Lt. Gen. A.F.K. Akale (r) in a chat with Senator Florence Ita Giwa
Amid furore over the declaration of autonomy by the people of Ogoni and Bakassi, many still believe those are only indicative of the restless desire for change among several groups in the country. Ernest Chinwo, in Port Harcourt, and Jude Okwe, in Calabar, write
Even though the Nigerian government and the media seemed to downplay it, the August 2 declaration of autonomy by the people of Ogoniland just screamed out at the whole country. The images of the crowds of men, women, and children celebrating the insignias of independence rekindled memories of the people’s past struggle for local self-government.
Mr. Goodluck Diigbo, who led the August 2 declaration, said it was a proclamation of local autonomy within Nigeria and in line with the Ogoni Bill of Rights. In August 1990, the Ogoni Bill of Rights was signed by Ogoni elders and presented to the then military government. It called for “political control of Ogoni affairs by Ogoni people, control and use of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development, adequate and direct representation as of right for Ogoni people in all Nigerian national institutions, and the right to protect the Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradation.”
The Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People was formed that year to engage in a non-violent pursuit of the special rights of the people within Nigeria. MOSOP was led by playwright, environmentalist and author, Mr. Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was slain on November 10, 1995 by the military dictator Sani Abacha in an outrageous judicial decision that was condemned worldwide as “judicial murder.”
Diigbo, who is described as a factional president of MOSOP, in his statement declaring “Ogoni autonomy”, cited, among other things, the degradation of Ogoni environment and failure of the Federal Government to implement the United Nations Environment Programme report on Ogoni as motivation for the move.
He explained in a press statement published in MOSOP Media, “The urgency behind the declaration is that self-government for Ogoni was overdue in view of many important issues bordering on indigenous rights of the Ogoni people being tampered with now. The UNEP Ogoni Report is one out of many.”
According to Diigbo, “The Ogoni declaration of self-government now guarantees the Ogoni people the right to participate in decision-making in all matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by Ogonis in accordance with own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop all our own indigenous decision-making institutions, which we started to set up since 2011.
“It is my hope that this self-government will help to provide just and fair redress to decades of deprivation of our indigenous rights.”
Diigbo was addressing jubilant crowds at Bane, hometown of Saro-Wiwa, on August 4, two days after the independence declaration.
“Importantly, Ogoni can no longer accept dictation, any institution, government and corporation, interested in investment in Ogoni will enjoy transparent partnership, because we will end corruption and irresponsive governance in Ogoni. This means partnership will be based on free, prior and informed consent before any of our partners adopt and implement any project, and before the national government adopt any legislative or administrative measures that may affect Ogoni people,” Diigbo maintained.
However, Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State, where Ogoniland is currently located, accused Diigbo of engaging in treasonable felony.
Amaechi said, “On Ogoni autonomy, I wish them well. Ogoni autonomy is not achievable. The man (Diigbo) who declared Ogoni autonomy will run into the bush tomorrow morning. What Diigbo is doing is treasonable felony. You do not declare autonomy on the pages of newspapers and magazines or on radio and television.”
But Diigbo issued another statement two days later, clarifying that he meant autonomy within the Nigerian state, quoting United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Ethnic Nationalities.
Amaechi questioned Diigbo’s claims of acting on behalf of the generality of Ogoni people.
Though, the Ogoni autonomy declaration is condemned in government circles, many believe Federal Government’s continued neglect of the people provided the push to undertake the course of self-government. Despite promises of healing and rebuilding of Ogoniland since the dawn of the Fourth Republic, there has been very little effort to meet the economic, political, and environmental aspirations of the people.
On August 4 last year, the UN released its report outlining remediation measures needed to reclaim Ogoni lands despoiled by decades of oil exploration and exploitation. The UNEP report said clean of the soil will take 30 years.
But the government of President Goodluck Jonathan, himself an indigene of the Niger Delta and under whom the UNEP report was released, has yet to seriously commit to its implementation.
Different Strategies, One Destiny
Even if within Ogoniland criticism rang out against the autonomy declaration by Diigbo, not a few, including the critics themselves, acknowledged that the Federal Government has not been honest and open regarding its commitments to Ogoni.
