A few places have generated so much heat in Nigeria like the disputed Bakassi Peninsula in Cross River State. That, perhaps, may be the reason why the defunct Bakassi Boys, a dreaded paramilitary vigilance group in Anambra State, chose that name. With Nigeria just about to lose the fish and oil-rich peninsula to Cameroun, the inhabitants of the territory insist they are Nigerians even though the country, they said, had related with them as if they were lepers. In this report by our Correspondent, Onukwube Ofoelue, who just returned from Bakassi, we tell a story of a rejected people in a dilemma and the antics of the Camerounian government to take over the peninsula.
For about two weeks now, Bakassi Peninsula has made the front page of most of the national newspapers with opinion on the matter varying from one individual to the other, depending on who is speaking. This is understandable; the window towards a review of the world Court at The Hague’s judgment closes by October 10, 2012. The implication of this is that the peninsula would finally go to Cameroun if the Nigerian government does not seek a review of the judgment.
The peninsula is an ancestral island of the Efut, Efik, Ibibio and Annang people of both Cross River and Akwa Ibom states of Nigeria. The area is a network of rivulets, making the people mostly fishermen. They had lived peacefully with their Camerounian neighbours until October 10, 2002, when, in what looked like international conspiracy, they became refugees in their land of birth. And like the Makoko people in Lagos, the Bakassi case could be likened to that of the fish out of water if Cameroun eventually takes over the peninsula.
With the ceding came brutality and maltreatment from Camerounians, who were bent on ejecting Nigerians at all cost. The tales of woe was what Sunday Mirror was confronted with among some returnees. Particularly touching is the story of Chief Etubom. One of the founding fathers of Bakassi Freedom Fighters, he was a clan head in Oron village, at Bakassi Peninsula before Cameroun hostilities forced him and his people to return to Calabar, where he has a family house.
- Some elders in Bakassi at a public function
Seventy-eight-year-old, Etubom narrated the story of his family in Bakassi. His father had nine wives and he was the son of the third wife. The first wife had no children, the second had one, the third had one, and his mother had three. “That is how it was in that time – each family had their own home. The more wives and children, the more status and power.”
He came to the mainland to school and he studied as a civil engineer, and built his current home in Calabar South in 1958. After independence, he joined the police force. He joined the army later, during the Biafran war. He retired in 1976 and moved to his palace in the village in Bakassi. “Before 1996, Bakassi could have been a good place if it had never belonged to the civilised world. We have everything there – an abundance of sea food. And we know how to take care of ourselves. We do not need taking care of. Life was very enjoyable,” he said.
Continuing, he narrated: “Before the Europeans arrived, we governed ourselves. The Ekpe was the government of the day. We resolved disputes and all was well. When Nigeria came in and made it a local government area, not much changed. This was because Nigeria used our people – our own leaders. We had democratic elections and the people who ruled us were chosen by us. My ward had its own councilor.
“During this time, development came to the village. Schools were built. We had electricity and water. Nigeria made bore holes for us so that we could get clean water.
Then, we were all fishermen. Even me, I had some boats and I would send our people in the canoes to go fish. I did not fish myself because as a Chief and a clan head, I would lose respect – it is lowly work. But I owned boats there. Everyone owns boats there. If you do not own a boat, people will look down on you. When the conflict started between Nigeria and Cameroon, we did not see it on the ground. Nigeria left peacefully and told us to leave peacefully. Even now when I think about it, I cry. I feel sad, not for myself, but for my people who are back there. They are being abused by the gendarmeries, they cannot fish. They call me over here and there is nothing I can do to help or assist them,” he said.
“Indigenes express dissatisfaction with new settlement”
Another inhabitant of Bakassi, Eneyo narrated how Cameroun ejected most of the Nigerians, who had remained in Bakassi. “They lived like tenants in their own land. Mysterious fire outbreaks burnt down people’s houses and they were not allowed to rebuild them even as they were forced to leave,” Eneyo said. Since then, he said, stern-looking security operatives have been stationed in the disputed peninsula by the Camerounian authorities with heavy and sophisticated security equipment. Sunday Mirror investigation reveals that no Nigerian is allowed on the Peninsula, except with a permit from the Camerounian Consulate in Nigeria.
Another resident, who identified himself as Abaku has relocated to the new Bakassi as the new resettlement area created by the Nigerian government is called, stated that some of them who were fishermen had wanted to remain in the disputed area, but that the conditions given to them were quite frustrating. “We pleaded with the Camerounian authority to permit us to continue fishing in the fishrich rivulets that made it a choice home for generations of their fishing families, but they refused. They just wanted us out of the land. They did not only introduce levies but unleashed terror through their security agents. This is, in spite of my people’s pleas that they were ready to live together with the Camerounians.” However, the body language of the Camerouns finally drove them out from the area. “Though, a handful of the original Bakassi people, who are likely to be ejected after October 10, still reside on the peninsula,” Abaku said.
Although, the people of Bakassi affirmed, during the controversial International Court of Justice (ICJ) hearing of the suit filed by Cameroun on the disputed area that they are Nigerians, it did little to influence the judgment that ceded the territory to Cameroun. As a result, the Nigerian government, since that judgment, has been making efforts aimed at relocating the people from the disputed area. The new place is called new Bakassi. But in spite of this, the people are still uncomfortable with their new homes. They claimed the new home, which the Federal, State and Local Council governments are putting together for the people, is all land without water, thus cutting off the peoples’ aquatic life that had been their main stay for years. Because of this, the people found it difficult to settle down in their new home. The indigenes told Sunday Mirror that aside the building, no effort has been made to provide water or electricity. They also complain that the houses are tiny and as such, not good enough for comfort.
