Nigeria: The Bakasi Affair, a Deliberate Error

By A C Nnorom

The controversial handover of the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was a just decision, based on International Law; and the dictates of the colonial/former colonial masters as per their partition of Africa (1884 – 1885). But the main problem of contention here is both natural and legal. Were the inhabitants of the Bakassi peninsula properly, fairly and justly treated?

Brief History of the Peninsula: 

A kingdom was founded in Bakassi around 1450 by the Efik of coastal southeastern Nigeria, and was incorporated within the political framework of Calabar Kingdom along with Southern Cameroons. During the European scramble for Africa, Queen Victoria signed a Treaty of Protection with the King and Chiefs of Calabar on 10 September 1884. This enabled the United Kingdom to exercise control over the entire territory of Calabar, including Bakassi. The territory subsequently became de facto part of the republic of Nigeria, although the border was never permanently delineated. Interestingly, even after Southern Cameroons voted in 1961 to leave Nigeria and became a part of Cameroon, Bakassi remained under Calabar administration in Nigeria until ICJ judgment of 2002

The people settled in Bakassi, before the Bakassi problem began, were neither Nigerians nor Cameroonians. They were simply Bakassi people, even before the coming of the Portuguese explorers.  Bakassi people are mainly the Calabar people, the people of Cross River State and Akwa Ibom State of Nigeria, including the Efik, Ibibio, Annang, etc.[2]

The Portuguese explorers, if they were alive today or if they wrote any piece of history, would have attested and even confirmed the fact that there were fishermen and fishing activities in the peninsula before their arrival. And that during their exploration, the search for new markets and their quest for new territories abroad; they met and saw people living in Bakassi, before the nation Cameroon and Nigeria were founded. Even after the founding of these two nations, the Bakassi peninsula was a semi-independent territory or a neglected piece of land at sea; between the two independent nations. Although it was meant to be a part of Cameroon, as it has now proven to be. But it was neglected by Cameroon; as a result it was incorporated and ruled as part of Calabar by Nigeria. It was neglected or seemed to have been abandoned by Cameroon, until the apparent discovery of crude oil and natural gas transformed it, into one of the main hotspots in West Africa. Furthermore the case was extremely complex, requiring the court to review diplomatic exchanges dating back over 100 years.

Nigeria relied largely on Anglo-German correspondence dating from 1885 as well as treaties between the colonial powers and the indigenous rulers in the area, particularly the 1884 Treaty of Protection. Cameroon pointed to the Anglo-German treaty of 1913, which defined spheres of control in the region, as well as two agreements signed in the 1970s between Cameroon and Nigeria. These were the Yaoundé II Declaration of 4 April 1971 and the Maroua Declaration of 1 June 1975, which were devised to outline maritime boundaries between the two countries following their independence.

The line was drawn through the Cross River estuary to the west of the peninsula, thereby implying Cameroonian ownership over Bakassi. However, Nigeria never ratified the agreement, while Cameroon regarded it as being in force.[3] However, were the Nigerian ruling elite just trying to con the Bakassi people for their own selfish interest? That is for the acquisition and ownership of the peninsula for oil exploration or benefits. They never sincerely negotiated solely on the interest of the Bakassi people, as a people. By calming that the Bakassi people were Nigerians, of which technically they were not, made the situation of the people of Bakassi unattainable.

They were simply Bakassians. They were neither Nigerians nor Cameroonians, at the time of the dispute.  Whoever won Bakassi was suppose to own its people as well. Whatever is annexed to a land becomes part of the land or is part of the land (could be well applicable, in this situation). So therefore, if the Bakassi peninsula was finally transferred to Cameroon, the people of Bakassi were suppose to automatically, become Cameroonians. However not emigrates, but the natives of the land.  Although some emigrates could finally gain citizenship, by qualifying (As we all know, this is almost impossible in many African countries, due to no provisions and sham constitutions).

The natives (indigenes) should have become Cameroonian citizens automatically. Who prevented this from happening, and why? This is a question, yet to be answered.  

The International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) verdict: 

The ICJ delivered its judgment on 10 October 2002, finding (based principally on the Anglo-German agreements) that sovereignty over Bakassi did indeed rest with Cameroon. It instructed Nigeria to transfer possession of the peninsula, but did not require the inhabitants to move or to change their nationality. Cameroon was thus given a substantial Nigerian population and was required to protect their rights, infrastructure and welfare.[4] This was a miscarriage of justices; and time will prove this assertion to be right. They should have been declared Cameroonian by the court’s Judgment, even if the judgment would not have pleased the people. If justice was justice, the right judgment would have guaranteed the people’s future and their children-children’s future. I feel the court might have erred in this matter, no matter its considerations.  

