The displaced people of Bakassi Peninsula in Cross River State whose original abode was ceded to Cameroun in 2008 are living in misery in their makeshift camps, writes Bassey Inyang
At about 1.39pm, Thursday, August 14, 2008, at the Peregrino Hall, Government Lodge, Calabar, Nigeria’s then Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Michael Aondoaka and his counterpart then at the Ministry of Justice, Professor Maurice Kamto, signed the dotted lines to formally handover the Bakassi Peninsula to the nation’s Central African neighbor, Cameroon
By 1.45pm the entire handover process was over as the representatives of both countries exchanged the national flags of their respective nations to formally place Bakassi under the sovereignty of the Republic of Cameroon.
Thence forth, the oil rich Bakassi Peninsula, with a territory of at least 3, 027 square kilometres, came under the complete sovereignty of Cameroon.
All those who spoke praised Nigeria for respecting the decision of the court and for leading by example as the big brother of Africa.
They also promised that the people of Bakassi who are affected by the handover of their territory to Cameroon would be adequately protected, resettled and catered for by the international community.
The Chairman of the Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission, Dr. Said Djannit said: “Progress has been achieved in Bakassi in the name of international law and peace between neighbours. By taking the courageous decision to resolve this border dispute, the leaders of Cameroon and Nigeria have acted in a manner consistent with their duty to their citizens and the international community.
“I also take this opportunity to address the Bakassi people. I can assure you that you will not be left behind. The Green Tree Agreement guarantees the rights and protection of the people of Bakassi. Both parties have affirmed their commitment to protect those fundamental rights. The United Nations will assist in coordinating technical assistance for Bakassi, and several Member States, including those represented here today, have agreed to help in this process.
“Today marks a great milestone in the history of our nation. We are saddled with the painful but important task of completing the implementation of the International Court of Justice judgment by handing over Bakassi Peninsula to Cameroon.
“As painful as it is, we have a responsibility to keep our commitment to the International Community, promote international peace and cooperation and advance the cause of African brotherhood and good neighbourliness.
“As contained in the Green Tree Agreement, they are entitled to every right and privilege as citizens of Cameroon and special arrangements should be made for their assimilation and protection of their fundamental rights,” Aondoaka had stated.
Kamto had this to say about the handover and the fate of the Bakassi population:
“Similarly, with respect to the entire Bakassi Peninsula, the Cameroon Government shall continue to provide the populations concerned with the facilities to ensure their wellbeing.”
Then Acting Governor of Cross River State, Mr. Francis Adah, reechoed the provisions of the Green Tree Agreement and the nature of protection that it grants to Nigerians that are affected by the decision to surrender the territory to Cameroon.
Adah said, “Specifically, Article 3 of the Agreement provides that Cameroon shall: not force Nigerian nationals living in Bakassi Peninsula to leave the zone or to change their nationality; respect their culture, language and beliefs; respect their rights to continue their agricultural and fishing activities ; protect their property and their customary land rights ; not levy in any discriminatory manner any taxes and other dues on Nigerians living in the zone; and take every necessary measures to protect Nigeria nationals living in the zone from any harassment or harm.”
However, the fate of the Bakassi people remains uncertain for about eight years now when the former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, surrendered the territory to Cameroon following the October 10, 2002 judgement that declared that it was not a Nigerian territory.
At Akwa Ikot Edem in the area designated as Bakassi Local Government Area, thousands of the displaced people of the territory are living there as refuges in a temporary accommodation provided for them some metres away from the Ikang Primary School where they stay under very inhuman conditions.
Leader of the refugees in the camp, Chief Asuquo Etim who spoke to THISDAY, sums up the suffering encountered by the people thus: “Since 2008 that Nigeria kept us here in this camp, we have been facing hardship from hunger, illness, and death. Criminals come here and they attack us with knives and guns rob us and even rape our women. Our women give birth here without any doctors and nurses to help and some of the women and children die because there is no money to buy medicine in Ikang and we don’t have money to take them to hospital.”
The Bakassi General Assembly (BGA) which has championed the resettlement of the people has said it over and again that the plight of the people would be easily addressed if they were resettled in Day Spring Island through the support of the federal government and the international community.
The BGA championed by Chief Bassey Ita as its National President explained in the document that they have even explored the legal option of getting properly resettled.
