From Magnus Eze, Enugu, George Onyejiuwa, Owerri, Ogbonnaya Ndukwe, Aba, Jeff Amechi Agbodo, Onitsha and Chijioke Agwu, Abakaliki
Businesses in the five states that make up the South East geopolitical zone of Nigeria are currently prostrate. While many are closing shops, people are losing jobs in droves. The negative implications of the insecurity in the region in the past four months have been drastic, heartrending and pathetic.
It has further been aggravated by the on-going clampdown on criminals and suspected members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) including its security outfit, Eastern Security Network (ESN). This has led to the heavy presence of military, police and other security agencies in the communities in the zone.
Aside the state capitals, the commercial hubs of Aba and Onitsha, including Orlu, are unarguably the worst hit.
Hotels, clubs, leisure spots shutting down in Imo
The Imo State economy is basically service-driven, owing to the numerous luxury hotels and clubs, which dot its landscape, especially Owerri. Outside Lagos and Abuja, Owerri seemingly has the highest number of hotels per square kilometre in Nigeria. This is even as many more are springing up in the new Owerri axis of the metropolis.
However, the security situation in the state since the coming of the so-called “unknown gunmen” has crippled the hospitality business in the state, as proprietors of hotels; night clubs, lounges and other entertainment centres now lack customers. Their line of clientele from within the state and fun seekers from neighbouring states and even as far as Abuja at the weekends has cut, leaving several of these places desolate.
In spite of assurances by the state governor, Hope Uzodimma and the Commissioner of Police, Abutu Yaro that the security situation had been brought under control, residents of Owerri have continued to maintain a ‘self-imposed’ curfew.
Investigations showed that the 40-40 area of New Owerri, which used to be a beehive of activities, especially at the weekends, now look like a ghost town, as most residents and business owners close shop as early as 6pm. They fear they might fall victim to either the ‘unknown gunmen’ or overzealous security personnel who have literally taken over the major streets. Most of the hotel and hospitality businesses in the state capital have reduced their staff strength due to low patronage. Even joints that serve local delicacies like Nkwobi no longer operate beyond 6pm.
Henry Amadi, a staff of the Rockview Hotel, Owerri said the facility has stopped serving buffet because its patronage had thinned down. He said: “The insecurity has adversely affected us because of lack of guests and even as it is now, the hotel no longer prepares buffet because the guests are not there. Before this security problem, we used to have the whole place fully booked to the extent that we would be recommending other hotels for customers.”
Similarly, at Vamet Guest House, also in Owerri, the dearth of customers forced the management to send home half its staff. The manager, Chuks Emmanuel said most of the customers were from outside. “We have reduced our rate from N15,000 to N10,000 for our luxury rooms, yet we hardly get three guests in a week. It is a very serious problem. We have sent half of our staff home because there is no money to pay them.” The situation was not different at the Orange Room, a popular club located along the World Bank Road in Owerri. Before this period, the nightclub was flocked by habitual night crawlers, who are mostly young men and ladies. But that is not the case again, as most of them have since disappeared. Kingsley, who carries on his business of chicken and chips around the area, is fervently praying for the return of normalcy in the state saying his business has received a serious hit.
“I used to work in one of the hotels here in Owerri, but the salary was too small, so I quit and started this business in 2017. Since then, I have been making good money from clubbers at the Orange Room. But since this problem began, I only manage to do little business during the day, because it was at night that I used to make good sales. I am praying for this security issue to come to an end,” he stated.
Frustrations, lamentations in Ebonyi, Enugu
A visitor to Enugu, capital of Enugu State might not know that all is not well till about 7pm. From that period, if the person doesn’t own a vehicle, the first thing he might notice is the difficulty in getting commercial tricycle operators, popularly called Keke, especially in the city centre. As if that is not enough, he might begin to see the streets get scanty. And by 9pm, New Haven, which is the epicentre of nightlife in Enugu, may have become empty. Food vendors and those who sell fruits and other edibles by the roadside are also finding it difficult to break even. One of them lamented that she had to throw away assorted cooked food that she could not finish selling while many of the food items and vegetables in her store perished. Similarly, a fruit seller lamented how she lost huge amount of money after bags of fruits supplied to her got spoilt in a space of five days due to poor patronage. She and her colleagues are now forced to close by 8pm these days.
Another group feeling the harsh implications of the insecurity seriously are the commercial sex workers who usually thronged the Igboeze Street axis of Rangers Avenue in Independence Layout, Enugu. One of them, who gave her name as Jennifer, told Saturday Sun: “I don’t know whether we can survive this situation. We are battling too many things; we don’t see customers, yet we still have to pay for our rooms. The hotel owner must get his money. Even when you get customer, once it is 8pm, movement also becomes a problem. And in all these, the police will be harassing you.”
It was gathered that hotels currently receive some level of patronage in Enugu because many people are scared of sleeping in their villages because of possible attack by hoodlums or the mysterious ‘unknown gunmen.’ In Ebonyi State, residents were still having the hangover of the COVID-19 restrictions before the government imposed some more security measures which have completely killed nightlife and many other economic activities in the state.
Public places like the Amusement Park and Fati Lami Park in Abakaliki as well as some other government-controlled business centres now close by 7pm daily. In addition, the barricade of vehicular movement around the old Government House area from 7pm has further inflicted pain on residents and visitors alike. Last month, Ebonyi State Governor, Chief David Umahi had also banned all night activities in the state beyond 7pm, including wake during funerals. He warned that anyone or group of persons that flouted the directive will be made to pay a fine or face prosecution.