The ICJ judgment was backed up by the United Nations, whose charter potentially allowed sanctions or even the use of force to enforce the court’s ruling. Secretary-General Kofi Annan stepped in as a mediator and chaired a tripartite summit with the two countries’ presidents on 15 November 2002, which established a commission to facilitate the peaceful implementation of the ICJ’s judgment. A further summit was held on 31 January 2004. There were significant progress made, but the process was complicated by the opposition of Bakassi’s inhabitants to being transferred to Cameroon.[5]  Bakassian leaders threatened to seek independence if Nigeria renounced sovereignty. This secession was announced on 9 July 2006, as the “Democratic Republic of Bakassi“. The decision was reportedly made at a meeting on 2 July 2006 and The Vanguard newspaper of Nigeria reported the decision to secede. The decision was reportedly made by groups of militants including Southern Cameroons under the aegis of Southern Cameroons Peoples Organization (SCAPO), Bakassi Movement for Self-Determination (BAMOSD), and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND).[6]

This is/was a wrong choice and could have helped to worsen their plight, through the escalation of violence and harassment in the peninsula.  

The Bakassi Misconception: 

The true problem here, is that why did the Bakassi people choose to make themselves refugees (by claiming to be Nigerians) instead of staying in their legitimate indigenous homeland. They should have simply remained what they are, “Bakassian”. Or did the Nigerian ruling elite coerced them to say they are/were all Nigerians, for their own selfish interest? Or does the misconception arise from the fact that a major faction of the tribe lives in Nigeria? Or were they overwhelmed by the military presence of the Nigerian army?  These questions and many more, are baffling to any observer. In addition this simple people might have been exploited by these two nations (much stronger than they are), because of the apparent presences of natural resources. There should be reconsideration or a review of this case, by the ICJ, to seek a suitable way to lessen the suffering of these people, who find themselves in-between two powerful nations and Multi-National Corporations in petroleum business.

They should have gladly accepted to become Cameroonians; since their peninsula has now been legitimately transferred to its rightful owner.  Moreover this misconception has not truly helped their case. Their refugee status does not interest Nigeria.

They should petition the ICJ for a review of this case, so that the Cameroon government would accord them their legitimate right of citizenship and integrate them into the Cameroonian nation. They will still remain in Bakassi as Cameroonians and their fishing business would flourish.  Their appeal as a people, independent of Nigeria would succeed and their suffering would end.  The Bakassi people should not even bother about nationhood, what matters at this time in history is economic prosperity. That’s why the ruling political elites of both Nigerian and Cameroon were not prepared to go to war on the issue of Bakassi, but had to negotiate among themselves for the handover, as per the court’s judgement. Do not be deceived. There could also have been a possible ‘under-the-counter’ dealing on this matter, regarding sharing of oil proceeds or even an ‘up-front’ fixing. The interest of the ruling political elites must have been taken care of, for this matter to be resolved very quickly, without aggression.

The Bakassi people’s interest and future was a minor ingredient in this dispute, the main ingredient for the ruling elites, was financial benefits from the peninsula. Bakassi is currently administered by Cameroon after the end of Nigerian occupation. It enjoys a significant degree of local autonomy under traditional rulers; the current Monarch of Bakassi is Etinyin Etim Okon Edet an Efik man of Nigeria.[7]

The overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the swampy area, who live in scattered fishing communities on the peninsula, consider themselves to be Nigerians.[8] This is absolutely wrong; may be right for now, but time will tell. 

The best situation would have been (and still is) for the people of Bakassi to petition the Cameroonian government for citizenship. No one should be forced or coerced to live as a foreigner in his native-homeland, no matter the situation. I am of the opinion that such a petition would receive a favourable outcome from legislators, because these are reasonable men and women. Africans should not allow or cause material injury and injustice to its own people or one of its peoples, for no reason or justification whatsoever. Even if some corrupt ruling political elites are bent at perpetrating injustice, there are also people within Africa who can stand up for justice and fairness. This kind of situation might permanently damage any possibility for a true African Union. We must come back to our senses and start doing things rightly in this continent, as it was from the beginning of time.

The Africa continent was/is a great land inhabited by great peoples. How did we become followers of others and prone to fatal mistakes like the Bakassi affair, is really funny. This case should never have gone to the ICJ, if we acted reasonably and brotherly, in the absence of greed. 