He had issued a press statement restating their support for resettlement in Day Spring Island.
“Fearing that in the nearest future we would be politically irrelevant as you cannot be a landlord in another man’s land, we headed for court asking Federal Government to properly re-settle and re-locate them unlike their brothers in Niger Delta.
“We had gone to court asking for proper re-location as obtained elsewhere, where communities’ territories were ceded. In a suit no FHC/13/2007, we had prayed a proper re-settlement ad re-location as it was done to people of Lake Chad region. Again, we instituted another case at the Abuja Federal High Court, presided over by Justice Abdulahi Umar, along OAU Quarters in April 2008 and we obtained an order restraining the federal government of Nigeria from ceding Bakassi our home territory until the people are re-located to the same location they asked for.”
It stated that at the moment “over 200 lives have been lost, hundreds of women rapped, our fishing nets burnt on the flimsy excuse that they have paid Nigeria Government for the movable and immovable property and that the Cameroon government had stopped Nigerian fishermen from fishing in their territorial waters.”
In April 2008, the state government established a 15-man committee headed by Ita-Giwa to oversee the resettlement of the Bakassi people in a permanent place.
Other members of the 15-menber committee included the state Commissioners for Lands and Housing; Works; Education; Social Welfare; Health; and the State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice in the state who will serve as Secretary.
The rest were chairman of the State Border Development Commission; the State Security Adviser; as well as the State Economic Adviser; Chairman of Bakassi Local Government; the Paramount Ruler of Bakassi; Chief Eyo Ita; Hon. Patrick Antigha Ene, and the Deputy Speaker of the State House of Assembly.
Mr. Efiok Cobham, then deputy governor, who inaugurated the committee, said they were saddled with the responsibility of drawing up an integrated plan for the proper resettlement of the displaced people of the state before August that year.
“This is a very delicate and sensitive assignment which could make or mar the future of the thousands of the people that once lived comfortably in the land of their birth but are now faced with the psychological trauma of being resettled in a new environment. You will draw up a plan and implement a safe and hitch-free plan for the evacuation of Cross Riverians and other Nigerians in both the Cameroon occupied territories and those other territories that are to be handed over by August, 2008,” Cobham had stated.
The finding and recommendations of the committee have been kept in abeyance since then and nothing positive has come out of it for the displaced people.
However, prompted by the complaints of the displaced population, some palliatives have been provided to cushion whatever difficulties they are passing through.
Between 2008 and 2010 the state government constructed some units at Ekpri Ikang for them.
The houses include one-room (semi- detached) bungalows; one bed –room (semi- detached) bungalows; two bed –room (semi- detached) bungalows; three bed room (semi- detached) bungalows; and four bed-rooms (detached) bungalows.
But, the inmates of the camp complained that no sooner than the houses were allocated to them that some people chased them out of the houses and returned them to where they are located today.
One of the displaced Bakassi refugees, Bassey Okon who recounted their experience in Ekpri Ikang said: “in 2008 after Bakassi was finally ceded, we were taken from one place to another; from Ikang Primary School to the council headquarters. After that they gave us N15,000 to start life afresh with our families. Imagine, I was given N15, 000 to cater for my family of five. Later they allocated the housing estate to us but one day they came and drove us out and re-allocated that same estate to people who were not refugees.
“Due to the trauma, I went back to Bakassi Peninsula to see if I could make ends meet, and then Cameroon soldiers came and brutalised us and I returned to this camp in Akwa Ikot Edem.”
Apparently unrelenting in giving succour to the Bakassi people, the current administration in the state led by Professor Ben Ayade, has embarked on some new measures to ensure they are properly resettled.
The most recent is the announcement made by Ayade to the effect that another housing project valued at about N200 million will be constructed for the displaced persons in a location that would be more suitable for them.
Announcing the resolve of the state government to implement the housing project while hosting the Chairman of Lafarge Africa, Mr. Bolaji Balogun and his management team in his office, Ayade said: “We are a responsible state that is sensible to the needs of our people. We want you to do a small pilot for the people of Bakassi returnees. I will like to do a small commitment of the sum of N200 million to start the resettlement process.
“These are people that we feel so emotional about, people that have been deprived and displaced from their heritage and there is nothing worse than that, that could happen to a man, and we want to find a permanent solution to their plight.”
