In two months’ time, the Bakassi Peninsula will finally go under the full sovereignty of Cameroon, ending a long-drawn battle for its ownership between that country and Nigeria. It will be the culmination of events since the October 10, 2002 judgment of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), sitting at The Hague. The ICJ gave sovereignty over the land to Cameroon and denied the claim by Nigeria of long years of customary control over it. It also denied that the traditional title and lordship of the Efik over the area in dispute was enough reason to give the territory to Nigeria, where the rest of the Efik ethnic group belongs.
Rather than rely on the traditional title to the land, or indeed be concerned with the ownership of the land by its current occupants, the ICJ based its judgment mainly on a pre-Independence treaty of 1913, entered into by the United Kingdom and Germany, who were at that time the colonial powers over Nigeria and Cameroon respectively. It also relied on the Thomson-Marchland Declaration of 1929-1930.
ICJ’s interpretation of the two documents above was that title over Bakassi had been transferred to Germany by Britain, and since German interest in the area later devolved on France, who also later handed over power to the independent state of Cameroon, the interest over Bakassi had become vested in Cameroon. The court then stated that Nigeria was obliged to “expeditiously and without condition … withdraw its administration and its military and police forces from … the Bakassi Peninsula.” Although Nigeria asserted that the judgement did not consider “fundamental facts” about the Nigerian inhabitants of the peninsula, whose “ancestral homes” the ICJ ruled to be in Cameroonian territory, it all the same had to play the responsible member of the international community by taking steps to implement the ruling.
But in deciding to yield sovereignty over Bakassi to Cameroon, Nigerian officials failed to carry the Nigerian indigenes of the peninsula along. This is because soon after the ICJ’s decision, government’s posture indicated to those inhabitants that on no account would the country yield any part of its “territory” or “people” to another country. Rather than discuss with the indigenes about the effect of the judgment and the imperative of obedience to it, government was more involved in raising the hope of indigenes that they and their land would continue to be part of Nigeria. Yet, on the other hand, Nigeria soon entered into an arrangement with Cameroon on the implementation of the judgment.
The unfortunate thing about the upcoming transfer of ownership of Bakassi in September is that even though the loss of the peninsula to Cameroon is coming nearly two years after the ICJ judgment, the impact would still be sudden on the people most affected. Although governments of both countries set up the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission chaired by the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for West Africa, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, to consider “ways of following up on the ICJ ruling and moving the process forward”, not much seems to have been done to prepare the residents and indigenes of the peninsula for the circumstance that will befall them in September. In fact, it was not until February 13 to 20 this year that, for the first time, a sub-committee of the Mixed Commission visited the Bakassi Peninsula and met with authorities, traditional chiefs and citizens.
The history of Bakassi is a reference point in neglect. Until the 1990s, the name “Bakassi” meant little or nothing to majority of citizens in this country. Even among many people in communities and states in the Niger delta areas, where Bakassi forms part of, that piece of land was still not very well known, nor highly reckoned. The indigenes themselves were “comfortable” with their rural life of squalor which mainly entailed fishing. Perhaps some of them even cared less what country they belonged to, for they were literally torn between the devil and the deep blue sea, especially in the course of their fishing industry. Many residents of the peninsula ran into harassment and extortion from the police, military and gendarmes (from Nigeria and Cameroon) parading the high seas on both sides of the divide, as well as from pirates. But by the turn of the 1990s, the 1,600 kilometre-long peninsula suddenly leapt into national consciousness, having been given the appellation of a “resource-rich” land. This was when everything changed for the worse for the indigenes.
The resource of the land was all that was needed for it to become relevant to authorities in Abuja and Yaoundé. This was when this backward piece of land became hot commodity to both national governments. Until the events of the early 1990s which led to Cameroon finally taking the issue to the ICJ for determination in 1994, infrastructure such as health centres and schools were alien to Bakassi. It was only in the heat of the dispute that the two federal governments, and interestingly the governments of Cross River and Akwa Ibom states rushed in to provide basic infrastructure for the community, just so that they could take a stake of the abundant oil resources said to exist in the peninsula. As an indication of Nigeria’s real interest in Bakassi, when eventually the ICJ ruled in favour of Cameroon, one of the earliest reactions to the ruling by Nigeria was a statement by the then Minister of State for Justice, Musa Elayo that, “the judgement will have no effect on Nigeria’s oil and gas reserves.” By that statement, Nigeria clearly showed that its interest lay in the resources, not the people. Could that statement have been a Freudian slip?
In 1996, Nigeria eventually constituted the territory in dispute to a local government area, under Cross River State, which was also contesting ownership of the area domestically with its neighbour, Akwa Ibom State. The constitution of Bakassi Local Government Area also brought with it another scenario. It became fashionable for many people who previously came from any of the local government areas around that end (mainly those from Cross River South Senatorial District) to claim that they were now indigenes of the peninsula. Bakassi had then become the place to claim or an Eldorado of unimaginable opportunities of some sort. This was because, having become a local government area, it had to be taken care of in terms of apportionment of political appointments and positions, students bursaries and sundry favours of State. And since much of what amounted to the geographical mass of that local government area was a rural fishing community without basic facilities as school, opportunists cashed in on this by claiming indigene status of the area. As events begin to unfold today and the reality of Nigeria’s loss of Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon dawns on all us, these latter day Bakassi indigenes are likely to back a retreat to where they originally belong. In a way, many of them had hijacked the peninsula from the original owners; they rode on their backs to acquisition of political and economic benefits but will soon abandon the real Bakassi indigenes to their fate.
What is still confounding is why, despite the intention by Nigeria to hand over the land to Cameroon in September, it still went ahead to conduct elections, including the last local government election in that area. Even as of this moment, many political office holders and local government staff in Bakassi seem to be oblivious of the fate that awaits them in the next few months. Will they retain their appointments and positions, even when their “constituencies” no longer exist? Will the Bakassi Local Government Council be sitting in the Diaspora or exile?
However, it is not the fate of the latter day Bakassi indigenes that worries me, rather that of the real Bakassi people, those who indeed own the land, those who are going to be separated from their kin in Nigeria, those who are going to have a different citizenship imposed on them, not by their own volition, but based on some spurious 1913 treaty and a declaration of 1929-1930 by people who did not own the land – the colonialists. The decision of the ICJ, based on the said colonial agreements and a failure to even ask the indigenous population, by way of a plebiscite, what they preferred must go down in history as one of the most insensitive decisions of that court.
However, one thought that by now, the two governments would have thoroughly sensitized the Bakassi people about the implications of the ICJ judgment and the legitimate options opened to them. And there are two basic options here. One is for them to hold on to their ancestral land and become citizens of Cameroon. The other is for them to relinquish the land and move over and “settle” down with their kin in Nigeria and therefore still hold on to Nigerian citizenship. But in doing so, they must truly weigh the implications of what a Nigerian citizenship is worth, without a “place of origin”, given the much-touted suggestions of indigenes and settlers in Nigeria’s politics today. Yet, the governments of both countries should support the Bakassi people to guarantee their welfare. After all, in handing down the judgment, the ICJ observed the assurances of Cameroon to ensuring the protection of the welfare of the Bakassi people. Whichever choice these people make individually is nothing but Hobson’s choice, and this is why one really cries for them.
• First published in NewAge newspaper in July 2004, this piece won the writer the Columnist of the Year 2004 award at the Nigerian Media Merit Award held in Bauchi in 2005.

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