Moreover, the crux of the matter or the issue at stake now, is not sovereignty but the survival and continuity, of the Bakassi people on their peninsula. No one should be classed as a foreigner in his/her own homeland – his/her native-ancestral homeland. No matter what that person feels. He/she may be violating his/her human rights – “self violation of human rights” or “self-harm”. I am of the opinion that this is what is happening to the original Bakassi people (the indigenes), by claiming to be Nigerians, while the sovereignty of their homeland has been officially transferred to Cameroon.

They should feel very comfortable to be Cameroonians or to be called so; despite their original ethnic ties with Nigeria. They would not be the first in this sort of arrangement, their exact situation is found all over the world. Many ethnic groups are divided between two nations, across international borders, one part larger than the other in two separate countries. I feel personally that these people need an in-depth analysis, clarification and help; on the nature of their situation. They should reconsider the future consequences of their actions, for the sake of their children and children’s children. There is some degree of “mental slumber” here; and somebody needs to wake them up to present and even future reality.  Biblical accounts attest to what happened to the children of Israel, after a new Pharaoh was enthroned in Egypt. This shows what could happen to people in such Bakassi arrangements. Although the Israelites were sojourned in Egypt, they were treated very badly after a new Pharaoh took over partly because their condition of settlement was not well defined.[9]

The Bakassi situation is worst; they were first harassed, intimidated, made refugees in their own homeland and now uncomfortably accommodated. No, no, no. These people are Cameroonian citizens by default; they should be made or declared citizens of Cameroon. There should be a decree from the government on their citizenship, it should be offered not negotiated. There must be a provision for this in the Cameroonian constitution. Sovereignty has changed so is citizenship – the peninsula remains the same, in the same position, with the same people. What has changed is sovereignty only, over the land and its peoples; I suppose.   Nevertheless this was the same situation during the colonial era when these nations were created on the dining tables of Western European ruling elites, without due consideration of ethnicity and demography.

The Nigeria’s defense minister at the time told the BBC it was connected to problems connected with mapping out the border over sea.[10] During the colonial era, when any piece of land or territory changed hands; that is from one colonial master to another, the people (inhabitants) also changed their status and allegiance. The nation of Cameroon itself was a clear example of these changes, so its government and peoples, would understand. That’s why; this case should be as simple as A B C. In those days, they thought they were British but they finally realized they were a German colony, in agony. After 1916, their situation was further complicated through the League of Nations’ partition (June 28, 1919). One part of the country was given to the British and the other, was given to the French. Southern Cameroons was then ruled from Calabar, now it is being ruled from Yaoundé.  

Finally this pertinent question comes to mind. How can someone be called an indigene (a native) in a land (a country) and at the same time classified as a foreigner, in that same country? These people should go back to their native homeland; Nigeria cannot provide a better alternative for them, never. Fishermen displaced from Bakassi had been settled in a landlocked area called New Bakassi, which they claim is already inhabited and not suitable for fishermen like them but only for farmers.[11] In the present state of the modern world, and the ongoing globalization and regional economic integration, the Bakassi people should not be bothered about who is sovereign over their land. They should bother about their economic welfare only.

They should be happy to be Cameroonians – Africans only – and put their faith in the Africa Union; which might bring a new hope for all. Just as it is generally argued, most people of central European origin see themselves first, as Europeans; but in West-Africa/Africa the notion of belonging to a tribe still takes precedence over a nation. In this respect, a regional integration of a supra-national nature (like the African Union) is still very much farfetched, due to the proliferation of ‘invisible’ or ‘shadow’ nations. In regard to the European Union, as a true act of creation, the Maastricht Treaty declares European Citizen-ship established and thus expresses in formal terms what Europe can give its people – citizenship. By naming the phenomenon, the Maastricht Treaty, in a way, creates citizenship of the union.[12] 

However the evolution of the African Union may in effect solve all these apparent misconceptions, of citizenship in Africa; and stop the harassment of Africans within Africa.         

By A C Nnorom London, United Kingdom.  

[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid
[7] Ibid
[9] See Exodus, any bible
[12] See Conaghan, Fischl & Klare: Labour Law in an Era of Globalization Transformative Practices & Possibilities (Ed) J.Conaghan, R.M. Fischl, and K. Klare, Oxford, University Press (2002) pp321-349. Also see S.Weatherill, and P. Beaumont, EC Law (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993) 9-13.