Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

POLITICS-WEST AFRICA: A 1961 Poll Haunts the Bakassi Hand Over

Toye Olori

LAGOS, Nov 6 2003 (IPS) - Efforts to implement a ruling on the border dispute between Nigeria and Cameroon have hit a snag, with the filing of a law suit by Cameroonian exiles who reject the decision.

Yesterday (Nov. 5), a group of these nationals staged a protest at the Federal High Court in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, in support of their court action. They have demanded that Nigeria maintain a military presence in the Bakassi Peninsula, one of the areas that should be ceded to Cameroon, and that the government recognise the existence of Ambazonia – an independent state that would include the peninsula.

In 2002, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague established a new border between Nigeria and Cameroon, in a bid to end a long-running territorial feud between them. The ruling also obliges Nigeria to hand over 33 villages in the north-east of the country, near Lake Chad.

However, the Cameroonian plaintiffs say the ICJ did not take into account a 1961 referendum held by the United Nations. This poll gave people living in south-west Cameroon – the area said to make up “Ambazonia” – the option of becoming a province of Nigeria, or joining Cameroon in a federation that would guarantee them autonomy.

Although the vote went in favour of Cameroon, activists in that country have since accused it of undermining the promised autonomy. The plaintiffs claim that Nigeria has a legal obligation to enforce the area’s independence by refusing to hand over the Bakassi Peninsula. They say Nigeria should also return to the ICJ to request that Cameroon comply with the 1961 vote.

A lawyer for the exiles, Festus Keyamo, told IPS that “The case will…open the eyes of the Nigerian government and Nigerians to new facts which they did not see before, and which were not tendered during the Nigeria-Cameroon legal battle at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.”

The plaintiffs are led by Ambazonia’s self-declared head of state in exile, Fongam Gorji-Dinka, and two other “officials”: Stafford Obtruse and Thompson Aguhera.

The case was postponed until Nov. 20, after government lawyers asked for more time to prepare their defence. Although it has accepted other aspects of the ICJ ruling, Nigeria still refuses to give up Bakassi, which is said to have vast off-shore oil reserves. Authorities claim that 90 percent of the 250,000 people living in the peninsula are Nigerian.

A number of the Nigerians living in Bakassi have also rejected the ICJ verdict, and vowed not to move from their homes. Some have even threatened to secede if the Abuja government ultimately hands over the area, which present falls in the Cross River State.

Joe Atene, a member of the Cross River State House of Assembly who represents Bakassi, says a hand over of the peninsula would amount to betrayal. “We have always been Nigerians, and if Nigeria now decides to turn its back on us we may not have any other option than to pursue self determination. We will not be part of Cameroon,” he warned.

Concerns have also been voiced by Etinyin Okon Edet, an ethnic leader from Bakassi who has petitioned Abuja over its possible withdrawal from the area. “The…World Court judgement addressed only legal technicalities.(not) the political and human peculiarities. The verdict was absolutely strange to us and will continue to remain so to us for posterity,” he stated in the petition.

According to Edet, the United Nations should allow the people of Bakassi to decide where they want to belong through a referendum.

However, Nigeria has agreed to cede the 33 villages near Lake Chad.

Last week, Justice Minister Akin Olujinmi told a panel set up to help resolve the border dispute – the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission – that Nigeria was ready to comply with the ICJ verdict because it was not prepared to be dragged into a “meaningless and avoidable conflict” with any of its neighbours.

“I want to assure you, we shall continue to abide by our commitment to respect the judgement of the International Court of Justice. We are actually looking into ways and modalities of ensuring that the people in these areas are catered for after the transfer of government by December 2003,” Olujinmi said.

However, regional authorities from Borno State in north-eastern Nigeria are unhappy about the timing of the handover, which is scheduled to take place at midnight, on Dec. 31 this year. They believe the exercise will greatly affect the economic well being of more than 56,000 families in the area, most of which rely on farming, as well as the education of children.

“The assignment was wrongly timed, (because it will take place during) harvest season. Our farmers have invested heavily,.and would be working hard at such a period to recover their investment.Therefore, there should be a gradual withdrawal in order for misfortune not to be inflicted on the villagers,” the state argues.

But, in a television interview this week, President Olusegun Obasanjo said people living in the affected communities would not be compelled to leave their homes. “If they remain there, like the other three million Nigerians living in Cameroon, they will live like Nigerians under Cameroonian authority. However, if they want to come back to Nigeria, then arrangements will be made to bring them back home,” he said.

Borno officials are requesting that a 50-year property protection agreement be provided to villagers whose homes are affected by the ruling.

Dahiru Bobbo, Director General of Nigeria’s National Boundary Commission, said the loss of the villages was compensated for by the fact that Nigeria was gaining certain areas that had previously belonged to Cameroon. The border between the two countries stretches for more than 1,700 kms.

“There are many areas we considered to be Cameroon’s which would be ceded to us. We gained about three villages around the Lake Chad area alone,” he told journalists at the end of the sixth meeting of the Mixed Commission, in Abuja.

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