The statement signed by chairman of the Provisional Council of MOSOP, Professor Ben Naanen, and the secretary, Dr. Meshach Karanwi, said the declaration of autonomy went against the spirit and letter of the Ogoni Bill of Rights. But it acknowledged, “Ogoni people are dissatisfied with their condition in our country, Nigeria. But they do not believe the sovereign option is the answer. They are convinced that their non-violent struggle and the support of the international community will eventually make the Nigerian government respond positively to Ogoni’s legitimate demands.”
However, president of Ogoni Youth Council, Comrade Marvin Yobana, told THISDAY in an interview, “Although political autonomy was mentioned in the Ogoni Bill of Rights, that does not mean secession, they did not ask for their own country. They only asked for more constituency, more representation because of the geographical nature of Ogoniland.”
There is a growing impression within the oil-rich Niger Delta that the Federal Government is displaying bias in favour of groups that chose armed struggle against peaceful agitation. Ogonis have since the time of Saro-Wiwa chosen non-violent struggle, and has made many feel they are not speaking the language that the Nigerian government understands.
Enter Bakassi Freedom Fighters
The people of Bakassi, too, have been peaceful in their agitation for a fairer deal within Nigeria.
Perhaps, encouraged by the Ogoni and prompted by feelings of frustration about alleged neglect of peaceful agitators, the people of Bakassi in Cross River State declared their own local independence on August 6 – a few days after the “Ogoni Autonomy Day” declaration of August 2.
Natives of Bakassi have been uncomfortable with the Nigerian government’s perceived indifference to their socio-economic and political plight since the ceding of the oil-rich peninsular to Cameroun.
The French Revolution, which pioneered a large part of the political events of the modern world, unleashed forces that shaped the path taken by Europe and the rest of the world for over two centuries running. The revolution that provoked a clash between the monarchy and nobility over the latter’s refusal to compromise its immunity from tax payment has since become instructive as a vital impetus for revolts by the oppressed.
The problems that produce revolution are many and vary from country to country. They include marginalisation, oppression, injustice, annexation, religious differences and its associated sectarian violence. Nigeria has its fair share of some of these tendencies.
From the estuary of Cross River State, off the Gulf of Guinea, a revolution is brewing. The simmering crisis has its roots in the ceding of Bakassi Peninsula to the Republic of Cameroun following the judgement of the International Court of Justice on October 10, 2002. Leading this revolution is Bakassi Freedom Fighters, a group of militants opposed to the ceding of their ancestral home to a foreign country.
Led by Ekpe Ekpenyong Oku, the self styled Commander General of BFF, Bakassi people on August 6 made good their threat of hoisting the Bakassi national flag at Dayspring Island in declaration of the sovereign state of Bakassi. It also established a radio station, which broadcasts on shortwave to nationals of the new nation. Its flag of blue, white and red colours is festooned with stars – signifying the promise of a rising nation.
Bakassi radio broadcasts on 4. 2MHz and 5.2MHz bands.
In his maiden broadcast to the new nation, Oku declared, “Please, for the umpteenth time, we plead with our people to leave Abana now. The fight is going to be the thickest and fiercest now that our brothers from the northern and eastern borders have arrived.
Bakassi we hail thee.”
Oku called on “men of goodwill, human rights organisations and the indigenous people of Bakassi to join hands in resisting and fighting the present international conspiracy. Ours will be a classical story of the elephant and the ant. The elephant will soon be driven frantic with ants all over its enormous bulk. The elephant will be so harassed and will find no respite and dash itself against a tree trunk.
“Throughout history, injured people have had to resort to arms in their self-defence where peaceful negotiations fail. Bakassi people are no exception. Our right to self-determination is imminent. Some will die, but some will live to reap from our labour.”
The broadcast took both the natives and residents of nearby Calabar unawares, as they never anticipated such a bold action. The hoisting of the flag and broadcast gave substance to the march towards self-determination and has become their spring board.
Road to Self-rule
The search for self-rule for Bakassi began in 2006 when the Green Tree Agreement was signed. A nascent group, Bakassi Solidarity Front, soon emerged on the scene to sensitise the aborigines on the implications of the agreement ceding their territory to Cameroun. The group soon became a rallying point for the freedom of Bakassi people.
Led by Tony Ene, BSF wielded so much influence among the natives that the government of former President Olusegun Obasanjo became uncomfortable. Security operatives were unleashed on him. They trailed him everywhere he went. He was later killed on the Calabar-Itu Road in what many suspected to be an orchestrated motor accident.
