Dakar — Twelve years after an International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling demarcated the Cameroon-Nigeria border, the UN and the governments of Cameroon and Nigeria are making headway in physically laying down the border and helping develop the long-marginalized oil-rich Bakassi region.
But while many positive lessons can be drawn from the Nigeria-Cameroon demarcation process, when it comes to development, there remains much work to do, say Bakassi residents.
The Cameroon and Nigeria government have overcome tense periods of negotiation over control of Bakassi, in the Gulf of Guinea, and the Lake Chad area further north, both of which were assigned by the ruling to Cameroon.
With the help of mediators, trust between the two countries has gradually improved, paving the way for joint security and economic ventures in support of Bakassi's fishing and oil industries.
Since 2011, technical and logistics teams have travelled from Senegal's capital, Dakar, to lay down the concrete pillars that form the Cameroon-Nigeria border.
The UN support team to the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission (CNMC), which is charged with physically demarcating the land and sea boundaries, is based in Dakar.
The job poses enormous physical, logistical and legal challenges. The border spans 2,100km across mountains and desert in the north, dense forests in the south, and 21 border points in the ocean.
The topography "and the climatic conditions present an unprecedented challenges in the demarcation process," said a member of the UN team.
The project "is longer than the sum of the UN-led demarcation projects between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Indonesia and East Timor, and Iraq and Kuwait," he told IRIN.
The concrete primary and secondary pillars - placed every 5km and every 500m respectively - are cast on site, but getting the materials to areas inaccessible by road is a hurdle, said team members.
Steps involved in setting up a pillar include mapping the coordinates; preparing and excavating the site; constructing the pillar; curing the concrete and verifying it, said the project manager of the UN support team to the CNMC in Dakar.
Some mountainous areas, such as the Alantika Mountains, are inaccessible to boundary-markers; cartographers have mapped these locations digitally, using global positioning system coordinates and a "digital elevation model", a programme that enables accuracy within 1cm.
Complicating this process is insecurity in many of the target areas: Bakassi is on the Gulf of Guinea, where piracy is rife, on the Nigerian side Boko Haram and its affiliate militant groups engage in kidnapping and other violence , and there are "acts of banditry all over," said the UN head in Cameroon, Najat Rochdi.
Still, the largely peaceful resolution of the border dispute - which at one point led to outright conflict - should act as a model for other boundary discussions ongoing elsewhere in Africa, said an official with the African Union.
Just 30 percent of Africa's borders are precisely demarcated, he said according, with ongoing discussions continuing all over the continent, from Burkina Faso to Sudan.
While still insecure, the border area is now heavily patrolled, with military factions from both governments on either side. UN observers are also in place to monitor people's protection and basic rights.
But some suspicions linger, said an officer with Cameroon's Rapid Intervention Battalion, stationed in Akwa, near the Nigeria border.
"We are there to protect both the land and people, but many locals do not understand this. Whenever we, the military, pass, some run into the bushes. I think they still think we are there for war with Nigeria," he told IRIN.
He said that in 2013, nine soldiers and many local traders were killed in trans-border crime incidents.
The development challenge
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Cameroonian and Nigerian authorities will be developing the long-marginalized Bakassi region, particularly supporting the area's fishing industry, the economy's mainstay, while under pressure to build up the lucrative but environmentally hazardous oil industry. Shoring up fishing is key to the region's long-term growth, said officials.
Bakassi remains seriously underdeveloped. Residents have no mobile communication network, no electricity, and few have access to clean water.
Paradoxically, many residents of oil-rich Bakassi buy oil from nearby Limbe, where refined oil is more readily available.
"The absence of basic necessities such as water, electricity and communication facilities makes life there very difficult," said Hilary Ndip, a secondary school teacher who left Bakassi for Limbe because of his health situation.
The laying down of the border followed a 2002 judicial ruling by the ICJ, which relied partly on the text of past agreements made by colonial powers Germany, France and Great Britain (in 1913, 1939 and 1946). The ruling was followed by over a decade of judicial discussions.
The CNMC was finally set up in November 2011 to implement the ICJ's judgment, backed up with political, legal and logistics support from the UN.
It was in charge of physically demarcating the boundaries, transferring authority in the zones, demilitarizing Bakassi and reactivating the Lake Chad basin.
It is chaired by Special Representative to the Secretary-General for West Africa Said Djinnit, with representation from Deputy Prime Minister of Cameroon Amadou Ali, and federal Justice Minister in Nigeria Mohammed Beloo Adoke.
Following intense negotiations, Nigerian troops agreed to withdraw from Bakassi in 2008, over a five-year transition period, when full sovereignty was granted to Cameroon.
The transfer of authority was not without its hiccups: In 2012, as it was nearing its close, some parties in Nigeria called for appealing the ICJ decision, said Djinnit, but they later stood down.
Since 2003, the trust fund that finances the demarcation - managed by the UN - has received US$10 million since 2003, with $3 million each coming from Cameroon and Nigeria.
Nigeria is Cameroon's biggest economic partner in sub-Saharan Africa, after the Economic and Financial Affairs Council of the European Union.
The two governments are building cross-border roads to try to support the fishing trade, and they have drawn up an agreement for joint management of oil resources in the Bakassi area.
"The most important thing now is to make people understand that the border is not a barrier but a bridge between them," a former UN observer based in Yaoundé told IRIN.
The governments, along with UN country teams, have developed several projects aimed at supporting cross-border inter-community relations, cementing social cohesion, cutting poverty and improving basic services.
Several of these projects are now underway, including a measles vaccination campaign, community radio programme and project to build a refrigerated storage room for traders. But not all of the programmes have received financing, and progress has been slow.
And though the government is increasingly its role, people will need time to adjust, said a 37-year-old trader who called himself Oyang. "Bakassi villagers ... have never witnessed the role of public authorities... We have only known traditional chiefs, but today that is changing," he said.
The Cameroon government has made education free, and in Ija-Bato 2, the area's municipal headquarters, it has equipped teaching hospitals to provide services for free, said Ndip, though "very few people use them."
He says that while primary school enrolment rates are up, "no one cares about schooling... Early every morning, kids as young as five go out in canoes fishing with their parents.
Very few people attend the hospitals ... Most of them do not use the mosquito nets that are given to them. They prefer to use them for fishing."
Some Bakassi residents do not access basic services because they lack identity papers, said Martin Edang, a trader and resident of Ija-Bato 1.
According to the UN's Rochdi, some people in northern Nigeria living in areas ceded to Cameroon have still not received identity cards or documents allowing them to stay there legally.
Cameroon has informed residents that they can get their papers free of charge, Bakassi residents told IRIN. It is more a question of choice, said Edang. "Many are still not willing to visit public offices... Many are still confused over which country they want to belong to."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]