The People of Bakassi feel Betrayed

The United nations should conduct an internationally monitored plebiscite to ascertain from the inhabitants of the Bakassi peninsula whether they intend to remain in Nigeria or move into the Camerouns. The livelihood and general well-being of almost a million people should not be sacrificed on the megalomaniac altar of individual ambition; the ego of individuals who want to appear as international statesmen and peacemakers.

Bakassi is the peninsular extension of the African territory of Calabar into the Atlantic. It is currently ruled by Nigeria but is due to be transferred to Camerounian sovereignty following a judgment by the International Court of Justice.

The ICJ verdict caused consternation in Nigeria. It aroused vitriolic comments from Nigerian officials and the Nigerian media alike. Chief Richard Akinjide, a former Nigerian Attorney-General and Minister of Justice who had been a leading member of Nigeria’s legal team, described the decision as “50% international law and 50% international politics”, “blatantly biased and unfair”, “a total disaster”, and a “complete fraud”. The Nigerian newspaper The Guardian went further, declaring that the judgment was “a rape and unforeseen potential international conspiracy against Nigerian territorial integrity and sovereignty” and “part of a Western ploy to foment and perpetuate trouble in Africa”. The outcome of the controversy was a de facto Nigerian refusal to withdraw militarily from Bakassi and transfer sovereignty. The Nigerian government did not, however, openly reject the judgment but instead called for an agreement that would provide “peace with honour, with the interest and welfare of our people.”

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 , but the process was complicated by the opposition of Bakassi’s inhabitants to being transferred to Cameroon. Bakassian leaders have threatened to seek independence if Nigeria renounces sovereignty.

The situation has changed however: The Nigeria’s president has agreed to hand over Bakassi to the Cameroonian Government and gone on national television and radio to reassure residents of the oil-rich peninsula being handed to Cameroon.

President Olusegun Obasanjo told residents of the Bakassi peninsula their safety would be guaranteed even when Nigerian troops leave this year. “We have ensured that Nigerians living now on the peninsula have a choice either to relocate or to remain in Bakassi,” Following the deal, Mr. Obasanjo said solving the dispute peacefully was far cheaper than war and said it could serve as a model for other African disputes.

Nigerian people in the area feel betrayed by the deal. Most of those who live in Bakassi are Nigerians and are strongly opposed to coming under Cameroonian jurisdiction.

My interest in this misguided venture is not whether Bakassi peninsula is fertile, rich in fish, oil or other natural resources or not. Nor am I bothered that both president Obasanjo and Koffi Annan have an ego to massage. My only problem is that this handover process is being conducted in wanton disregard of the wishes of the Bakassi people. The people, whose means of livelihood is being threatened, this is where they have the grave of their ancestors; the umbilical cord to their past. This is where they have lived all their lives.

The Chairman of the Bakassi Local Government Area, Mr. Ani Esin has said that he still cannot believe that President Olusegun Obasanjo ceded Bakassi to Cameroun

“The people elected me to serve them. That area is my jurisdiction and for it to be ceded to a foreign country without consulting me is like a joke carried too far, an expensive joke.

“My land, my forefather’s graves are in Bakassi. If you say you are relocating me, where are you relocating me to? Suppose you relocate me somewhere and in future the government of Nigeria asks my children to go back to Bakassi. I am talking of the distant future. There is so much apprehension amongst my people right now. What has just happened is victory for the Cameroun gendarmes who have been fighting our people”, he added.

THE Paramount Ruler of Bakassi Peninsula, Etinyin Etim Okon Edet, has also said that one of the ways peace can be ensured in Bakassi is for a plebiscite to be conducted in the peninsula “to ensure that our people exercise their right of choosing where they want to belong.”

In his desperate appeal to the Nigerian people he said: “We come to you because for 90 and 46 years, we shared one destiny, one history and one national culture. We swore to the same oaths of allegiance and pledged to preserve the unity of Nigeria, and to protect and defend her constitution.

“We come to you at this final hour, still hoping that you, our fellow countrymen, no matter the price, legal or diplomatic, will not condemn the Bakassi people to a life of perpetual slavery, wanton exploitation of our human, natural resources, torture and certain death.

“We come to you, to appeal to your good sense of judgment and resilience, that not in your name should the Bakassi people be made sacrificial lamb in the quest for the resuscitation of our lost glory as a nation. We are all victims. We come to you, knowing that this betrayal has shaken our trust and confidence which we shared in a common destiny.”

Apart for his call for a plebiscite, he said: “Both Cameroun and Nigeria maintain the status quo, that Bakassi be run as a United Nations Trustee Territory, and that Governments of Cameroun, Nigeria and the people of Bakassi share resources in the peninsula.”

This is a call that the whole world, nay, the UN and Nigeria should hearken to. I don’t understand why African issues should be treated differently from what obtains elsewhere?

When the people of Cyprus were about to be admitted to the EU, a plebiscite was conducted among the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots to determine whether the whole country should be one and go into the EU as one. The Greek Cypriots voted ‘Nay’, and the Turkish Cypriots voted ‘Aye’. The result was that the Greek Cypriots went into the EU, and the Turkish Cypriots remains outside the EU.

More recently, another Plebiscite was conducted in Montenegro for the people to remain part of Serbia-Montenegro or to secede. The vote heralded the end of the former Union of Serbia and Montenegro which came into being in 2003 and which was itself the rump of the former Yugoslavia. Montenegro came into being as a sovereign state after just over the required 55% of the population opted for independence in a May 2006 referendum.

Interestingly the Population of Montenegro is a mere 620,000 (2003 census) with an Area of just 13,812 sq km (5,333 sq miles) whereas the Bakassi peninsula consists of a number of low-lying, largely mangrove covered islands covering an area of around 665km². The population of Bakassi is the subject of some dispute, but is generally put at between 150,000-300,000 people.

The livelihood and general well-being of almost a million people should not be sacrificed on the megalomaniac altar of individuals who want to appear as international statesmen. Let the indigenes of Bakassi decide.

Daniel Elombah Esq.