A staff of Native Delicacy, a popular relaxation spot on Ogoja Road, Abakaliki, told Saturday Sun that the development has affected the business drastically. The staff, who gave her name simply as Nancy said: “The situation is worrisome. Before now, if you come here by 9pm, especially on weekends, you won’t find anywhere to sit down. But now, before 6:45 pm, you won’t see anyone here. People are being careful because of the security problems in the state.”
Fish and poultry farmers are also bearing the brunt, as their stocks stay longer in the farms while they spend more money feeding and taking care of them even when they are fully mature for sale. Emmanuel Nwamini, a tricycle operator, said the business is no longer as lucrative as it used to be due to poor patronage at night.
According to him, tricycle operators don’t make much money again, since they close by 7pm. “Before now, some of us used to make up to N6,000 or more at night alone. But these days,s§ as soon as it is 7pm, people will be rushing to their homes. So, we can’t be outside when there are no passengers,” he said.
Aba, Nnewi, Onitsha traders lament
Over the years, one regular feature of the commercial and industrial cities was that business people would use night buses into and out of those places to gain time and do their businesses. That has practically stopped in Nnewi, Onitsha and Aba. In the same manner, those who came into town at night from long travels usually stayed in hotels till daybreak to continue their journeys or transact their businesses. But this has been hampered by the insecurity in the region. In Abia, the state government imposed some restrictions to contain criminal activities, though it just reviewed the curfew following noticeable security improvements within the state and its neighbouring states.
But SaturdaySun learnt that many businesses operating at night, including hotels, restaurants, clubs and even transport companies are actually being forced out of business. A club owner along Milverton Avenue, Jude Onyeocha, told us that he had to close shop and look for another business to do, due to restrictions on time by government. Onyeocha, whose club used to be patronised by night travellers boarding vehicles or returning to Aba from other far locations, said though the lockdown imposed during coronavirus pandemic affected him and others doing business at night in Aba, the rise in criminal activities leading to imposition of a curfew from 8pm to 6am further killed their survival.
A prominent hotelier with a resident band, Chief Stanley Ikechukwu, lamented that business has been at its lowest, as people now prefer to go straight to their homes after the day’s business. In the same manner, Mrs Nkechi Obiekwe, who uses a streetlight location to sell fruits and roasted corn along Azikiwe Road at night, complained of being forced out of business due to poor patronage.
Mrs Obiekwe said she now closes by 7 o’clock every evening to beat the 8 o’clock curfew time.
Commercial sex workers are not left out on the harrowing experience. Many of them lodging in brothels along Hospital Road, Jubilee, Market, Cameroun, Ehi as well as Dan Fodio and Ngwa Roads that were seen as hotspots, now scout for customers in broad daylight. Two of them who refused to disclose their names, told us that life was hard and becoming unbearable, due to the curfew in Aba. They claimed that while they ‘cooperated’ with security operatives by greasing their palms, they ought to have been given special treatment and allowed to attend to customers that sneaked into their “red light zones” at odd hours.
In Onitsha, the commercial hub of Anambra State, residents and travellers who came into the place late at night all complained about the situation. A resident, Okwudili Abana said daredevil armed robbers now operate freely in the city, a situation he stated had made people to desert the streets once it was 7pm.
“There is no security again, no police or security operatives are on the roads even in day time, let alone at night. So, when a security man is hiding, then tell me what will happen to a civilian on the street. These boys will block roads, rob for hours without any challenge from security agents. That is why people now resort to jungle justice. Once a thief is caught, he will be burnt immediately,” Abana stated. President General, Anambra State Market Traders’ Association (ASMATA), Chief Ikechukwu Ekwegbalu said the situation is most challenging and prayed that it fizzles out soon. “It is affecting business in Anambra. Some customers from outside don’t come to markets in the state any longer due to fear of attack. Even the importers don’t bring their goods as they used to do, because those who come from other states and outside the country don’t come again.
“Those customers who usually came to buy goods in Main Market and would stay two to three days before going back don’t come again. So, as traders, we are really feeling the pains. The whole place is on standstill. The few customers who come to Onitsha these days are just from within the South-East. It is when a trader sells his wares that he will bring in another one,” Ekwegbalu said.
Taskforce Chairman of Association of Luxury Bus Owners of Nigeria (ALBON) in Anambra State, Uchenna Maduakor lamented that the business was on the verge of collapse.
“Our business is collapsing; people don’t travel again. We don’t operate night travels again due to insecurity. Our buses will leave Onitsha in the evening for the North, when they get to Awka or beyond, they will park and wait till the next morning before they continue the journey. “Those who used to come from the North or Lagos through night buses don’t come again due to the fear caused by fake news that kidnappers and bandits hijacked some buses from the South East heading to North. So, it is affecting us seriously and our business is gradually collapsing,” Maduakor bemoaned.
Meanwhile, the apex Igbo body, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, would meet today in Enugu to deliberate on the security situation in the zone, with particular attention to complaints of inhuman treatment against residents by security operatives. President General of the organisation, Prof George Obiozor, who stated this, said its implications to the economy of the region would also be reviewed. He said: “Ohanaeze has received several complaints on harsh treatments by security operatives across the five states of Abia, Enugu, Ebonyi, Imo and Anambra. We learnt that they order travellers to alight from their vehicles, raise hands up before crossing checkpoints in states across the zone.”