Ayade re-echoed the call of the Bakassi people for help from the international community when he played host in his office recently to the newly posted Flag Officer Commanding (FOC), Eastern Naval Command (ENC), Rear Admiral James Oluwole.
Recently, the Bakassi displaced persons who have been relying mainly on the goodwill of the state government and public spirited organisation to meet their needs, got some support for their health needs from the Ayade administration.
During an official visit to the displaced people in their first camp, Ikang, May 12, this year, Director General, Cross River State Primary Health Care Development Agency (CRSPHCDA), Dr. Betta Edu, and her team rendered medical services to the camp dwellers, as they were treated for minor ailments and supplied with mosquito nets, relief materials and free malaria test.
Edu also announced that the governor has mandated her department to ensure the establishment of a health centre in the camp for their medical needs.
However, about 24-hours after she visited the displaced Bakassi people, and obviously traumatised by what she saw there, Edu wrote on her facebook wall : “I have not been myself since yesterday. I visited the IDPs in Bakassi camp 1…I was taken through 10 “fresh” graves of mothers and children at the camp…honestly they simple question that ran through my mind was “where did this people go wrong? Do they deserve this?
“They took their Land, their oil, their source of livelihood (fishing), their identity, their pride…everything. Now those who stayed back have to pay for resident permit on their land…their women are raped every other day, the fisher men arrested and thrown into prision on their land. Guess what, education is luxury for their children…women and children sleep on bare floors exposed to unimaginable risk.
“Yet there was a Green Tree Agreement, those who made the agreement and got the billions sleep in beautiful houses while these youngmen, women and children continue to die. The international community have suddenly turned a blind eye and when the UN team come they spend one hour, rush back and write reports that does not reflect the reality in Bakassi.
“Our dear federal government have totally forgotten thee people. This nation has sealed its heart and eyes with hot iron. If they try to beg the federal government to keep to its agreement to provide basic amenities, Bakassi people are immediately tagged with one name or the other and subjected to even more harsh conditions.
Well Cross Riverians are peaceful people. Bakassi people are peaceful people and will go about asking their due rights peacefully.
“I beg once more, let the federal government of Nigeria and the international community re-visist the issue of Bakassi…they are in urgent need of help!”
Ayade’s perceived concern over the plight of the Bakassi people received commendation from the people of the area as stated on their behalf by their political leader, Mrs. Florence Ita-Giwa.
A press statement issued on May 15, 2016 by Ita-Giwa, a former Presidential Adviser on National Assembly Affairs, to that effect also restated the abandonment of the people of Bakassi to their current ill-fate since they were displaced from their original homeland.
The statement read in part: I want to use this medium again to appreciate my governor, Ayade for speaking on behalf of the displaced people of Bakassi.
“It is commendable because he is not just seated in the comfort of his home and office to talk about their plights but visits them and gather first-hand information about their sufferings.
The people of Bakassi have suffered a lot perhaps because we are the minority and it is in the light of this that we express profound gratitude to him for all his good works and concerns for the Bakassi people.
“I am also using this medium to call on the President Muhammadu Buhari to pay attention to the displaced people of Bakassi as he is doing to the IDPs in the North-east. The rain season is here and it may get worse for them if they are not taken care of adequately.”
Though, the state government seem to be doing its best to give the displaced people some ray of hope that a better tomorrow lies ahead for them, the federal government has not been forth-coming in terms of financial and material support to get them resettled in a permanent abode they call their own. The international community as represented by the United Nations Cameroon-Nigeria Mixed Commission which has visited the state a number of times, has demonstrated eloquently that it was more interested addressing boundary issues related to both countries, while neglecting the suffering Bakassi people to their fate.
Perhaps, Adah hit the nail on the head when he stated that given the enormity of the requirements needed to resettle the Bakassi people, the international community must get seriously involved.
“Let me equally say here that the task of resettling the displaced people of Bakassi who have chosen to move away from the area in their determination to remain part of their father land, is indeed enormous. Their needs which go far beyond shelter, food and security also require a rehabilitation of their entire lives which have been traumatised in many ways.
“This is where the international community also has a big role to play, not only in assisting with the provision of funds, but by helping in other ways to re-assure the displaced people that they remain accepted members of the world community.
“Even with the support of the federal government, we cannot do too much for these people who have to start their lives anew for no fault of theirs,” Adah said.