This has forced many of them to move to Dayspring, another area that is said to be suitable for fishing. “There are many issues against the new Bakassi. Despite the fact that it was created as a settlement for the Bakassi citizens, it is not a riverine area where they can be usefully employed. The result is that some of them returned to the Peninsula, preferring to bear the assault and humiliation from Camerounian gendarmes instead of dying of hunger in the new settlement,” Atuk, an indigene, who spoke to Sunday Mirror in Calabar said.
Senator Florence Ita-Giwa, an indigene of Bakassi, who also spoke with Sunday Mirror on phone, explained that Dayspring was the only area of Bakassi that was not ceded to Cameroun. She stated that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had conducted a voters’ registration exercise as well as elections in the area during the last elections. In spite of all that, the people are bemoaning their fate as the original owners of their new homeland, the Akpabuyo people, according to them, are making it difficult for them to settle down as they see the Bakassi people as usurpers on their ancestral land. A woman, Mama Ediong, said she is the only one in her family that relocated from Bakassi. She said though the Akpabuyo people are not necessarily hostile, they (Bakassi) did not feel at home as they have no claim to the ancestral lands in their new place. She laments: “we have been neglected by the same government that promised to take good care of us. Look at the type of tiny houses they built for us. There is no water and no electricity. There is no means of survival. My family members have all left because they cannot fold their hands and just sit down here. Does the house provide food for us?”
Yet, Mama Ediong was not alone in her lamentations. Fred, who spoke for the younger Bakassians told Sunday Mirror that though, they were persuaded to relocate to their new home, government has done little to assist them settle properly. “Our choice was Dayspring Resettlement Centre, the remaining portion of the original Peninsula that was not ceded to Cameroun. Many of the Bakassi people had moved over to Dayspring, but it is neglected, he said.
But, the chairman of the council, Hon Ekpo Ekpo Bassey, dismissed this as a barrage of lies being sponsored by some self-seeking politicians. He stated that contrary to what they allege, Dayspring was a part and parcel of new Bakassi, and not part of the old Peninsula. He also dismissed allegations that new Bakassi was landlocked, explaining that the place was full of rivulets and water channels. “If you have the time, we will take you around to see. The Akpabuyo people and those of Bakassi are one and the same people. Our main occupations are fishing and farming,” Bassey said, adding that most of the Bakassi families also had ancestral homes back in Akpabuyo. “The ancestors were people who relocated to Bakassi just to do fishing business.” He also dismissed claims by the people of not having access to the lands as frivolous. “The government foresaw that, and what it did was to revoke every license of land ownership in the new Bakassi. That means that the new people can use the lands without getting harassed,” he added.
The Federal Government had carved out an entirely new local government out of the existing Akpabuyo Local Government to cater for the needs of the people. A tour through the new Bakassi revealed that the local, state and federal governments have registered their presence strongly by contributing to its development. In an effort to relocate the fishing community, a resettlement centre was built to accommodate the Bakassi returnees. The place is a massive expanse of land, allocated for the development of housing units, consisting of self-contain apartments. Each is for two families, equipped with a toilet, bathroom and kitchen. But, while the small ones are meant for tiny families, others are bigger, to cater for families with larger populations. A well-tarred road ran all the way from Calabar town to the end of Bakassi, making it easily accessible. Although, there was no electric light in some of the buildings, there are electric cables connecting the large community to the main grid. Development of the area is ongoing the quality of houses is first class.
“How Cameroun frustrates indigenes”
The new local government office located at another end of the community, houses the administrative blocks of the council. A complex of offices, the quarters are situated on top of a small hill, in the remote community. There is a filling station, classic shopping plaza and laundry. According to Bassey, “the Federal Government had set out to construct 300 housing units for the people. But, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NNDC) has added another 45 units.” Deputy Chairman of Bakassi local council, Hon Orok Edem Eneyo, also explained that the new houses consisted of a hospital and council permanent building; a hall for chiefs, staff quarters, a shopping complex, a drug store and other infrastructure. The efforts of the Federal Government were complemented by both the council and the NDDC.
But, a South African Ph.D student doing a research work on Bakassi, Leanne Johansson, has observed that the people from Bakassi are not happy. She blamed the Nigerian government for making no concrete effort to appeal against the ICJ ruling, expressing fears that it may not be able to reclaim the peninsula anymore. She also argued that ICJ did not do an exhaustive research as to determine whether the land actually was ceded to Cameroun by the colonial masters. “The information available at the time of the ruling was incomplete, and you cannot make a ruling so grave based on incomplete data,” she added, even as she stated that the document with which Britain allegedly transferred ownership rights of Bakassi from Nigeria to Germany, making it Cameroun property in 1913 were allegedly not signed. To her, the transfer lacked validity. Johansson, however, made it clear that she has not seen the document herself.
Rev Oko Asuquo Odiong, while delivering a lecture at this year’s Independent Day celebrations at the new Bakassi, also faulted the ICJ judgment in many instances. Giving a brief history of what he called the colonial deceptions of Europe and eventual take-over of African lands in the guise of dubious treaties, Odiong stated that Nigeria still stands a strong chance of regaining Bakassi. He told Sunday Mirror that ICJ defaulted grossly in making its ruling.
Comrade Zulu Solomon, a cultural economist, lecturer and human rights activist based in Port Harcourt has equally dismissed the whole ICJ ruling as a total fraud. He described it along with the colonial government as satanic, wondering how Britain could be so wicked as to give out another man’s property as a gift to Germany. He stated that no government, United Nations, Nigeria or Cameroun has a right over the people of Bakassi, as they are a free people. He said that the land and people of Bakassi are one and any law that separates the two should not be binding on the people. “It is criminal to take away or give away Bakassi because of military might or due to business