Unlike the case of Ogoni, the declaration of Bakassi independence seems to have the blessing of most of the natives of the oil-rich island. Their support is not without reason. Torn between a hostile supposedly new compatriots, Cameroun, and an unsympathetic Nigerian neighbours, the people appear left with no other option that turn to God and take their destiny in their own hands.
Since August 14, 2008 when Nigeria’s sovereignty over Bakassi became history, the displaced people of the island have known no peace. With limited access to water to ply their traditional occupation of fishing, virtually no roof over their heads, and threatened livelihood, the people have become like refugees seething with anger.
A combination of these frustrations has pushed the people to the wall, prompting the current reaction in the form of a quest for self-rule. The declaration of independence is the climax of a long term aspiration, given that the Nigerian government, which willingly gave out Bakassi, has in the last 10 years shown a rather nonchalant attitude to the plight of Bakassi.
The people of Bakassi allege that neither the Nigerian government nor the United Nations has kept faith with the Green Tree Agreement signed in 2006, despite the fast approach of the October 10, 2012 deadline for the proposition of any reviews to the agreement by the two affected countries.
Unenthusiastic About Appeal
Abuja has made no concrete efforts to appeal the ICJ ruling within the 10 years allowed. The nonchalant attitude of the Federal Government of Nigeria, according to BFF, is enough evidence that Nigeria has concluded the Bakassi question. Their conviction is further accentuated by the silence of President Goodluck Jonathan to calls to appeal the ICJ judgement before the expiration of the October 10, 2012 deadline.
Yet Jonathan knows so much about the ceding of Bakassi, as that responsibility fell under his office when he was the vice president of the country under late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. The president also has ample understanding of the Akwa Ibom/Cross River oil wells imbroglio.
Third Term Connection
The people of Bakassi have not failed to blame the Obasanjo government for giving them out to Cameroun, allegedly, in pursuance of his failed third term bid. They say he did everything to curry favour with the Western powers in support of the scheme.
Bakassi Natives Assembly, the pan-Bakassi liberation group, alleges that Obasanjo’s implementation of the ICJ verdict, which they believe was merely advisory, was too hasty. Many countries have failed to implement such judgements without such nations suffering any sanctions.
To the group, Bakassi was easily ceded because it fell within the minority part of the country.
Though, there were robust resettlement plans for the people of Bakassi who elected to remain with Nigeria after the ceding of the territory to Cameroun, most of the promises came to naught. Many of the natives were abandoned to the elements.
Houses at the Bakassi Resettlement Camp at Akwa Obutong are grossly inadequate to accommodate the army of returnees from Abana and other creek communities of the peninsula. Those in charge of the operation said the N1 billion, which the federal government made available for the construction of the camp, was not enough, even with the amount added by the Cross River State government.
But most of the people preferred to be resettled at Dayspring Island, which suited their aquatic lifestyle. Dayspring Island is part of the peninsula not ceded to Cameroun. Considering the unfriendly nature of the aborigines of the three council wards of Ikang that formed the nucleus of New Bakassi Local Government Area, it is difficult for the settlers not to suffer political marginalisation. The people want to be rehabilitated in a virgin land for the preservation of their identity rather than the current merger. But the fund for such rehabilitation is the problem.
The Cross River State government is opposed to the action of BFF. Governor Liyel Imoke said the declaration was not necessary because the issues raised by the people were being addressed by government. The governor added that his administration will not tolerate a further balkanisation of the state.
Imoke who went to Abuja soon after the Bakassi independence declaration to brief the presidency on the development did not disclose the Federal Government’s response.
But the paramount ruler of Bakassi Local Government Area, Etinyin Etim Okn Edet, in his reaction, confirmed that his people were ready to become an independent sovereignty if the Nigerian government was not ready to guarantee their welfare and safety. He said the declaration of independence had the support of all well meaning people of Bakassi, who had become unsure of their citizenship in Nigeria given the Federal Government’s silence over all their requests for proper accommodation within the country.
Edet told the visiting House of Representatives Committee on Treaties and Agreement that his people never really had problems with Nigeria, but Cameroun, which according to him, was trying to force loyalty and patriotism among the people.
“But if Nigeria is not ready or willing to care for us and guarantee our peace, we can take our destiny in our own hands. Our national flag, coat of arm, national anthem are ready, even our radio station is now broadcasting. We can go our own way if Nigeria does not want us anymore,” said the monarch, who is also the chairman of Cross River State Traditional Rulers Council.
