7 October 2012

Nigeria: Bakassi - After the Initial Silence

Photo: David Hecht/IRIN
"This is my home but I don't want to stay here under Cameroonian rule," said Victoria Bassey on the Cameroon-controlled side of Bakassi.

Succour appears to be on the way for the people of Bakassi after a seeming unwillingness by the federal government to do anything about the condition of Nigerians in the ceded territory

The people of Bakassi are eagerly awaiting President Goodluck Jonathan's promised review of the International Court of Justice ruling of October 10, 2002 that ceded Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon. Nigerians from all walks of life are also waiting to see what the federal government would do before the October 10 deadline for any review of the world court's judgement.

The whole world will be watching for the feats of diplomatic derring-do that might return the Bakassi Peninsula to Nigeria. But for residents of Bakassi, certainly, the most fervently anticipated deeds have got to be those that would restore their human dignity, welfare, as well as political, social and economic security.

On Thursday, with just six days to the expiration of the deadline for application for a review of the 2002 judgement, the President announced the constitution of a committee to review the ruling.

The Nigerian government's rethink of the Bakassi issue followed mounting pressure from the people of the territory and the wider Nigerian society for a review of the case. The government said it had discovered fresh evidence that were not available during the litigation at the ICJ in The Hague. Virtually all critical stakeholders in the Nigerian project are agreed on the need for the country to seek a review of the ICJ ruling on Bakassi.

The Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, the National Assembly, Nigerian Bar Association, and several civil society groups and human rights activists have voiced their rejection of the ICJ ruling. But the federal government had remained either non-committal or given the impression that the matter was foreclosed.

Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice Mohammed Adoke (SAN) and the former justice minister who also was on the panel of judges at ICJ that decided the Bakassi case, Prince Bola Ajibola, gave the impression that the Bakassi issue was beyond redemption.

Adoke was quoted as saying, "From what most people are putting forward as reasons for us to go back to the ICJ, they are not tenable. We would only go there to embarrass ourselves."

Ajibola said though Nigeria had the right to seek a review of the judgement, such quest was belated and overtaken by events. The former attorney-general who participated in Thursday's meeting at the instance of the President, where a decision was taken to seek a review of the ICJ ruling, told reporters after the meeting that the federal government was keen on finding a diplomatic solution to the problem.

The current move to revisit the Bakassi judgement may be belated, but it is certainly not overtaken by events. On the contrary, events seem to increasingly reinforce the need for the ruling's review.

The current controversy over the Bakassi Peninsula is just another throwback to the colonial delineation of territories in West Africa, which aimed primarily to satisfy British economic interests and try as much as possible to subdue the locals. Nigeria failed to put its house in order in the period preceding independence in 1960 and immediately after independence, leading to contradictions like the Bakassi conundrum.

In the particular case of Bakassi, the issues are worsened by the rise and fall of Biafra and Nigeria's hasty effort to wipe out the blight from the map. The suit filed by Cameroon over Biafra seemed to offer Nigeria the badly needed opportunity.

If not, like Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka pointed out in a recent lecture, how come very little effort was made to incorporate the views and wishes of the locals, perhaps in the form of a plebiscite, in the decision to cede Bakassi? The ICJ ruling of October 10, 2002 was followed by the Green Tree Agreement of June 12, 2006 in New York signed by President Paul Biya of Cameroon and then President Olusegun Obasanjo, which established modalities for the formal handover of the territory, which happened on August 14, 2008 and was expected to be completed by October 10, 2012.

The agreement provides that Nigeria must ensure that inhabitants of the peninsula who opted to resettle in the country are provided "the necessary means and measures to do so." It also says Cameroon must guarantee the fundamental cultural, linguistic, economic, and social rights of Nigerians who elected to remain in the peninsula.

But the governments of Nigeria and Cameroon have failed in their obligations to the people of Bakassi. Cameroon continues to violate the fundamental rights of the people of Bakassi, as guaranteed under the Green Tree Agreement, while Nigeria turns a blind eye, even as it also fails to keep its own part of the agreement as it relates to the welfare of Bakassi people.

The truth is whoever decided to give out Bakassi Peninsula has terribly hurt the psyche of the natives. Yet, considering the nearness of the October 10 deadline, Nigeria may not be able to put up a robust and convincing case for a review of the ICJ judgement.

From all indications, it does seem that the only feasible thing for Nigeria is to begin a comprehensive programme of reparation for the people of Bakassi. In line with the Green Tree Agreement, the people must be resettled and given an identity. Time and again, the people have called on the federal government to develop for them Day Spring 1 and 2 as well as Kwa Islands - the unceded parts of the old Bakassi Local Government Area of Cross River State - as their new homeland. While pursuing whatever diplomatic options it may deem appropriate, the federal government must urgently develop a new homeland for the indigenes of Bakassi. The government must also take necessary measures to commit Cameroon to a sincere fulfilment of its part of the Green Tree Agreement.

Article three of the Green Tree Agreement states, "Cameroon shall:

(a) not force Nigerian nationals living in the Bakassi Peninsula to leave the zone or to change their nationality;

"(b) respect their culture, language and beliefs;

"(c) respect their right to continue their agricultural and fishing activities;

"(d) protect their property and their customary land rights;

"(e) not levy in any discriminatory manner any taxes and other dues on Nigerian nationals living in the zone; and

"(f) take every necessary measure to protect Nigerian nationals living in the zone from any harassment or harm."

But Nigerians in the peninsula have accused the Cameroonian authorities of violating the terms of the agreement by forcefully changing the names of their communities to Cameroonian names, denying them their economic rights, imposing discriminatory taxes on them, and engaging in other forms of harassment. These allegations preceded the August 6 declaration of independence by the people of Bakassi.

As civil rights activist and lawyer, Mr. Femi Falana (SAN), put it in a recent paper, "The ICJ judgement may have awarded their land to Cameroon, the court has not taken away their rights to be free from oppression and their inalienable rights for self-determination in accordance with various international treaties."

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