By Ijeoma Ezekwere
ONITSHA, Nigeria – Southeastern Nigerian city centres were deserted on Monday as many people stayed at home to show solidarity with a detained separatist leader and to express broader grievances about how the country is run, residents said.
The stay-at-home protest was called by the banned group Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), whose leader Nnamdi Kanu was brought back to Nigeria in June after years on the run and is in custody pending a trial on 11 charges including treason.
Residents of southeastern centres including the trading hub Onitsha and the cities of Enugu, Awka and Owerri said usually busy markets were quiet, roads clear of traffic and even some students who were due to sit exams had not turned up.
“Onitsha is totally shut down. No vehicles are moving about,” resident Caroline Madu said. “The entire state is in total shutdown in solidarity with Nnamdi Kanu. They should release him because he has done nothing wrong,” she said.
IPOB campaigns for southeastern Nigeria, homeland of the Igbo ethnic group, to split from Nigeria. The region attempted to secede in 1967 under the name Republic of Biafra, triggering a three-year civil war in which more than a million people died, mostly of starvation.
Despite an official “no victor no vanquished” policy adopted after Biafra was defeated, many Igbo feel that they have persistently been the victims of discrimination by the federal government and wider society.
IPOB says it is non-violent, but the authorities accuse members of attacking police stations and other targets. The government strongly objects to IPOB, accuse its members of criminal activities, and does not acknowledge any of the local grievances.
According to Amnesty International, state security forces have killed at least 115 people in the southeast this year and arbitrarily arrested or tortured scores of others, in response to separatist activities. The authorities have not commented on the findings.
The crackdown has exacerbated discontent in the southeast, where residents see it as disproportionate in comparison with what they perceive as a failure to act against herders from the northern Fulani ethnic group who frequently clash with farmers.
President Muhammadu Buhari is also unpopular over his perceived failure to address rampant criminality and to improve the economy.
“Just see how Buhari has turned Nigeria upside down. Salaries are not paid, people are being slaughtered like fowls by Fulani herdsmen and bandits all across the country,” said Anayo Eze, a civil servant who was at home in protest.
“It is not a matter of just Nnamdi Kanu and IPOB. It is a matter of a failed government and country,” he said.