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Jitters as ‘Autopilots’ hijack sit-at-home in South East

The move by governors of the South East to stem the spate of killings and economic destruction in the zone has been undone by a…

The move by governors of the South East to stem the spate of killings and economic destruction in the zone has been undone by a new group known as ‘Autopilots.’

 The self-proclaimed leader of the new group, Simon Ekpa, has rejected calls for an end to the sit-at-home order by governors in the South East, the latest being Professor Chukwuma Soludo of Anambra State. 

Following years of confrontation with security agencies in the South East and parts of the South South, the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), a group advocating a sovereign state of Biafra out of Nigeria, in August 2021 announced a sit-at-home every Monday and every day of appearance in court of their leader, Nnamdi Kanu, who was repatriated from Kenya.

Due to public outcry over the economic cost of the order issued by the non-state actors, Kanu’s younger brother, Kanunta Kanu, on August 8, 2021, announced its cancellation to enable school kids write their NECO examinations.

But the IPOB, through its regular spokesman, Emma Powerful, issued a counter directive that the sit-at-home must go ahead. The new directive has been followed by large-scale violence across the zone. 

The enforcers of the directive have unleashed a reign of terror, attacking many passengers, shop owners, and workers, thus killing and maiming many for daring to come out on Mondays.

Before the November 6, 2021 governorship election in Anambra State, there was tension over its successful conduct after the IPOB announced that there would be no election, which it later lifted. 

But the new group, determined to oppose the purported order of the original IPOB, has unleashed fear in the minds of residents of the South East, with violent enforcement of its version of the sit-at-home, leading to deaths of scores, burning of vehicles, shops, law enforcement agents and electoral officials.

With the stance of the ‘Autopilots’, different criminal gangs, cultists, bandits, robbers and kidnappers have descended on various communities. Homes of powerful political and cultural leaders in Igbo land, including the president-general of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, Professor George Obiozor, have been attacked and burnt.

The original IPOB, through its spokesman, Emma Powerful, has since distanced itself from the activities of the Ekpa-led splinter group, saying he had been banished from the organisation.

Powerful, in the statement noted, “It is a certain Simon Ekpa and his criminal gang called Autopilots that are carrying out threats against people’s lives because of non-existent Monday sit-at-home. They are criminals, kidnappers and robbers. These people disturbing the peace of our people are not IPOB members. They should be treated as criminals. The IPOB doesn’t shed blood. We are a peaceful movement.”

On the sit-at-home he maintained, “We wish to reiterate, once again, that the IPOB has cancelled the Monday sit-at-home order, and anybody or group enforcing it is neither from us nor our volunteer group. Any governor in the region who deems it fit to stop the non-existent Monday sit-at-home order in the region is free to do so.

“Anyone caught adding to the pain of our people in the name of enforcing Monday sit-at-home order will be treated like the enemy that he or she is.

 “We, therefore, warn these agents of darkness using the name of the IPOB to enforce a non-existent sit-at-home to desist.

 “Why should such unpatriotic elements be inflicting pain on our people and dragging our image to the mud? The IPOB remains a non-violent movement and our peaceful approach to Biafra restoration has not changed.

 “It will be recalled that the IPOB leadership called for the Monday sit-at-home, and the same people cancelled it.

“Nobody was given the mandate to enforce the same suspended sit-at-home using the name of the IPOB. The only day the sit-at-home will be observed in Biafra land is when our leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu is appearing in court; and we shall, as usual, make it public for all to know.”

Governor Soludo, on March 25, warned civil servants not to comply with the sit-at-home order on Mondays, while appealing to the Autopilots to lay down their arms and embrace rehabilitation. He declared amnesty for all armed groups in the zone, while pledging to lead other governors in the zone to seek an amicable resolution of the crisis. 

Ekpa’s group, however, rejected all the declarations and pledges.

A statement by the Head of Service of Anambra State, Theodora Igwegbe reads, “Following the need to reposition the service for better performance and productivity, Prof Charles Soludo has directed that all public servants should henceforth report to their places of work on Mondays as they do on other workdays.

“Consequently, absence from duty on Monday or any other official workday without approval will be viewed as serious misconduct, which will attract appropriate sanctions.”

But Ekpa, on the same March 25, twitted through his handle, @simon_ekpa, “Soludo’s directive to civil servant (sic) in Anambra is dead on arrival. He should ask other governors. Obiano went to the street as a town crier (sic) to no avail. We are warning Soludo not to use his overzealousness to endanger the lives (sic) of our women and children as the Department of State Services (DSS) are killing them.”

Reacting to the impasse, a resident of Umuahia, Abia State, who identified himself as Stanley, informed Daily Trust Saturday that the group was totally out of control and appeared to operate without any resistance from security agencies. 

“We think the people being killed by the security agencies are innocent and non-members of the ‘Autopilots’, otherwise why is the group still very active and feared across the zone?”

Also reacting, E.M.D Umukoro, a lawyer, said that as a trade-oriented zone, the people are being forced to save their lives first before any other business.

“The legal implications are many. Disputes – from commercial to family, community, land, criminal, rental etc – suffer adjournments, and there are fewer days of the week for adjudication.

“This can lead to frustration and citizens resorting to self-help, leading to violence and disruption of peace,” he said.

In its weekly publication, Nextier SPD, an international development consulting group, said a total of N646.8billion had been lost in Anambra alone in 33 days since the sit-at-home order was declared on Mondays and days when the case of Kanu came up in court.

In the report titled, ‘Ending the sit-at-home menace: Pragmatic solutions to the South East of Nigeria’s crisis’, Dr Ben Nwosu and Dr Ndu Nwokolo, associate consultant and managing partner at Nextier respectively, said the sit-at-home had increased anxiety and social stress in the South East zone.

“The sit-at-home order the IPOB issued to protest the detention of Nnamdi Kanu was later, on August 19, 2021, revised from a weekly sit-at-home protest to a show of solidarity with the IPOB leader any day he would have a court appearance. 

“By this pronouncement, the IPOB abolished the weekly sit-at-home on Mondays. Their rationale for the revision is that they do not wish to hurt the same people they purport to be working to liberate.

“Nonetheless, a particular group persists in the enforcement of the sit-at-home order. Despite warnings by the IPOB that they would deal with the enforcers, whom they deny are not of the IPOB, the enforcing group continues to forcefully keep people at home with threats and violence issued through social media outlets. In some instances, outright robbery is visited on shops that open on a sit-at-home day,” they stated.

Nextier recommended a community-based approach involving critical stakeholders, such as market leaders and the church, in resolving the crisis and restoring peace in the zone.

“For a realistic solution to the sit-at-home and its attendant challenges in the South East, any group moderating the peace process must engage meaningfully with the IPOB. Ignoring them would only yield a temporary scaffold as peace.”