“In early August 2012, a group calling itself the Bakassi Self-Determination Front announced that it had established a pirate radio station.”
By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu & Agnes Ebo’o
The decision by Nigeria’s government, announced on 8 October 2012 by the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, to abide with the implementation of the 2002 ICJ judgment in respect of the Bakassi case was eminently sensible. There, however, remains serious issues that require urgent exertion of the leaderships of both countries if they are to avoid a war over Bakassi.
Reflecting a new tone of narrow nationalism on the issue, Nigeria’s media has mostly treated the government’s position as a form of capitulation to adverse influence under headlines, such as, “Nigeria finally gives up on Bakassi”. Beyond the media backlash, there are worrying developments around Bakassi that can only be faced down when the leaderships of both countries prioritize in concrete ways the best interests of the people in Bakassi.
On October 2, a group known as the Free Bakassi Association initiated legal proceedings before Nigeria’s Federal High Court in Abuja to compel the government to resume full control of the Peninsula. In early August 2012, a group calling itself the Bakassi Self-Determination Front announced that it had established a pirate radio station and a flag for an autonomous territory of Bakassi, threatening major disruption in the area and to transactional life with the rest of Nigeria.
These developments inspired a vociferous coalition of Nigeria’s civic and political leaders, including notable voices in both chambers of Nigeria’s Parliament and Nobel Literature laureate, Wole Soyinka, who set about a campaign to unilaterally nullify the ICJ judgment and reclaim Bakassi at the risk, if necessary, of triggering a needless new war between Nigeria and Cameroon.
In a nod to this campaign, Nigeria’s President, Goodluck Jonathan, on October 4, ordered a review of the country’s options with respect to Bakassi. The Nigerian media widely interpreted this to mean that Nigeria would seek an improbable review of the ICJ judgment. The Federal Government of Nigeria’s official statement of October 8 finally put an end to all speculation, stressing that “an application for a review is virtually bound to fail” and that “a failed application will be diplomatically damaging to Nigeria”. But the real news in the Nigerian announcement was a little-noticed line in which the government promised “…. to explore all avenues necessary to protect their interests including but not limited to negotiations aimed at buying back the territory, if feasible.”
On the 10th anniversary of the Judgment by the ICJ, such calculated implausibility casts a long shadow over one of Africa’s least known citizenship crises with thousands already rendered stateless, and threatens to unleash the Continent’s next protracted conflict and subsequent internal displacement and refugee crises.
It is not as if the region is in short supply of tension. The violence in North-Eastern Nigeria has already brought relations between the two countries to an exceptionally low level. Unless both countries wake up to the human tragedy unfolding in Bakassi, amid growing maritime piracy and militia threats, the area could become the site of Africa’s next inter-State war.
Both countries have had a decade to prepare for compliance with the ICJ judgment. With no regard for interests of the people of the Peninsula or the niceties of international law and diplomacy, those seeking to “re-occupy” Bakassi espouse a dubious but evangelical belief in Nigeria’s exclusive territorial and proprietory interests in the Peninsula, oblivious of the fact that they have Cameroonian opposite numbers.
It bears recalling that on October 10, 2002, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decided in favour of Cameroon in its dispute with Nigeria over control of the oil-rich Bakassi Peninsula. Following the judgment, Nigeria and Cameroon reached an agreement -the Greentree Agreement- in June 2006, to govern implementation of the ICJ ruling.
Subsequently, Nigeria lowered its flag, withdrew its troops and evacuated its personnel from Bakassi. Under a voluntarily schedule agreed by both countries, final transfer of sovereignty to Cameroon will take place in August 2013.
The judgment of the ICJ compelled the adjustment of territory between Cameroon and Nigeria along a border territory of about 2,000 kilometres in length stretching from the Atlantic coast in the South to the Lake Chad Basin in the North. By the end of August 2012, about 1,978 kilometres of border territory had been covered in the adjustment. A Mixed Commission facilitated by the United Nations and comprising senior officials of both countries has worked for the past decade to adjust boundaries in the affected border areas. Both countries have gained and lost territories in this process.
In addition to this, the mandate of the Mixed Commission also extends to demilitarization of the Peninsula, protection of the rights of the population, and identification of projects to promote their wellbeing, including “joint ventures between the two countries and cross-border cooperation”.
It is on this last point that both Nigeria and Cameroon, and the nationalists on both sides, have failed the people of Bakassi. Neither country has disguised the fact that its design was over the territory and resources of the area. There has been no effort to address the community’s huge and overwhelming citizenship, human rights, and development crises.
Despite its rich endowments in natural resources, Bakassi is a desperate place. It has no transactional life, few schools and abysmal skills. Adrift from its main source of economic life in Nigeria, it will require years, computed in decades, to achieve any meaningful integration into Cameroon.
The majority of Bakassi inhabitants are Nigerian nationals. When the full transfer of sovereignty to Cameroon scheduled to take place in 2013 happens, the people of Bakassi will be faced with a choice as to their nationality, since Cameroon does not permit dual nationality. Those who choose to remain Nigerians will become aliens on their own land. Although the Greentree Agreement promises to respect their rights to citizenship and residence, there is no obligation on Cameroon to grant residency permits to anyone. As a fact, Cameroon is currently not issuing any identification or citizenship documents in Bakassi. It can also choose to impose impossible conditions for doing so.
This impermissible state of affairs can be addressed through a citizenship and residency rights protocol to the Greentree Agreement. Such a Protocol would clearly state the entitlements of the people of Bakassi and govern the obligations of both Nigeria and Cameroon past the handover date in 2013. Absent such a supplement to the Greentree Agreement, further deterioration in relations between Cameroon and Nigeria towards active hostilities cannot be ruled out. This is eminently foreseeable and avoidable.
* Chidi Anselm Odinkalu Chairs the Governing Council of Nigeria’s Human Rights Commission
** Agnes Ebo’o is Coordinator of the Gulf of Guinea Citizens Network (GGCN) Secretariat in Yaoundé – Cameroon.