafra, which fought a civil war in 1967-1970 and lost to gain independence from Nigeria. An estimated 1 million people died in the war, many of starvation.
More than 50 years later, the new separatist group says the Igbo, Nigeria’s second-largest ethnic group from the southeast, are still marginalized and persecuted.
The Igbo, who number about 30 million out of Nigeria’s total population of 206 million, are concentrated in five of the country’s 36 states, including the states of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo.
“What we have decided is that our leader will appear in court every day and our people will sit at home in solidarity; to show they like what the man is doing for them,” said Emma Powerful, a spokeswoman for Biafra’s indigenous people.
About 70% of people in the region stay at home on Mondays and when Kanu appears in court, which Ebonyi State Gov. Dave Umahi says is a result of “fear” that increases poverty.
In the city of Orizo, Ebonyi state, Success Nworie, 19, says no one in her family goes out on Mondays and “it causes hunger” because they mostly live hand-to-mouth from one day to the next.
Many government offices in the region are effectively closed on Mondays despite efforts to keep them open.
The reason was “a psychological problem” rather than support for the Biafran separatist movement and its leader, Kanu, said Steve Oruruo, a spokesman for the Enugu state governor.
In addition to frequent lockdowns, south-east Nigeria is also facing increasing violence, with gunmen often targeting security installations such as police stations, prisons and military camps.
Despite the pro-Biafra group insisting their secessionist campaign is peaceful and distancing themselves from some of the sit-at-home guidelines, police blame them for several acts of violence, including an April 2021 prison break in Imo state almost 2,000 inmates were freed.
Southeast Nigeria, once one of the safest in the country, is now battling violence and rising poverty as the lockdown hits “the entire economy of people in the southeast (and) daily activities,” said Alex Ogbonnia, a spokesman for Ohanaeze Ndigbo, a cultural group representing the Igbo people.
With even police officers affected by the violence, ordinary residents are afraid to go out on Mondays, he said.
After recent attacks on some police stations and the Ohanaeze Ndigbo president’s residence, Nigerian leader President Muhammadu Buhari said “the law and order situation throughout the southeast is being reviewed,” but such statements in the past have failed to bring about stability to restore.
There is little confidence that Nigerian security forces can restore order in the south-east, already overwhelmed by the 10-year insurgency by Islamic extremist Boko Haram rebels in the north-east of the country and fast-growing communal violence in the north-west.
With another lockdown around the corner on Monday, residents fear the cycle of violence will continue.
“It is very clear that the police are not enough to meet people’s security needs,” said Ogbonnia of the Igbo cultural group.