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Onitsha Main Market Under Threat Of Insurgency, Traders, Residents Cry

As insecurity rises in the commercial city of Onitsha, traders and residents talk about their fears and the future of one of West Africa’s biggest markets.

Bridge Head Market in Onitsha, Anambra State, Southeast Nigeria, is one of 64 markets that have carved up Onitsha into bustling fields of hustles. Markets are to Onitsha what blood vessels are to the human body. 

So, a threat to markets here is a threat to the very existence of the town. A recent New York Times report estimates the annual volume of business transactions in the Onitsha markets at $5 billion. Onitsha had been pivotal in the commercial success of Nollywood, Nigeria’s multi-billion dollar movie industry. This sprawling regional business hub stands to lose all to the current creeping insecurity.

There have been killings and attacks that target police personnel. The military have also not been spared by the attackers. Early in April, as a response to the degenerating security crises, the traditional institution in Onitsha led by Igwe Afred Achebe, the Obi of Onitsha, set up a local vigilante group to confront the situation.

Adibe told HumAngle that a climate of war was upon Onitsha. Two groups of separatist movements campaigning for the self-determination of Biafra from Nigeria, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) and Movement for Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), are in contention over control of the town. The IPOB group is dominant in most parts of the town, but MASSOB is fully in control of Okpoko, a district of Onitsha. 


Frequently, the rivalry between both groups spills into the streets with harvests of casualties. Things are not normal any more in Onitsha. In the past weeks, the insecurity suggests that insurgency is creeping in as state forces try to respond to a series of security threats. Armed gangs moving in several Hilux trucks recently attacked the Zone 13 Police headquarters, at Ukpo, a few kilometres to Onitsha along the highway from Enugu, killing two policemen and torching the buildings.

Chukwuma Adibe is a trader at the Bridge Head Market where he sells wrappers, locally called abada.

The tension arising from this and similar violence is sweeping through the commercial town. Several contingents of military personnel have practically taken over Onitsha, mounting roadblocks along major roads and patrolling the streets. The atmosphere seems charged and no longer conducive for normal market transactions, Adibe observed. The siege and militarisation of the town is quite heavy, cutting down vehicular movement, creating endless traffic jams, and putting commutters under intense scrutiny.

Attacks equal restrictions

HumAngle also spoke with Okechukwu Ikpeamanam, a trailer driver who was stopped by the criminals that ostensibly attacked the Zone 13 Police Headquarters early that morning as he drove to Onitsha from Enugu. He said that the attackers came in five Hilux trucks. They, according to him, barricaded the Enugu-Onitsha highway and ordered him and another trailer driver out of their vehicles.

He said he noticed that their leader hung a life tortoise on his neck and wielded a ‘heavy weapon’ while giving orders to his cronies. Ikpeamanam said the gang spoke mostly in Pidgin English and an unfamiliar language. After the attack, which according to him lasted about 30 minutes, they drove away in the direction of Enugu.   

A week after, two Naval officers were shot at a checkpoint on Owerri road, Onitsha. The security response has been overwhelming. Movements in the commercial city have been put under intense scrutiny with armed soldiers patrolling the major streets and further cutting off access routes.

Security officials see everyone as a potential threat and there have been reports of people in the streets being routinely treated as enemies of the state. There is fear and a deep sense of foreboding among the people.

For a commercial city that usually attracted a steady influx of customers from neighboring and far countries across West and Central Africa, these developments spell doom. Business premises and shops that previously opened at 7.00 a.m. now open at 10.00 a.m. and hurriedly shut down at 4.00 p.m.

Uncertainty

Francis Nweke, a motor spare-parts dealer at Mgbuka market, feels unsure of the future with the unfolding events. He believes that the steady attacks on security personnel will boomerang in Onitsha and across the Southeast with innocent people likely to bear the brunt.

Markets are shutting down without warning. On Wednesday, April 28, the spare-parts market was shut down at 1.00 p.m. as the security situation in the town degenerated. The Electrical market was forced to shut down barely an hour later. A resident, Ikenna Nnadi, lamented that “Onitsha which was accustomed to day and night business now goes to bed like a local fowl.”

Residents said criminal elements were now taking advantage of the tense situation to rob individuals under cover of darkness. “Hoodlums also mount road blocks in the inner city to stop and rob motorists at night. So night movement has become very dangerous,” complained Nnadi.

Chimaobi Okeke, a vehicle spare-parts dealer at Mgbuka Nkpor shared his apprehension at what he called “strange occurrences.” He said that “this is how they will carry war and put on our heads. Imagine what will become of everyone.”

Chukwudi Egbuna, a trader at the Ochanja market told HumAngle that anyone in business who is not concerned at what is unfolding must be superhuman. He said he sees the imminent collapse of all the businesses for which Onitsha is known if insecurity is not immediately addressed.

At the Ochanja market, Ona Ugwu blamed the escalating tension and deteriorating insecurity on the activities of “gunmen who have been killing security men at checkpoints.” He said that Onitsha was already sliding into a locked down state. 

Chuma Adindu, who lives in Okpoko, and sells plates and kitchenwares, told HumAngle that several markets in Onitsha were now a shadow of what they used to be. He said that shop owners close too early. Also, traders have been caught in the crossfire between Biafran agitators and state security personnel.

A few people, nevertheless, blamed the situation on the high handedness of security personnel on “flag carrying Biafra agitators.” For instance, a trader who simply identified himself as Mr. Okeke, who sells plastic wares at Ochanja market, told HumAngle he was aware that people are losing their businesses but “people must make sacrifices in order to be free.” 

He showed this reporter a scar on his body which he claimed was from the wound inflicted on him by a soldier a few years ago for no justifiable reason other than that he was Igbo, doing business in Onitsha. 

Nneka Onyali who told HumAngle that she lost her younger brother, Sylvester, in 2019 to police’s extra-judicial killing of pro-Biafra activists, said she could not be sympathetic to security men. “Violence begets violence,” she declared.  

Community effort

Long before this recent wave of insecurity, the different markets in Onitsha had set up vigilantes to address potential breaches. At the Main Market, Chairman of the vigilante, Chinenye Ihenko, recently said that his colleagues were working with state agencies to ensure that insecurity in Onitsha is nipped in the bud. Together with efforts by the Main Market vigilante, the Onitsha traditional council is working quietly with government officials in Awka and state actors to de-escalate tension in the commercial town.  

The major highway connecting Onitsha and neighboring Asaba in Delta State is strewn with military roadblocks and soldiers wielding weapons. To the south of the city, on the highway to Owerri, there is heavy military presence, and to the east of Onitsha, on the highway to Enugu, the situation is the same. Free movements in and out of Onitsha have been severely curtailed. 

Despite government efforts in Anambra State, the traditional council of Onitsha, and the leadership of the markets, it may take a while for confidence to return between the communities and the state actors. 


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Chigozie Victor

Chigozie Victor is a journalist and a creative writer. Her work focuses on SGBV, policy and security infrastructure. The graduate of English and Literature from Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka is passionate about helping audiences understand salient issues through clear reporting and multimedia journalism. She tweets at @nwaanyi_manaria

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