Opinion: Bakassi people and the trial of Nigeria’s conscience

By Charles Onunaiju

The Bakassi people, Nigeria’s longest suffering political orphans, are sitting out in the cold, mediocre and squalid refugee camps for nearly two decades in a stretch and at best, what they get is official tears and emotionless stares from the rest of us.

Their tragedy even preceded the mayhem of the North-East region, inflicted by the mindless violence of the Boko Haram insurgency. In fact, by the length of their travails and even the manner of the former Olusegun Obasanjo-led Federal Government betrayal, the Bakassi people are supposed to be the first to be entitled to a presidential initiative on rehabilitation and reconstruction, and may be because there were no grass-cutting contract awards to be made, they were never in the purview of the federal authorities.

The Bakassi people, uprooted from their ancestral land and huddled in a squalid and dehumanising camp for nearly two decades, were actually the victims of reckless political game, in which former President Obasanjo decided to trade Nigeria’s extant territory in peace time for a mere political porridge, to illegally extend his tenure. In his cold calculation for a life presidency, he might have thought that rushing to enforce an international court ruling against his own country would secure for him, the political endorsement of his ambition for illegal third time. It did not, as he was roundly rebuffed in all the western capitals and urged to respect his nation’s constitution. But before then, the damage of the Bakassi peninsula imbroglio has been done and the man, never contrite, moved on, while the weight of his reckless gambles over-bears on the hapless compatriots of the give-away peninsula.

Territorial integrity is a core defining characteristic of state sovereignty and even countries that lose territories during war time, seek the earliest opportune time to recover them, through negotiations or another war.

Bakassi peninsula, in spite of the colonial whims of Britain and France prior to Nigeria’s independence, has been part of Nigeria’s sovereign territory, since the attainment of statehood and has been inhabited and lived by Nigerians could suddenly be lost by a queer decision of an international court, that has no enforcement machinery and whose previous decisions have at best enriched the legal literature of international jurisprudence, because no country has actually taken it so serious as to impose its enforcement upon itself. As two sovereign nations, not bound by the machinations of the erstwhile colonial masters, Nigeria and Cameroon would have sought bilateral mechanisms to resolve the territorial dispute between them, in which no human sufferings would have been accepted as collateral. Nigeria was by far in a stronger position to seek bilateral negotiated settlement to the dispute, even on the grounds that the peninsula has subsisted as integral part of Nigeria’s territorial integrity, since her emergence as sovereign nation.

In 2013, the World Court based in The Hague issued a ruling in the long territorial dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia, awarding nearly 60 per cent of the disputed seas, some 75,000 square metres of Maritime territory to Nicaragua, which threatened the livelihood of Colombian residents who rely on fishing. In response, the then Colombian president, Mr. Juan Manual Santos, vowed to ignore the rulings of the court and instead engaged the Nicaraguan leader, Mr. Daniel Ortega, in a bilateral diplomatic settlement. A similar case occurred in 1977, when the World Court ruled that Beagle Channel’s Island of Picton, Lennox and Nueva belonged to Chile and not Argentina.

Argentina rejected the ruling which almost led to cross fire with Chile. It was however, not until 1984, when Pope John Paul II intervened and mediated in the conflict and resolved it, in an amicable way that was acceptable to both sides. Under the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, the Islands were granted to Chile with no retaliation from Argentina.

Even some Security Council members of the United Nations have disavowed various world court rulings. In 1973, New Zealand requested of the court to stop France from holding nuclear tests in the South Pacific, but France refused to recognise the competence of the court to hear the matter and declined to participate in the court hearings, while continuing with her nuclear tests. Similarly in 1972, the United Kingdom approached the court to halt Iceland from expanding its exclusive fishing zone from 12 to 50 miles, which has sparked outrage both in Britain and Germany. The international court ruled that Iceland’s new delimitations were invalid and granted the United Kingdom permission to fish beyond its 12-mile radius. Iceland, however, ignored the court ruling, treating the sea far beyond its shores as its own and threatened to close a major NATO base after the UK deployment of Naval ships within the disputed 200-mile-long seas. The dispute ended in 1976, when both Iceland and the United Kingdom agreed mutually that British nationals could not fish in that zone.

Last year, China refused to participate in the court process of the case instituted by the Philippines over Maritime claims of the South China Sea. When the court issued verdict to validate the claims of Philippines, China ignored the ruling and has since begun to construct Islands in the sea to validate her historic claims to the area. Meanwhile, Philippines has turned round to disavow the favourable court rulings and have rather engaged in bilateral diplomacy to resolve the issue. China has also engaged other claimants to South China Sea like Vietnam and others to find a negotiated settlement.

The ruling of the international court in 2002, would never have been the end of the territorial dispute involving Nigeria and Cameroon, but rather further prospects of negotiated settlement were compromised when former president Obasanjo signed the notorious Green Tree Agreement in New York, the U.S, with his Cameroonian counterpart, Mr. Paul Biya on June 12, 2006, withdrawing Nigerian troops and transferring authority of the Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon.

By that notorious agreement, Obasanjo, who then, was in the thick of his plot to secure the illegal third term in office, yanked off Nigeria’s richly endowed territory and uprooted its people.

The travails of the Bakassi people have since perpetuated and incrementally worsened, with successive governments looking the other way.

The Governor of the Cross River, Ben Ayade, recently shed tears publicly at the plight of the Bakassi people, but the fact that he sits over billions of naira of unaccountable security vote, that can construct at least 5,000 low-cost housing unit, makes his tears a crocodile one. The huge funds that successive Cross River State governments expend to organise their yearly Calabar Carnival are reasonable enough to ameliorate the conditions of the Bakassi people.

The condition of the Bakassi people is a national scandal, to which the Federal Government must give as much urgency as it has justifiably and responsibly given to the compatriots in the North East. Bakassi people must not continue to function as pawns in the cheese board of local politicians, who exploit their situation to gain prominence.

As compatriots, who made the supreme sacrifice of giving up their ancestral land to be Nigerians, the least Nigeria owes them is a decent abode. Punch

  • Onunaiju is director, Centre for China Studies, Utako, Abuja

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