ATONBONG WEST, BAKASSI, 13 November 2007 (IRIN) – Some 20 Cameroonian soldiers were reportedly killed on 13 November by men in military uniforms in the Bakassi peninsula, a territory won from Nigeria in the International Court of Justice in 2002. A Nigeria analyst told IRIN that suspicion was focussing on militants from the nearby Niger Delta but observers also say locals may be involved.
In a recent visit to the peninsula many locals expressed a strong antipathy to Cameroonian rule. Most interviewed preferred to be under Nigerian sovereignty. Some said they would fight to be free from Cameroon.
Halfway through a two-year process of transferring the long-disputed region from Nigeria to Cameroon, there are three areas of Bakassi, each with its own issues. In all three areas, residents told IRIN of their anger and frustration with a transition process that began in August 2006 marked by the formal pullout of Nigerian civilian and military elements.
In that period, living conditions, residents and officials say, have deteriorated in at least two of the three areas. The number of people living on the peninsular is wildly disputed, from as few as 10,000 to as many as a million. Part of the difficulty is that much of the population is mobile and depends on fishing.
Following years of tensions between Nigeria and Cameroon which led to clashes in the 1990s, Nigeria officially accepted a 2002 decision by the International Court of Justice which awarded all of the swampy peninsula to Cameroon. Diplomatically, the process has been touted as a huge success.
Nigeria had administered the peninsula since independence from Britain in 1960, except during occasional incursions by Cameroon. The withdrawal followed a series of border agreements between the two countries covering the 2,300 km land border, from Lake Chad and to the Gulf of Guinea – where the two countries plan to share significant offshore oil reserves.
According to UN officials who are members of the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission helping to monitor the agreement, Bakassians have three choices: They can take full Cameroonian citizenship, they can remain Nigerian and take resident alien status in Cameroon, or they can leave Bakassi and resettle in Nigeria.
The Bakassi Zone The social and humanitarian situation on the peninsula has become precarious, particularly on the tiny southern tip of the peninsula officially known as the ‘Bakassi Zone’ which Nigeria will control until June 2008. The zone is the most heavily populated and overcrowded part of the peninsula because fishermen there are close to good fishing areas. However, schools, health services and clean water have largely stopped working and efforts to stop beach erosion are failing with hundreds of houses collapsing into the sea each year.
Bakassi under Cameroon
The rest of the peninsula north of the Bakassi Zone, is under Cameroonian control and the authorities have started providing services there such as water supply, schools and health services. IRIN saw a new, well-equipped hospital in village of Akwa (formerly known as Achibong under Nigerian rule).
However, some local people said they were not using it. They told IRIN they didn’t want Cameroonian services because they didn’t accept Cameroonian rule.
The Cameroonian sub-prefect of Akwa, Fonya Felix Morfan, told IRIN “many of the people here see us as colonisers”. He said law and order was breaking down because Cameroonian police and gendarmes are not in place. “Public buildings are being vandalized and people are smoking marijuana right in front of me. They blow the smoke in my face.”
The third Bakassi is not even on the Bakassi peninsula and is currently more an idea than a reality. Some 30 kilometres away inside Nigeria the new Bakassi local government area was recently carved out of Akpabuyo local government area. It was created by the Nigerian government as a refuge for people on the peninsula who did not wish to live under Cameroonian rule.
Yet despite assurances of investment from the federal government to invest some one billion naira (US$8.3 million) in the new Bakassi, the area still cannot even be accessed by road. There are no schools or health services there and inadequate access to clean water, local sources say. Only a few hundred people live there now and no recently-built structures can be seen.
About half the people IRIN talked with said they had lived there for all their lives. The other half said they had come from the Bakassi peninsula and simply moved in with relatives already living in “New Bakassi”.
On the peninsula many people IRIN talked with said they wanted to leave and go to New Bakassi as soon as there was something there to go to. But with the current lack of basic infrastructure, a sudden influx of people from the peninsula could lead to a crisis.
As the Bakassi peninsula is listed as a ‘local government area’ in the Nigerian constitution, many Bakassians and some lawyers and politicians made the point that the government did not have the right to cede it to Cameroon without an amendment to the Nigerian constitution.
In 2004 they sought an injunction to annul the border agreement. But the government found an ingenious way around that legal argument by simply moving the physical location of the local government area, the former head of the UN Office for West Africa (UNOWA) Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah who was also chairman of the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission told IRIN.
“You have to hand it to the Nigerian government for finding a solution to such a tricky problem,” he said. Ould-Abdallah said he is unable to say whether the government would find such a effective solution for the local population. “For that we still have to wait and see,” he said.
Thousands have opted to leave the peninsula to various towns in southern Nigeria. But a dissident group has declared an “Independent Republic of Bakassi” with the aim of resisting Cameroonan rule. The paramount traditional leader of Bakassi, Etinyin Etim Okon Edet, takes a harshly anti-Cameroonian position and alleges abuses in the past by Cameroonian forces. He dismissed the International Court of Justice’s decision to award Bakassi to Cameroon – based to a considerable extent on colonial-era maps.
In a 1961 plebiscite for people living in all of western Cameroon on whether they wanted to be Nigerian or Cameroonian, 73 percent of people living in Bakassi voted to be Cameroonian. But some historians and observers allege the plebiscite was rigged by France and Britain who had already decided on Bakassi. “The only thing that is relevant now is the wishes of the people” the paramount leader said.
Three UN observers in the Cameroon Nigeria Mixed Commission recently set up an ‘outstation’ office in the town of Calabar, some 40 km from the Bakassi peninsular and more observers are expected. They told IRIN they will soon start going to Bakassi to monitor the final months of the transition.
“Our mission is ensuring that the agreements are correctly implemented. We will monitor the treatment of the population and report to the commission while building confidence between the two governments and the Bakassi population,” said a UN official.