The new inter-parliamentary effort to protect the rights of Nigerians in the Bakassi Peninsula may be too late to be useful, writes Vincent Obia
Just about three weeks after the closure of the International Court of Justice’s window on reconsideration of the October 10, 2002 ruling that ceded Bakassi peninsula to Cameroon, the National Assembly is exploring another window to try to protect Nigerians in the territory. Senate President David Mark declared on the sidelines of the 127th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Quebec, Canada, that Nigeria was pushing efforts at the inter-parliamentary level to enforce the rights of Nigerians in ceded peninsula.
Mark made it clear, however, that theirs was not an attempt to revisit the ICJ judgement on Bakassi. For Nigerians in the territory, he said, “We will ensure that they are not maltreated by the Cameroonians.”
The Senate president’s statement sounded like political rhetoric, but it represented a substantive point: Bakassi is lost and gone for good, nothing can be done now, except to appeal to the conscience of the Cameroonians.
That much was known to many Nigerians as the federal government dilly-dallied while the clock ticked towards October 10, 2012. The obvious speculation even before the October 9 pronouncement by the federal government foreclosing a review of the Bakassi case was that the government was not keen on any re-evaluation. But nothing can hide the fact that the current push by the National Assembly would have made more difference if it happened within the 10-year deadline allowed by the ICJ for a possible reconsideration of aspects of the ruling.
The Nigerian delegation to the IPU Assembly in Canada, led by Mark and which included Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives Emeka Ihedioha, was expected to meet with the Cameroon parliamentary delegation to discuss the enforcement of the rights of Bakassi indigenes.
Nigerians in the Bakassi peninsula have been complaining about the violation of their economic, social and political rights by the Cameroonian authorities. They are mainly fishermen- whose lives revolve around the river – if they are not directly involved in fishing they are engaged in the sale of sea foods. But Bakassi people have repeatedly complained about the denial of their access to rivers and other places where they ply their trade, forceful change of the names of their communities to Cameroonian names, among other violations. The Nigerian government pretended not to be aware of those violations until the expiration of the October 10 deadline.
It is good that the National Assembly has now decided to get actively involved in the Bakassi issue. No one knows if such effort has the blessing of the Nigerian government and, of course, the approval of the Cameroonian government. What cannot be denied is that Nigeria bungled the opportunity to guarantee the interest of its nationals in the Bakassi peninsula, and for the people in the territory, that deeply hurts. The people of Bakassi are, no doubt, now at the mercy of Cameroon. To all intents and purposes, the current bilateral attempt led by the leader of the National Assembly, however well intentioned, seems no more than an informal endeavour whose outcome will make little difference on the lives of the people of Bakassi.
The Green Tree Agreement of June 12, 2006 in New York, signed by President Paul Biya of Cameroon and then President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, followed the ICJ ruling of October 10, 2002. The agreement established modalities for the formal handover of the territory, which happened on August 14, 2008 and was expected to be completed by October 10, 2012.
The agreement provides that Nigeria must ensure that inhabitants of the peninsula who chose to resettle in the country are provided “the necessary means and measures to do so.” It also says Cameroon must guarantee the fundamental cultural, linguistic, economic, and social rights of Nigerians who elected to remain in the peninsula.
Article 3 (1) of the Green Tree Agreement states specifically, “Cameroon, after the transfer of authority to it by Nigeria, guarantees to Nigerian nationals living in the Bakassi Peninsula the exercise of the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in international human rights law and in other relevant provisions of international law.
“Cameroon shall: (a) not force Nigerian nationals living in the Bakassi Peninsula to leave the zone or to change their nationality;
“(b) respect their culture, language and beliefs;
“(c) respect their right to continue their agricultural and fishing activities;
“(d) protect their property and their customary land rights;
“(e) not levy in any discriminatory manner any taxes and other dues on Nigerian nationals living in the zone; and
“(f) take every necessary measure to protect Nigerian nationals living in the zone from any harassment or harm.”
Obviously, to a large extent, neither Nigeria nor Cameroon has kept faith with the Green Tree Agreement. For Nigeria, a major obligation under the agreement was to resettle the people of Bakassi and secure their socio-political and economic identity. That has not happened. For a long time, the people have been clamouring that the Nigerian government should develop for them Day Spring 1 and 2 as well as Kwa Islands, which are in the unceded parts of the old Bakassi Local Government Area of Cross River State.
There was an attempt to develop a new settlement for the people of Bakassi, but that effort appeared stillborn. So what the National Assembly can do now is to revitalise the process of developing a new homeland for the people in order that those opting to relocate to Nigeria can conveniently do so.
The inter-parliamentary effort to protect Nigerians in the ceded territory, though lofty, may turn out to be a wild goose chase.