“The bombs thrown about by the Boko Haram people in some parts of the country are relatively small compared with the ones my people will unleash if President Goodluck Jonathan is still docile over the plight and petitions of my people. Many ethnic groups in Nigeria are looking for how to dismember this country. Bakassi would be one of them if care is not taken. If that happens, Nigerians would bear us witness for having been patient enough.”
He said Bakassi people have no affinity with Cameroun and wondered how they would fit into the government of that country. To Edet, the search for self-rule was a last resort in the face of the problems confronting Bakassi people.
Chairman of the House committee, Hon. Yacoob Bush Alebiosu, had earlier informed the royal father that the committee was in the state to get firsthand information on the issue of Bakassi independence.
Alebiosu said, “My committee is newly set up to look into all the treaties and agreements entered into by our country, including the vexed Bakassi issue. I want to let you know that no treaties shall have the force of law in this country if they had not been domesticated. Therefore, since the ICJ verdict on Bakassi has not been domesticated by the National Assembly, you have nothing to fear as my committee will go down to ensure that we shall not lose Bakassi. We are going to push the presidency into action, including appealing the October 10, 2002 judgement.”
Members of the committee visited Bakassi including Ikang the border community.
Common Complaints, Different Methods
But a group, Bakassi Peoples General Assembly, has dissociated itself from the declaration of the sovereign state of Bakassi. It sued for the acceleration of their resettlement in the location of their choice, instead of a declaration of independence. At a press conference in Lagos on August 17, the group, led by former Special Adviser to ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo, Senator Florence Ita-Giwa, said the people of Bakassi had no intention of seceding from the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
A statement read by Ita-Giwa and signed by 21 Bakassi leaders advised against violence with regard to the Bakassi issue, saying, “This will further exacerbate the already delicate security issues confronting the nation. We are Nigerians and descendants of the Efik Kingdom of Calabar in Cross River State.
“Our concern primarily is to ensure that our people are given a permanent abode; not to delve into controversial issues that would hardly yield any positive impact towards that goal. This mindset defines our reaction to the motion at the House of Representatives seeking a review of the International Court of Justice ruling that ceded Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroun.
“Of course, it would be a pleasant surprise if any campaign returns us to our ancestral homes. Yet we do not think that such effort should overshadow the need to permanently resettle our people. The need is of immediate nature whereas the possibility of a reversal of the ICJ verdict is more or less a remote hope that lies in the distant future even though it has all its merits.”
Bakassi Peoples General Assembly demanded urgent and expeditious development of the unceded parts of Bakassi known as Day Spring Island 1 and 2 as well as Kwa Island for the comprehensive resettlement of Bakassi indigenes whom it said had since 2006 been roaming hopelessly.
“It is our contention that this responsibility be carried out forthwith by the Federal Government and the United Nations as well as all countries that were signatories to the Green Tree Agreement. We make a legitimate demand on the Federal Government to initiate a programme of ‘Accelerated Human Capacity Development’ of the people of Bakassi, especially the youth, in the same way the Federal Government has treated ex-militants in the amnesty programme,” the statement added.
The group also condemned what it termed the “systematic marginalisation of Bakassi people with regard to top federal and state government appointments.”
Hard Road to Freedom
The Government of Cameroun is said to have positioned a security mast at Abana, the former headquarters of Bakassi Local Government Area, for round-the-clock 24 hours monitoring of movements in and out of Camerounian territory. Given this scenario, and the opposition from the Nigerian government, it is certain that BFF faces a tough long road ahead in its quest for sovereignty.
But Ogoniland and Bakassi are only symptomatic of the growing pressure for local autonomy among Nigeria’s diverse nationalities.
The full import of the declarations of autonomy by the people of Ogoni and Bakassi are yet to unfold. But analysts say the roots of the regional emotions lie in growing discontent over the general direction of things in the polity.
The calls for true federalism, state police, and fiscal federalism as well the insurgency in parts of northern Nigeria and the recent armed struggle by groups in the Niger Delta have been described as manifestations of the burgeoning pressure for local self-government. Many experts have suggested a national discourse by major groups in the country to reach a state of agreement on the various issues threatening unity and peaceful coexistence in the world’s most populous black country.
“We cannot be dealing with problems piecemeal. We cannot run away from a national conference,” says Colonel Anthony Nyiam (rtd).