Nigeria took a significant step earlier this month towards resolving its long-running dispute with neighboring Cameroon over the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula, when it stated publicly that it will indeed honor a 2002 ruling that awarded the territory to Cameroon. But the risks over this issue remain; the leaders of both countries must now take urgent steps to avoid a chain of events that could lead to renewed military confrontation.
Reflecting a new tone of narrow nationalism on the issue, Nigeria’s media has mostly treated the government's position on the 2002 ruling from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as a form of capitulation, running headlines such as, “Nigeria finally gives up on Bakassi.” Beyond the media backlash, there are worrying developments around 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 its 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 the Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka. Together, they launched a campaign to unilaterally nullify the ICJ judgment and reclaim Bakassi, even at the risk, of triggering a needless new war between Nigeria and Cameroon.
In a nod to this campaign, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan announced on October 4 a review of the country’s options with respect to Bakassi. The Nigerian media widely interpreted this to mean that Nigeria would seek a review of the ICJ judgment—a highly improbable event. On October 8, the Nigerian government finally put an end to this 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 of October 8 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 as a result of this dispute. It also threatens to unleash what would be a protracted conflict, with subsequent internal displacement and refugee crises.
It is not as if the West African 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 proprietary interests in the peninsula. They seem oblivious to the fact that some on the Cameroonian side feel equally strongly.
It bears recalling that 10 years ago, on October 10, 2002, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decided in favor of Cameroon in its dispute with Nigeria over control of the oil-rich Bakassi peninsula. Following the judgment, Nigeria and Cameroon reached an agreement in June 2006, known as the Greentree Agreement, on the implementation of the ICJ ruling.
Subsequently, Nigeria lowered its flag, withdrew its troops and evacuated its personnel from Bakassi. Under the schedule agreed by both countries, the final transfer of sovereignty to Cameroon should take place in August 2013.
The judgment of the ICJ required the adjustment of territory between Cameroon and Nigeria along a border about 2,000 km in length, stretching from the Atlantic coast in the south to the Lake Chad Basin in the north. A joint 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. By the end of August 2012, about 1,798 km of the border had determined, with both countries gaining and losing territories in this process.
In addition to this, the mandate of the commission also extends to the demilitarization of the peninsula, protection of the rights of the population, and identification of projects to ensure 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 significant economic life, few schools and abysmal skills. With its economic ties to Nigeria severed, it will require 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 could also choose to impose impossible conditions for doing so.
This impermissible state of affairs could 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, a further deterioration in relations between Cameroon and Nigeria towards active hostilities cannot be ruled out. This is eminently foreseeable. It is also avoidable.